Buy the San Clemente Estate Where Richard Nixon Orchestrated War and Spied on Surfer Magazine’s Founding Father.

by Chris Dixon

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In 1969, Richard M. Nixon ruined the party for Surfer magazine founder John Severson by setting up his “Western White House” right next door. Time Magazine. August 15, 1969.

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Richard Nixon and his Wife Pat. Casa Pacifica, aka The Western White House, San Clemente, CA. Photo: Wikipedia.

The story goes something like this. Back in the mid-late 1960’s, John Severson was the big wave charging, artist, photographer and publisher of Surfer magazine. To hear his future publisher Steve Pezman tell it, Severson was straight laced, country club dabbling and highly sophisticated. You might have even termed him “conservative.” That is, until the cosmic and herbal influences of his old pal and emerging psychedelic icon Rick Griffin, and his newly hired editor Drew Kampion, became impossible to ignore.

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Surfer’s Tales from the Tube. Art by Rick Griffin. 

By 1969, Severson thoroughly embraced the counterculture – and his magazine became, in the words of Pezman, “the most creative, freeform expression of youthful values and culture in the United States.”

Surfer. March, 1969. One of John Severson’s most iconic covers.

Pezman’s statement is a bold one, especially when you consider that this was also the dawn of other iconic magazines like Creem and Rolling Stone whose logo and occasional cover art was actually designed by Rick Griffin. But what Pezman said was true.

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Rolling Stone. September 14, 1968. Cover and logo by Rick Griffin. 

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Creem Issue #2. 1969. Cover by Rick Griffin’s friend Robert Crumb. 

By 1969, all manner of cosmically tuned surf miscreants were making their way to Severson’s home in Cypress Shores, a beautiful gated neighborhood of Spanish style homes at the southern edge of San Clemente. Severson lived right next door to the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base and the famed, and militarily off-limits cobblestone pointbreak waves of Trestles. His guests rode the perfect, powerful lefthand waves of Cotton’s Point right out front, launched covert missions down to Trestles, smoked weed, worked out magazine spreads and created Severson’s Magnum Opus film, Pacific Vibrations.

Severson discusses his film Pacific Vibrations. Thanks to Matt Warshaw, John Phillips and The Encyclopedia of Surfing. 

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All was well until the day that the very embodiment of the establishment and, really, everything that was wrong with the United States, decided to move in to the massive estate next door. “Casa Pacifica” had originally been built in the 1920’s by oilman and real estate barron Hamilton Cotton, namesake of Cotton’s point. Richard Milhous Nixon purchased this 26-acre property for $1.4 million ($9 million in 2015 dollars) with “some business partners” not long after being sworn-in.

Severson and his friends were horrified.

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The Western White House. Severson’s House was out of the frame to the left. 

“Let’s just say that we were not friends of the Nixon administration,” Surfer’s then editor Drew Kampion told me last year during an interview for an editorial project. “I did some kind of anti-Nixon, anti-Vietnam war edit in Surfer vintage 1969. And then I’m naively challenging the military police over surfing Trestles.”

Trestles gets its name from the train tracks that run across San Mateo Creek, south of Casa Pacifica. The land was lived on for eons by Indians before becoming part of the Santa Margarita Ranch in the 1930’s. Though it paid a nominal fee to the families that owned them, the U.S. Military essentially confiscated all the ranches between San Clemente and Oceanside during world War II. Trestles thus became part of the Camp Pendleton Marine base.

“I was down there surfing one time and we got raided by the Marines,” Kampion continues. “Well, pick up your board and start running. We’re arrested simultaneously by the CHP and MP’s. They say, ‘you’re coming with us. We say, ‘you have no jurisdiction here.’ So we get arrested. One guy takes us to Camp Pendleton to go to the gatehouse to wait for a Marine driver to take us to a police department in Oceanside – all the way at the end of Camp Pendleton. He shows up in a military pickup truck and the first thing he does is fire up a joint. I’m the editor of Surfer magazine with my lowly friends, smoking a joint with a Marine driver. It was all just so hiliariously absurd.”

Around this time, Rick Griffin, another long-haired hippie came down to paint the famed psychedelic surf bus Motor Skill and do the poster art for the film Pacific Vibrations. One can imagine the revulsion of Nixon and his military industrial complex friends when Griffin and Severson pulled into Cypress Shores.

Here’s one of my favorite sections from Pacific Vibrations. I used my friends Ashish and Pranesh Kahn, Ravi Shankar’s nephews, to help me interpret musically, Rick Griffin’s dialog… you can read it right? We played live to the footage in the studio. – Randy Nauert of the band The Challengers

Steve Pezman and John Severson describe what happened next: “Vietnam – it was just such a presence at that time,” said Severson. “They were having protests right outside when I’d be driving home to Cypress Shores. I remember right around the first day Nixon came in, in walks my friend Bob Cooper through the gate. He had a beard and was just a typical hippie looking guy. Then Rick Griffin was down on his luck and we moved him in with us. For awhile, I just went on living my life, but if I was really thinking about it, I would have run like hell. Eventually my mother-in-law starts dating a secret service guy.”

“So then John took some pictures of Nixon and sold ’em to Look magazine,” said Pezman. “And that pissed Nixon off. And John heard that it pissed him off from the secret service guy. He tells her (the mother-in law) that they know everything that’s going on in that house. Everything he does, everything he says and he’d better be careful. Imagine, John could throw a baseball and hit the property next door. Nixon knows what he had for dinner, how it came out and what he said to his wife in bed. All the sudden, John just becomes desperate to leave. He sells the magazine, moves to Maui and in a month sticks me in as publisher of Surfer. When he was leaving, he recommended that I buy his house. I said I could afford the down payment, but not the price. Eventually Nixon’s friend Bebe Rebozo bought it.”

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Dick and Pat Nixon show Casa Pacifica to Ronald and Nancy Reagan. 

Nixon would renovate the Spanish colonial spread greatly during the next 10 or 11 years, including the pool–a historic relic otherwise known as the place “where Nixon proposed to Kissinger (asked him to be his Secretary of State),” writes Curbed LA. Nixon hosted Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev, Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato and South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu and entertainers and athletes from Frank Sinatra to Bob Hope to Arnold Palmer. He was truly the King of the Squares.

Nixon and company sold the estate in 1980, to Allergan CEO Gavin Herbert. Eventually 14 additional houses were built on the Casa Pacifica estate and it was broken up. Now what’s left is 5.5 acres with 450 feet of forever tarnished ocean-frontage–a fraction of the original property. But Mr. Herbert stands to make a tidy profit – he’s asking $75 million for the place.

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Brrr…Tricky Dick’s old San Clemente haunt, surely haunted with ghosts of the past. (Photo Rob Geim)

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The Pool where Nixon “married” Kissinger. (Photo Rob Geim)

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These heavenly swells were once graced by the devil himself. (Photo Rob Geim)

Should you be a millionaire surfer investor who would dare consider an offer on this former diabolic lair, keep in mind that every time you paddle out at your new backyard surf break, you’ll have to be reminded that it was once overrun by Nixon’s secret service goon squad and a president who was so petty that he once spied on the editor of a surf magazine. Still, the sunsets are awfully pretty, and before we fully condemn the Nixons, let us remember that it was the President’s wife Pat who lobbied to release Trestles to the public – creating San Mateo State park – in 1972.

“I watched with great interest as Nixon’s train eventually went off the tracks,” Severson said. “He deserved it all.”

Order John Severson’s Book Surf.

 Read More at NPR.

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