By David McGee
As a teenager girl in the mid-1950s, Kathy Kohner wanted to be different. So she climbed on a surfboard in Malibu. She, and surfing, have never been the same: ‘I’ve learned to surf! Bye! Ciao for now! I’m a woman!
Not for nothing did filmmaker Brian Gillogly choose the title Accidental Icon for his documentary about the life of Kathy Kohner Zuckerman. After all it was not in Mr. and Mrs. Kohner’s plan that their daughter Kathy would, by her mid-teens, be the focal point of a cultural phenomenon, the inspiration first for a best selling novel (written by her father) and several sequels, and an inspirational pioneer at something she did to be different and, more important, to get more face time with a boy who had stolen her heart.
Meet the Real Gidget
In her early teens, Kathy Kohner wasn’t even living in America. Her father, novelist and screenwriter Frederick Kohner, had been hired by a German film company to write a screenplay, and the Kohner family relocated to Berlin while he completed the task at hand. She learned to speak German, she ate food she couldn’t find in her home town in west Los Angeles, she went skiing in the Austrian alps, she immersed herself in an entirely different culture than the one she had left in California. When the Kohners returned to the Golden State, Kathy wasn’t content merely to go to Malibu Beach with her parents on weekends, as was the family custom. It was the mid-‘50s, and rock ‘n’ roll was sweeping the nation. She was listening to Elvis, “Rock Around the Clock,” and the country blues duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. On those glorious, sun-filled, carefree Saturday family trips to the beach, young Kathy began noticing a couple of other things that piqued her interest: (1) good looking boys who were, invariably (2) riding the waves. Everybody had gone surfing, and she would too. After buying her first longboard for $35 from Mike Doyle, who would become one of the legendary surfers of Malibu’s golden era, Kathy Kohner did what no other girl her age was doing out there in the Pacific Ocean: surfing. All those incubating male legends–Miki Dora, Mickey Munoz, Lance Carson (the model for the character of the surfer Lance in Apocalypse Now), Nat Young, Bruce Weber, among other notables–didn’t show her the ropes, but they did pull some harmless pranks on her, and they did come up with the nickname–they all had nicknames, so why not her?–by which the world would soon know her, a portmanteau of “girl midget”–Kathy, you see, was a diminutive lass–that translated to “Gidget.”
One evening as the Kohners were returning to their west Los Angeles home after another fine day in Malibu’s surf and sand, Kathy told her father that she wanted to write a story about the colorful characters she was hanging out with at the beach (a homeless man living in a shack on the beach and taken in as something of a mascot by the teenagers flocking to the surf every weekend; buff, tanned high school boys with colorful nicknames such as Moondoggie [the apple of Kathy’s eye] and Tubesteak) and the self-contained culture of surfing, with its own lingo and aesthetic. To which Frederick Kohner responded: “You’re not a writer.” He suggested instead that his daughter relate her tales to him and he would turn them into a story. So she did (she also kept detailed diaries during her high school years, but she did not show these to dad) and in three weeks he wrote not a story but a novel, published in 1957 and originally titled Gidget: The Little Girl With Big Ideas. The simple tale of a teenage girl (her birth name in the book is Franzi, “from Franziska. It’s a German name. After my grandmother.”–so dad got a bit of his own culture in it too) and her surfing buddies caught on big with the emerging teen culture in the States and went into multiple printings, selling some three million copies from its 1957 publication date into the early ‘70s, with its title simplified to Gidget. Kohner, born in Bohemia, had no cultural references of his own to the emerging teen culture, but with the help of his daughter’s tales and his own imagination, he brought scope to the story by having his characters deal with issues of commitment and trust in addition to frolicking on the beach and riding the waves. Even before the novel was published, the real Gidget was making cultural rumblings of enough seismic force that Life magazine profiled her (“Gidget Makes the Grade”) in its October 1956 issue. Dad Kohner sold the movie rights for his novel to Columbia Pictures, and in 1959 the cultural landmark Gidget emerged, with Sandra Dee playing the title character and James Darren as Moondoggie. By the time the movie bearing her nickname came out, the real Gidget was a student at Oregon State University and proffering a most succinct appraisal of the film, to wit: “It’s the silliest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Now, a classic stream of American cinema did not obtain from the advent of Gidget. But the supremely silly and joyously innocent Beach Party franchise–where, if nothing else, civility ruled in a way it never will in today’s gross-out comedies–is a direct descendant of Gidget and a window into a particular aspect of teen culture that was on its way out even as the movies pulled into drive-ins across America.
Frederick Kohner, recognizing a franchise in the making when he saw his royalty checks, penned six more Gidget novels in the ‘60s (The Affairs of Gidget, Gidget in Love, Gidget Goes Parisienne, Gidget Goes to Rome, Gidget Goes Hawaiian, Gidget Goes To New York). (In 1995, author Fred Reiss, apparently having had all of Gidget he could stand, published Gidget Must Die: A Killer Surf Novel, in which the story’s protagonist, a surfing legend, returns to Malibu to take his revenge against everyone in the Gidget movie, blaming them all for trashing his favorite surf spot.) Two more movies–Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961, with Deborah Walley as Gidget) and Gidget Goes To Rome (1963, Cindy Carol as Gidget)–like the original directed by Paul Wendkos–were released. In 1965 a TV version of Gidget with Sally Field as Gidget came and went after only one season. Other Gidgets popped up as TV movies over the years: Gidget Grows Up, in 1969, starred Karen Valentine and was based on Kohner’s Gidget Goes To New York novel; Gidget Gets Married came along in 1972 (Gidget marries Moondoggie in this installment), starring yet another new Gidget, Monie Ellis; Gidget’s Summer Reunion, in 1985, with Caryn Richman as Gidget; and yet another TV series, syndicated from 1986 to 1988, The New Gidget, with Caryn Richman becoming the answer to a trivia question by being the only actress to portray Gidget twice on film.
What was the real Gidget doing all these years? Going to college, getting bounced from the Peace Corps (about which more later), marrying the man she is still hitched to today, raising kids, enjoying life. In the meantime, women all over the world flooded onto beaches not as eye candy but as surfers, and some were not only equal to but better than their male counterparts. Many in the first important generation of female surfers pointed to Kathy Kohner as having inspired them to paddle out to the lineup and mount a longboard for the first time, including Australian Layne Beachley, who retired from competitive surfing in 2009 a seven-time world champion. In 2001 a new edition of Gidget was published with a forward by the author’s daughter; she also wrote the forward to a heralded 2008 overview, Pop Surf Culture: Music, Design, Film and Fashion from the Bohemian Surf Boom . She is an in-demand speaker. She is the official Ambassador of Aloha at Duke’s Malibu; every Tuesday evening and at Sunday brunch, the real Gidget is on the scene to meet and greet customers. Now 70, she no longer surfs, but she did get back on a longboard as a 60-year-old and by all accounts acquitted herself well. Surfers the world over, male and female, acknowledge how her teenage chutzpah sent a message that surfing’s days as a bastion of masculinity were over–or more properly, that surfing history was evolving and women were about to reclaim their rightful place in its lore. Not least of all, her exploits are now properly acknowledged in the aforementioned Brian Gillogly documentary, Accidental Icon, which had its North American premier at the 2010 Newport Beach Film Festival and its Australian premier at the 2010 Noosa Festival of Surfing, the biggest surf event in the world. Among those attesting to Kathy Kohner Zuckerman’s influence: Sally Field, Cliff Robertson, Layne Beachley, women’s longboard champion Summer Romero, former U.S. champion Jericho Poppler Bartow, Malibu champion Carla Rowland, and surfing legends Mickey Munoz, Lance Carson and Mike Doyle. A DVD release is imminent.
In “Reframing the Image of Women Surfers” published online at www.coastnews.com, author Nina Wu notes:
…recorded images of Polynesian women surfers have been captured in etchings by famed author Mark Twain as early as 1819. Many Hawaiian chants also tell the stories of female surfers, illustrating that women on the islands were surfing right alongside men from the very moment surfing was born in Hawaii.
One of the most famous legends tells the story of a woman named Kelea, whose surfing attracted the attention of an Oahu chief in Maui, whom she eventually marries. Weighing more than 200 pounds, Ka’ahumanu, the favorite wife of King Kamehameha I, was also an expert waverider. Several miles down the coast from Waikiki, a break called Ke-kai-o-Mamala (Sea of Mamala) honors the Oahu chiefess, who was also a famous surfer.
Legends also tell of women surfing the waters in Tahiti, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). The first person to try surfing in Australia was in fact a woman. Isabel Letham was the first to ride tandem with Hawaiian legend Duke Kahanamoku.
In California, a long line of women surfers, beginning with Mary Ann Hawkins in the 1920s, leave a legacy in their wake. Other names include Marge Calhoun, Linda Benson and Anne Morrissey. Linda Benson was Pacific Coast women’s champion for three years in a row from 1959 to 1961. She performed the surfing action sequences for Gidget Goes Hawaiian. Margo Godfrey was the first female pro surfer to dominate the waves in the mid-70s. Later female surfing champions include Linda Merrill, Jericho Poppler and Rell Sunn.
Kathy Kohner was not a competitive surfer, she was not the first female surfer, she was not even the first female surfer in California. But she emerged in the mid-‘50s as a young lady undaunted by the sport’s physical challenges or the potential obloquy looming as a byproduct of her attempt to crash the boys’ club. As a symbol she carried herself in a laudable manner and the spirit of her daring has resonated through the decades as other women followed her lead and ultimately and forever changed the complexion of competitive and sport surfing alike. Quietly, unassumingly, Gidget ignited a revolution in surfing’s modern era. As Nina Wu neatly summarizes it:
Although most women agree that surfing still remains a male-dominated industry, clearly the waves now belong to both genders on an equal basis. Attitudes have changed. More men are taking their wives and girlfriends out into the ocean and teaching them to surf. And sometimes women are taking their boyfriends out and teaching them how to surf.
As part of this publication’s annual summer celebration, we caught up with Mrs. Zuckerman while she was vacationing in Vermont at a resort near Lake Champlain. Always accessible to the press, she’s heard every question and every variation on every question about her storied life, but we tried to find some new avenues to explore in her well-documented biography. The Peace Corps tale is a rather priceless example of one of her least-told tales.
Official trailer for Brian Gillogly’s Accidental Icon, a documentary about the life and legacy of the original Gidget, Kathy Kohner Zuckerman.
The Interview: ‘I told my dad a lot. He listened.’
I’ve seen a couple of different accounts about your father’s inspiration for the first Gidget novel, both of course center on your diaries—
I kept a diary and I have those diaries. Whether my father read those diaries, I can’t say. I couldn’t drive when I started hanging out with the surfers. So my folks would drive me to Malibu. I would get out where the surfers were, and my parents would go up further on the beach and visit their friends that lived in the Malibu colony—the Littlejohns, William Littlejohn died not too long ago and he was an animator for Charlie Brown. He did so much of Charlie Brown. I vividly remember driving home on Pacific Coast Highway, turning to my dad, who was driving, and saying, “I’m going to write a story about what’s going on at Malibu.” And my dad said, “You’re not a writer.” “Well, I keep a diary!” “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”
And I did. I started telling him, well, there’s this guy who lives in a shack down there, there’s Tubesteak and Harry Stonelake and everybody has nicknames and they call me “Gidget,” for “girl midget.” I was 15, but I was the daughter of a writer. So what I saw at Malibu was pretty off dead-center 50-odd years ago. I didn’t even know the word homeless but obviously the guy living in the shack on the beach all summer was homeless.
I shared a lot with my dad. If he were reading in my diaries he would have done it when I wasn’t at home. So there’s no way of knowing—I don’t believe I ever knowingly opened up my diary pages and read to him, “Today Bill and I went out and we parked, and he put his arm around me and I looked him in the eye…” I don’t think so. Whether he looked at the diary pages while I was gone, we’ll never know. I will read passages of the diary and think, Oh, my God, my dad got it so right. It is a work of fiction so it’s loosely based on my time at Malibu. And I did have this major crush on a fellow named Bill Jensen, who becomes the Moondoggie character in the novel.
How long did you talk to him about the scene down there? How much research did he actually get from you directly?
Well, I told my dad a lot. He listened. I obviously must have shared with him about the size of my anatomy because I do remember putting some Kleenex in my bathing suit top to make myself look a little bit more feminine. I read the diary pages not too long ago to somebody that was interested in seeing them—which always and forever there’s someone interested in the diary pages. And the diary pages revealed to this gentleman, who is in the movie business and did something called Sabrina the Witch, he said, “This is a love story. Surfing just happened. This is a love story. You were crazy about this guy. So what I’m reading here is that you were just crazy about him.” Well, I was. It just happened that the venue was Malibu, and we were surfing, and the way to get his attention was to keep going out. “Did you see me surf? Did you see me surf?” But definitely I had a huge teenage crush on this fellow, and I met him at Malibu.
Where was your family actually living out there?
We lived in Brentwood, west Los Angeles.
What drew you to the scene at Malibu? And were there any other girls surfing when you entered that world?
I was drawn to the scene by default. My mother would say, “You’re not going to a movie on a Saturday afternoon. You’re coming to the beach with us. We’re going to Malibu. You’re not going shopping. It’s better for you to be outdoors in the fresh air.” Going to Malibu instead of going out with the girls wasn’t a choice, really.
What happened was that in 1954 and 1955, my dad got a job writing a screenplay for a German film company in Berlin. So when I was 13, we traveled and lived in Berlin, Germany, until I was fourteen-and-a-half. That’s a very critical time for a teenage girl. I came back to west Los Angeles and felt sort of out of place. The teenage girls had formed their little cliques, and I had lived in another country, I had learned another language, which was pretty unique at the time. So I also felt uncomfortable with my peer group; didn’t particularly like my peer group; wanted to be somewhat different—I’m aware of that. I was already different because I had gone to Berlin, I spoke German and lived in Austria and went skiing in Switzerland. I was already different. In the forward to the reissued Gidget novel I write how my parents wanted me to come to Malibu and how my mother used to drive a couple of now-well-known surfers to the beach when I was eight and nine years old. So I was eight when I first saw a surfboard; going to Malibu started when I was three. So we always went to Malibu. When I was a teenager I didn’t want to sit at the beach and tan myself—that was not what I saw there. I saw people surfing. And yes, I was the only high school girl surfing. There was a younger girl who was about 12, a couple of older gals about 18 or 19, a couple of women in their 20s who came down with their husbands and families—families came down. There were a couple of areas at the beach—one area was called “The Pit,” and that was a bit hard core. Mostly guys hung out at “The Pit.” Walking up the beach a little bit, that’s where the shack was and families. I gravitated to that area.
Were you a self-taught surfer?
Yes, I taught myself. It’s easy. You get on a board, you paddle, you watch, you turn around and you try to paddle in the wave. You fall on the rocks, you get dinged on your knees and you keep doing it. So that your love interest will see you surf. Did you see me!?
Were you a quick study on the board?
I think I learned it pretty fast. I don’t really remember. I think actually the first board that I bought—from Mike Doyle, now a famous surfer, who brought it to my house in March of 1957—I paid thirty-five dollars for it, as I recorded in my diary. But I did learn to surf. I definitely learned to surf.
Now you were around some of the legendary names in California surfing at that time. Did these guys give you any tips? Did they help you at all?
No. No. Help me? Come on! I’d say, “Listen, Jerry, I’m not bothering you.” And he’d say, “Yeah. Gidget, you’re still breathing.” That was the line—“Yeah, Gidget, you’re still breathing.” I was in their face. I wanted to do this. It’s true that I used to bring food, as depicted in the Gidget movie when Sandra Dee brings food to Malibu. I was tenacious; I kept going. After awhile they just accept you. It really wasn’t about a relationship with people on the beach. It was about you and the wave. It was about you out there on the board. The socialization was at the beach. It was more about surfing for the guys. They would ask, “What’s outside?” “Outside” is “do you see the waves coming?” I didn’t have a boyfriend at the beach, so it’s not like I was sitting there, fluff on the beach. I was trying to surf. I kept going out into the water. And when you’re out in the water you’re just worried about yourself, the board and catching a wave.
The guys didn’t give you any grief when you were out in the water, did they?
No, I don’t remember any of that. I don’t think they ever pushed me off a wave. Later on they did things. Once they buried my surfboard in the sand. Or they threw the board over a fence. Disconnected the distributor in my car. Pranks—they were pranksters. I remember saying, “Why would you do that to my car?” I found out years later. I had brought a girlfriend down with me, and they like this girl because she was quite well endowed. So somebody told me, “Gidget, we liked your girlfriend, so we didn’t want you to go home.”
Portrait of Lance Carson, Malibu surf hero
Miki Dora, Mickey Munoz, Lance Carson, Nat Young, obviously you knew Mike Doyle—did you know all these Malibu legends?
Of course! I knew them all. Miki Dora’s not alive, but I see Mickey Munoz a lot, I see Lance Carson all the time, I knew Mike Doyle, Dewey Weber. At the time I first started going there, when I was eight or nine, Peter Lawford was down there, I remember that. John Milius was down there. There was a group of guys down there and some of these have become well known because they hung around a lot and were innovative in designing surfboards and sort of propelling the surf industry. My father, in a way, created the billion-dollar surf industry. He sold three million copies of that Gidget book over a span of years from 1957 to maybe the early ‘70s. Of course, the Gidget movie helped.
It’s interesting how your father captured this scene because he seemed so far removed from it. He was from Bohemia, grew up in not only a different time but in a different culture from what he would have experienced in America, even spoke a different language. But even if he had been born here, he was a different generation; the surfing culture that was starting to develop on the west coast would still have been foreign to him because he was a generation removed from it. But he really got a lot of it right.
Absolutely. He was a writer. The fundamentals of the story were there—the language, the love interest—but he was a writer. The last few years I’ve been re-reading everything he wrote. He actually has a brand-new novel out now that never was published, and my husband acted as the literary agent for my dad, the deceased author. Early Pleasures, by Frederick Kohner, published by Black Herron Press, and it’s my father’s coming of age story about different women he knew in his youth.
(Ed. Note: the production description of Early Pleasures describes the books as “a fictionalization of the author’s adolescent sexual adventures in Austria and Paris in the years following World War I, they are for the most part adventures in sexual frustration. The four women he encounters are as different from one another as they could be. One is his brother’s governess; another a young countess and the sister of a proto-Nazi; the third a domestic with an emotional disorder; and the fourth a White Russian emigre. Through his relationships with these women, the protagonist experiences not only desire but also the tragedy of life and the humor inherent in life’s ironies. “Early Pleasures” is a book to be savored. It takes us into the Europe of almost a century ago while it enhances us with elegance of its prose.”)
With the surfing crowd you ran with, did you socialize with the guys when the day was over or did everyone go their separate ways? Were you not part of their crowd?
I wasn’t part of it, particularly. Maybe the summer of ’58, when I graduated from high school. Or later in ’57. I started surfing in 1956—Life magazine did a story on me in October of 1956 called “Gidget Makes the Grade,” sort of a book review, but it was nice press. I kind of went home at four o’clock—they were older than me, these boys. So maybe 1958, I remember going to party at some guy’s, he had a place where he lived called The Glen. I remember going in the evening and all of a sudden one of the guys said, “We’re gonna drop our drawers.” I was a little uncomfortable with that, so I left—I could drive. I was in a way cautious and in a way not cautious. My parents used to say, “Whatever you can do after midnight you can do before midnight. So be home by midnight.” It was a different era.
The drive-in trailer for Gidget (1959), starring Sandra Dee as Gidget. Based on the novel by Frederick Kohner.
You were a student at Oregon State when the movie came out, and I’ve seen an interview with you in which you said when you first saw the movie, you either wrote or said to a friend that you thought it was the silliest thing you had ever seen. Not necessarily in a bad way. But nevertheless, did you recognize yourself and your friends in the screenplay at all?
Oh, yeah! I was at the filming of the movie, I was with Sandra Dee, I was on set. So I thought, this is like the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen, a movie about my life at Malibu. I mean I was in low-tide Corvallis, Oregon, and I was really hot for some football players. It wasn’t about surfboards anymore; it was about real men and being way up there in Oregon. It was good for me to be away; I kind of wanted to be away. You know the movie came out, it was a huge success, it was amazing. I quit surfing when I was 18.
You just walked away from it.
Just walked away from it. In Oregon I discovered other things—poetry readings, English professors, the Hillel Club—my first identification with being Jewish was in Oregon where there weren’t any Jewish girls. It was different. I never had that when I was at Malibu—it was not anything anyone ever mentioned or talked about. So, you know, my world view expanded. Then I came home, I spent two years in Oregon, came down to Cal State Northridge, and then I wanted to go into the Peace Corps. That was the big thing.
So I got into the Peace Corps. It was a big, exciting event for me. Then I got kicked out of the Peace Corps, which was another big, exciting event for me. So my folks said, “Listen, you go back to school and get your teacher’s credential.”
Wait a minute, wait a minute—why did you get kicked out of the Peace Corps?
I liked boys too much. I was boy crazy. I mean, I was a tomboy myself at Malibu, but I was boy crazy. So they said, “We don’t think you’re going to be very good for Zamboanga City.” So they kicked me out. I don’t know how you want to spell the word “peace,” but (laughs) I was a Peace Corps reject.
How long did you last in the Peace Corps?
I did the summer training in San Jose, California. Three months, an immersion class, and at the end of the summer they said, “Sorry. We think you’re enjoying the Peace Corps for the wrong reasons.” I had a friend who was over in the Philippines and I really wanted to see him.
Then, you know, I went back to L.A., married, and I’m still married—I’ve been married for forty-six-and-a-half years. When I got the Gidget book reissued, there were a couple of years prior to that when there was some foggy interest—“Is this a real person?” “Does this girl have photographs?” “Is she alive and well, or is she a myth?” There was this haze, like cloud formations catching light, and the light started coming through. Certain people would call me and want interviews. Then I met with this woman Deanne Stoneman, who’s quite an amazing California writer, and she wanted to write an article about me. In the course of interviewing me, I just blurted out, “We need to get Gidget reissued, because there’s a lot of talk about Gidget but it’s a thing that my dad wrote.” So Deanne had an agent in New York, Cathy Anderson. We sent her a lot of materials and Cathy sent these materials and the original book out, and the editor at the time read all this stuff and went, “Oh, my gosh, this is fantastic. I want to reissue this book.” She wanted to put pictures in the book; it’s a work of fiction, but she put pictures after every chapter. She had me write a forward, Deanne Stoneman wrote an introduction, it’s been reissued in paperback and in 2001 the book came out in June and I was flown back to be on The Today Show. The agent came and said, “You’re going to have a one-print run unless you go out there and do speaking engagements and learn how to surf again. You want to keep your dad’s book alive, we can only do so much PR.” I did a book signing, I flew back and was so excited that I got sick on the airplane, was coughing and hacking. I knew I had something booked at Barnes & Noble in Santa Monica, and a lot of people came—it was advertised at the Malibu Surfing Club, where I’m a member. But I was able to do a public speaking engagement, the first time I’d ever done that; now it’s ten years later and I just got back from Hawaii, where I spoke at a fundraising event for a company that wants to build senior homes in Hawaii. A woman had heard me speak at USC and a year later I’m in Hawaii. There were a hundred and twenty-five people in the audience. She now wants me for two more speaking engagements. So I want to keep my father’s story alive. I’m happy to have learned how to surf again. Am I surfing now? No. Will I go out in the summer and paddle around? Yes, I will. But I go to the surfing events. I’ve ingratiated myself with the surfing community. I go out there and speak about a time that they’re loving to remember. It’s the ‘50s. And now Brian Gillogly has made this documentary.
In Gidget, James Darren serenades Sandra Dee (Gidget) with ‘The Next Best Thing to Love’ (songwriters: lyrics by Stanley Styne, music by Fred Karger)
In the trailer, Layne Beachley of Australia, a seven-time world surfing champion, talks about how you inspired her to take up the sport. I wonder, when you hear someone of her stature acknowledge what you did as being influential, if you understand how you could have had that kind of impact.
No, and I don’t believe it. (laughs) But I’ll take it—I’ll take the icing on the cake. Layne was called Gidget as a little girl. She’s a fantastic surfer. She came to my 60th birthday party. I just turned 70. So for the last ten years I turned back the clock and I became Gidget again. I got to know everybody, went to the surfing events, went to speak at surf museums, showed up at parties. I have to tell you, I hate driving in L.A. So I’ve decided, You want me, you drive me. I’m not driving to San Diego or anywhere else, because I freak out on the freeways. I met Layne when I was 60, she came to my party, and she and I have been buddies ever since. I saw her in Australia, we did a speaking engagement together. Layne’s younger than me, so she would know the name Gidget, but she wouldn’t know Kathy Kohner. Now she knows Kathy Kohner. But a lot of women say they were inspired by Gidget. A lot of the women think of Sally Field as Gidget. They saw the Sally Field TV show and they loved it. There’s generations, you know. I’m telling people I’m Gidget, and there’s younger generations are going “What?”
In 1966 Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer was released worldwide. There actually were and are a ton of surfing films but they rarely get out of the surfing community, whereas The Endless Summer gathered mainstream attention like no other surfing film had before or has since. In that movie Mr. Brown showed girls in Malibu as a kind of sideshow to the great male surfers of the time, but when his stars got to Australia he pointed out that a lot of Aussie girls surfed “and some of them are very good.” Did you think his movie was fair to female surfers at the time?
Never thought about it. I just thought it was a frickin’ turn-on movie. We were stoked. It was a cult movie, like Gidget. The Endless Summer, Big Wednesday, maybe Blue Crush, I don’t know. I never even thought about the woman thing. I was a girl. I happened to be doing a guy’s sport. But then maybe I wanted to be a little different because I couldn’t relate to the teen girly things. We were raised to be individuals—my dad was a writer, he didn’t go to a job somewhere, he was home writing, and my mom loved the beach and ballet dancing and tennis. She was very athletic, so that was ingrained. It was a little like Ozzie and Harriet at the time—my mom and dad were home, we went to the beach on weekends, went hiking, went swimming, played tennis. It was pretty conventional, except it wasn’t. They were Europeans, for one, and they were for Adlai Stevenson. Come on!
Did you ever meet Bruce Brown’s stars, Robert August and Mike Hynson?
Yes, I met them later on in life. I’m telling you, in the last ten years I have immersed myself in surf culture and I really tried hard to, you know, bow down, because these guys are great and have done great things for the surf industry. Robert August is one of the nicest people I’ve met. Steve Walden is another gem. Around ten years ago my husband had a rather debilitating affliction, and the therapist said to me, “You have to have your own life. You can’t just be taking care here.” So at that time Steve Walden and a tandem surfer named Bear Waznick, who lives in Hawaii, met me in Malibu and said, “Go! You can do it!” I hadn’t surfed in a long time. So basically I had to lose the fear of paddling out and seeing the wave come at me. This is all in the last ten years, and Gidget is now in its fourteenth printing and now Brian has this really funky, fun documentary out and I wish him well with it, because it might be more fun for me—I might have some more trips somewhere.
You’ve talked about the surf culture that was present when you started going out in the mid-‘50s. Dick Dale did not start his fabled concerts at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa until 1961, the dawn of surf music. At that time that you were starting, was music important to the scene?
Well, if you wanted to listen to “Rock Around the Clock” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” Those were the songs. I had no clue about surf music. I know Jan Berry went all through elementary school with me, junior high and high school. I had no idea that he and Arnie Ginsberg were making music in their garage somewhere. Jan and Arnie, then Jan and Dean. No, there was no such thing as surf music. Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys said to me, “I remember you in high school, Gidget. You know I was a little bit younger than you. We wrote that song about you—‘Surfer Girl.’” I’m like, “Oh yeah, right.” There are a lot of myths and peoples’ memories fade. I’m glad that the memories of me have turned positive. It’s a good thing because I’m glad Gidget lives.
Who were your favorite artists as a young girl?
Elvis Presley. “Rock Around the Clock.” Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
You mentioned you’ve been married more than forty years, and I saw a reference somewhere that when you married Mr. Zuckerman, he had no idea that you were Gidget. How did you break the news to him and what was his reaction?
He had no clue. You know the guy is a New York intellectual. Got his Master’s Degree in English. He didn’t know anything about Gidget. But the sweetest thing, honestly, and it’s just come to me—I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody—he brought me a present on our first date. He brought me a pineapple. Now I work for Duke’s Restaurant—Duke Kahanamoku was the father of surfing—and a pineapple is really “Aloha!” It was really cute!
You know, I didn’t marry a surfer. I loved Bill Jensen, but I married a man who, you know, had the roots that I had, a little bit like my dad, a little bit older, very well read, very smart. Just like my mom and dad. I’m happy that we stayed married, because it’s not so easy out there. Even though he didn’t surf.
You just turned 70, but I’ve seen a recent photo of you and you look like a model of fitness. What do you do to stay in shape?
Well, I keep moving. I don’t sit easily. Even up here my husband says, “Will you relax? We’re in Vermont.” Well, no, I gotta go swimming. I’m active. And I think probably the picture was flattering. I keep active. I don’t do any facial work or anything like that. I see all that in L.A. and think it’s ridiculous. I’ve earned every wrinkle from the sunshine. And I also love the fact that I can go speaking to seniors, telling them, “Look, I learned how to go back on a surfboard again. I’m one of you. I’m a senior!”
There have been seven Gidgets on film and on TV. Do you have a favorite?
Well, I’d have to say Sandra Dee. Sandra Dee paved the wave—paved the way—I said paved the wave! She was a wonderful little actress and just captured the essence of the character. There’s something lovely about Gidget. It’s like Ernest Hemingway’s story “A Clean, Well Lighted Place.” She’s open and she goes in where all these guys are sittin’ around drinking cheap beer, but she’s always sort of a breath of fresh air. She captivated audiences with how sweet and demure she was, and yet, you know, she did learn how to surf. It’s interesting, when you read the last line of the Gidget novel. It’s “Maybe I was a just a woman in love with a surfboard.” The end of the movie, it’s sort of more romantic—she gets pinned to Jeff Griffin or something and they go off together. In the movie it’s the boy and girl get together and live happily ever after. In the book, I’ve learned to surf! Bye! Ciao for now! I’m a woman!
The new edition of Frederick Kohner’s original Gidget novel, with a forward by Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, is available at www.amazon.com