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Deanne Stillman

America’s Mermaid

Deanne Stillman
Contributor
Deanne Stillman’s latest book is the "Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History," based on her Rolling Stone article, "The Great Mojave…
Deanne Stillman

Letter From the West is a monthly series by Deanne Stillman that explores what is going on in our wide open spaces and what we do to one another and all that lives there.

The ladies’ room at the Tres Hombres Restaurant in Hawaii is named Gidget. A cook on the Internet calls herself Gidget, and so does a stripper on cable television. Malibu Chicken features a sandwich called Gidget, and Barney’s used to sell a line of Gidget lipstick. The Taco Bell Chihuahua was named Gidget, and the Suburban Lawns invoked Gidget in their song “Gidget Goes to Hell.”

There is a person who has a certain visceral reaction whenever she comes across another person or product carrying this name, whenever she hears or reads about its use. Sometimes she finds it funny and laughs out loud. Sometimes it breaks her heart but she doesn’t show it. Sometimes she’d like to file a lawsuit, but decides not to, because who wants to deal with lawyers? And sometimes she just gets tired, and doesn’t talk to anyone for a while. The person is Gidget — not any of the seven actresses who have played the perky beach bunny who occasionally surfed but more often ran after boys, but the real Gidget, from whose life all things Gidget have sprung.

I met her in 1986 when I was writing for a television series, “The New Gidget,” joining the legions who had warmed themselves at the Gidget fire through four presidential administrations. Although taking the job was a violation of my lifelong rule never to associate with anything that has the phrase “the new” in its title, I found myself with little choice. I was broke, jilted and living on macaroni and cheese.

As I soon found out, writing for this television series came with a full set of luggage and even a storage locker or two. “The New Gidget” was the product of a lineage with more “begats” than the Old Testament, sequel to a movie (“Gidget Goes to Rome”) that was a sequel to two or three others, all the way back to the first “Gidget,” a wacky movie starring Sandra Dee and her Cadillac-fin bazooms. This was itself an adaptation of the novel “Gidget: The Little Girl With the Big Ideas.” Written by her father, it was based on the real Gidget’s contemporaneous accounts of adventures on the beach in Malibu during the 1950s.

One day, one of the show’s producers entered the writers’ office, followed by a diminutive and stunning brunette in her mid-40s, wearing clam-diggers and what women everywhere would refer to as a cute top. “This is Gidget,” he said. “She really surfed.” I forced a little wave. As a member of the machinery that churned beach life into an endless round of Frankie-Annette-cowabunga-hey-dude bad surf jokes, I was already mortified. Now came the news that I would be repackaging a real person’s life, a life that already had been repackaged countless times. I was not looking forward to meeting the subject of what writer Craig Stecyk calls “the most successful and longest-running episode of teenage exploitation since Joan of Arc.”

Gidget seemed uncomfortable, too. I wondered how she felt about this entire goofy enterprise. What could it have possibly been like to meet the people who made a living by spinning stories for a Hollywood character to whom she had permanently lent her name? She mustered a clipped greeting.

“Off the beach she’s known as Kathy Kohner Zuckerman,” the producer continued. “No, call me Gidget,” she said quickly, emphasizing the name, and promptly left the room. Someone attempted small talk. The producer apologized and backed out the door. “Maybe some other time,” he said.

Suddenly my job had taken on new dimensions, had even become interesting. Was Gidget of the Hebraic persuasion? I wondered, pondering both her maiden and married names. I soon learned that America’s most famous surfer girl was indeed Jewish. Not only that, but the queen of the California beach — long regarded by outsiders as the domain of beautiful blond boys and girls — had a family history that was shaped by a lunatic’s dream of Aryan perfection and then nurtured by the hallowed American right to pursue happiness.

I decided it was time to read the obscure novella written by Gidget’s father, Frederick Kohner. Strangely, there was not a single copy of it on the Columbia lot, the very studio that was in the never-ending process of building the Gidget pyramid. I spent weeks searching for the book. It seemed that the little-known surf saga was long out of print, a gold mine that had been stripped and boarded up a million years ago. The Los Angeles County Public Library did not have it. The Beverly Hills Public Library did not have it. Used bookstores in town did not have it, although they did stock other, lesser-known works by Frederick Kohner, such as “Kiki of Montparnasse” and “Cher Papa” (both tales of precocious teenage girls, and the latter a “Gidget” sequel). As the search became more arduous, my anticipation increased. Finally, I uncovered the long-lost message in a bottle — a tiny novel with yellowing pages that hadn’t been checked out in six years. It was hidden behind some other books by authors whose last names begin with K on the shelves of the Santa Monica library, just five blocks from the beach. I grabbed it from the receding surf of time. On its cover, a sea waif caught my gaze, inviting me to join her and two lanky surfers under the palm trees in the background. “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.

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.”)Yet apart from Gidget-related revenues (which are not particularly vast, since deals made in the 1950s are minuscule in today’s terms), it is not an empire in which Gidget or her family has a financial stake. Over the decades, it has floated hundreds of boats, boards and kayaks, providing robust incomes for an axis of surfers based primarily in Southern California. Some of them scoff at the Gidget phenomenon even as they ride its endless wave; others have no knowledge of the role Gidget and her father played in bringing surf culture to landlubbers.

It’s easy to see how Frederick Kohner became fascinated with the stories his daughter told him about the beach. He and his two brothers grew up in the Czechoslovakian spa town of Teplitz-Schorau (whose tainted waters Ibsen wrote about in his famous play “An Enemy of the People”). Their father Julius was the proprietor of the local movie house. In 1921, Paul, the eldest son, joined the early wave of Jewish émigrés and left for Hollywood. Within a few years he was a powerful agent with a list of clients that included Ernest Hemingway, Ingmar Bergman, Walter Huston and the reclusive writer B. Traven. Walter, the youngest, left for Vienna to study acting. Frederick, the middle son, embarked on a career as a screenwriter in Germany. He left in 1933, after attending the Berlin opening of one of his movies only to discover that Goebbels had ordered all Jewish credits removed from the film. Arriving in Los Angeles with a writing deal at Columbia Pictures, he settled at the beach with his wife, Franzie, and raised two daughters. A prolific screenwriter, he racked up credits that include “Never Wave at a WAC” with Rosalind Russell and “Mad About Music” with Deanna Durbin, which received a 1938 Academy Award nomination for best screenplay.

The sun cast its spell on the children of the Eastern European émigrés in Hollywood, many of whom came of age during the Fabulous Fifties. In 1956, Gidget began spending all of her free time at the beach — after school, after work, on weekends or when her family was visiting friends in the Malibu Colony. “My father and I would walk down [to the beach],” she said. “I would tell him about all of the surfers. I told him I wanted to write a book. He said, ‘Why don’t you tell me your stories and I’ll write it?’ I said OK.”

Gidget became her father’s muse, recounting tales of “bitchin’ surf,” giant “combers” that rolled in from Japan and escapes from a “boneyard” when surfers were caught between breaking waves. Frederick, fascinated, paid careful attention to his daughter’s first language (his was German). With her permission, he even listened in on her telephone conversations. A man possessed, he wrote the first novel in six weeks, weaving Gidget’s account and conversation into a charming story, published in 1957. It reflected the preoccupations of the era, from the bomb to Fats Domino. Yet one theme resounds above all others — Gidget’s passion for wave-riding.

“The great Kahoona,” the Gidget character says in the novella, “showed me the first time how to get on my knees, to push the shoulders up and slide the body back — to spring to your feet quickly, putting them a foot apart and under you in one motion. That’s quite tricky. But then, surf-riding is not playing Monopoly, and the more I got the knack of it, the more I was crazy about it and the more I was crazy about it, the harder I worked at it.” This is one of the best descriptions of surfing I have come across and I only wish I had read it as a kid when I was riding collapsed cartons of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer on the filthy waves of Lake Erie.

At the end of this sweet summer’s tale, as a jealous Moondoggie confronts the Kahoona over what appears to be a scene of consummated passion, Gidget takes off on her board. It’s a classic day with bitchin’ surf; in fact, some big waves are rolling in. In an epic moment that has been lost in the countless “Gidget” remakes and retellings, in a moment that makes this a long-lost “Catcher in the Rye” for girls, Gidget ignores the warnings of her men and continues paddling out to sea. Defying social convention by not heading back to the sanctuary of land and middle-class life, uninterested in whether she can hook up with a beach bum or a fraternity boy, she just wants to surf, confident that she can ride with the best of ’em. “Shoot the curl,” the boys call, once she’s up and cruising. “Shoot it, Gidget.” And shoot it she does.

Then, long before the feminist wave of the following decades, comes the radical conclusion, one not conveyed in any of the ensuing “Gidget” manifestations. Gidget realizes that she was never in love with the Kahoona or Moondoggie — so much for boys and their predictable offerings. The objects of her affection all along were her surfboard and the sea.

His little surf saga completed, Frederick showed it to his brother Paul, who hated it and told him to find a new agent. Frederick went to the William Morris agency, a publishing deal was instantly hatched and the movie rights were purchased by Columbia for $50,000. Frederick gave Gidget 5 percent (an act that would be described nowadays as “buying the rights” to a subject’s story).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:

“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.Some time later, I accompanied Gidget on a return to Malibu. It was a perfect day, not too crowded. “Good waves,” Gidget said. Then, as we walked past The Pit and toward the now-vacant site of the shack, she said, “Jeez, did you see that?” She took off her sandals. The site obviously emanated powerful tribal crosscurrents not detectable by outsiders. “Oh, my God,” Gidget shrieked. “There’s Mysto.” Mysto George had been surfing Malibu since 1954, never missing a good day, long after many of Gidget’s contemporaries had drifted away, long after younger surfers had quit the scene, because the waters now carry raw sewage. In full wetsuit and neoprene cap, with the blazing, sea-blue eyes certain surfers have, George was carrying his dinged-up longboard, ready to paddle back out. “Looks bitchin,’ ” Gidget said. “Yeah,” he said. “You wanna surf?” Gidget said she had been thinking about getting back to it. Later that day, she took her board to the shop for repairs.

A few days after that, a special commemorative issue of Surfer magazine hit the stands. Gidget was No. 7 in a list of the 25 most important surfers of the 20th century, a bold move on the part of the premier journal of surf culture, which generally retains a seafaring, “ye har mateys” cosmology that ranks women with the weather — strange forces to be reckoned with, but not so primary as to be included on the important census lists that are surfing’s equivalent of who gets tapped for the Rapture. Gidget was one of only two women in the list. She ranked not far below Duke Kahanamoku, the universally adored Hawaiian father of modern surfing, and higher than Mickey Dora, revered king of surf style. Gidget’s placement near these gods stunned some members of the surf establishment, but the deed had been done: The unassuming surfer girl was finally getting her due from those whose livelihoods she had fueled. As the century turned, and major figures and groups began apologizing to each other for decades of mistreatment and abuse, maybe in preparation for an apocalypse or maybe just because it was time, it was nice to know that Gidget had finally made the cut.

POSTSCRIPT: Some time after I had met Gidget and learned her story and about the existence of her father’s novella, I suggested that it should be reissued. She agreed. We took it to Kathleen Anderson, my agent at the time, who sold the book to Penguin. The new edition has a foreword by Gidget and a preface by me, which includes an abbreviated account of our meeting.

Since its publication in 2001, Gidget has reclaimed her story, crisscrossing the country, speaking at surfing events and in bookstores, paddling out, riding waves, uncorking her bottled message for a new wave of girl surfers.

Deanne Stillman’s latest book is the widely acclaimed “Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West.” She is currently writing “Mojave Manhunt” for Nation Books, based on her Rolling Stone piece of the same name. Follow Deanne Stillman on Facebook.

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