MALIBU — Take the PCH and head north. Drive past Pepperdine, continue on by Paradise Cove and Zuma, round the point from Nicholas Beach, and you’ll find it: Cypress Sea Cove.
The remote spot is lined with lush lawns and beautiful bluffs, dropping to a beach with massive, jagged rocks lunging out of the sea. Today, it is used for filming, photo shoots and weddings.
But as Richard Mark, the owner of the property says, this piece of land holds a unique space in local lore.
“If you were to choose a place in Malibu which is truly the place where all those mythical Gidget parties and the myths of surfers and luaus and parties happened, it was here,” Mark says.
The story of Cypress Sea Cove begins in the 1940s with its original owner George “Cap” Watkins, a Bunyon-esque character who would eventually turn the place into his own private Shangri-La.
Watkins arrived in California sometime after World War I and served as a lifeguard near the Santa Monica Pier.
His father had been an Indian fighter in Arizona, Mark said, and Watkins lived up to his Wild West heritage, galloping out onto the beach on a white horse to make rescues. “He was eventually appointed the chief lifeguard of Santa Monica,” Mark said.
In the 30s, developers hired Watkins to assist surveyors in measuring the Malibu coastline. His payment? A place to live.
“He was allowed to pick a piece of property out of the group that he was surveying,” Mark said.
Watkins chose the point that would become Cypress Sea Cove. The unique area featured large rocks and small islands, flourishing sea life and fresh water.
“This is one of the few places along the Malibu coast where there’s a lot of water,” Mark said.
Things started off a little slow.
Watkins collected the water, which comes from shallow underground streams, with buckets or pails, he said. Today, it’s the water that keeps the lawns of Cypress Sea Cove green. Mark collects about 4,000 gallons every day.
For heat and light, Watkins relied on kerosene.
His living quarters were just as improvised.
“In 1938 there was a big hurricane that basically destroyed Santa Monica Harbor,” Mark said, strewing boats up and down the coastline. Watkins took a tugboat cabin to his West Malibu beach and made it his home.
But soon, Watkins had his dream property constructed to his liking. Some of his friends helped him construct a ramshackle shack as another living space. They included former Santa Monica lifeguards Buster Crabbe and Johnny Weissmuller, better known as Hollywood’s Flash Gordon and Tarzan.
“He was very well connected with the movie business and politicians because they all congregated down there at Santa Monica Beach,” Mark said. “He invited them here for luaus and parties.”
Between the palm trees, hammocks were strung up, and 5-gallon plastic jugs were filled with rum drinks. Guests were as varied as then-California Gov. — and later Supreme Court justice — Earl Warren and blond bombshell Marilyn Monroe, as well as pioneer surfers and many of Watkins’ lifeguard friends.
“If you have kind of a picture of Robinson Crusoe laying in a hammock with a rum drink in his hand, surrounded by palm trees on a tropical beach, the reality was that’s what he had here,” Mark said.
After Watkins died in the ‘60s, the property went unoccupied until Mark purchased two acres of it in ‘76. One of the first things he did was host a luau.
“We had a big luau party where over 800 people, mainly lifeguards from up and down the coast, congregated,” Mark, himself a former L.A. County lifeguard, said. “It was really quite an event.”
Since then, Mark has tried to preserve the property, restoring or rebuilding some of Watkins’ original fixtures.
“There’s just a lot of history here,” Mark said. “Basically what we’re trying to preserve is the old Malibu.”
This article first appeared in The Malibu Times.