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America’s Mermaid

Posted on May 24, 2011

James Darren, Sandra Dee and Cliff Robertson pose as Moondoggie, Gidget and The Big Kahuna in the 1959 film.

By Deanne Stillman

(Page 2)

“I’m writing it down,” the book began, “because I once heard that when you’re getting older you’re liable to forget things and I’d sure be the most miserable woman in this world if I ever forgot what happened this summer.” In the impassioned voice of a girl in love with love, invoking a surf lexicon still used on the beach today, Kohner wrote of the summer that Gidget turned 16 and learned to surf. This often-told event has lured countless wanderers to the shores of Southern California, even as it continues to anger surfers who blame Gidget for telling the world about what they once regarded as a private wave.

I waited until “The New Gidget” was canceled a few months later to make contact with its progenitor. During the course of conversations over several years, Gidget revealed bits and pieces of her surfer past. Yes, she was Jewish, but so what? No, she didn’t surf anymore; why would she want to? Yes, she was married and had two sons. They surfed, but not very often. She said she liked the Gidget movies. She thought the television series—all three of them—were fine. She was proud of the success that her father had had with the novel based on her life. And then she interviewed me. “Why are you asking all these questions? What does everybody want from me? I don’t understand this Gidget thing, do you? I’m just a girl who went surfing.” And there the conversation always stopped.

Then one day she called me at home. “Can you come over right now?” she asked, sounding girlish and impatient. “I’m turning 60 soon. I’m ready to talk about Malibu.”

“Malibu” was shorthand for life at Malibu Point from 1956 to 1959. In this hallowed surf warp, legendary figures such as Mickey “Da Cat” Dora danced on the waves and into the mists. Mysto George, the Fencer, Moondoggie, Golden Boy, Scooter and what could later be called the Beef Council (Meatball, Meat Loaf and Tubesteak) adopted a precocious teenager and named her, as they did the others, for her most notable characteristics. Because she was a girl—one of the few who surfed at the time—and, at 5 feet tall and 95 pounds, a midget, unto us the sea nymph Gidget was born.


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I visited Gidget in her modest ranch home in a quiet Pacific Palisades glen minutes from the beach. She and her husband, Marvin Zuckerman, a scholar of Yiddish and then dean of a local college who is 10 years her senior, have lived in the house since they were married in 1964. When they met, Zuckerman had not heard of “Gidget” the movie, and knew nothing of beach life. “I grew up in New York,” he said. “I’m an academic. I only went to foreign films.” In all those years of marriage he had not surfed, but Gidget taught him to ski, and for many years they visited Sun Valley, Idaho, on family ski vacations. Their two sons are now grown, and one of them, sociologist Phil Zuckerman, jokingly referred to himself as “ben-Gidget” when I met him, invoking the Hebrew prefix meaning “son of.” Recently, he founded the department of secular studies at Pitzer College, the first program of its kind in the nation.

On the day I visited Gidget at home, she was wearing a jumper and a T-shirt, still slender and curvy years after her teenage era on the beach at Malibu. The home’s interior at first suggested Old World pursuits—there were lots of books and a piano (childhood piano lessons had led to a lifelong hobby). But in the hallway, I saw a large black-and-white photo of a striking teenage girl on the beach with her surfboard, wearing the innocent smile and modest swimsuit of the 1950s. “This is me,” Gidget said proudly. She looked as happy as she did that day on the beach, a far different Gidget than the woman to whom I had been introduced on the Columbia lot. “That’s the picture Life magazine used.”

I recognized the photo, although I could not remember exactly where and when I had seen it before. It was one of those images that summed up a world so perfectly there was nothing left to say. The Gidget in the photo is the Gidget that launched a thousand boards, and the one who then guided me into her once-and-future past. We headed out to the patio, and she talked about how it all started.

“We were living in Brentwood,” she said, referring to an upscale neighborhood on the west side of Los Angeles. “My mother used to drive some of the neighborhood guys down to the beach. They would put their boards in her Model-T. I tagged along. I wanted to surf—it looked like so much fun. I pestered everybody for lessons. I remember asking a surfer named Scooter if I was bothering him. He said, ‘You’re breathing, aren’t you?’ There was this guy named Tubesteak living in a shack. A few other surfers were always hanging around. They were always hungry. I think some of them lived there, too.”

Just as the Stations of the Cross are key points along the way to a defining religious moment, the shack Gidget referred to—although long gone—is a sacred site, along with its revered twin, The Pit. Its very mention among surfers, especially those who surfed Malibu in the ’50s, conjures a mythology that forever binds the wave-riding tribe. On her pilgrimages to the beach, Gidget would bring a picnic basket filled with homemade sandwiches and trade them for use of Tubesteak’s surfboard. Soon, she bought her own board for $35 from a well-known shaper named Mike Doyle. “I wish I still had it,” she said. “It was blue and had a totem pole on it. Today it would be worth a small fortune.” Actually the board might well be one of the most valuable relics of the 20th century, if you consider what’s happened since Gidget learned to surf. (As Craig told me, “If you add up the raw commerce, based on the Gidget movies and television shows alone, not to mention the rest of the surf industry, which, for the most part, erupted in the 1960s, you’ve got a multibillion-dollar empire built almost entirely on Gidget’s back.”)

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By francesca, May 25, 2011 at 5:11 pm Link to this comment
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By James M. Martin, May 25, 2011 at 2:55 pm Link to this comment

Just goes to show you, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

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By jo6pac, May 25, 2011 at 12:07 pm Link to this comment
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Thanks, as someone who surfed in Northern Calif. in the 60s but we all knew how it played out in the South. It was pretty brave and the right thing to do by Surf Mag.

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By BR549, May 25, 2011 at 9:26 am Link to this comment

Re:  Lafayette, May 25 at 2:03 am
Loved the whole article and your response as well. Unfortunately, as you say, the wars killed all that, but then, WWII killed it for so many Europeans. It’s that gluttony for wealth and power that has had the likes of the Fords, the Rockefellers, and the Bush Family stomping over any of the paltry ants that get in their way of world dominance. During the time of Gidget, we were in our own little fantasyland, hoping to escape those wars and those megamaniacal sociopaths, if even for only a few years.

Here is the link to a current day shot of the real Gidget, Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman: still hot at 64.

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By Lafayette, May 25, 2011 at 2:03 am Link to this comment


When does myth become fiction and fiction become reality? When stories such as this one enter into the symbolism of a revered time past. What symbolism?

My take on it: A time in the 1950s and ‘60s when life was good (America was surfing on an economic tsunami) and freedom could easily be expressed in anything that allowed us to transgress social constraints. The ‘burbs were full of such constraints - it was the age of Keeping up with the Joneses in a Middle-class American existence that was pretty damn good.

Was it the pursuit of happiness? Happiness is an emotion and not necessarily a condition of existence. But one could be happy on a surf-board. One could be happy on a Easy-Rider bike. And one could die happy; like James Dean, running a sports-car flat out, the wind in your hair.

That freedom was physical, tangible and unleashed us from the constraints of a Middle-Class Existence with all its rules and, particularly in America, its Sexual Taboos.

But what about Real Freedom? The kind that can be shared by everyone, the one we could identify with because it applied to all of us and our condition. Well, for that we had to wait for the Martin-Luther-Kind-Moment to arrive a bit later.

Freedom first of the blacks and now for women - at least on paper (legislation), where most such liberties start. We Americans go from freedom to freedom, usually showing the world how it should be done. Uncle Sam had become a Role Model.


The first stupid war of Post-WW2 was Korea. Gidget postdated that war by just five years and predated the Vietnam War of the 1960s. The wars changed us.

The naive belief that the Good Times could go on forever feeding our need for symbolic freedom started coming apart. And finally came Ronnie to end it all in 1980. By the time he left as that decade finished, he had reset the clocks.

The Age of Personal Enrichment had arrived and a dogmatic belief that freedom was not expressed in the surf or hotrod ride or any physical emotion.

It was all about money. And it still is that way, only the dates have changed.

When will we be finally free from the God of Mammon?

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By gerard, May 24, 2011 at 5:15 pm Link to this comment

I loved that “uncorking her bottled message for a new wave etc… “!  That really did it for me. Nothing like a mixed metaphor to make your day!

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By TDoff, May 24, 2011 at 4:52 pm Link to this comment

Does anyone know, did the make-up/wardrobe person who kept the crotch of Gidget’s then-daring two-piece bathing suit dry while she chased/lusted after all those surfer-hunks ever win an Oscar?

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