It is midday on the Gold Coast, on Santa Monica's exclusive beach-club row. Here, you see the posh sands where actress Marion Davies once entertained. There is the cabana of a famous comedian. And look here, behind this little fence designed to keep the commoners at bay--perhaps you'll want the autographs of these . . . two housewives from Sherman Oaks?
"Ssh!" laughs Lesley Szkolnik. "Don't tell people about this place, or we won't have it all to ourselves!"
Which they do, except for their two toddlers, who are purposefully shoveling sand.
For weeks now, a big "Public Welcome" banner has hung at the old Sand and Sea Club, on the white picket fence that, until recently, reminded all beach-goers that this particular sand was for members only.
Whitewashed and sprawling, the club and its once-private beach were thrown open to the general populace this summer for the first time in its august history. But you know what they say about old dogmas and new tricks. The club--now known simply as 415 PCH--is so much a part of the VIPs-only preserve that few have dared tread on its now-public sands.
Consequently, the beach at 415 PCH is more private now than it was when it was, well, private.
In other words, almost nobody goes there, now that anybody can.
Next door at the still very private Beach Club, Dee Dee Fenaughty adjusts her sun hat and peers discreetly past the little members-only sign that adorns the private sand on which she is gossiping with friends.
"Open? To the public?" she marvels. "Well, they certainly haven't advertised. Fabulous. Did you hear this, Carolyn?"
Carolyn can't believe her ears. This is news to the beach club crowd. Instantly, Fenaughty and her group burst into a cacophony of speculation.
"Isn't that where Michael was going to put his hotel, but Santa Monica wouldn't let him do it?"
"And then didn't he go into Chapter 11? . . . "
"Well, the food was exorbitant. . . ."
"I mean, what you'd pay for a little piece of lettuce. . . ."
As the others debate the price of nouvelle cuisine, Fenaughty shakes her head and laughs.
"You won't believe it," she confides, "but I used to go there when it was Marion Davies' old house. The pool was fabulous. "
As was the estate.
Built in 1929 by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, the property featured a 60-room mansion that was the private home of Davies, Hearst's longtime paramour. There were 37 fireplaces and a dining room that seated 25. One room was finished entirely in gold leaf.
Then in 1945, it was sold and converted to "America's Most Beautiful Resort Hotel," as the owners of the Oceanhouse Hotel billed their development.
But it was not very successful. In 1957, the hotel was razed, and two years later the state acquired the property and granted management responsibility to the city of Santa Monica under a long-term agreement.
The city, in turn, decided in 1960 to lease the property to the Sand and Sea Club, which paid $250,000 a year to reserve the remaining white clapboard buildings, the Italian marble pool and the gently sloping beach for its members and their families.
It was, members recalled, a shade less stuffy than the other beach clubs--more easygoing than the Bel-Air Bay Club, cheaper than The Beach Club, not as WASP-y as the beach annex of the Jonathan Club. But in 1990, the City Council decided that it was inappropriate to have a private club on public land and decided that the spot should be a hotel again.
After a spirited competition, restaurateur Michael McCarty received council permission to erect a 160-room, $300-a-night luxury development on the spot.
But then the property got caught up in the slow-growth movement and voters rejected the hotel idea, opting instead to make the place a sort of community beach club.
Now the city rents out the spacious banquet hall for weddings and parties, leases part of the beach to the "Beverly Hills 90210" filming crew and advertises Sunday barbecues at "family-style prices" on the grounds where millionaires used to gather at cocktail hour.
Only the Italian marble pool and cabanas remain off limits, largely because the city has yet to raise the money to install access for the handicapped and to bring the facilities up to code. The volleyball nets, the lounge chairs, the paddle tennis courts, the swings and picnic tables, the cheap parking--all these and more belong to The People now.
Now, city officials say--if The People would only show up, life would be a day at the beach.
"Mom-miee! I want another peach!"
"MOMMMMM!! She taked the shovel away from me!"
Most mothers will tell you, see, that this is the problem with taking your toddlers to the beach--they get overstimulated, and what with the crowds and the debris, it just does you in.
But Szkolnik and her friend, Sandi Finch, are calm as they fish through their beach bags for another peach, an extra shovel. It is no problem without the litter and crowds. They have a whole beach--fenced, no less--along with a swing set, lockers and a shower room. This outing has cost them just $1 per kid, $2 per adult and $6 for all-day parking.
"We call this the Poor Man's Beach Club," Szkolnik quips. "Sandi found out about it from a friend of a friend."
Not that they could not sit on a private beach if they wanted to.
"I have friends at the Jonathan Club just down the beach," Finch says. "I could go there, but why should I when I can come here?"
"Besides," Szkolnik adds in mock hauteur, "if she went to the Jonathan--" she looks at her friend and laughs.
"She'd have to hang out with those people ."