Gigdet Goes Hawaiian
Introduction by Julia Steele
Diary by Kathy Kohner Zuckerman
Portait by Dana Edmunds
(all other photos courtesy Kathy Kohner Zuckerman)
In the summer of 1956, a teenager named Kathy Kohner headed down to the beach in Malibu and met a bunch of guys who were taking slabs of wood out into the water and catching waves. Kathy decided to try it, too—and loved it. One of the lone females in the breaks, she spent her days surfing with the guys, who dubbed her “gidget,” or “girl midget.” Theirs was a counterculture that was way off dead center; hard to believe now, but in the mid-’50s, surfing was extremely rare in California, an outre, isolated phenomenon that most everyone knew nothing about. At night, Kathy would visit her father, a writer, in his study and tell him of her escapades. An inspired Frederick Kohner decided to write a book about a young, independent girl surfer. He’d call it, he decided, Gidget. He penned the whole thing in six weeks.
It came out in October of 1957, and it was a smash, besting even On the Road on the Los Angeles Times best-seller list. The book became a movie. Gidget mania swept the country. There were more books, more movies (Gidget Goes Hawaiian, Gidget Goes to Rome), even television shows. By the early ’60s, Gidget was a household name—and a cultural phenomenon that SURFER Magazine would eventually rank the seventh most influential surfer of all time.
Kathy, meanwhile, turned 18 and went off to college at Oregon State. At the end of her first year, in September of 1959, she decided to visit Hawaii to surf. She came alone, adventuring, just her and her board—and her journal. What follows are excerpts from that journal—which Kathy recently unearthed and which has never before been published. Here, for the first time in print, is the genuine article: the true story of Gidget going Hawaiian.
Sept. 1, 1959
I’m on my way to Hawaii—angels’ paradise, garden of flowers or whatever the correct words would be. I can’t see a damn thing out the window except foamy white clouds and an occasional drift of blue (or greenish) Pacific. I can’t quite grasp the fact that 3,000 miles from now, I’ll be bathing at warm Waikiki Beach or getting drunk on the local beer. At any rate, it’s a marvelous day and I’m overlooking now a vast ocean of clouds—beyond them more clouds—finally, I shall see Diamond Head.
The Captain has just interrupted my train of thought. We are going up to 10,000 feet with a smooth crossing. Perhaps it might be more fun with a storm. It’s already too quiet. I’m extremely excited. Such a thrilling experience it will be. Imagine “little one” in Honolulu.
Much to my surprise, I had a grand welcome. Not only were my surfing friends from California Dutch, Robin, Ted, Jack and Harry there but also the parents of my college friend Ted, Mr. & Mrs. Theodore Searle. And I cried. I was so happy. I had, from the moment I sited Koko Head, fallen in love with Hawaii. The flower leis that greeted me and the warmness of the people gave me such a warm feeling, a grand feeling of welcome. Mr. & Mrs. Searle invited me to stay with them.
It was a very busy day but nonetheless terribly exciting. The weather was extremely warm and I awoke sharply at 7. Jumped out of bed and dressed—bathing suit. Mrs. Searle fixed a terrific breakfast and Mr. Searle had already proclaimed the arrival of Gidget to everyone. Everyone was going to meet me—the Duke, Chic Daniels, all the big shots. The Searles’ daughter Martha and I arrived early at Ala Moana with boards. The surf was flat and disappointing. The local boys stared at me—I was Gidget and I was thrilled. Being flat, we left Ala Moana and headed for Queens Surf. I rubbed on the wax and headed out. God, the water was hot. I paddled two miles out for a few crappy shooters. The surf was like San Onofre, slow and peaking up. The local kanaks looked at me and laughed. They thought I was a tourist. I took off on the first decent wave and walked the nose, made a great Island pullout. Then I was accepted. We started BSing like old times at Malibu and I was happy, happier than a king. I had found my home, my island, and for once I was completely satisfied with my surroundings. The sun was beating down and the sweat was rolling down all over my body. But I was happy.
Martha and I walked around town and bought ourselves some things—jewelry, and I got myself a muumuu. We wandered all over the town, had cottage cheese and pineapple for lunch and walked again. The evening was very warm and we ate outside. Mrs. Searle fixed a terrific dinner and Mr. Searle was telling me how he wants go get pictures of me and the Duke. I am so surprised how friendly the people of Hawaii are and how warm-hearted they are.
The weather still remained terribly warm and somewhat humid. In fact, the sky was full of clouds and one would think any minute a thunderstorm would occur. Betty Searle, Mr. and Mrs. Searle’s other daughter, was driving the car and we drove to the Outrigger Club. Being that I had a guest card, I thought I could take all the girls in, but I got some static from the desk lady so we said we were Mr. Searle’s kids and they let us right on thru. Great to have a name around the island. The weather was so humid and warm that going into the water didn’t even cool us off. Martha and I borrowed two boards from Outrigger and we paddled down to Queens Surf. I got a couple of great floaters going left and even walked the nose.
Later, Betty took me to see the Kamehameha School for Boys and Girls. The school is private and only for those that have Hawaiian blood. It is located north of Honolulu. Very beautiful. We sat around in the afternoon gabbing and Mrs. Searle made a great dinner. She is just a lovely person. We listened to records in the evening while Betty danced the hula for me. We are going around the island tomorrow.
Betty, Martha and I took off early today for a tour around the island. It was a beautiful day. We left thru town and came to a district called Papakolea, which was full of shacks and considered somewhat of a rough neighborhood. Most people here on the island live in small houses. There are many farmers on the island.
We drove out to a district called Nuuanu, which is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The homes are old Hawaiian mansions. What I commented on was how green everything was. It looked like a tropical jungle. We saw all kinds of plants. We picked ginger and guava and mangoes. It was raining and due to the fog, we couldn’t see over the Pali. The road was somewhat narrow, and we drove over the mountain pass. We also saw beautiful wild orchids. We saw the upside-down waterfall—due to wind, the water never does reach any bottom. We drove to the bottomless lake. The legend goes like this: A beautiful princess was in love with a man below her level. She loved him so much but knew she couldn’t marry him so she ran away to the lake and sank to the bottom and hid in a cave. No one ever found her.
We drove to Kaneohe. This is an excellent bay for fishing and waterskiing. On the way down from the Pali we drove through Maunawili Valley, which if you didn’t know where you were could also be mistaken for Austria. The meadows were a rich green with cows grazing and many beautiful trees with beautiful flowers. Gardenias, orchids, and ginger all grow wild in this valley. We drove through a small town, Kailua, where all the people from the other side of the island do their shopping. We would always shout “aloha” to everyone. We hiked up to Sacred Falls. We had to cross the stream seven times before we got to the falls. One can swim at the falls but we didn’t.
We saw taro fields and also loads of sugarcane fields. We drove to the Mormon Temple. All of us were in bathing suits and we dashed through the temple, taking pictures and laughing. After the temple, we drove to Pounders Beach, which is a small cove on the other side of the island. The coast has a resemblance to that of the Carmel Coast. On the way home, we hit a convoy of Marines. Betty, Martha and I started shouting at all the Marines. Brother, were we acting stupid, but we were having a terrific time. We passed Sunset Beach, which was flat as a lake and I couldn’t imagine that 30-foot waves could come there. We also passed Waimea Bay, which was also flat.
We arrived back in Waikiki in the afternoon. Queens Surf was really coming in great. I paddled out. It takes a good ten minutes to paddle out. The water is so warm that you begin to sweat from paddling so much. The waves come in very slow. Sometimes they break all the way across or one can get a good left. I took off on a bitchin’ wave going left. It was a good five feet but it was so slow that I couldn’t even walk the nose. The rides last a long time. One wave lasts about twice as long as Malibu. The tourists take the outriggers out and the surfers have to be careful not to get in their way.
Betty and I drove into town today to shop. The day was rather drizzly but we had fun anyway. We acted like a couple of real tourists, wandering around looking at all the shops. We ate lunch at the International Village. We were very excited about the evening we were going to spend. Betty went to the local dime store and got us some fake engagement rings so we would look married. We really goofed off in the afternoon getting ready for a busy night of nightclubbing.
Betty and I drove out to her Auntie Carrie’s house for dinner. We had a most beautiful buffet dinner with turkey, ham, sweet potatoes and a huge fruit salad. A Hawaiian woman said grace in Hawaiian and everyone stood around. Everyone was so warm and friendly at the party, I was really touched. The dinner was excellent. Betty and I were all dressed up and looked really good.
Ululani and her fiance Tim were going nightclubbing with us. We met them in front of the Korean Village and no one asked us for any ID. The Invitations were at the Korean Village. We ordered two rounds of drinks. I had two vodka collins. The music was delightfully entertaining, and after slowly sipping down our drinks, we really began to feel good. It got a little crowded at the Korean Village so we left for Don the Beachcomber’s. I forgot to mention the beautiful violet lei one of Betty’s aunts gave me. I wore my white dress with white heels and earrings. Don the Beachcomber’s was very crowded. A $3 minimum was for one person so we felt we should drink three dollars worth. The drinks were really great, and slowly but surely I was getting rather high. I was having tom collins and vodka collins. Martin Denny was performing at Don’s. Ululani’s cousin Harvey Ragsdale played with Martin Denny, a bass player. The music kept sounding better after about five drinks.
I must comment on how lovely Waikiki Beach is at night with all the lights of the city glowing in the water. The main street is full of sailors, soldiers and marines. All the stores are open and the sights of night are really pretty.
Betty and I left early in the morning for Molokai, a small island south of Oahu. The flight was very short and smooth and we arrived without any pain. Pauline (Betty’s cousin) picked us up at the Molokai airport in her sister’s white Corvette. The house where we were staying was a huge old Hawaiian place: old bathrooms, old rooms. It was out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by big trees, big lawns and big mountains.
Pauline took Betty and I for a drive up the mountain. It was very green. Beautiful wild flowers grew all over. Hibiscus, ginger and plumeria. We hit an old dirt road and drove for miles without seeing a person. We drove to the top of the pali, and Betty pointed off to the west. Way down below the mountains, situated in a small valley, was the town of Kalaupapa. This appeared to be like any other town, except there was one difference. This was a leper colony. 260 lepers lived in that small town below us. It was extremely fascinating.
We drove into town for lunch and stopped in a small run-down café, the Midnite Inn. I had saimin (a Japanese dish) of noodles in soup. Naturally there was a local theater in town and guess what was going to play Saturday night? Gidget!
The flight home to Oahu was rough and bumpy and I was nervous. I must admit that I felt grand when I saw Mrs. Searle waiting for me at the airport.
Surfing was pretty good today. I paddled way outside, sat for about fifteen minutes, sweat rolling down my cheeks, when out of the clear blue sky a beautiful blue wave “comer”—a good seven feet—loomed up. I got one stroke off and took off left. Brother, the wave was so steep that I didn’t realize how fast I was traveling. The wave lasted a good 30 seconds when I completely lost myself and crapped out. My board went the long way in. When the surf gets big, it is beautiful yet quite spooky and dangerous. Some of the boys just wait for the big surf to come. They live and breathe surfing.
Saw Buzzy Trent, who is a fireman out here. These boys keep telling me they are going to quit the big surf but continue to go out at Sunset Beach on a big day and get blasted to death. The surfers still seem to love it out here, but in a way I think they were expecting something different and wanted to escape to Hawaii from the Mainland, and I believe they are all somewhat disappointed.
I’ve come to the definite conclusion that it is essential for a young girl such as myself, when in Hawaii, to have a young boy whom she can love at times. Hawaii is such a romantic island at night especially to share with someone you like. The music of Hawaii is so very touching and moving, the dances are so very graceful.
I knew that most of the kooks from Malibu were arriving tonite so Betty got the car and we screamed down to the airport. We arrived and saw about twelve boards lying on the ground. We ran all around the airport. Finally Tom Powell appeared with a herd of Malibu surfers behind him. I rushed over to see them and they all gave me a big kiss. Betty just stood there in bewilderment. All the boys were so excited about getting here it was really funny. They were all decked out ready to go surfing. Betty took Jim Sproutt, Tom Powell, Duke and Turtle. We drove down to Ala Moana to show the boys the sights. It was at night but they could still see the white water and they became completely jazzed.
In the evening the Searles took me to a Japanese dinner party celebrating the 61st birthday of a Japanese friend of theirs. It is a custom in Japan to give a big party when the man turns 61. The Japanese believe that after 61 a new childhood develops. The birthday child puts on a red shirt and a red flower lei and begins to celebrate. It was all quite thrilling for me. About 600 hundred people were invited to the dinner, mostly Japanese. Everyone wore muumuus and the men wore aloha shirts. The tables were full of food, all Japanese food. We had chicken, pork, rice cakes, oysters, lobster, shrimp, pickled greens, watermelon and raw fish. I didn’t eat any of the fish but everything looked so beautifully prepared. We ate very slowly and with chopsticks, which I couldn’t handle very well at all. For the first time I had a glass of hot sake. It was very good but hit you. I stuffed myself with all the good food. After the dinner, there were entertainers—a dancer, a singer—all in Japanese. It was really some gathering.
My last evening here was enjoyable. Mr. Searle brought Chinese food home for dinner and I literally stuffed myself with goodies. After the dinner about five boys from the University of Hawaii came over and played the ukulele and we sat and watched. But it was my last night in Hawaii and Mrs. Searle held me to her heart not wanting me to go. The tears flowed down my face like giant raindrops, as though I had been caught in a thunderstorm. I never would want to trade the kindness and sincerity that the Searle family gave me for anything else.
Perhaps I should close now before leaving, rather than finishing in the plane. I hate to make something unhappy at the end, and as always in life, we are continually saying good-bye to those we are fond of and those who love us. Maybe I could say, “The sun never sets on the Hawaiian Islands.” I don’t want it to set for me.
Frederick Kohner’s Gidget was reissued in 2001 and is back in bookstores. Kathy is now the Ambassador of Aloha for Duke’s Malibu, a restaurant that celebrates the life and legacy of Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku. She returns to Hawaii as often as she can.