This spring Malibu is reading the original Frederick Kohner novella Gidget, inspired by the surfing subculture his daughter Kathy joined at the beach there one summer in the fifties. The book made Malibu beach famous, spawned a movie starring Sandra Dee, a TV show starring Sally Field and just about every reference in the world to girls named Gidget, and it's rightly this month's "One City, One Book" selection there. Author Deanne Stillman has written persuasively before about Gidget's cultural influence, and she makes a further case on today's Times op-ed page, taking off from Kohner's roots as a Jewish emigre who escaped the Nazis by coming to Hollywood.
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.
Stillman wrote the introduction to the reissued version of Gidget and is now at work on Horse Latitudes: Last Stand for the Wild Horse in the American West, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2006.