Inside L.A.'s Beach Club Scene Where Kathleen Kennedy, Kate Hudson Are Members

8:00 AM 8/15/2016

by Sharon Swart

Sure, there's a 30-mile stretch of public sand in the city, but only a few places where you can pay as much as $85,000 in equity shares to be vetted, schmooze with industry peers and play paddle tennis on top of it all.

David Burk

With Soho House's Little Beach House Malibu re-energizing Los Angeles' private beach club landscape and some industry insiders reconsidering their European vacations (but not Irena Medavoy; see here), this Labor Day likely will find town players angling for an exclusive oceanside perch. The nearly century-old stalwarts down the coast — Pacific Palisades' Bel-Air Bay Club and Santa Monica's The Beach Club (aka BC) and Jonathan Club — tend to welcome industry civilians of East Coast Ivy League stock but limit, for privacy reasons, celebrity presence. Would-be members can hear, "We're not really a Hollywood club," during the application process, which can take a year at Jonathan and two years at the BC as aspirants prove long-term ties to member families, answering questions like, "What's the view from their backyard?"

Most beach clubs have strict rules barring members from talking with outsiders about the clubs. Initiation fees can be one-time or include equity shares — meaning they later can be sold at prices that fluctuate according to the number of memberships available — and run as high as $85,000, not including monthly user fees (Soho House membership simply requires an annual fee). Membership can include spas, pools, even a rare padel court (a paddle tennis/squash hybrid), but — most of all — buys access to a fully serviced stretch of sand leased by the club, only a minute's stroll away (below the median-tide point is public). The choice can come down to the commute, says an industry member: "Jonathan is the first off the 10 Freeway, which makes it convenient. Bel-Air Bay Club is farther down PCH. Traffic gets bad in the summer — a quarter-mile can be 20 minutes."

Beach clubs also can serve as unique settings for work gatherings. After client Alicia Vikander won the supporting actress Oscar in February, UTA partner Theresa Peters took Vikander and her team to Jonathan Beach Club. "Nobody bothered her," says Peters. "It's a nice break from the typical places everyone goes to for business."

  • A. Little Beach House Malibu

    22716 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu; (310) 456-2400

    David Burk

    (Pictured: A view from the upper balcony at Little Beach House Malibu. Programming for members includes meditation sessions on the second floor, local hikes, farm visits and wine tastings.)

    FOUNDED 2016

    WHO GOES Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara, Kate Hudson, Lionel Richie, Miley Cyrus, Liam Hemsworth

    A new take on the private beach club, Soho House's version, which opened in May, is less overtly family-oriented and more a place where members — mainly from local creative circles — say they can enjoy a cozy, boozy weekend brunch or casual business meeting over a bottle of rosé on the terrace. Little Beach House is based at the Larry Ellison-owned Carbon Beach property that once housed Nikita restaurant and sits between Nobu Malibu and the new Nobu Ryokan hotel. A large wooden pergola and an outdoor bar were added to the original terrace; the second floor houses three sitting areas that overlook the ocean, all decorated in the franchise's signature Brit-chic style. The strategy for membership (annual fees run about $2,000) currently focuses on locals and those with Malibu ties; existing Soho House members must apply to the Malibu outpost separately. For those who descend the ladder off the terrace to the sand (during low tide only), there are changing rooms and an outdoor shower ("if you're brave enough to use it," says an actress, noting its visibility to Nobu diners). Early reviews of the club with a much smaller footprint of 10,000 square feet (200 of that in beachfront) and about 10 additional miles of commute up PCH generally are positive: "The place is amazing," says one member. "The question is how much it'll be used in the off-season."

  • B. Bel-Air Bay Club

    16801 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades; (310) 230-4700

    Eric Beteille

    (Pictured: “Bel-Air Bay Club has that 90210 feel with the summer jobs and cabanas,” says an insider at another private beach club. Bel-Air Bay’s lower private club on the beach (the upper structure can be booked for weddings) underwent a major refurbishment and expansion in 2007, including a new gym, saunas and steam rooms and updated clubrooms.)

    FOUNDED 1927

    WHO GOES Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, Sugar Ray Leonard, CAA's Tracy Brennan, Bluegrass Films' Dylan Clark (Central Intelligence), WME's Michelle Bohan

    Just below where Sunset Boulevard meets PCH is the Bel-Air Bay Club. The sprawling 14-acre estate, with a beach and an upper club but no pool, carries the priciest equity membership buy-in among L.A.'s beach clubs at about $85,000, plus $500 in monthly fees. The club was conceived by oil prospector and tennis champion Alphonzo Bell, who also developed L.A.'s Bel Air neighborhood.

    Stretched along a quarter-mile of beachfront (and located next to the popular Sunset surf break), Bel-Air Bay is known for its "90210 … summer-jobs" atmosphere and cabanas, which boast a wait list; as many as four families can be assigned to share a structure. Getting into a cabana is "a convoluted process," says a longtime member. A member of another club says it "is a little cliquish: 'My cabana is better, or better decorated, than yours,' or, 'You don't have one.' " But insiders feel, practically speaking, that "if you don't have a cabana, you don't have storage" (beyond gym lockers and paddleboard storage). Paddle tennis is big at the club: "Some of these guys take it very seriously," says San Francisco-based producer Todd Traina (Tallulah), brought as a guest by industry pals upon moving to L.A. in 1991. "I spent summers in Newport, R.I., where I'd go to a beach club, so the Bel-Air Bay felt like home. The beach is big and beautiful. It was a good transition to L.A."

  • C. The Beach Club

    201 Palisades Beach Road, Santa Monica; (310) 395-3254

    Stephanie Godfrey Photography

    (Pictured: “They have notoriously difficult processes to become a member,” says a local of The Beach Club. But one member believes those processes are worth it: “If you’ve got a family, it can change your life for the better.”)

    FOUNDED 1923

    WHO GOES Chris O'Donnell, AXS TV president Charles Hirschhorn, producer-writer John Woldenberg

    The smallest of the Santa Monica-area private clubs (membership at the two-acre property is capped at about 650 families), the Cape Cod-style Beach Club has the steepest barriers to entry, according to insiders. What began as a men's swimming club is "famously WASP-y" and tends to draw "East Coast traditionalists and finance types," says a local observer, adding, "Big celebs try to join and are often 'not invited' " (longtime member O'Donnell excepted). Equity buy-ins range from about $75,000 to $85,000 with monthly fees of about $500, plus food and beverage costs. The club lacks a pool, but those with ocean interests, from swimming to boogie boarding to stand-up paddleboarding, are welcome; beach volleyball legends Sinjin Smith and Karch Kiraly (a three-time Olympic gold medalist) have trained on the club's courts. There also is a passionate paddle tennis scene, and the club claims one of L.A.'s few padel courts. Recent upgrades include a double bocce ball court and a Sky Bar featuring an adults-only deck that serves notoriously strong mai tais. The kids' summer camp is a major plus, as is beach-equipment storage. The dedicated staff is another asset, says a longtime member: "Cesar, who has worked there for 40-something years, mans the grill. He's an institution." Adds Woldenberg, "The Beach Club has the best fish tacos in L.A., period."

  • D. Jonathan Beach Club

    850 Palisades Beach Road, Santa Monica; (310) 393-9245. Also: 545 S. Figueroa St., DTLA; (213) 624-0881

    Rachel Murray/Getty Images

    (Pictured: Revelers at a Jonathan Beach Club event.)

    FOUNDED 1927 (DTLA: 1894)

    WHO GOES UTA's Theresa Peters, Chris Hart and Matt Rice; Management 360's Guymon Casady; producer Marty Bowen; CAA's Scott Greenberg and Craig Gering

    At 3,600 strong, Jonathan Club has the largest membership, and all of its beach club members ("lots of attorneys and doctors," says one observer) also belong to its downtown club, with an initiation fee of about $45,000 plus monthly fees of about $500. The three-acre beach outpost is more button-down than the town club, though some old-school rules persist, including the following no-nos in the dining area: "clothing that exposes undergarments and bare midriffs, is excessively revealing or which might be considered offensive." Amenities include an indoor pool, a full-blown spa, assigned lockers, five paddle tennis courts and an athletic facility, which some industry members use as a daily gym. "Paddle tennis is tennis for nonathletes," jokes one regular player, who says former WMA boss Jim Wiatt practices the sport there daily. An outdoor kids' pool and child-friendly programs are a major reason to join, say members. "I love when I show up in the morning to play paddle tennis and see tents on the beach set up for father-son sleepovers," says an industry dad. "It's a family club — I don't go to shake hands." Bowen is a fan of the Sunday brunch buffet, which has "a deeper bench than Soho House's Sunday Feast," with bacon waffles a favorite. The downtown annex originally drew blue-blooded members from Pasadena and San Marino (the club blocked women and minorities from joining until the late 1980s), and the beach venue is populated by Westsiders. Says one observer, "Jonathan Club got a lot of flack for exclusionary admittance policies in the past, but it has done a good job of bringing in people of color" and now counts 600 women among its primary members. These days the club makes best efforts to be eco- and community-friendly, sourcing greens from its DTLA venue's rooftop garden and supporting local environmental organizations like Heal the Bay.

  • Annenberg Community Beach House

    415 Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica; (310) 458-4904

    Kristina Sado

    FOUNDED 2009

    WHO GOES Gwen Stefani, Sundance Film Festival director of programming Trevor Groth, producer Danielle Renfrew

    Open to the public, the Annenberg sits between the private Beach Club to the north and the Jonathan Club to the south on the site of actress Marion Davies’ former 1920s beachside mansion. The five-acre estate (developed with help from Davies’ longtime lover William Randolph Hearst and his Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan) was an old Hollywood party pad during Santa Monica's Gold Coast heyday, with visitors from Greta Garbo and Clark Gable to Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer. Today, Davies’ original pool with its black and white marble tiles and the guest house remains, reworked into a Gold LEED-certified modern iteration, funded by a $27.5 million Annenberg Foundation grant. It’s popular with hip, low-key industry parents. Says one mom, it’s “a chic and accessible” alternative to L.A.’s private beach clubs, with clean bathrooms to hose down your kids. Says Sundance’s Trevor Groth: “The best thing about it is the combination of pool, easy beach access, parking, cafe and kids' play area and splash pad.” The adjacent Back On The Beach Cafe serves salads, burgers, wine and beer to dine-in, or food and alcohol-free beverages for take-out. The cafe’s owner Fred Deni remembers Brian Grazer would take meetings in the cafe when he was starting out in the biz. Paddleboards and large beach canopies can be rented. The facility’s manager Nan Friedman says the most popular days are $1 Splash Mondays when pool entry costs a buck, and adult-only Sunset Swims from 7-10 p.m. (upcoming dates: Aug. 12 and Sept. 9).