THEIR TOWN | People We Like and the Places They Love

In Malibu, Gidget's Up

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 18, 2005

Gidget doesn't surf here anymore. But the grandmother who inspired a generation to shoot the curl in Malibu, Calif., hasn't retired her board just yet.

"I don't have the confidence I had when I was 15," said Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman, aka Gidget, as she scooted around her hillside house preparing for a day's outing in her adopted home town. "I'm 64. I'm afraid of the other surfers. There weren't as many surfers in Malibu when I was a teenager."

Nearly half a century ago, Kohner-Zuckerman was a plucky, bikini-clad imp who spent summers splashing in the Southern California water and hanging with surf bums who anointed her Gidget (girl + midget = gidget). Though her hair is now sun-streaked blond, shades lighter than her 1950s brown locks, and her midriff is covered up, Kohner-Zuckerman has barely changed. She is still petite and fit, enamored with the beach and surfing, and a fixture in this town of stars and surfers (and star surfers). And when the water is glassy and the waves short, you can catch her paddling around the Pacific.

On a recent weekend, Kohner-Zuckerman giddily agreed to play host, pointing out haunts past and present, still standing and long gone -- yet vivid in her mind.

"Malibu is eternal," she said. "It's the endless summer along the Pacific Coast Highway. It's where the sun, surf and California lifestyle are at their sparkliest."

Kohner-Zuckerman can't take credit for its sparkle -- thank the Southern Cal geography and its beautiful people for that -- but she is responsible for dragging this prime slice of sand out of obscurity. Had it not been for Kohner-Zuckerman and her frolics in the surf, her screenwriter father, Frederick Kohner ("Nancy Goes to Rio" "Bride for Sale"), never would have penned the novel "Gidget," Sandra Dee wouldn't have played the surfette in the 1959 film, and TV audiences might never have seen Sally Field in a yellow ruffled bikini. The surfer-chick lit, which sold half a million copies in 1957, also introduced a new vernacular ("bitchin,' " "walk the nose") and popularized the beach-rat lifestyle.

More recently, "One City, One Book-Malibu," part of a national literacy program, selected "Gidget" for this year's communal reading pleasure (2004 was "The Great Gatsby"; the Malibu link was filthy-rich people). And four years after the novel was reissued, Kohner-Zuckerman is on a one-woman book tour that has taken her across the country.

" 'Gidget' was the beginning of a cultural phenomenon," said Kathy Sullivan, co-coordinator of the city-book program. "The surf culture really did originate in Malibu, and the reason it has such mass appeal today was because of 'Gidget.' "

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In the 1950s, Kohner-Zuckerman had no idea that this Bohemian haven would attract droves to its break points and become a pilgrimage site for surfers. Back then, Malibu was an unpretentious, family-oriented beach town, and Gidget was just a girl with a long board twice her size who wanted to surf like the boys.

"Some people have Alcoholic Anonymous, Starbucks, church," she said wistfully. "I was retreating, trying to get away from high school and boys and movies on Saturday night. . . . I had Malibu."

Raised in Brentwood, Calif., Kohner-Zuckerman spent four summers surfing in Malibu before leaving for college in Oregon. After graduating, she signed up for the Peace Corps but was summarily kicked out because, well, she was a bit boy-crazy. She returned to Los Angeles to teach high school and middle school, got married and had two children. Since 1965, she and her husband have lived in nearby Pacific Palisades.

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