Contrary to accepted belief about Los Angeles, if you journey doggedly through that city in any one direction, passing enough double mushroomburger stands and billboards promising ANOTHER GROMAN MORTUARY TO SERVE YOU, sooner or later you will run out of megalopolis. Even traveling westward, where the urban sprawl presses against the Pacific, there is hope of sanctuary. Just drive to a shiny new L.A. settlement at water's edge called Marina del Rey. The name is out of a Spanish-English dictionary, but the place springs from man's eternal yearning for paradise, the very impulse that has been turning Iowans into Angelenos and citrus groves into shopping centers for years.
This one may be the most audaciously cheerful attempt of all. Large enough to accommodate some 6,000 boats, it nonetheless comes off as a snug harbor lined with atmospheric restaurants and water-lapped apartments, situated not up in the wilds beyond Malibu somewhere but right on the busy coastal stretch between Santa Monica and Los Angeles International Airport. Marina del Rey is a place of gently swaying palms and four-alarm sunsets, elements of the golden dream not always conspicuous on the Los Angeles landscape. Not that it lacks some of the more compelling features of that landscape, such as a profusion of bikini-clad girls basking on balconies of garden apartments or decorating the decks of magnificent pleasure boats. And for the ladies there is always a glimpse of somebody like Walter Matthau aboard his cabin cruiser or perhaps Dan Rowan at the helm of his sailing ship.
But Marina del Rey, despite its urban setting, offers other blessings, too. One of these is the quality of the water, which a University of Southern California environmentalist has lauded as uncommonly clean, a condition he attributed to beneficial tides in Santa Monica Bay. Then there is the sunshine. Fog sometimes threads its way eerily through the marina's thicket of masts, and everybody naturally finds this romantic, but especially when a hot Santa Ana blows gloomily in from the San Gabriel Mountains, the sky is virtually free of smog. As all of Los Angeles must know by now, when the sun is banished from the rest of the city, it usually takes up residence along the coast—in places like Marina del Rey.
Behind this effort to establish an urban Eden is, improbably enough, gray, bureaucratic Los Angeles County, which has wound up building the world's largest man-made small-craft harbor. The county fathers tapped the 780-acre area for stardom back when it was just a shy and awkward salt marsh, dredging a gaping mile-long channel to the sea as the first step in a $186 million cosmetic job.
January 17, 1972
Private developers did the rest, installing berths for the boats and building yacht clubs, shopping centers and apartments with harbor views for everyone. They put up more than a dozen apartment complexes, including the new 981-unit Mariners Village, stunningly landscaped with lush pine, weathered telephone poles and olive trees so big they had to be lowered into place by helicopter. Up went several dozen restaurants: such places as The Warehouse, a drafty establishment carefully built with a rusty iron roof and rafters hung with a great clutter of Mexican oregano sacks, Indonesian pickle barrels and German nail kegs. Clad in a Frank Buck safari suit, Burt Hixson, the 31-year-old proprietor, explains, "I didn't want it to be another of those corny restaurants with fishnets and conches." And up went Fisherman's Village, a $2 million tourist complex styled after a 19th-century New England whaling port, complete with a let's-pretend lighthouse and curio shops bearing names like Captain Tom's Woodshop. It all has rather the effect of a silicone-firm movie queen: you know things are partly plastic, but it's irresistible just the same.
Riding the crest of its own popularity, Marina del Rey has brought treasure to the county and helped raise property values along the coastline. Its population, permanent and transient, may range up to 30,000 a day. Some people come to live, others to boat, others just to play, but they all come because the marina offers at least the illusion of escape—and in Los Angeles illusion is a marketable commodity; TV studios have used the marina's waterfront as a backdrop for segments of Mannix, Marcus Welby, M.D. and a good many other shows.
But for a number of people the escape is real. Located no more than 45 minutes from almost anything in L.A., Marina del Rey is so handy that when lunch hour rolls around in the Beverly Hills firm where one boating enthusiast works, the gentleman thinks nothing of driving out with a couple of friends and serving them roast-beef sandwiches and Cold Duck aboard his 32-foot sloop. Gulls flapping overhead, the squeaking of elkskin shoes in the distance, the faint swoosh of a ketch lazying past—this is his lunchtime concert. The meal completed, he escorts his guests to the car and hurries back to work, returning to his desk before his bosses are any the wiser. "It's a very conservative company," the sneaky luncher says wickedly. "I don't think they'd approve."
It would be unreasonable to expect so convenient a place to be an unspoiled hideaway. Paying the price of both proximity and success, Marina del Rey has a rising crime rate (sheriff's deputies occasionally patrol the docks in bathing suits, barely qualifying as plainclothes-men) and a serious parking problem, especially on summer weekends. At the same time, it stands apart from the rest of Los Angeles, a unique preserve leased and operated by private enterprise but owned and orchestrated by the county—with some curious results. In a city of bizarre religious sects, Marina del Rey has no churches at all and, except for boat repair facilities, no manufacturing, either. There are no cemeteries and no schools. Most of Marina del Rey's apartment landlords are one with W. C. Fields on the subject of children, and the few kids living there attend school in neighboring communities.
Only in fun and games does the marina abound, but this hedonistic approach has attracted, as year-round residents, a rapidly growing number of assorted Angelenos. The apartment buildings they occupy are mostly pale, low-slung affairs that rise from the water's edge like sides of a bathtub, a tub so filled with toy vessels there is scarcely room for a bar of Lifebuoy. Only one marina resident in four bothers to own a boat himself, the rest being content simply to live near the water. It is taken for granted that every apartment complex has swimming pools and tennis courts, and many of them feature luaus, Sunday barbecues and everything else one associates with Southern California living, except perhaps oranges just for the picking.
Rentals vary from $200 a month for a small studio in a complex such as Del Rey Shores up to $1,850, which buys a month's worth of big-gulp views from a four-bedroom penthouse in a new 17-story building. The latter, consisting of two curved sections facing each other like concrete parentheses, is part of the Marina City Club, an apartment-hotel budgeted to cost, once the last waxen plant is potted and sheet of solar-tinted glass installed, at least $70 million. It offers swimming, tennis and saunas to apartment dwellers and outside members alike, all laid out on a sky-high recreation area that management breezily encourages everybody to call the RecDec. Walter Pidgeon, Ida Lupino and Barry Goldwater have rushed to join the club—at $1,500 initiation and $20 monthly dues—but the complex's apartments are moving more slowly.
The problem is not with those $1,850 flats—they were snapped up with immodest haste—but with less prestigious ones in the $750-and-under range. Marina City Club has mobilized to fill the vacancies under the efficient direction of Trish Bohanan, the club's attractive, very efficient general manager.
"We feel our appeal will be to corporations, sophisticated individuals and celebrities," Miss Bohanan says. "This is a place where people can go for an evening without everybody oohing and aahing. The mood is what I call casual elegance."
The Marina City Club plans eventually to put up a casually elegant 800-room luxury hotel, and others are in the works. Until then, there is the comfortable, sprawling Marina del Rey Hotel, with its balloon-red minibuses shuttling to and from the airport. For tourists, there are diversions in Marina del Rey such as the Yankee Pedaler, where outlanders rent bicycles and set off in great packs along marina streets compellingly named Bora Bora or Fiji Way. The sugary expanse of sand just a few feet away in Venice is suitable for surfing or volleyball, and one can simply soak up sun at the marina's own little cove-shaped beach. Also, there are Fisherman's Village and the marina's 22 restaurants.
The entire scene has the busy atmosphere of a perpetual boat show. One can roam the patterned slips and never run out of gleaming craft to inspect, their sterns emblazoned with all those catchy names like Sea Ya Later, Tons-O' Fun, Y-Not or, simply, Boat ("I decided to just name it, already," Beverly Hills dentist Norman Krevoy explains).
The boats range in comfort from the shells of UCLA, whose crew trains in the marina's main channel, to the 73-foot Sagittarius, a $750,000 floating palace owned by Bob Leonard, who does well in discount stores. Sagittarius has a full-time skipper plus such Hefnerian touches as a king-size bed covered in rabbit skin, but otherwise it contrasts tastefully with the handful of yachts to be found at Marina del Rey whose owners insist on completely decorating the interiors in the color of a thousand canaries.
The marina has its share of distinguished sailors, but there are boating pleasures other than racing. Santa Monica Bay yields halibut, yellowtail and barracuda, and when the albacore or marlin are running in the waters beyond Catalina, 40 miles to the south, the exodus can take on armada proportions.
Set in a more populated area than Newport-Balboa, the old-line yachting retreat farther down the Southern California coast, Marina del Rey tends to attract newer money and less experienced boatsmen. Some owners, lacking any real commitment to boating, board their vessels only to sip frozen daiquiris at dock-side. And there are always defectors like Steve Picciolo, a Santa Monica businessman who recently slapped a for-sale sign on his 43-foot Gran Mariner Ours in hopes of making it somebody else's. Picciolo enjoys boating well enough but Beth, his wife of four years, calls it "the same old routine." Rejecting the alternative that has occurred to other men in like circumstances, her husband has agreed to give up boating.
To ease the congestion that sometimes develops in its 900-foot-wide entrance channel, Marina del Rey's boating community has agreed to honor traffic corridors, with sailboats tacking up the middle and powerboats keeping to the sides. Besides reducing some of the old friction between stinkpots and ragmen, this simple yet novel move has taken some of the urgency from the voice of Harbor Patrol Chief Leo Porter when he peers out of the window of Los Angeles County's marina headquarters and says, "You know, I could cross that channel by walking from boat to boat."
Neither Porter nor any other county official dares complain too strenuously. At a time when some public bodies have resorted in desperation to lotteries or off-track betting to raise money, Los Angeles County has a windfall in Marina del Rey. By parceling out property to developers under 60-year leases, it takes in $5 million a year in rentals and taxes. That is enough for the county to meet expenses, service the $13 million bond issue used to build the marina and still leave a $1.7 million surplus.
All this redounds to the glory of a powerful Los Angeles politician named Burton Chace, a longtime county supervisor whose district encompasses 68 miles of choicest Southern California coastline. Chace proudly tells of having fathered Marina del Rey, and aerial views of his baby adorn his walnut-paneled office in the massive Hall of Administration in downtown Los Angeles. "It's the greatest moneymaker the county has," Chace says, inspirationally jingling the coins in the pocket of his avocado-colored suit. "It's the greatest cooperation between government and private enterprise anybody has ever seen."
There were troubled moments when the marina might as easily have become Chace's folly. The most serious crisis came shortly after its opening back in 1962, when wave action swept away dock installations and damaged hundreds of boats. The problem was corrected by construction of a state and federally financed $4.2 million offshore detached breakwater.
The wanderlust one associates with boating and the mobility that makes Los Angeles possible are getting along together splendidly at Marina del Rey. Strictly a rental community—there aren't even any condominiums—its apartment dwellers are a transient lot: older couples whose children have grown or single people in no hurry to build nests. "They're people who want no part of lawns and property taxes," says Bob Leslie, executive director of the Marina del Rey Lessees Association, an organization of 33 of the marina's private developers. "They've got a little of the nomad about them. They're the kind of people who want to be able to close up their apartments at a moment's notice."
Marina del Rey's freewheeling lifestyle is most faithfully reflected in the local chapter of the South Bay Club, a chain of singles-only apartment complexes of the kind so dear to newspaper feature writers, most of whom have proved admirably adept at sniffing out the occasional 85-year-old bachelor to be found living in such places.
There was a more serious front-page story two years ago when somebody spiked the potato chips with LSD at a party at the Marina del Rey complex, resulting in the serious illness of several people. The incident also resulted in an effort to play down the club's swinging-singles image and emphasize instead an activities schedule worthy of a Caribbean cruise, including yoga classes, south-of-the-border nights, karate lessons and an appearance ("in person," advised the sign in the lobby) of Atoris the mentalist.
Not nearly as regimented but certainly as active is the singles' scene in the lounge of the Second Storey/The Basement, another of the marina's restaurants. A younger crowd dances to hard rock in a lower-level room but upstairs it is strictly the mating minuet: the men in shirts twice unbuttoned, the women with sunglasses perched atop the head, everybody wearing suedes and leathers and available looks. Garth Reynolds, the mustachioed part-owner, calls the Second Storey "a superswinger's spot," an assessment that drew no quarrel from Ginny Miller, a curvy, hazel-eyed secretary who occasionally drops by after work in order, as she put it, "to meet quality guys."
Even with everything else going on, there is room for the substantial social contribution of Marina del Rey's seven yacht clubs, each with its own club tie, pewter mugs and good fellowship. The trappings are reminiscent of fraternity row, and the equivalent of the big man on campus is lean, chisel-featured Chuck Hathaway, a respected sailor and president of the 50-year-old California Yacht Club, which moved to the marina in 1963. "Yacht clubs are the seasoning that make boating a gourmet experience," Hathaway says. "They give it purpose." His 600-member club shares the social limelight with the Del Rey Yacht Club, a predominantly Jewish rival, particularly in the matter of which of their ladies' auxiliaries can most often make the women's pages of the Los Angeles Times.
They compete on the water, too, notably in such blue-water sailing events as the California Cup, a round-the-buoys match race hosted by Hathaway's club, or in Del Rey's new 1,125-mile race to Puerto Vallarta. The Round-Catalina offshore powerboat race is run out of Marina del Rey, and there is no end of predicted log races for powerboats.
Even as they go on boating there, a good many of the marina's patrons fear Marina del Rey is in danger of degenerating into a kind of Coney Island. Bumper stickers reading SAVE MARINA DEL REY FOR BOATS flowered a while ago, and the group responsible, a boat owners' association called Pioneer Skippers, has taken legal action to bring the marina under state regulation as a public utility.
The Pioneer Skippers argue that Los Angeles County has in effect abdicated, allowing the marina's private developers to choke the area with concrete and charge needlessly high slip rentals. Another issue is the eviction campaign that a few private anchorage operators, thinking of houseboat communities elsewhere that are little more than floating Appalachias, are waging against the 400 people who live aboard their boats. It is a legitimate worry, although it is hard to think of so magnificent a craft as Tranquility, a 66-foot fiber-glass ketch that architect Jim Van Dyke built himself and now lives aboard with his wife Johanna, as a houseboat.
Whatever the gripe, it finds its way sooner or later to a small and cactusy man named Leo Bialis, the county's top on-the-scene administrator. Regarding the boatowners' grievances, Bialis says: "We try to let the lessees run their businesses as private landlords. But we also try to exercise strong persuasive powers." While scarcely a matter to concern the Pioneer Skippers either way, one occasion when those powers were exercised was the time the county, objecting to wallpaper depicting positions of sexual intimacy, sent workers into the men's room of a marina restaurant on the eve of its grand opening and scraped the paper off.
As Marina del Rey has grown and prospered, its example has helped inspire a $24.5 million development plan for neighboring Venice, a community within the city of Los Angeles that was founded by a tobacco millionaire in 1905 as a replica of the original Venice, complete with gondoliers poling their way through narrow canals. With Marina del Rey's enthusiastic blessing, the city proposes to spruce up the small network of crumbling canals that remains and link it, in effect, to the marina. In a most curious alliance, the project is opposed both by Howard Hughes, whose Hughes Tool Co. owns property in Venice, and by the community's many Chicanos, poor whites and hippies, who fear the higher rents that would inevitably result. Considering the contrived funkiness of parts of Fisherman's Village so close by, it is ironic that the real thing, the Easy Rider culture that thrives in the cottages and crash pads along the Venice canals, is almost certainly doomed by the project.
To regard this business with Venice as a full-blown cultural clash, however, is to assume that Marina del Rey is somehow totally homogeneous. In fact, there are incongruous elements within the marina itself, such as the band of youths in shaggy, almost piratical beards who sailed the channel one cool and sunny Saturday, the signal flags above their sloop aflutter: P-E-A-C-E. They seemed out of place, although perhaps no more so in this world of well-scrubbed cabin cruisers and haughty sailing vessels than the little man in the burnt-charcoal mustache who could be seen inching through the water in a rowboat.
Irving Benson by name, a furrier by trade, the man had driven from his home in the San Fernando Valley earlier that day, his rowboat atop the car. He had spent several hours on the water already, interrupting his rowing only to eat an apple or a pear. "I love to row," Benson said, easing on the oars slightly. "I've loved it ever since I was a little boy in Greece."
Another of the less forgettable people using the old marshland was the white-haired citizen who stepped nude onto the balcony of his marina apartment one bright morning and arranged himself in flamingo poses within view of passing boats and motorists. "The waterfront brings out the ding-a-lings," Leo Bialis affirms. Of course, the sunshine, clean water and related favors bestowed by Marina del Rey bring out a good many non-ding-a-lings, too. This is at once a tribute to the place's efforts to achieve paradise and the reason it is never going to make it. It is an old dilemma, but there is reason to hope the city will not intrude too much. Living as they do amid a jumble of place-names, there are doubtless many perfectly happy Angelenos who still think Marina del Rey was the one who played opposite Gene Raymond in Flying Down to Rio. Perhaps it is as well to let them go on thinking so.