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America’s Mermaid

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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 4)

The book hit the racks a few months before Vladimir Nabokov’s notorious novel “Lolita”—another tale of a teenage nymph written by a European émigré—and favorable comparisons were made. Critics hailed Kohner’s work for its authentic evocation of a curious subculture, and some marveled at how a foreign writer became so fluent in American slang. Surfing exploded several years later; who better to spread the word than the father of the water sprite Gidget, a man fleeing the poisoned springs of central Europe, charmed by waves and those who found freedom by riding them?

Now, as Gidget beckoned me into her kitchen, she had a secret to reveal. Her scrapbooks and diaries—the holy grail of contemporary surf culture—were arranged on the breakfast table. For the first time, she was ready to show them to someone, including members of her immediate family, and had retrieved them from a secret hiding place before my arrival. I was surprised and a little nervous: What genie would leap out once the seal was broken?

Each of the five pastel leather covers was embossed with the image of a girl in a pony tail, pencil in hand, beneath the title, “Dear Diary.” For the first time in 40 years, Gidget opened the tiny gold locks. She put on her glasses and pored over a few pages in silence, then smiled and started to read aloud. Out tumbled news of a sweeter time, the goofy, gee-whiz voice that had memorialized Malibu forever and propelled the culture on a never-ending ride.

“July 22, 1956,” Gidget read, “I went to the beach again today. ... I just love it down there. ... I went out surfing about three times but only caught one wave. We were all sitting in the dump, smoking and drinking. God forbid my parents could have seen me.” (“The dump” was a synonym for The Pit, and Gidget remarked that although she didn’t remember doing any drinking, she had lots of photographs of this site). She opened a scrapbook and thumbed through pages of black-and-white snapshots until something caught her eye. “Oh, my God,” she said. “Look at this.” Sure enough, there was The Pit, a not particularly sunken area of the beach where she used to sit and smoke with Mickey Dora, Tubesteak and another legendary surfer named Johnny Fain. This was a picture the collectors would never get to bid on, a permanent treasure in Gidget’s secret cache. “Listen to this,” she said, becoming more breathless as she reconnected with the memories conjured by her diary pages. “June 16, 1957. Boy was it a fabulous day today. Everyone was at the beach. I rode a wave today and everybody saw me.” She smiled and thumbed through another volume. “August 3, 1957. Boy the surf was so bitchin’ today I couldn’t believe it. ... I got some real good rides from inside.” At that point a calling card fell from the pages. It said:

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Square, Site wide
“The Glen.

Call or Drop by any times

Blackout Harry the Horse The Sloth

937 No. Beverly Glen

GR 9-6945”

“Oh, my God,” Gidget said, studying the card as it transported her back to the scene. “I went to a party at The Glen—it was this famous party where they all dropped their pants. Bill was there—Bill Jensen. Moondoggie.” A few undated entries from that year told of similar pranks: “Golden Boy buried my surfboard and disconnected the distributor of the car. I threw my pineapple into his face.”

But the scene also had a menacing side: At one point, a swastika appeared on the shack at Malibu, for a brief time part of the frat room assemblage of coffee percolators, a Manolete poster and surfboard-for-hire signs. The original shack was burned down and the new one was free of the symbol; to this day no one can or will say who painted it, or why. But the swastika-surfer connection dates back to the 1930s, when a line of surfboards featured the motif, and controversy still exists over whether the symbol was appropriated from Eastern religion or Nazi symbolism. 

By 1958, Malibu had changed. In her entry of June 30, 1958, Gidget wrote that she “went and saw them film my movie. ... God was it ever stupid to see Sandra Dee play my role. ... All the actors looked like complete faggits [sic] it’s really funny. I don’t believe that they are actually filming a movie [about me].” Suddenly weary, Gidget closed the diary and said, “Gee, that’s not very nice. I guess I’d forgotten what I thought about the whole thing.”

We called it a night, and as I drove home I thought about the marvels that had been laid before me, the raw stuff of the narrative of our collective history. This particular journey was now complete, I realized. I had come to write for the odd little television show “The New Gidget,” and as I did, I learned of an important cultural secret and came to know the person and the story behind one of the most misunderstood American endeavors—the truth behind a name that was once emblazoned on the cover of a movie magazine next to those of John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe.


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By francesca, May 25, 2011 at 5:11 pm Link to this comment
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hahahaha

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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
(Unregistered commenter)

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.
http://www.smh.com.au/news/united-states/the-queen-of-surf-city-usa/2005/10/14/1128796707098.html

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

FICTION AND REALITY

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.

THEN SOMETHING HAPPENED

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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