A couple of weeks ago, Bill Armstrong had a birthday. His son Alan drove Bill to Spruzzo’s in Bill’s 1924 Pierce Arrow Runabout Roadster, where he enjoyed a lunch with his children Alan, Lea Anderson and Lani Netter. His wish this year? To celebrate his 100th birthday next January.
Amstrong, now 99, has lived in the same house on Latigo Shore Drive in Malibu since 1950, or 64 years. The Joan Crawford drama “Mildred Pierce” was filmed at the house next door a few years earlier, in 1945, and one of his neighbors was Micky Moore, the veteran filmmaker who passed away last year at age 98. Together, they witnessed a lot of Malibu history.
“In 1950, Malibu was too far out for most people to commute,” Bill said in his living room, a stone’s easy throw from the tide line. “Malibu was for retirees, or people’s weekend homes. All the girls had horses and everybody knew everybody.”
Bill’s house was built in 1948 as a beach cottage on a street with a 10-party phone line. You could put a pre-fabricated house that cost $2,750 on a lot that cost you $500—on the beach. Bill paid $13,500 for his cottage and wanted to buy the empty lot next door, which would have gone for about $7,000. Fifteen years later, he did buy it—for $70,000.
It was a good place to raise his three children, with daily horseback rides on the beach and adoption of young orphaned deer, who became so tame they were allowed to repose on the living room couch. It was a long way from Kentucky, where Bill’s family originated.
“My grandfather followed Abraham Lincoln from Kentucky up to Illinois and settled in Decatur, where he bought a coal mine,” Bill said. “My father served in the Spanish-American War and World War I. My parents—my mom was a real beauty—moved to Seattle where I was born. Then my dad died and my mom moved us to Long Beach. I saw Herbert Hoover campaigning there. Then we moved to Santa Monica. For the most part, I’ve been here all my life.”
In fact, Bill attended Lincoln Junior High and Santa Monica High School. His first job was boxing groceries at the Ralphs at 3rd Street and Wilshire when he was 15. His salary was $14 a week. He attended Santa Monica College, then the University of Arizona for an engineering degree, at a time when a pack mule trip into the mountains would mean not seeing another soul for a couple of weeks.
He briefly attended law school in San Francisco, but ended up transferring to UCLA, where he met his future wife, Virginia.
“She was the only girl in my geology class,” Bill said. “The first time I asked her out, she said no, because she wanted to go home to Orange County and visit her new dog.”
Fortunately, she warmed to Bill and they married Dec. 31, 1938. His new father-in-law jokingly suggested they go see the Rose Parade the next day. Bill’s first real job after university was at Douglas Aircraft, where he worked as a machine bookkeeper till after World War II. (He avoided the draft due to a “lazy eye.”)Then he spent time with a company developing nuclear power in the Marshall Islands. (“We would fly over the atoll wearing these badges that were supposed to monitor radiation levels,” Bill said. “They didn’t work too well.”)
Finally, he ended up at Hughes Aircraft in a position he took just after moving to Malibu.
“It was the beginning of the Korean War and the big guided missile era, and we made a lot of money,” Bill said. “[Howard] Hughes would come to the office in the middle of the night driving a beat-up Chevrolet. Sometimes, the night watchmen wouldn’t recognize him.”
During his years in Malibu, Bill became friends with most of the Malibu old guard, including the Rindge and Adamson families. The late Judge John Merrick was a close buddy. All their kids played together. Alan attended Webster Elementary with his sisters, Lea and Lani.
“During the ’50s, there were only about 10 kids who lived around here,” Alan, who looks remarkably like his dad, said. “We were all into swimming and horses and surfing. Everyone remembers grammar school as the very best time of life. Like Norman Rockwell.”
As the decades have rolled along, so has Bill persisted along with them. So what’s the secret to his longevity? A laid-back approach, he says.
“Type As don’t make it,” he said. “You have to relax.”