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Respect, Please, for Malibu’s Best Gal

Out of Malibu came one of the most influential literary works of modern times. And this spring, 48 years after it was published, the whole town is reading it. I refer to the novella “Gidget,” which Malibu recently picked for its “One City One Book” program.

Laugh if you must, then ask yourself the following questions: Did “The Great Gatsby” change the world? How many people decided to move or quit their jobs after reading “Moby-Dick”?

“Gidget,” on the other hand, altered the course of American history, drawing legions to California beaches, spawning a lineage of movie and TV spinoffs that reads like a surfing “Book of Numbers” and giving rise to the billion-dollar surf empire that along with the aerospace and computer industries has transmogrified California into the world’s greatest nation-state.

Based on the stories of the real Gidget and written by her screenwriter father, the novella is set in Malibu during the summer of 1956, when Gidget was 15. “Gidget” goes right to the heart of surfing: It’s about freedom, the pursuit of happiness and, like all good books, life and death.

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Which makes perfect sense, considering that basically, it started with a guy fleeing the Nazis. Gidget’s father, Frederick Kohner, grew up in Czechoslovakia, the son of the proprietor of the town’s movie house. He embarked on a career as a screenwriter in Germany but left in 1933 after attending the Berlin opening of one of his movies, only to discover that Goebbels had ordered all Jewish credits removed from the film. He settled in Los Angeles at the beach, got a deal at Columbia, raised two daughters with his wife, Franzie, and shared story credits for such movies as “Never Wave at a WAC,” starring Rosalind Russell, and “Mad About Music,” which received an Academy Award nomination for best original story in 1938.

The sun cast its spell on the children of the European emigres in Hollywood, many of whom came of age during the Fabulous Fifties. In 1956, Gidget began spending all of her free time at Malibu Point. She wanted in on the hallowed current, but the scene was a boys’ club. The answer: peanut butter sandwiches, which Gidget traded for surf lessons from men who were legends.

There was the late Miki Dora, known forever as “Da Cat” because of his breathtaking grace on a board; there was Mysto George (still surfing at the ‘bu); there was Golden Boy and Scooter (can’t have a beach without one) and Moondoggie (who became a pivotal character in the book). Soon, the guys gave the girl a nickname -- a combination of “girl” and “midget,” and America’s once-and-future mermaid was born: Kathy Kohner had become Gidget.

At home, Gidget regaled her father with tales from the beach, becoming his muse, recounting tales of “bitchin’ surf,” giant “combers” that rolled in from Japan, and escapes from a “boneyard” when caught between breaking waves. Frederick was fascinated, paying careful attention to his daughter’s language (English was her first; his was German) and writing “Gidget” in six weeks, from the point of view of his wave-struck daughter.

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Published in 1957, “Gidget” was a huge hit. It was compared to “Catcher in the Rye” and was described by this paper as “midsummer madness about beach bums, surfboards, Malibu.”

But it also was about so much more: Gidget and those who surfed Malibu in the ‘50s were the rebels of their time, fleeing the world of clock-punchers and landlocked squares. Following the ancient surf-riding Hawaiians, these pioneers stoked the wave that swept the planet, luring millions to the edge of California, where they walked on water by standing on a board.

Some say it was Hollywood that lured emigres from afar. I like to think it was a sea siren, whispering of freedom and endless summer. Were it not for Frederick Kohner settling near the coast, the novella that launched a thousand boards -- and the secrets of Malibu -- would have been lost to the ages. And Robert Duvall may never have said, “Charlie don’t surf.”

Deanne Stillman’s book “Horse Latitudes: Last Stand for the Wild Horse in the American West” will be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2006. She also wrote the introduction for the latest edition of “Gidget.”

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