Saint Malo – Oceanside's best-kept secret

Halfway between Disneyland and the San Diego Zoo

White-capped waves tumbled against the shore, the wind was merciless, but I held my Lancome bag high and waded on. But as I neared Saint Malo’s steep, eroded beach, the tide rose higher.
  • White-capped waves tumbled against the shore, the wind was merciless, but I held my Lancome bag high and waded on. But as I neared Saint Malo’s steep, eroded beach, the tide rose higher.
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

Cher Henri:

I write to you with a heavy heart.

My trip to faux-France was a disaster. Oui! Despite our meticulous planning, I ended up stranded on a rocky beach, battered by crashing waves, muttering French epithets.

Even the Kennedys vacationed in faux-Saint Malo during the 1960s.

Even the Kennedys vacationed in faux-Saint Malo during the 1960s.

How could a vacation go so wrong? Let me explain.

When you first told me a French village existed in Oceanside, I laughed. Impossible! But when I investigated further, I discovered you were correct.

They called it “Oceanside’s best-kept secret” — an enclave of 75 French Norman-style homes along the banks of the Pacific. They said the little 28-acre community of white-and-blue-trimmed houses closely resembled a French fishing village on Brittany’s coast. They said both places were called Saint Malo.

“But why recreate France in San Diego?” I asked you in my halting French.

You shrugged in your careless manner and answered cryptically, “The Los Angeleans wished it so.”

Bien sur. Research proved you right again. In the early 1920s, a couple named Kenyon and Louise Keith began developing the acreage near Oceanside’s Buena Vista Lagoon. They envisioned it a replica of the real Saint Malo — a walled city/tourist attraction in France that, in the 17th and 18th Centuries, when it was one of France’s most crucial ports, had been home to navigators, traders, and privateers. The real Saint Malo had been named after a 6th-century Welsh monk who, apparently, had taken up residence there.

You told me that today’s inhabitants of the real Saint Malo take zealous pride in their port community. You said, “They often insist, ‘I am neither French, nor Breton, but Saint Malo-in!’ ”

Decades ago, a journalist asked Kenyon Keith why he wished to rebuild the French port town in San Diego’s backyard. Keith answered simply,

“We went into it because it was needed by the residents of the northern cities who wish to avoid jostling and congestion.”

Keith was a financial visionary. By the 1930s, Los Angeleans, Pasadenans, and the Hollywood crowd were motoring down to Saint Malo for weekend getaways and summer retreats. This was decades before the Concorde and MGM Grand. Thanks to Kenyon Keith and his femme,

France was just hours away by Duesenberg.

“But why France?” I persisted. “Why not recreate other exotic faux-destinations for the Los Angeleans?”

You patted my hand patronizingly. “Disneyland,” you said softly.

Although in Spanish, malo means “bad,” the living was good in faux-Saint Malo’s early years. Film director Jason Joy built an outdoor bowling alley and volleyball court at his retreat. Well-heeled retirees from commerce — oil, banking, agriculture — gathered weekly at the Saint Malo Lodge, a sort of clubhouse, to play bridge. Their wives and children lounged on the private beach overlooking, not the Gulf of Saint Malo in the English Channel, but the vast Pacific Ocean.

Each August, an annual “Trash Can Tournament” was held by Saint Malo homeowners and guests on the community’s two tennis courts. Players drew the names of doubles partners, then indulged in “The Sport of Kings.”

Alas, Kenyon Keith died in 1943. We cannot know what he would have said about his beloved Franco-American community’s sudden marriage to Oceanside in September 1950. Oui, Saint Malo — which then consisted of 24 homes on 21 acres — joined incorporated Oceanside, for better or worse, richer coupled with poorer.

Little changed within the cypress-shaded burb, however. Hollywood luminaries, Pasadena socialites, and Los Angelean captains of industry still populated the colorful stucco homes that were hidden from prying Oceanside eyes by thick hedges, foliage, and a trés grand lagoon.

Screenwriter Frank Butler, renowned for his films Road to Morocco and Road to Singapore, supposedly penned his Academy Award-winning script, Going My Way, while he stayed at #33 in Saint Malo. (The community has no deeded streets; its houses are merely numbered.) Harpo Marx visited Ben and Rose Hecht’s Saint Malo hideaway. The oil-rich Doheny clan and Hugh Darling, former mayor of Beverly Hills, periodically traveled from their sprawling digs to domiciles there too.

Even the Kennedys — yes, Henri, the Kennedys! — vacationed in faux-Saint Malo during the 1960s. By that time, about 50 families owned homes there. And how they wished to keep their masonry-gated enclave privé. Saint Malo residents did not desire looky-loos (Henri: how do you say that in French?), nor did they want publicity.

In 1980, a peeved Saint Malo homeowner queried a persevering Oceanside Blade-Tribune reporter: “Why does your paper want to write about us? Saint Malo residents don’t really mix with the city of Oceanside, do they? So why should anyone care about us?”

Could it be that this resident meant “I am neither San Diegan, nor Oceansidean, but Saint Malo-in!”?

Four years later, England’s Prince Phillip and daughter Princess Anne stayed as guests in Saint Malo, while they attended the Southland’s Olympic equestrian events. The royal duo was shuttled to and fro in a chocolate-brown Lincoln limousine, flanked by highway patrol cars and two unmarked autos driven by security agents. Saint Malo-ins refused to divulge with whom the Windsors were visiting.

As you predicted, Henri, the more I learned about this place, the more I yearned to see it myself. I had so many questions: did Saint Malo-ins drive Renaults, wear berets, and converse in French with meticulous accents? Or were they simply wealthy Los Angeleans hell-bent on escaping the “jostling and congestion” of the Big Orange?

Before journeying to this fantasy-village, I asked a former Saint Malo dweller, Washington D.C. publicist David Hall, about his experiences there during the early 1980s. Hall and his family had summered at a cousin’s house a block from Saint Malo’s private beach. For my sake, Hall reminisced in English.

“It was an odd and wonderful place. You’d drive through the gate, and it looked as though you were suddenly transported thousands of miles away to Europe. It’s very tight-knit, with lots of seasonal vacationers — a bit like Carmel. We didn’t meet many neighbors while we were there, though; only occasionally when we were at the beach. Many kept to themselves.”

Hall recalled that, for the children of Saint Malo, a delightful game involved listening for the shriek of passing Amtrak trains that rattled by on tracks that once carried Santa Fe railroad cars up and down the coast.

“Why do Saint Malo residents want to keep the community so very private?” I asked Hall.

He contemplated this. “I think because old money likes to stick together. They’re comfortable with one another. They travel together. They like to keep their exclusive areas well-kept secrets.”

Indeed, until recently, Saint Malo-ins tended to pass residential titles to their heirs or sell their homes to acquaintances, using the services of a Pasadena-based real estate agency. So many Pasadenans had homes in Saint Malo that the community gained the nickname “Pasadena on the Rocks.”

But the Santa Ana winds of change blew over Saint Malo, just as they had elsewhere. Perhaps due to recession, perhaps due to a relaxation of social prohibitions, a few Saint Malo-ins offered their homes for sale and rent to the “general public.”

Quel? you ask. Oui, c'est vrai, c’est vrai. Anyone able to afford $10,000 a month in rental fees— or roughly $800,000 to $2.5 million in purchase price — could have the opportunity to reside in France-on-the-Pacific. Henri, is democracy at work or what?

Fascinated, I asked those in the know: Who has rented maisons there? “Doctors, lawyers, and professionals with children,” one businesswoman familiar with the properties told me. “They want to be halfway between Disneyland and the San Diego Zoo.”

Was she speaking in metaphor, I wondered? A personal visit would reveal the truth.

Henri, it was an overcast afternoon as I approached Saint Malo’s huge masonry arch at the intersection of Eaton and Pacific. A real estate agent had warned me, “The residents of Saint Malo are very classy people,” so I had packed a bottle of light, fruity Domaine Les Grands Groux Sancerre (1996) and a loaf of fresh bread. Already, I had suffered a great setback. Hertz had no available Renaults; I was driving a Ford Taurus.

Soon, I was to receive my second psychic wounding. The president of the Saint Malo Association relayed a message to me through an intermediary (in English, for my benefit) that I would not be allowed through the gates! “He said, they’re a quiet community and they don’t want publicity,” his intermediary stated.

Damnez ma chance putrefiee! I shouted bitterly after looking up the phrase.

Then someone told me that I could view the estates of Saint Malo from the beach.

Before I began this seaside trek, however, I sat in the Ford Taurus and observed Saint Malo’s longtime security guard “Little John” (“Petit Jean?”) perform his sentinel duties. He was a big man, this Little John. I knew he could not be fooled. As I slouched in defeat, I watched Little John permit two vehicles — a Volvo and a delivery truck—to pass into Saint Malo. But I — I was an unwanted outsider: L'etranger. The appellation, familiar for some reason, stung.

I was about to drive away when I noticed a large plaque on the masonry gate. On it were writ the words, “Dedicated to Louise and Kenyon Keith who founded St. Malo, 1926.” Above the plaque was a crest that featured a sort of weasel. A weasel? Pourquoi, un weasel? I wanted to ask Little John. But I was afraid.

So, moments later, there I was descending old wooden stairs to Oceanside’s public beach. Far, far in the distance I could see Saint Malo’s bluffside manses. It was high tide, and I was wearing my favorite Nordstrom leather boots. I took them off, removed my socks, placed the accoutrements in my large Lancome bag, and rolled up my pants legs.

Oui, Henri, I was that determined. I waded through the ankle-deep water toward Saint Malo. White-capped waves tumbled against the shore, the wind was merciless, but I held my Lancome bag high and waded on. I pretended it was the Tricolor, and I was storming the Bastille. But as I neared Saint Malo’s steep, eroded beach, the tide rose higher. Waves swelled, first lapping against my calves, then smacking my knees, then finally surrounding my waist. I stood motionless on a cluster of cobbles, feeling silly and concerned. More so when I gazed up at one of the Saint Malo beachside estates and saw the figure of a woman at a window, gazing down at me without expression.

The sea momentarily stopped its assault, and I reversed course. I waded through the receding tide until I reached the wooden stairs. Still barefoot, I ascended them, clamoring into the Ford Taurus, cranking up its heater. Shivering as my pants dried, I acknowledged the obvious: my voyage to faux-France was a total washout. I did not get to see the 75 homes of Saint Malo (except a few located outside the community’s gates). I did not get to meet the classy, mysterious Saint Malo residents who lived in them. I did not get invited to play in the Trashcan Tournament, nor did I get asked to play bridge at the Lodge.

Henri, you always ask me, “Mon petit baguette, what did you learn?”

And I shall tell you. Simply put, F. Scott Fitzgerald was right: Les riches sont differents de vous et de moi.

They can build European cities in Southern California. They can keep enclaves private, despite proximity to dense urban settlements.

And maybe, just maybe, they can control the tides.

If one day I meet that woman who looked down on me, Henri, I’ll be sure to ask her.

Les plus sinceres les amities,

Susan

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