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To Charlou of Malibu, Adieu

For nearly a generation, Charlou Larronde's B&B has given guests a feel for the beach's funkier days of martinis and surfers. But at 80, she's ready for a change.

March 05, 2001|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a young woman, Charlou Larronde witnessed the birth of the 1 1/2-mile strip of sand known as Carbon Beach, building one of the first houses there with her late husband. Now, half a century later, Larronde is witnessing the death of a certain seaside style of living that she helped create. Twenty years after opening her home to paying guests, Charlou of Malibu closed up shop on Pacific Coast Highway last month, ending a singular bed-and-breakfast experience for hundreds of loyal and infatuated guests.

Charlou, who is 80, has borrowed butlers from movie stars (well, once) and thrown some of the craziest parties in the 'Bu as a founding member of the now-defunct Malibu Martini and Surfing Society.

Her 4,000-square-foot house has survived storms that washed away her patio, and a fire that drove her onto the beach clutching a laundry basket full of recipes, bills and photographs, a friend's harp, and her mink, as she sprayed a hose over her head to keep her hair from igniting.

She has watched this strand just east of the Malibu Pier go from funky escape to exclusive enclave, and seen vacant lots fill up first with beach cottages, later with villas, and now with multimillion-dollar mansions three lots long.

In the early 1980s, a friend putting together a guide book asked the Larrondes if he could list their home as a bed-and-breakfast for international travelers. The Larrondes loved to stay with people in Europe so they consented. Somehow--without their knowledge--a picture of their house was featured on the back of an American bed-and-breakfast guide.

"Our first call was from Sweden," Charlou recalled. "A month later some people flew in and said they were from Texas. We said, 'Texas? This is supposed to be international.' "

But from then on, Charlou and Jimmy Larronde opened one or two bedrooms of their four-bedroom home to guests from anywhere. A night in their home offered a taste of old Malibu--Charlou-style--with sea and sand and stories and music and martinis. Today Charlou is one of just two remaining original residents along Carbon Beach, and next month, she is leaving, perhaps for good.

On Jan. 13, friends from all over flew in for Charlou's 80th birthday party, which she called an "Awakening" (as opposed to a wake). "I think it is time to change my lifestyle," she said. "I like to use my house as a place to entertain, but it's a lot of work."

On Feb. 25, Charlou hosted her final three guests, Sandi and Christian Zorn, a couple from Mission Hills, and a reporter. Christian Zorn, well trained after more than 20 visits over five years, pulls what looks like a silver gasoline can from the fridge and pours a round of cocktails. They talk of the changes on the beach, and what will happen to the house if Charlou sells.

"I want a piece of something," Sandi Zorn says sentimentally. "Can I have a doorknob from upstairs? Or a floorboard?"

When she toasts Charlou for the last time, Sandi Zorn almost cries.

This is an ode to Charlou of Malibu, and these are some of her stories.

Awesome Ocean View

Casa Larronde is at 22000 Pacific Coast Highway. The sign out front says 22THOU and is held up by a brightly painted wooden Hawaiian warrior. From the street, the house is unremarkable: a door in a wall. But open it and you step into another world. Windows extend floor to ceiling, and waves crash less than 20 feet beyond. It's as close to being in a boat as you can be, and still be on land.

Charlou--born Charlotte Louise Schneider in Los Angeles--is 5 foot 2, with twinkly blue eyes. She sits on the sofa and drinks a martini while she soaks her feet in a frying pan and paints her toes. She is a wild woman who has traveled to more than 100 countries--from Tonga to Timbuktu--and hopes to travel to a hundred more. She has a quick wit, a bawdy sense of humor and more stories than you can shake a martini swizzler at.

Charlou and her husband, Jimmy Larronde, bought their property in 1950 for $15,000. "It was 120 feet of sand, or a half block in Brentwood for the same price," Charlou recalls. "But you have to remember, nobody had $15,000 in 1950."

At the time they asked themselves, why are we buying two pieces of property? "We decided it might be a good investment," she said. Today the house is worth at least $4 million. The "Flip Wilson" property--as she still calls the house next door--sold for $3 million in 1998 and was being offered after refurbishment for $15 million. Charlou will lease her home for a year--the going rate for this beach is $20,000 to $30,000 a month--to see if she can live without it. If she can, she may sell her coveted spot on this swanky beach where Hollywood royalty now vies for lots.

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