Gidget: The Accidental Icon

Posted on 01. Aug, 2008 by in Profiles

words by Linda Chase 

It was the summer of 1956, and the guys at Surfrider in Malibu didn’t know what to make of this girl who had suddenly materialized in their midst. They had names like Moondoggie and Misto and Tubesteak, and they threw everything they had at her. They called her Gidget. They buried her surfboard in the sand. They stole the distributor cap to her car. If she left them alone, it still wasn’t enough. “You’re still breathing, aren’t you?” 

They could not have known that this girl — this Gidget — would become an icon of American surfing. She didn’t know how to surf, but she bought her own board, and she paddled out and watched and learned and caught her own waves. She brought them peanut butter and radish sandwiches, and gradually she stole her way into their hearts. She kept a diary and recorded her surfing adventures: “Boy the surf was so bitchin’ today I couldn’t believe it. I got some real good rides from inside.” 

One day, she announced to her father, Frederick Kohner, that she wanted to write a book about her experiences. A Hollywood screenwriter, Kohner was fascinated by her stories and offered to write the book for her. The novel “Gidget” hit number seven on the New York Times bestseller list; Kerouac’s beat classic “On the Road” was number eight. “Gidget”, perhaps more than Kerouac and his merry band, had resonated with younger readers. Gidget and her pals at the Pit were that to which all American youth, then and now, aspired: they were cool. 

The original Gidget movie starred a comely unknown named Sandra Dee as Gidget, who said things like, “surfing is the ultimate!” Following on the success of the first movie, Columbia cranked out Gidget Goes Hawaiian and several more. An unknown teenager named Sally Field played Gidget in the original TV series. The beach scenes were shot in winter, when the water was numbingly cold. Still, Field remembers this as “one of the great, wonderful things of my life.” Field, whose feisty personality closely mirrors that of Kathy Kohner, said, “She will always be me. The Gidget is inside.” 


Kathy Kohner — the real Gidget — went to college and got married and raised a family. But her summer in the surf inspired countless other young girls to take up surfing, living proof that girls could ride the waves just like the boys. Seven-time world surf champion Layne Beachley said Gidget was her nickname too; “If they looked for Layne, no one knew who they were talking about.” Surfer magazine, which is mostly about dudes who surf, named Gidget the 7th most influential surfer
of the century. 

In the foreword to the 2001 re-release of “Gidget” the book, Kohner wrote, “Now that Gidget is back — the real Gidget will be back, too. Who says 60-year-old Gidgets can’t ride the waves anymore?” 

You’d be crazy to bet against Gidget. A surfing buddy coaxed her into participating in the Legends of Longboards, a fundraiser for the cancer center at Scripps in San Diego. So early morning, she paddled out to First Break at Surfrider. Someone gave her board a shove: “Shoot it, Gidget, shoot the curl!” So this tiny 60-something woman got up on that board, and suddenly it’s the summer of ’56 and this girl, this midget, this Gidget shoots the curl. 

Today, Kathy Kohner (now Kathy Zuckerman) is in demand as a speaker to youth groups, seniors, even Republicans. When asked her political affiliation, she diplomatically replied, “There are no politics in the water.” Some want to turn Gidget into a proto-feminist, but Kohner isn’t having any of it. “I don’t even know what that is,” she insists. She would rather be remembered as the young girl who spent a summer surfing with the guys — an “Accidental Icon”. A documentary by that name was released in 2006, with Kohner, Sally Field and others looking back on 50 years of the Gidget phenomenon. 

She doesn’t paddle out anymore, but you might see her walking on the beach at Malibu, trim and youthful. “I feel very much at peace,” she says. “I feel very much at home.” 

Linda Chase is the author of “Surfing: Women of the Waves” (Gibbs-Smith, 2007). She is currently working on a book on Las Vegas.

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