Playbook: Kathy Kohner Zuckerman
The original Gidget, 61, on the early surf scene ("cool"), boys ("too many") and life as a longboard icon ("bitchin'!")
By Martha Corcoran
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My parents went up to Malibu every weekend. And I thought, I don't want to sit with my friends on the beach, I'm going to learn how to surf.
I didn't feel that sense of belonging in high school. I felt different. I was very outspoken. Somehow the beach and going out on the board let me become an individual, my own person.
There is no doubt about it: I was riding waves, and I was in a world of men.
There were a few discouraging moments. The guys would hide my surfboard. They'd throw it over the chain-link fence. They'd bury it in the sand. But I kept going for it, and that's what any athlete has to do: Never give up.
Back then everybody had nicknames. One day somebody called me Gidget, short for "girl midget." It stuck.
There were girl surfers way before me, I just happen to be the famous one -- or at least the name Gidget is famous, not Kathy Kohner.
Beautiful young girls who came to the beach wearing lipstick and makeup were called "coozies."
Kahuna [legendary surfer Mikey Dora] lived in a shack at the beach with another fellow named Harry Stonelake. And I thought, You guys live in a shack? Don't you go home to a mom and dad and a house? I was extremely sociologically and economically naive.
I said to my father, "I want to write a story about what I'm experiencing down at the 'Bu." He said, "You tell me about what's going on at Malibu, and I'll write the story for you." And that's exactly what he did. He wrote Gidget in six weeks. The book sold half a million copies, and Columbia Pictures made a movie called Gidget [in '59]. Hollywood brought surf culture to homes all the way up to the Muskokas in Ontario!
When the movie first came out I was in Corvalis, Oregon, where I went to college, and nobody had ever heard of surfboards, let alone Gidget. I must have seen the movie 50,000 times.
After I fell in love with the surfboard, I fell in love with the guys. Better to meet a guy on a surfboard than in a bar.
I joined the Peace Corps in 1962, but I got kicked out after three months because I was too much about the guys and not enough about the Peace Corps.
Boy, I had a great body, you know.
When you ride a board, it's Cowabunga! The rush, the euphoria of catching the wave.
Nobody realizes that Gidget is based on a real person. They think Gidget is Sally Field, who starred in the TV show [in '65]. They think I'm an actress.
When Gidget became a travel agent on The New Gidget [in '86], that idea was very appealing to me, so I became a travel agent too.
My two sons think all this is pretty bitchin'. Son of Gidget. What a great title that would be.
My 60th birthday [in 2001] opened the floodgates of nostalgia. We reissued the book in June of last year. Now, at my age, I have less of what's ahead and more of my past.
The surfing community has been extremely warm to me. They don't say, Oh, yeah, Gidget, well she surfed in the '50s, man, she's a grandmother. The vibe is the opposite.
I feel very much that the surf community is an extension of my immediate family -- only we get along better.
There's a beautiful tradition called a "paddle out." When a surfer dies, her friends take the ashes, paddle out and form a circle on their surfboards to say goodbye. Jewish people don't believe in [cremation], but that's what I want. I want a paddle out. It's a tribute to a person who loved the water.
For more great features check out Sports Illustrated Women's July/August issue, on newsstands now.