One sunny weekend morning this past spring, I drove to Duke’s, a festive Hawaiian-themed restaurant in Malibu, to visit with a woman named Kathy who has worked there for the past 15 years. Her official title is Ambassador of Aloha; the job description includes greeting diners when they walk in the front door and charming regular patrons, many of whom are her friends. Kathy comes in for two shifts a week: Sunday morning for brunch, and at night on Taco Tuesdays. Taco Tuesdays are more casual, and typically she wears slacks. For brunch, Kathy likes to gussy up a bit. When I visited her, she was dressed like a parrot. Her dress was covered in a bright floral pattern and she wore magenta lipstick. The tropical bird-like glamour was accentuated by her incessant motion and flirtatious behavior with guests.
Kathy’s co-workers are mostly Pepperdine University students, but she assures me they treat her like an equal. “I feel when I go to that restaurant, I’m extended family,” she said. “There’s no, sort of, ‘Oh my God, how old is this woman? She doesn’t even know how to work her mobile phone!’”
People ask to take photographs with her multiple times per day. “I feel like saying, ‘a dollar,’” she jokes. “It’s a great story, I’m alive and well, girls are surfing,” she says of her micro-celebrity. “Where else could Gidget be but at Duke’s?”
The word Gidget, if it evokes anything in one’s mind, likely compels mental images of gingham bikinis, improvised luaus, and berserk 1950s-style optimism. Maybe Sandra Dee, pre-alcoholism, is pictured, or Sally Field before she was a flying nun. One definitely does not imagine a Jewish septuagenarian, married to a Yiddish scholar, with a tendency toward recreational hitchhiking. But that is who Kathy Zuckerman is, and Kathy Zuckerman is Gidget.
Gidget: The Little Girl With Big Ideas was written by Kathy’s father, the Czech-born screenwriter Frederick Kohner, in less than a month in 1957 and published the same year by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. It skyrocketed up the best-seller list, went on to sell 30 million copies, and was translated into dozens of languages, including Hebrew. The Los Angeles Times described the book as “Midsummer madness about beach bums, surf boards, Malibu, and a 15-year-old American answer to Francoise Sagan.” Other reviewers compared it to The Catcher in the Rye, and everyone seemed to agree that it was just delightful. Gidget spawned a movie, and then a TV series, as well as multiple sequels set in Hawaii, Rome, and suburban matrimonial bliss. The franchise is often credited with popularizing surfing with American teenagers.
Written in a charmingly antiquated first-person slang, the book tells the story of Franzie, the plucky daughter of German intellectuals recently relocated to West L.A. She is cute and blonde with protruding eyeteeth. She resists orthodontia but not various snake-oil remedies meant to augment her bust (at times, the reader will be struck by the odd realization that the book was written by an actual father from the point of view of his actual daughter). Franzie has the kind of linguistic swagger endemic to self-consciously and erratically kept diaries. Her English teacher is “barfy-looking,” the ditzy girls at the beach are called “coozies,” and they give her the “heebie-geebies.” Franzie thinks the Adriatic Ocean is “crummy” but that the Pacific is “bichen.” On the Fourth of July, she accompanies her parents to Malibu; while they sun themselves and “talk a lot of boring stuff,” Franzie snorkels, gets caught in a tangle of kelp and is rescued by a surfer named Moondoggie. Together, riding tandem, they catch a wave into shore. She describes it—“earsplitting buzz” … “zoom” … “foam tossed over my shoulder”—and then says with triumph, “I felt so jazzed up about this ride I could have yelled.” The rest of the book documents Franzie’s new infatuations: with riding waves, with Moondoggie, with the as-yet-undocumented lifestyle that was midcentury surfing.
The story, though fictionalized, is not too dissimilar from Kathy’s high-school life and antics. She too had émigré parents who enjoyed lounging on the beach; she too finagled her way into an odd and insular tribe and took up surfing at a time when most teenagers were going to the drive-in and attending sock hops; she too had a crush on an older surfer. Kathy, like her alter-ego, was a diminutive 5 feet in height and nicknamed The Gidget—a portmanteau of “girl” and “midget”—by the mostly college-aged men who had made the Malibu shore their full-time summer residence; reluctantly they allowed her to join the gang, with the provision that she was to smuggle them food from her mother’s pantry. Kathy remembers importing radish-and-peanut-butter sandwiches to the beach and joked in 2007 that “That’s where my Jewishness came out, I suppose.”
It was his daughter’s journal entries and lively accounts of her time at the beach that inspired Kohner to write the book. At the end of each day, a salt-crusted and adrenaline-infused Kathy would return to Brentwood, which in the previous decade had become the uncanny home to many German and Austrian intellectuals, including Thomas Mann, Theodor Adorno, Arnold Schoenberg, and Bertolt Brecht, and tell her father about all her nutty new friends and about how much fun she had had in the water. And in a sense, the novel that resulted was written in Kohner’s third language (the first being German, the second English, the third American teen-speak). It reads like a novel, but in many ways the book hews closer to subcultural reportage: The idiom is expansive, the technical details are profuse, the narrator functions like the kind of personable tour guide present in so many pieces of impressionistic journalism.
Kathy, who belongs to the Malibu Surfing Association and was inducted into the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2008, has worked hard in recent years to publicize the book, which was reissued in 2001. When her agent warned that there was the possibility of a one-print run, Kathy decided she’d take up the mantle and start talking, really for the first time in 50 years, about what it was like to be Gidget. But she emphasizes that it’s her father’s book—less than her own story—that she wants to keep alive.
The interior of Kathy’s home, which is filled with serious books and dog-eared issues of The New Yorker, seems to have more in common with an Upper West Side apartment than the beach bungalows and celebrity-owned mansions that surround it. When I visited her there the day before Easter, the garden was in full bloom and the kitchen table laid with chocolate eggs she would soon hide for her grandchildren. “I guess this isn’t very Jewish,” she laughed, before offering me one. Marvin, her husband of 52 years, made espresso, puttered a bit, but mostly stayed enclosed in his study, doing last-minute work on his forthcoming book about the Jewish Labor Bund.
We positioned deck chairs in the middle of the lawn, and Kathy proceeded to tell me about her life. When she was 13, her father got a job in Berlin working with Artur Brauner, so the family rented out their Brentwood home to the screenwriter Ernest Lehman (credits include North by Northwest, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music) and moved to Germany for two years. She attended an American school, mostly with the children of military personnel, and is grateful to her parents for in large part succeeding at insulating her from the “the sadness that had occurred there just nine years prior.”
When she returned to California, her American peers suddenly struck her as provincial, with, as she puts it “the little clubs and leather jackets.” She said, “I couldn’t relate to the girly-girl thing, and so when I found Malibu, I thought, ‘This is it. I’m going to learn how to surf. I’ve found my place.’ I suppose everybody needs a place, the sociologists call it a third place—you know, home, school, and then I had Malibu. I was driven to learn how to surf.”
She bought her first surfboard in June of 1956 for $35. It was emblazoned with a totem pole and made by Mike Doyle, a boy her own age, who would go on to become one of the most famous shapers in the industry.
Though her new friends were older, male, and sometimes derelict, surfing wasn’t yet a pastime associated with delinquency. They would drink beer occasionally and sometimes cheap red wine from a bota bag, but drugs were not present. The lifestyle was also years away from getting commercialized. There weren’t yet corporate sponsored surf competitions or streetwear brands. “Maybe that’s what I really liked about the scene,” she said, “that it was way off dead-center.”
But Kathy’s days at the beach, as described in both her own diaries and her father’s fictionalized summary of them, were as much about boys as about waves. She remembers stuffing her bathing suit with Kleenex and hoping that Bill, the inspiration for Moondoggie, saw her whenever she caught a wave.
One day that first summer, her father picked her up at the beach, and she turned to him in the car and said, “I want to write a story about what’s going on at Malibu. They call me Gidget. Everybody has a nickname.” To which he replied, “Well, you’re not a writer. You keep your diary, but why don’t you tell me? I’ll write that story for you.” Pleased with the suggestion, Kathy granted him permission and for the next three weeks fed him information about her life. “Jazzed” appeared often in her diary, as did “fiasco” and “comber,” the then-popular term for a wave. “I think it was attractive to him because he was a writer,” she said. “He had the vision that, ‘Wow, my daughter is sharing with me something.’ And it seemed—I guess—highly unusual at the time. Like, ‘She’s hanging out at Malibu, she’s talking about surfing, she’s talking about boys, and she’s using some language that nobody’s heard of.’ And nobody’d heard of surfing, particularly, or very few. And he used his charm and grammatic purpose as a writer, and he sat in his studio, which is not far from the main house, and he typed this thing out.”
Kathy did not read the manuscript when it was done, but she remembers the call from the William Morris Agency that came, during dinner, a few weeks later. Her father picked up the phone and the voice on the other end of the line said, “You and your wife can go skiing—this is going be a play, this is going be a TV show, this is going be a comic strip, this is amazing. You’ve hit the jackpot, Mr. Kohner.”
The predications all came true. And though Kathy would occasionally tag along on radio interviews and once met Sandra Dee on the set of the movie, the success was not hers but her father’s. And though Kathy’s ardor for surfing (and Moondoggie) lasted only two summers, the entertainment properties it inspired continued on for decades. Kathy quit surfing by the time she went away to college at Oregon State, where she discovered both Hillel Club and, as she puts it, “that real men love Gidget.” At school, she flirted with her English professor, babysat for Bernard Malamud’s kids, and got interested in lighting Hanukkah candles.
After graduation, she joined the newly formed Peace Corps but was rejected during training for being “too boy crazy.” She met Marvin (one of their first dates took place on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising) and married him in 1965. For two years, Kathy worked as a high-school English and substitute teacher in the San Fernando Valley. “When they started calling me Mrs. Fuckerman, instead of Mrs. Zuckerman, I was like, ‘You know what? This is too far to travel from the west side for any sort of disparagement of my character.’”
By then she had a baby and soon would have another, and though Kathy herself grew up in a secular household (she remembers her father going to temple on Rosh Hashanah and to the cemetery on Yom Kippur with his brothers, but that’s it), her own sons were bar mitzvahed. Neither, however, surfs, and of Marvin’s relationship to the ocean, Kathy says, with a vagueness that almost sounds euphemistic, “He was a transplant from New York, so we didn’t do it that much. I mean we’d go to the beach, but …”
At this point, Kathy adjusted herself away from the sun just as Kobe, a semi-feral cat, putatively theirs, slinked over and began meowing. It sounded like a fog horn. Kathy rolled her eyes and tossed a glass of water on it.
If anything complicates Kathy’s job at Duke’s, it’s not the parking-lot crowds or piña colada-drunk tourists, but rather the seven-mile drive home. “You’ve got to be fearful of something, so I’m fearful of the highway,” she told me. Typically Marvin drops Kathy off in Malibu at the beginning of her shift and she then finds herself a ride home. “I boycott driving on the highway at the moment,” she said. “I don’t want anybody honking at me. I don’t want to go faster than my comfortable speed zone. That’s not to say that whoever gives me a ride home isn’t going be a wackadoodle.”
This commuting situation was, in part, why I was at Duke’s in the first place. The day before, as I was leaving their house, Kathy and Marvin got into a brief discussion about the following day’s logistics, and I offered to come for lunch and give her a ride home. Also, of course, I wanted to witness her impish charisma under more hectic circumstances than a one-on-one patio chat.
It being 2017, though, I had decided against renting a car for the trip and was instead relying, quite happily, on Uber, a service Kathy had neither used nor heard of. She needed to be on the road by 2 p.m. so she’d have time to hide those Easter eggs, and so at 1:55 I requested a car. A black Toyota Corolla pulled up minutes later, and we hopped into the back seat. Kathy complimented the driver’s adherence to the speed limit and wondered aloud if, in the future, Marvin might be able to order her Ubers for her from home on his iPad. She spoke of Malibu gentrification, and again in glowing terms of the restaurant and their embrace of her. Kathy, though literally famous for her small size, takes up the collective psychic space of whatever room—or in this case, sedan—she happens to occupy. She sparkles in that way that only celebrities ever do.
And so, when we arrived in the Palisades 15 minutes later, it was less surprising than it should have been that our driver, a black woman in her 40s from Chicago, asked for an autograph. We were still a few blocks from Kathy’s house, but she had told the driver to stop because she’d like to walk the few blocks home. “Why, sure!” she said, pulling out a stack of postcards bearing her own bikini-ed image. She wrote out a brief, friendly note and signed her name. The driver thanked her and Kathy hopped out of the car with great efficiency. “Bye!” she waved.
We turned around in the middle of the street. I looked out the window and caught a last glimpse of Kathy, scampering through a neighbor’s yard.
“Wait,” I asked the driver. “Did you know who that was?”
“I didn’t,” she answered, “I just got that sense. Who is she?”
You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.
Alice Gregory is a writer living in Brooklyn.