On the Pacific Coast Highway, along the stretch that reaches north from the pier, an apartment house was built in the early 70’s, near the foot of the Santa Monica ramp. The name on the front read “The Sorrento Beach Grill”, in a quiet nod to history that only locals would understand. The building stood on the site of the old Sorrento Grill and I greatly appreciated that those who built the building knew they replaced a landmark. Before long, they changed it, understandably, to the “The Sorrento” because visitors to the area would pull in looking for dinner. About 12 years before, Sorrento Beach was the epicenter for life if you were growing up west of Westwood, north of Venice, and south of Malibu.
The “60’s”, in my book, is a misnomer. What most people think of the ‘60’s actually began in the South in the late ‘50’s with the early Civil Rights Movement, ending with Watergate and the withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973. The ‘60’s, as we have come to know it, didn’t seem to hit California until November 22, 1963. In 1960 life moved to the rhythm of the Beach Boys. Everything was bright and slow and perfect. And nowhere was brighter, slower, or more perfect than Sorrento Beach.
It would be several years still ‘til any of us had our own cars. Just too old and cool for bikes, homemade skateboards were the vehicle of choice, long boards screwed onto roller-skates actually. Mostly we walked, gathering friends along the route, either down California to the ramp or along Montana Avenue to descend to Sorrento Beach along a littered cliff path, the broken bottles a daily obstacle to those of us who rarely wore shoes in daylight from June to September. Callused feet were a badge of honor to a local. By the 4th of July, no sand or sidewalk was too hot. By August we could stroll slowly back from the water to our towels and then amuse ourselves watching the tourists do the “two-o’clock hop” across the burning sand that we just traversed.
The beach north of the grill was lined with huge homes and occupied by the rich and famous: Marion Davies, Baron Hilton, Peter Lawford, their homes protected from the riff raff by a long, high wall, a wall that defined Sorrento Beach in more ways than one. In front of the wall were four good volleyball courts, where the old and cagey players dove and dug in the very early day before turning the courts over to the young, tan bodies that began to accumulate along the wall by ten. From the corner of the wall near the grill, along the next 100 yards of beach, territory would be staked out each morning, towel next to towel, body after glistening body, at first a line and then a small city of teenagers, reeking of Coppertone, baby and coconut oil. Also by the 4th of July, most of us sported white, zinc-oxide noses, as there simply was little skin left to burn. SPF was unheard of. You burned, you peeled, you burned again until your skin took on a mottled, dappled sort of brown geography, tan lined at the waist and perpetually peeling at the shoulders, an early contribution to what would later be down- payments on houses for the dermatologists of the Westside.
The scene was a sea of color, the multi-colored suits and towels only outdone by the spectacle of the wall itself. Part of the joy of arrival each day, after the long draw of sea air and a quick check of the surf, was to examine the artwork that seemed to appear anew each morning. We could leave a wall in the late day that was freshly painted in UCLA blue and gold and signed in Greek letters, only to arrive to a sixty-foot dragon or a very rude commentary on fraternities in general and UCLA in particular. The wall, liquid in its character, would transform day to day. Names of lovers and girlfriends were painted over political slogans, only to disappear under the famous SCOA logo or a magnificent mermaid, the empty beer cans of her adoring creators of the night before, lying under her prodigious breasts. I clearly recall the night that a group of us labored late into the night, painting our names for posterity on the wall, only to arrive the next morning to find that the entire effort had been covered by a huge mural of surf and sea life, which, in turn, was history by the end of the week.
For the cognoscenti, the place to get your swimsuit was Roy’s Cabana, about a mile north. You could go into Roy’s, pick out a material, get measured to fit this year’s body, and have your primary wardrobe for the entire summer in two days. Once again, by the 4th of July, whatever material you picked would be fashionably faded and the suit itself would seem like it was a part of your very body, grown lighter as your body grew darker. Lying or propped along the wall, the sun magnified doubly by both sand and wall, you could bake until you could take no more and then make the slow, nearly religious pilgrimage along the beach to the grill. Of course you would walk slowly, surreptitiously eyeing the feast of skin and color along the wall, but the grill was a scene to behold.
At age14, the Sorrento Grill was the most vibrantly physical place I could imagine. Packed with oiled, half-naked bodies, the grill never even flirted with the concept of seating. If there was seating, I never saw it. There was only a long counter and a throng of people pressed together, with the Beach Boys, the Ventures or Surfaris blasting on the jukebox. These were not just teenage bodies, these were serious beach bodies, muscled and carved and curved in ways that you could not look straight at. The room was part inside, part out, with whatever passed as a floor covered with sand. The music blared and the whole room felt like the lair of some tribe come together in a ritual rite of passage. While most of our own crowd was back at the wall, we would mingle with the masses: cute girls from other schools and their boyfriends who tried to stare you away from them; exotic foreign women who had taken the bikini to new and exciting levels of nothingness; men so barbell huge that you had to move away from them so as not to feel totally inadequate in your brown, skinny body. The very smell of it, the broiling aromas of French fries and burgers, mixed with sweat and suntan lotion, pheromones, hormones and salt air was beyond heady, it was intoxicating. Drunk with it all, none of us could imagine a better place to be.
As if to prove that Sorrento Beach was the center of the universe, a bathing suited JFK emerging from the sanctum of Lawford’s house one day (a house that later became famous for secreting his trysts with Marilyn) to throw a football with us on the sand, with hardly a secret service man in sight. There were other momentous things that happened as well, but most of those were at night, when we would return in parents’ cars to park along the beach, drink Coors, smoke Marlboros and Pall Malls, and either talk philosophy with feet propped on the dashboard or huddle in the back seat exploring other mysteries of life.
Sorrento was also partly responsible just a few years later for the devastation of the classes of ’63 and ’64 at St. Monica’s High School. Each year the school would celebrate Green and Gold day with a kind of all-school carnival. Somehow the word got out to meet at the “Castle” before school, the castle being the concrete remains of some long-ago structure that hovered on the side of the cliff across from the beach. Massive numbers of Mariners heeded the call. By 7:15, remarkable amounts of alcohol were being consumed. The consequent Green and Gold day went down in the unwritten history of St. Monica’s as probably a quite dark memory for the Brothers of St. Patrick and the Sisters of the Holy Names, but it became the stuff of legend across the student body, effectively canceling any future Green and Gold days, causing the expulsion of a huge number of classmates, and thrusting several participants into the ranks of infamy.
It was no coincidence that it all began on Sorrento Beach, for we associated that place with no adult, just the easy tribal rhythm of being together.
There were, of course, other beaches. In some ways, the years of my teenage memories become associated with the beaches we inhabited at the time: the Lighthouse, the Hotspot, the Colony, Bay Street. To the north, the more well-to-do sunned in luxury at the Sand ‘n Sea or the Bel-Air Bay Clubs. For us those places only represented opportunities for summer jobs. To the south, the Jonathon and the Del Mar Clubs created weekend retreats for some of our parents, but Sorrento was where we went, maybe because there were no parents. It was like our own small village, dissolving each evening to reappear and reform each morning.
Later, our cars would take us up to Topanga and South to Hermosa and Manhatten. By ’62 we were blasting up the coast to Malibu Colony, Point Dume, Zuma, and Rincon, looking for new waves, new adventures and, mostly, women that didn’t know us already. But in 1960, from the foggy mornings and long afternoons of mid-June to the annual huge surf of Labor Day week, the days would move to the rhythms of transistor radios and breaking waves. The memories of those summers come now like the heat waves rising from summer sands, maybe a bit distorted in the looking back, but if you were there, you would understand.