Gidget Girls

There were a few guys in the water at Malibu that Vicki Flaxman just wouldn't mess with, even if they did cut her off in the lineup or snake her on a wave. Like Buzzy Trent, who played football--he was just too big. If he wanted the next wave, well, he could have it. But Vicki was nearly as big as everybody else--she weighed 156 pounds, solid muscle from head to toe--and tougher than all of them. When they gave her trouble, she'd give it right back. "If one of those boys took off in front of me, I'd get so mad, I'd chase 'em down and drag 'em off their boards," says Flaxman, now Vicki Williams and 70 years old. "Then I'd growl at 'em. I'd say, 'Don't you ever take off in front of me again!' "

Vicki, in case you couldn't guess, was the competitive one. Early in that summer of 1950, someone in the Malibu crowd (a guy, naturally) made the mistake of predicting that Claire Cassidy, Vicki's pal from UCLA, would be the best girl surfer by the end of the season. Vicki was furious. "Uh-uh," she said. "I will." Claire was a sweetheart; if she wasn't on her board, she was on the sand strumming her ukulele, with at least three boys drooling at her feet. Aggie Bane, tall and blond and the youngest of the bunch, really only surfed that one summer; she met Joe Quigg, one of the kings of Malibu, on the beach, fell for him instantly and was married and pregnant at 16. Then there was Robin Grigg, Aggie's friend from Sunday school, who used to go with Peter Lawford, the young Hollywood star who lived just up the beach; she never fit in at high school, so she made Malibu her refuge and fiercely protected it. "We hated anybody knowing about it," she says now. "Surfing was like our secret, and we wanted to keep it that way."

Sorry, but the secret is officially out--way out. The girl surfer has been a pop-culture icon for decades, from the tomboy chronicles of Gidget to the beach-bimbo fantasy of Malibu Barbie. But thanks to "Blue Crush," a fleshy new film about the do-or-die realm of the women's pro tour, serious surfing is finally getting its moment in the sun. The movie--a labor of love from a pair of diehard surfers, director John Stockwell ("crazy/beautiful") and producer Brian Grazer ("A Beautiful Mind")--offers about 45 minutes of deliciously campy fun, then lets a solemn triumph-over-adversity plot spoil the party. Still, "Blue Crush" portrays a billion-dollar subculture as it is today: sexy, lucrative and dangerous. For the original surf girls of Malibu, it was a daydream, and then it was over.

At Malibu in the early 1950s, surfing was innocent fun before a twilight barbecue on the beach. There were no competitions, no Billabong sponsorships. It was just middle-class kids--mostly boys, some girls, almost all in their late teens--with the best kind of nothing to do. For the original surf girls, it was over by 1954: they were all either married or off to college. But in just a few summers, they had changed surfing forever, simply by doing it at a higher level than women ever had before. Though, of course, they did it anonymously. Neither Stockwell nor Grazer, whose movie would be unthinkable without the Malibu girls, had ever heard of them. "They are an untold story, really," says Matt Warshaw, former editor of Surfer Magazine and author of "The Encyclopedia of Surfing," out in 2003. "The average surfer, to this day, wouldn't have any idea who they are." Our touchstone for that era is Gidget--15-year-old Kathy Kohner, who really did surf at Malibu, though not until 1956. But Gidget's story is really the story of her predecessors. "Gidget became the composite version of what was happening with Vicki and the rest of them," says Warshaw. Tiny Robin Grigg, in fact, was called "Gidget," short for "girl midget," by some of the lifeguards.

In 1950, Malibu was just a local teen hangout; as a surf spot, it was still largely undiscovered. "You could count the number of people surfing there on two hands," Robin recalls. North of the crescent-shaped beach was the Malibu Colony, home to many film actors, including Lawford. He adored the surfing crowd and often stuck around for the barbecues thrown by Quigg and his surfing buddy Matt Kivlin. They'd boil lobsters and break out cases of beer. Now and then Lawford brought one girl who just sat on the sand. "So one time we said, 'God, Peter, who's that gal?' " Vicki remembers. "She's so white!" It was Marilyn Monroe.

Malibu was the perfect beach, the best right slide--a wave that crashes from left to right--for a hundred miles. But the early surfboards were made of dense redwood and weighed about 60 pounds. They were difficult to maneuver in the water and, on a hot summer day, just a bear to lug around. "That's the No. 1 reason so few girls were surfing," says Vicki. "We just couldn't manage those boards." In 1950, Quigg got the idea of shaping boards from balsa wood. They weighed just over 20 pounds, and the whole Malibu crowd took a road trip down the California coast to show them off. Most surfers made fun of them at first, calling them "girlie boards." But they piped down when they saw Vicki tackle the intimidating 10-foot swells at San Diego's Surf and Sea beach. "The first wave I took off on, I just got creamed," Vicki recalls, "and I said, 'That's it. I'm done.' But the guys said, 'No, no, you've gotta come back out.' The next wave I took, I rode all the way in. It felt incredible. Everyone clapped."

Away from the friendly confines of Malibu, Vicki and her pals were often hassled, and as the sport grew in popularity, the boys played rougher. All that mattered was catching a wave--and girls were easier to push out of the way. "They would take my surfboard and bury it in the sand. Or they would throw it over the chain-link fence," says Kathy Kohner Zuckerman (a.k.a. Gidget). Today, women are all over the waves, but the sexism hasn't gone away. "I've been to Malibu," says Grazer, "and when girls paddle into the lineup, they're really iced out. Guys will violate the etiquette and just overpower them. The subculture is very barbaric."

These days, the original surf girls hardly ever touch a board. Vicki now lives in Idaho--pretty far down the list of surfing hot spots--with her husband, Van, who played TV's Green Hornet in the 1960s. She's traded in her surfboard for skis and a river raft. Aggie, who's been married to Quigg for 52 years, lives in Hawaii, as does Robin Grigg. None of them knows where Claire Cassidy, a free-spirited sailor, is docked at the moment. For all of them, surfing tends to come up only when a reporter calls asking questions--and that doesn't happen much.

Two years ago Vicki was in Oahu visiting an old surf buddy named Flippy Hoffman. Layne Beachley, one of the world's top female surfers, was crashing at Flippy's house, so Vicki got introduced. "Flippy told Layne that I was an old Malibu surfer--and Layne couldn't have cared less," Vicki says, laughing. "I was much more impressed with her than she was with me, believe me! But that's the way life is. We didn't care about the people before us, either. Everything moves forward." Nothing wrong, though, with looking back.

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