For 30-odd years, from 1953-1982, Ronald and Nancy Reagan identified Pacific Palisades, California, as their “home town.” The town proudly claimed them, too, running a kicker above the logo of the local paper, the Palisadian Post, proclaiming, “Home Town of President Reagan” starting in 1980. Reagan won 66 percent of the vote there in the 1980 election, this in a community more than a little bit liberal.
The Palisades, as everybody calls the place, perches on bluffs and plateaus and snakes through canyons overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It lies just north of Santa Monica and south of Malibu. It dates back as an incorporated town only to 1922. In the glory days of Hollywood, people thought of the Palisades as being way out in the sticks. Sunset Boulevard west of Beverly Hills was still a bridle path. The Pacific Coast Highway, now a booming thoroughfare, mustered two sleepy lanes. Below the cliffs, on the beach, William Randolph Hearst built a huge, rambling white clapboard estate; Charlie Chaplin put up a place next door and made Hearst pay a fancy price for a tennis court he coveted. The sandstone cliffs regularly crumbled into the road and the ocean — they still do. When I arrived, ailing, to stay with my mother in 1975, the concrete apron of a house once owned by Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester cantilevered crazily over the collapsing bluffs, reaching out a dizzy ten feet or more. You could see right into the bottom of the foundation.
What kind of a place is it? My mother has worked as a pharmacist in a Palisades store for more than 30 years. When my sister got her graduate degree, my mother sent her a big congratulatory card signed and inscribed by Goldie Hawn, Chevy Chase, Walter Matthau, Peter Graves, Davey Lopes, and half a dozen other celebrities. My sister’s classmates thought it was a gag. It wasn’t. Those were Mom’s customers.
The Reagans bought their house, a 5,000 square-foot ranch with three bedrooms and an octagonal swimming pool, in 1953. It had been built as a GE showplace — all electric everything. That was just about the time Reagan became the host of “The General Electric Theater” on TV, but the house didn’t constitute any sort of special gift. All-electric demonstration homes were common in the fifties. (We lived in one in Minneapolis.) When the Reagans finally put the place up for sale in 1982, it took more than a year to sell, and eventually went for $1.9 million, not at all an unusual price for the Palisades. Today, houses sell a lot faster for a lot more — $1.9 million would be considered a starter home.
The Palisadian Post ran some local memories of the Reagans when the 40th President died. Pepper Edmiston, who founded Camp Good Hope for children with cancer, wrote of Ron and Nancy visiting the Temescal Canyon camp, which they did several times:
“Once, after Mrs. Reagan faced her own bout with cancer, she discussed her health with the campers. When the President rose to speak, he was asked about his cancer. He began with a graphic description of his colon. ‘Not that one, Ronnie,’ whispered Mrs. Reagan. ‘Tell them about the thing on your nose.'”
Edmiston also recalled bringing an animal trainer to another Reagan visit. The trainer unlimbered a 20-foot python, to the manifest alarm of Nancy and the Secret Service. “Pass on the traveling zoo,” said appointments secretary Fred Ryan in a followup letter.
The Post published photos showing the Reagans voting (“at the home of Sally Gulick”) in the 1976 presidential elections, Reagan speaking at a Palisades Community Council meeting in 1973, and presenting a bouquet of roses to the 1966 Homecoming Queen of Palisades High School (the setting, by the way, of Michael Medved and David Wallechinsky’s What Really Happened to the Class of ’65 — Medved and Wallechinksy are Pali High kids themselves). A picture shows the Reagans waving at the door of plane, bound for the inauguration in 1981, with the Palisades High School band playing for them. (Inauguration invitees included “Mort and Bobbie Farberow of Mort’s Deli.”) A front-page photograph from 1996 shows the frail former President seated at the polo matches at Will Rogers Park (Rogers had a home in the Palisades, too, now preserved as a monument). Reagan wears a white guayabera shirt, a ball cap, and wire-rim glasses, and, though he was sick at the time, the light of recognition shows in his eyes and his smile as he greets a couple of old friends from the Palisades Chamber of Commerce.
It’s a tiny place, Pacific Palisades, with a modest downtown built on a crooked H of streets, the crossbar being Sunset Boulevard. There is a parade every Fourth of July, clearly the inspiration for Randy Newman’s song “Jolly Coppers on Parade” (Newman lived in Santa Monica Canyon for years). Its celebrity residents walk around, shop, eat, take their kids to school, not on display at all, simply there, often totally frumped out. Henry Miller, who lived at 444 Ocampo Drive, used to ride his bicycle around town, wobbling in his old age, wearing a Scally cap, thick glasses, and a tweed jacket. Miller gave one of his neighbors, a co-worker of my mother’s, several books. When Miller died, the co-worker gave two of them to me, Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. There are no publisher’s imprints on them whatsoever. No dates, nothing.
That’s what the Palisades is like, rich, famous, and anonymous. The Reagans liked it just fine, and the town liked them right back.