By Jason KUROSU
Hollywood writer Ken Lazebnik may have known plenty about Gidget, Frederick Kohner’s surf princess whose fame was encapsulated in multiple books, TV shows and films, but it wasn’t for some time that he discovered Gidget was based on a real person – Kohner’s daughter, Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman. The real Gidget appeared with Lazebnik at La Cañada’s Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse on the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 28, revealing the truth behind Gidget in her own words and through the words of Lazebnik’s book, “Hollywood Digs.”
The book is a compilation of 14 essays Lazebnik wrote about Hollywood figures that include unknown backstories of Hollywood giants to tales of obscure figures whose fame was on the decline.
“My book tries to grab shards of Hollywood history that I personally encountered and capture them before they get swept away,” said Lazebnik. “Los Angeles is famous for sweeping away history, but they’ll never sweep away Gidget.”
Reading from the chapter he wrote on Kohner-Zuckerman, Lazebnik said, “Gidget is a real person. She is alive and well and Jewish.
“In the American mind, Gidget is Sandra Dee, she is Sally Field and she is the quintessential California girl of endless adolescence. But the real Gidget is the daughter of an émigré family from Bohemia, whose father earned a PhD from the University of Vienna and then came to America from Nazi Germany in 1936.”
Lazebnik described Kohner-Zuckerman as a “true pioneer. She was really the first female surfer, a significant figure here in Southern California” and Gidget as “an American icon which became an industry unto itself.”
Audience members got a chance to ask Kohner-Zuckerman questions, many of which centered on what it was like to “be Gidget” while seeing the character take off in popularity and how well she felt she was captured in fictional form.
Kohner-Zuckerman, a surfer by the age of 15 now married with two children and making appearances twice a week at the restaurant Duke’s Malibu, said there was some distance between the popularity of Gidget and herself.
“Basically Gidget was my father’s success. I shared with him a lot. My dad was privy to my diary pages so he really got a lot of it right.”
She said she did get to be on the set of the movie “Gidget” but she did not coach Sandra Dee on proper “Gidget” etiquette.
“This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen. They’re making a movie about my life in Malibu,” she wrote in her diary at the time (1959).
Kohner-Zuckerman said the Gidget phenomenon had a bigger effect on her father than her, propelling his writing career that included seven sequels to the original “Gidget” and screenwriting work in television and movies.
Kohner-Zuckerman said she “went away from Gidget” on the other hand.
“I stopped surfing at 18,” she said. “Gidget changed the face of the surfing community. The movie was the start of the billion-dollar surf industry, I humbly submit. I got frightened of going to Malibu, so I said, ‘I’m out of here.’”
Kohner-Zuckerman moved to Oregon but said her interest in Gidget reignited when the book was reissued in 2000.
“I decided I was going to be Gidget again,” said Kohner-Zuckerman. “I took it upon myself when I got the book reissued to go back. You can home again. I went back to Malibu, I’m surfing, I’m a public speaker, I got all my old photographs out, I am that person,” she told the audience. “I’m alive and well and that’s it.”