March 28, 2015
Posted on May 24, 2011
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:
Square, Site wide
Call or Drop by any times
Blackout Harry the Horse The Sloth
937 No. Beverly Glen
“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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