Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Gidget, Kathy Kohner Zuckerberg, and (ahem) the great Kahoona

The original novel called Gidget, The Little Girl With Big Ideas — which started the whole Gidget craze — came out in 1957.  I've just read the new edition of 2001 which is titled, simply, Gidget, and I'm amazed at how much I liked it. The new edition's forward by Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, who was the real-life Gidget, puts the story in perspective.

Kathy Kohner was a petite (less than 5 feet tall) perky Jewish girl who became obsessed with surfing back in the days before the Beach Boys started singing about it, before most of America had even heard of the sport. Her actual photo was used on the original book cover and again on the new edition. In the novel, Gidget remains a petite brunette, but I can't recall any mention of being Jewish. (She became a blond in the movie as played by Sandra Dee.)  Gidget is not interested in dating, at least not with her high school peers, and she is something of a tomboy. But she also wishes that her "bosom" was bigger. She's on the edge of discovering her sexuality at age 15 and is attracted to the college guys who spend the summer surfing at Malibu, especially one guy named Moondoggie. She also befriends the leader of the group, an older man called the great Kahoona who is a non-collegiate full-time beach bum, and quite proud of it.

With spunk and determination, Gidget ingratiates herself into the group of surfers, who reluctantly - but protectively - accept her as something of a mascot. There's a fascinating tug-of-war between Gidget's growing attraction for Moondoggie and the surfing group's determination to keep hands off.

Gidget is a rebel of the 1950s. She lies to her parents and sneaks out of the house.  And what's weird is that all this little rebel wants to do is surf (which was considered a boy's sport) and get pinned (frat pin, that is) by Moondoggie. How it all plays out is well worth the very short read.

An interesting dimension of the story is that the author, Frederick Kohner, was writing the novel about his own daughter with her cooperation - and her actual diaries. Some people will get creeped out that a father was creating a character of his own daughter and writing about her sexuality and her attraction for an older guy. As a writer and father myself, I admit to some queasiness, or at least some curiosity, about the situation.  Fred Kohner was a professional writer, a good one, who recognized that the sexuality was the essential part of the story. He also had a PhD from the University of Vienna, the training ground of Sigmund Freud.  Kathy Kohner in later life seems to have had no problem with what her father wrote and is in fact quite proud of her role - and interestingly, she was always attracted to professors and eventually married one. Analyze that, if you wish.

Ed McClanahan has written an interesting follow-up, based on his lifelong friendship with Kathy (he was her first English professor at Oregon State College in 1958): 
And the next thing I knew there she was, right there in the front row of my very first class, a drop-dead cute, Malibu-tanned, feisty-looking little Jewish beach bunny whose natural insouciance made her an enlivening presence amongst all the Presbyterian peaches-and-cream sorority girl home ec majors.  ...When, in her first in-class theme, she used the term "shit-heel squares" to describe certain of her peers ... I knew right away that this was someone I wanted to know. 

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