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In Malibu, Gidget's Up
After 50 Years, the Surfers Keep Rolling In

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.' "

* * *

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.

"Malibu brings me back to a time I crave," explained Kohner-Zuckerman as her Mercedes idled. "I find a sense of peace here." Except for those times when cars are frozen in traffic and Kohner-Zuckerman starts to wonder what's the holdup. An accident? Construction? A sale on Jimmy Choo sandals?

No, Gidge, it's garden-variety gridlock, which has found its way to this seaside sanctuary 15 miles west of Santa Monica. Blame Hollywood. The PCH was once a quiet ocean road -- Gidget and her pals used to dash across it without bodily damage -- but high-status cars driven by the Brits and Pitts of this world now clog the highway.

"Malibu is like a little community within a community," said local Maggie Grimm, who was shopping at the Diesel bookstore, a stop on Zuckerman's itinerary. "There are three to four generations of surfers who grew up here -- the surfing culture is the same. But the celebrities and paparazzi have moved in, and Malibu has a Beverly Hills feel."

Some of the alterations, though, are an improvement. Surfrider Beach, where Kohner-Zuckerman first tackled the waves, now has a lifeguard station, restrooms and showers. There are also surf clubs and shops that rent wetsuits and boards and sell surfer-chic clothes, so you can fit in whether you cowabunga or not.

Surfrider, in the middle of Malibu's commercial strip, is still considered a top surfing spot, mainly for its three point breaks, which create clean, predictable waves well-suited for all levels of riders. Near the road, boards artfully leaned against the Wall, which once supported Kohner-Zuckerman's ride. Heads bobbed in the blue surf as she looked longingly at the ocean.

"I feel like going into the tide today, but more for paddling than surfing," said Kohner-Zuckerman, scrutinizing the waves from Malibu Pier, which flanks one side of Surfrider. "But God, yes, the lure of the paddle. It's fabulous."

Despite the pull, though, Kohner-Zuckerman stayed on dry land.

* * *

At 27 miles long and eight miles wide, Malibu feels more like a large neighborhood than a freestanding city, especially since a portion of the area is off-limits to those without agents. On the drive to Malibu Country Mart for lunch, Kohner-Zuckerman crawled by a few hotels bright with Mediterranean colors or worn gray by time and ocean air, and some businesses that wouldn't be out of place in a suburban strip mall. The stretch is pretty unremarkable unless you look up, into the mountains, at homes that can't hide their size, no matter how many tall bushes stand guard. Many roads should just be called Private Only Drive.

Of course, that's an improvement over the oceanfront properties. At an exclusive community near Surfrider, the houses are so far removed from snooping eyes that rooftops are barely in sight. Farther west, only slivers of ocean appear between mansions that moon passersby with their garages.

Though Malibu has 21 miles of coastline, those who come for an unbroken thread of beaches will be sorely disappointed. Most of the beaches are public, but for years the government and its mogul residents have been tussling over access to them. The California Coastal Commission recently decided that posting signs and gates more appropriate for military bases scared off regular beachgoers, and residents on Broad Beach, 10 miles west of Surfrider, were told to remove the hostile signage, retire the ATV-driving bouncers and stop bulldozing the sand into their own yards. Meanwhile, near Malibu Pier, music honcho David Geffen was defeated in his fight to keep Carbon Beach private. Now the easement is open, and you can wave hello to Geffen from your beach chair.

But the plebes visit Malibu, too. Los Angelinos come for the ersatz Waikiki scene, while out-of-towners see Malibu as an extension of the Hollywood star tour. Behind the unassuming Malibu Motel one evening, a group of Northern Californian surfers were spending twilight on a mountain ledge. Sitting in dime-store chairs, they were privy to a multimillion-dollar ocean view that didn't stop until it bumped into the dusky purple horizon.

* * *

Kohner-Zuckerman prefers her sunsets from the sand-floored outdoor bar at Duke's, where she works as a hostess, and enjoys her mornings drinking coffee and eating poached eggs at Coogie's, a popular restaurant. After filling up, she might stroll the beach to "check out the scene, the waves and what's outside," then lunch at John's Garden in the Malibu Country Mart.

The takeout deli's menu lists the Surfer (turkey and avocado) and the Wave (fruit and yogurt smoothie), but Kohner-Zuckerman ordered the goopy egg salad with avocado and tomatoes piled on thick slabs of bread. She eschewed the umbrella-shaded tables for a square of clover-green lawn. The plaza has restaurants and upscale shops but also whimsical sculptures of pasta and dancing food utensils, as well as a playground where golden children slide and climb under the distracted eyes of their parents.

"I have this real sense of getting away, of peace, of shooting the breeze with people," said Kohner-Zuckerman." It's sort of like going into a surf shop. I find that relaxing, too."

As Kohner-Zuckerman grappled with her overstuffed sandwich, she talked about the crew from her youth. There was Lord Gallo, Thrifty Phil, Scooter Boy and Terry "Tubesteak" Tracy, more famously known in the book as the "Great Kahoona" (both the real and the fictional character lived in a shack on the beach). Moondoggie, who was the love interest in "Gidget," is now a California artist. In their heyday, the group was tight, but most have left Malibu, died or dropped their surfer handles.

A number of legends, though, fill Malibu Shirts, a hybrid retail store and museum. The shop honors 30 of the town's "surf legends," including Mickey "the Mongoose" Munoz, who was Dee's surfing double in the movie. Kohner-Zuckerman is not included in the exhibit. As she drove by the shop, she mentioned that she felt it was too commercial an enterprise. (For his part, the shop's manager said Gidget was excluded because some of the other surfers disputed her accomplishments.) Regardless, the documentary, photos, trophies and other artifacts offer an interesting timeline of Malibu's surfer culture.

Of course, Malibu doesn't need to be reminded who Gidget is. For now, at least. As the sun started to drop over Surfrider Beach and Kohner-Zuckerman turned to head home, another generation of Gidgets was slowly coming to shore.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company