As many songwriters have pointed out, Malibu is as much a state of mind as it is that 27-mile slice of California coastline that runs from Topanga to Ventura County. Head north and on your left lie the famous point breaks known to surfers around the world. If you look closely off Point Dume you can see dolphins jumping or, in late spring, gray whales migrating north with their calves. On your right are the cliffs and Santa Monica Mountains terraced with gigantic estates and rehab centers. After heavy rains, the cliffs tend to slide across the highway, further isolating Malibu from the sprawling madness of Los Angeles. In the 1960’s, when mudslides closed the highway for weeks on end, L.A.-bound locals would leave a car on either side of the slide so they could commute.
“It’s a short distance from Los Angeles, but emotionally it’s a big distance,” Herman says. “Even if they come in a Rolls, they are letting go of a lot.”
When Segal opened the Country Mart, he dumped a ton of sand into a pit and made a playground for local kids to romp in while their moms shopped for gypsy blouses and low-slung jeans. “We were dressing people for the beach, but also for the country,” adds Herman over a huge California salad. “That’s what made Malibu unique and still does—the authenticity of the country life mixed with beach life.” The Country Mart is just as popular now as it was back then. On any given day you might see Oscar nominees pushing their offspring on swings between lunch at the Italian trattoria, Tra Di Noi, and a quick shopping fix of sun-faded T-shirts at Planet Blue. Thirty-five years ago Malibu was a place where families lived earthy and artistic lives up in the canyons. They had horses and farms; they came down to the Country Mart in riding clothes. Some still ride their horses right into the Country Mart and saddle up behind the car wash. Artists still live up in those hills, but so do Courteney Cox, Pierce Brosnan, and Kelsey Grammer.
A premium on privacy and independence has prevailed in Malibu since the end of the 19th century, when May Rindge and her husband, Frederick, bought Rancho Malibu—“a farm near the ocean”—and later fought to keep a railroad and public roads from running through it. After her husband died in 1905, May Rindge continued to fight to prevent public access to her land, locking gates and only lending keys to neighbors and ranch hands. To pay for her legal battles, she leased oceanfront property to Hollywood celebrities who liked the fact that Malibu had very few laws and even fewer paparazzi. By the 1930’s movie stars like Barbara Stanwyck and Gloria Swanson were building “shacks” along the private beach that came to be known as the Malibu Colony.
Today, access to the Colony or Little Dume Beach is restricted to residents. But a lot has changed since May Rindge’s time. The easement next to David Geffen’s house on Carbon Beach allows a deluge of paparazzi to crowd the shoreline. At the Country Mart, fashion brands such as Missoni and Lanvin—the kind of labels better suited to high society than high tides—are moving in. Nike has opened a massive outpost that will also sell Hurley surf gear, and Whole Foods has staked its claim on the land behind the skate park. Oracle founder Larry Ellison was rumored to be developing a franchise of St.-Tropez’s famous Club 55 for his new Carbon Beach complex. To this day Malibu has no Main Street or town center. The post office is in a strip mall next to a greasy spoon called the Country Kitchen, where a guy named Morry shoos away paparazzi while serving breakfast burritos by the side of the highway. The local trailer park, whose residents refer to their homes as “land yachts,” is called Paradise Cove, and the best sushi and Mexican food can be ordered from the same ramshackle restaurant tucked behind Point Dume. Even the menu at Nobu is unapologetically casual. Chef Gregorio Stephenson has added such un-Nobu fare as a grilled rib eye with truffle butter sauce to the menu.
This nonconformist style tends to minimize the distinctions between high and low. You can come to Malibu just to drop in on a wave, as so many day-tripping surfers do; they park on the side of the highway and slip into their wet suits. Or you can come to Malibu and drop $47 million on three oceanfront lots. There’s an appealing absence of attitude and status anxiety. Despite the dense population of celebrities, the mentality is small town—well, up to a point. However understated they may be, most small towns don’t offer the spectacle of farmers selling balsamic lemonade beside the highway and such famous faces as Cindy Crawford and Pam Anderson doing their volunteer turns as crossing guards at the elementary school.
“It’s a no-worries kind of town,” says Stefani Greenfield, cofounder of the Scoop chain of clothing stores, who spends part of each summer in Malibu. “There’s an ease. People move slower, they talk slower. You could have $10 or $10 billion and it doesn’t really matter.” Nick Nolte used to wander through the Country Mart in his bathrobe.