A graceful life in a magical place

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Urs Baur, along with his wife, Sara, held the first Topanga Film Festival at their home last year. Dave Lichten / TMT

“My Fifty Years in Malibu” By Dorothy D. Stotsenberg Pepperdine University Press

By Pam Linn / Staff Writer

To read Dorothy D. Stotsenberg’s “My Fifty Years in Malibu” is to dip into the essence of a fabled land. Beyond the glamour of the Malibu Colony, where stars of the movie industry’s golden age found seclusion, are other stories seldom told.

Part history and part memoir, Stotsenberg chronicles the area’s earliest beginnings, from the Tapia family making its way from Mexico to the missions, to the Chumash, who were here long before the padres and homesteaders arrived. These chapters are meticulously researched but unburdened by the pedantic prose of history texts. It’s all about the people. And we get to know them so well.

Settling on Carbon Beach in 1949, Dorothy and her late husband, Ed Stotsenberg, became an integral part of the community. With a journalist’s eye for a good story, she plucked from the local lore tales of pioneering families whose names still mark the local canyons and roads.

To learn about the Chumash and the Anza Expeditions, Stotsenberg used archives in museums and foundations from the Smithsonian to the San Fernando Mission and read translations of diaries, letters and even the will of Don Jose Bartolomeo Tapia, whose eldest son Bartolo makes the arduous journey from Culiacan with his father and eight siblings in the 1770s. His remarkable story takes up the first chapter and sets the tone for this book.

As I read through the first few chapters, I was astonished at how much I didn’t know about Malibu history even though my parents moved to the Colony just a few years after the Stotsenbergs arrived. Of course, they had no interest in local history.

The reader, however, must wait until Chapter 6 to get into the more personal side of Stotsenberg’s story. And even then, history, revealed through many interviews with older residents and neighbors, takes precedence over personal musings.

Though she states in the preface that the Rindge family story has been told so often that she wouldn’t get into it here, the chapter, A Highway Runs Through It, tells of May Knight Rindge’s battle to keep the highway from crossing her land. And another chapter on the Rindge Dam reveals many facts of its construction not widely known.

The rest of the world may think of Malibu as all “Bay Watch” and carousing celebrities. But Stotsenberg finds all the other people and their stories equally compelling. The history of Decker School is one few people know, which she brings to life. It began in 1911 when Ed Campbell converted his summer hunting cabin into a schoolhouse. No electricity, no running water. Average daily attendance was eight, mostly children of the Decker and Wilburn families. During the evolution of the one-room school to its ultimate addition of 10th-grade in 1922-23, teachers changed every year. Then Helena Kelly Weaver came with her two children and stayed for 30 years as “teacher and janitor” until the school was closed in 1955.

And we all think we’ve heard everybody’s fire story, but who knew about retired Fire Chief Harvey Anderson, who was working at the Escondido Station in Latigo Canyon in 1931. For $4 a day, he drove around with a shovel and ax in his 1926 truck, putting out brush fires by hand. After he was forced to retire at age 65, he began a fitness program for firefighters that’s still in effect today. He finally retired at 80 and died at 91 in 1999. In interviews with Stotsenberg, Anderson said he “considered every day a celebration of being alive and followed his grandfather’s advice, ‘Help every man you can and it will come back to you ten times over.'”

Stotsenberg’s own recollection of evacuating her 10 show horses from Carbon Canyon to a vacant lot next to their house on the beach is chilling. She remembers how Good Samaritans took the poor spooked creatures two at a time in trailers to Hollywood Park. Those of us who made similar rescues in the face of advancing flames can relate to that panic and the unfailing kindness of neighbors and strangers.

The Stotsenberg name has become synonymous with philanthropy in Malibu for her dedication to sports, music and art at Pepperdine University and through support of the Center for the Arts, scholarships and other university programs. This book is her personal gift to the community. Old timers and new comers alike should treasure it.

Stotsenberg will sign copies of her book from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Aug. 23, in the Sculpture Garden of the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine. This coincides with the opening reception of “The Eclectic Eye: Selections from the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation” from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and a concert by the Dave Brubeck Quartet at 8 p.m. in Smothers Theatre. More information can be obtained by calling 310.506.4522.