June 18, 2013
Posted on May 24, 2011
“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.
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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