Spaniards called it Bolsa de Quigara, the bay with the high banks. During
subsequent centuries it had several other names—Bolsa de San Joaquin, the
Gospel Swamp and Port Orange. As the place began to bloom in the '20s, a few
handsome yachts rode at their moorings in the shallow bay, and some
comfortable, unpretentious beach houses sprouted out of the scrubby sand flats
of the peninsula that separated the bay from the booming breakers of the
Pacific Ocean. In those days it was getting to be quite the thing to go down to
Newport Beach, as it was by then formally christened, for the weekend or the
summer. It didn't attract rich Easterners the way Santa Barbara and Pebble
Beach did, but it was a place good, solid southern Californians liked to take
their kids for the holidays.
Now, some 30 to
40 years later, Newport Beach and its appendages of Balboa and Corona Del Mar
comprise the most remarkable collection of mansions and bungalows, yachts and
dinghies, pensioners and teen-agers, supermarket millionaires and lettuce
pickers that could be shoehorned into a dozen square miles of seaside real
estate and bright blue water on this or any other planet.
approach it from across the brown-baked upland mesas, it looks like nothing so
much as a Cinerama version of Vacationland, U.S.A. You see the wide white beach
stretching six miles along the southern California coastline. You see the solid
quilting of houses built so close together that a housewife can borrow an extra
TV dinner simply by sticking her arm out the kitchen window and into her
neighbor's freezer. You see the occasional bone-bare masts of an enormous
schooner reaching skyward from its mooring and the endless parade of sails of
the little boats gliding up the narrow channels of the bay with only the
triangle tips of their canvas visible above the rooftops. In the distance a
tireless Ferris wheel revolves in the fun zone, and rising above all this is
the friendly, shingled tower of the Balboa Pavilion, a relic of the early
horseless carriage era and one of the few historic architectural landmarks
remaining in this new and restless civilization.
You know you've
reached Newport Beach when you arrive at the overpass crossing U.S. Highway
101, the route that borders the Pacific Ocean from Mexico to Washington State.
It was at this spot not long after the Kaiser's war that Mary Pickford showed
up one day in her Stutz Bearcat and cut the ribbon to open the first
substantial bridge across the mouth of the Santa Ana River, where it used to
dump its floodwaters into Newport Bay. Alongside the bridge is a landmark of
sorts—a Union Oil service station called The Arches that has been there since
the early gas buggies first went wheezing past.
Arches you begin the familiar drive down the five-mile spine of road that
splits the Newport Beach peninsula. Familiar drive? Well, that's a bit of an
exaggeration. The drive would be familiar only to those who had made it during
the last twelvemonth, for Newport Beach has a way of changing face as rapidly
as a repertory actor in the sticks.
Take that highly
chromed shopping center on the left, for instance, just after you reach the
first stoplight. It doesn't seem as if it has been there more than a couple of
weeks. And what is that four-story checkerboard of red, white and blue squares
down at the end of the row of stores—the grandstand for a new trotting track?
No, that's the Newport Balboa Savings and Loan Association. It reminds you how
far things have come since the night of the big bank robbery down here in
The famous heist
was made by three obvious beginners when the only bank in town was a modest
little frame shack. For a getaway, they swiped somebody's horse and buggy in
the middle of the night and then tried to blow the bank's safe with dynamite.
The first blast merely served to wake up half the town, including a couple of
bartenders who rushed to the scene with their shotguns. The second blast was
not much better, and the third blew down half the building, scattering cash
throughout the debris. The robbers stuffed $2,600 of the loot in the horse's
feed bag, $500 in their pockets and hightailed out of there while the
bartenders peppered away at them through the windows. They escaped with the
haul and were never heard from again, and the only casualty was a local
bystander who got a blast of buckshot in his back.
That was Newport
Beach in the days before the yachts arrived, and most of the boating fleet
belonged to the commercial fishermen who brought albacore, bonito, halibut and
sea bass into the little harbor cannery. Tooling on down the main street these
days with the bay on your left—to the north—and the ocean on your right, you no
longer see any water through the thickets of cheap frame cottages and lavish
redwood ranch houses.
This was never
much of a swimming resort in the past, and the people who were afraid of the
enormous breakers used to alibi that the surf was full of stingarees. But an
intrepid new breed of Californian has put the lie to this fable. Now the ocean
beach and the pounding waves are aswarm with surfers—hardy, handsome blond
young men who look as if they had taken postgraduate degrees with Charles
Atlas. It's a society as strictly compartmented as a beehive. The nobility are
simply called surfers, and they ride their boards with a lordly disdain,
waiting for only the biggest waves and proving their worth and courage by
executing the "10 over." That's when you stand on the bow of your board
with all 10 toes curled over the front edge.
Next in the
pecking order are the hodaddies, whose bleached hair is just a little longer
and blonder than the surfers', just a little more carefully coifed, but who
spend very little time in the water. They have their eyes on the gremmie girls,
the blondined and suntanned chicks who lie on the beach in their
"shifts" (muumuus cut off at the thighs) and gaze rapturously at the
surfers. At the bottom of the order are the male gremmies, little fellows who
hope someday to be surfers or hodaddies when they get bigger but are, in the
meantime, just getting in everybody's way.