MALIBU MAGAZINE 4-1-09

"Miki Dora: Topanga Days"

By David Rensin
Photos courtesy of Chris Rohloff and Pat Darrin

The King of Malibu, the Hemingway of the Beach, and the Legend of "Da Cat"

"If the waves were good at Malibu, but it was too crowded, some people knew they could have a similar experience just a few miles south at Topanga Beach,” Jim Fitzpatrick told me a few years ago as I was in the process of interviewing more than 300 people on five continents to write the oral/narrative biography All For A Few Perfect Waves: The Audacious Life and Legend of Rebel Surfer Miki Dora, which was published in April of 2008.

Fitzpatrick, a skateboarding prodigy then known as “The Kid,” became an educator and is now principal of Marin Montessori School, as well as vice president of USA Skateboarding. When he was 13, his family moved to Topanga Beach from La Jolla in March 1960, when his father, who made government films for an aeronautics company, got the call from Hollywood. “To make the move easier for me, my parents agreed to buy me my own surfboard. I surfed every single day, sometimes getting up in the dark to go out before school.” Bill Cleary, a writer, ex-Marine and surfer, lived next door.

Known as the Hemingway of the beach, Cleary would go on to co-write the indispensable Surfing Guide to Southern California in 1963 with David H. Stern and published by Jim Fitzpatrick’s father. A subsequent meeting with L.A. City lifeguard Larry Stevenson, who had created the era’s must-have Makaha skateboard, led to the formation of the eclectic Surf Guide magazine, which Cleary edited. According to Surf Guide contributor Bob Feigel, one factor that set the magazine apart from its competition like Surfer is that words never took a backseat to the photos. Later, Cleary wrote for Life magazine, and authored a few books, including 1967’s seminal All The Young Wave Hunters, which dealt not only with the ever-more-popular surfing world, but the deep truths and characters involved. Miki Dora figured prominently in the Malibu chapter, the beach where he reigned for years as king, but Cleary didn’t stop there. As editor of Surf Guide, he put Dora on the cover of October 1963’s legendary “Angry Young Man of Surfing” issue. He also featured Dora in the November 1964 Malibu issue.

Dora, who had one foot in the pre-Gidget paradise of empty waves, and one foot in the paradise lost that followed, never got over his dislike of crowds or the relentless commercialization and media exploitation of surfing and surf culture that led to them. Just the same, he knew he had to ride the wave in the direction it broke.

Cleary died in July of 2002. The hours I spent reading the papers he left behind as part of my research for the Dora biography reveal that Cleary’s fascination with Dora never abated.

Even though Miki Dora had died six months earlier of pancreatic cancer — an ironic end for someone so health-obsessed that he had vitamins and supplements sent to him by friends around the world — to this day he remains arguably the best known and most notorious California surfer ever, in large part because his charming, complicated and contradictory personality was as irresistible as his surfing. As I wrote in All For a Few Perfect Waves: “Dora was surfing’s most outspoken practitioner, charismatic prince, chief antihero, committed loner and enduring mystery. Obituaries ran from the Los Angeles Times to the London Times.”

It takes a whole book to really tell the story.

Unfortunately, at 500 pages the book is too short, though hardly incomplete. Much was left out due to the realities of publishing finance and reader attention span. The just-released paperback contains another 35 pages of fresh material, but much more remains.

The excerpt that follows was originally part of a longer chapter in the book that was painfully left behind through no fault of its own. But thanks to Malibu Magazine, readers will get a never-before-published look at Topanga beach of the 1960s, the hidden days of Dora’s hidden life and Bill Cleary’s fascination with him.

GEORGE VAN NOY: I was a world champion in the butterfly on the UCLA swim team. When I met Bill Cleary through a teammate, he asked if I wanted to share his place at Topanga. We were roommates from 1959-1961, for $50 apiece. Our window, which we usually kept open, looked onto a little section of sand and a sea wall made out of wood that was about three and a half feet high. At high tide we could sit at the window and watch the second break at Topanga. When the wind was offshore, it would light up the waves, and three-to five-footers would hold up all the way from the first point to the traffic signal. Shell-thin, beautiful and fast.

BOB BEADLE: The attraction went beyond the waves. Living on Topanga beach was marvelous because it was an isolated community in which everyone was accepted. There was the golfing drunk next door who had dry heaves late at night, the gay guys, the grandmothers, the little kids, the dogs and cats.
Miki was always a ghost at Topanga, drifting in and out at the unlikeliest moments.

JIM FITZPATRICK: The beach was open at the traffic signal where Topanga Canyon intersected with the Pacific Coast Highway. You could walk a trail from the highway, through the sage and weeds, right down to the sand. In the summer of 1960, crowds weren’t an issue. But by the following summer there were parking problems and too many surfers.

In 1960, we lived in a long, narrow hallway of a house with no beach access. Just to the east was the old Los Angeles Athletic Club House. It had a weird pedestrian tunnel under the highway. People stored stuff and even slept there occasionally.

At the bottom of our house’s side stairs was the hot-water shower. No one could use the shower unless you were a Cleary or a Fitzpatrick. It was this stairwell that Miki Dora — Da Cat — used, slipping very quietly along the side of the house, over the bulkhead, onto the sand and into the water. He moved like a cat. He was all stealth and style and slinking around. He wasn’t flamboyant. He didn’t want to bring attention to himself. He just didn’t want to be hassled.

Eventually, our entire family moved from 18664 Pacific Coast Highway to 18658. We lived upstairs. Cleary lived downstairs in the “artist’s area.” Willie Hunter Jr., a naturalist whose father was the pro at Riviera, had the other half of the downstairs. Miki would arrive without any schedule. My mother, Dodie, was one of the few housewives who were home all day. After school one day she said, “Some jerk came through the house today. He was really rude to me and wouldn’t respond.” I didn’t know who she meant. On the weekend the swell was up—and here comes Miki. She says, “There’s that jerk that ignored me.” I said, “That’s not a jerk, that’s Miki,” and told my Mom that if anyone would have the privilege to come through the house, it was Miki.

In the wake of surfing’s post-Gidget popularity, others arrived as well. My father, Ed — who in 1963 published the Surfing Guide to Southern California written by Cleary and David H. Stern - it was indispensable to a generation — began to come home and not be able to park in front of our house. This really pissed him off. So he started the Topanga Beach Homeowners Association, which you could join for a whopping $5. All the dads got together, printed up parking passes and financed a fence that sealed off the highway between the houses.

Now if a surfer wanted to get to the beach, he had to either climb down underneath the overpass that went over Topanga Creek, which was sort of perilous, or he had to have access through somebody’s house or yard.

We stopped virtually everybody. But if we saw someone in the water who seemed to merit the privilege of access — if they approached it with the right attitude and deference — we’d let them in. Miki never got stopped. By the time the homeowner’s association started, he had already established himself.

RICK HODGSON: I grew up at Topanga, and all the young surfers idolized Miki. He made every wave. He was a real technician, perfection flowing. We all ended up standing on our boards like he did just to emulate him. But we quickly discovered his style was the most functional way to ride. There was dynamic tension in his wrist English, and the way he cocked his elbow. He felt the energy of the wave with this hand, as if it was a sensor. He knew exactly where the energy was on the face of the wave. He would analyze things to the nth degree. He was a connoisseur of waves, as he was a connoisseur of everything.

We also knew from the beginning that he was nefarious and wasn’t really a role model. We liked him because he was a classic, the Artful Dodger. He just floated and skimmed across the top of everything.

There was a big tree and bamboo bush in front of Wheeler Cobberly’s house. And we — the younger guys — used to sit under the tree while Cleary and Bob Feigel and Bob Beadle and the “older” generation of surfers, including Miki, would talk to us about their travels. They’d tell us about girls and surf spots and food and architecture. That left amazing pictures in our heads, and we couldn’t wait to graduate from high school and travel.

GEORGE VAN NOY: In 1962, Cleary and I took a trip together to the Canary Islands. It was legendary because we took the first boards to this great surf beach called Las Palomas. We built a shack, sort of a half-teepee, half-geodesic dome. By the time we left three and a half months later, there were about 30 shacks and people from as far away as Paris were showing up because it was such a scene. There were giant sand dunes like out of Lawrence of Arabia, right down to the ocean. It had a Rincon-ish sort of a break. I was young and foolish, and I thought I’d never want to come home.

JIM FITZPATRICK: With Dora hanging out in the yard, he and I started having long conversations about waves, people, about Santa Monica and Malibu. What a joke they had become. One early conversation had to do with the “Golden Ticket,” the golden opportunity. He would often show up and surf on days when I wasn’t surfing. One day he said, “You do realize how unique this opportunity is?” I didn’t quite follow him at first, but the message turned out to be that because I was lucky enough to live at Topanga, I should surf at all times. It didn’t matter if the surf was blown out or not; there was surf in my front yard and I should be surfing it. In this weird way, he reminded me of how special my life was — and how to revere it.

Sometimes our conversations went on for months. The whole Topanga Beach scene in the early 1960s was this seething, artistic, alternative locale, and he was a mentor in many ways. Topanga was sort of a retreat for him, for all of us. It was always relaxed. The crowd control was pretty tight. He could always look forward to surfing waves by himself.

But there were other sides to Miki.

I saw Hollywood Miki in a bit part in Muscle Beach Party, which filmed at Topanga. He’s being paid to be at the beach, wearing makeup, slicking back his eyebrows, getting pampered by the studio people. Meanwhile, my teenaged crowd is stealing all their surfboards. We stole 80 one night and stashed them around at all the houses. Miki had nothing to do with that. But the next day, when they couldn’t film because they had no surfboards, he figured out who did it and he was laughing, glad to see that the local crew could be larcenous!

He was also the party-crashing Miki, able to get into any Beverly Hills event. But those weren’t my Mikis. To me he was a very personable and caring sort of guy. He looked out for me. I was like a little brother.

Sure, Miki had a public persona in the surfing world. There were times when he did want to make a statement. But the Topanga Miki was him in stealth mode. Initially, what he wanted was not to be hassled when he came through our house to get to the waves. We got through that right away, so he didn’t need anything else from us. So, he could just relax. I always felt that was the real Miki.

According to Cleary’s third wife, Barbara, her husband wanted to be “the behind -the-scenes guy,” leaving Miki to be famous. “He also had a great writing style. He was the master of metaphor. He could pull ideas and images from opposite sides of the universe and put them together in a little sentence spontaneously while talking, and you’d feel like you’d had an epiphany.”

According to John Van Hamersveld, who art directed Surf Guide magazine and went on to create the iconic Endless Summer poster, as well as the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street album covers, and much more, “Bill was almost like this Hemingway guy, with his black Underwood typewriter, a pair of scissors and tape. He’d type stuff, then cut it up and paste it down. Cleary was this bohemian character, with his boots off and his toes in the sand, smoking grass and eating the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, which were his compulsion. “

JIM FITZPATRICK: Cleary began to nurture his relationship with Miki, so that when he got to a certain point, he could write it down and it would be an interview — Miki’s story. I don’t know if Miki was aware of this. Cleary wasn’t taking notes, but his intellect was sharp and keen, so he could certainly remember what people told him. Bill recognized early on that Miki had something no one else in the surf community had: that attitude.

BOB BEADLE: Cleary revered male figures in a literary fashion. His father died young and he had a very harsh mother, so he gravitated toward men friends who he sensed had a certain power. They also needed to be people who wouldn’t threaten him. He had a little-man complex because he was short, and that’s probably one of the reasons why he joined the Marines right out of high school.

Cleary and Miki had a lot in common. They were both pack rats; they were both paranoid control freaks. Cleary saw himself as a four-foot-wave-and-under man, and that’s pretty much what Miki was. Cleary was ebullient, but he had a dark side to him; he had a set of neuroses pretty much like Miki, who was a very neurotic person. Cleary was also very charming and wonderful. Miki was charming. Cleary was more formally educated than Miki, but both were articulate, and both were able to insinuate themselves, in the best sense of the word, with all kinds of people. In the end, they had so many things in common that the differences didn’t stand out. I don’t know if Miki recognized the commonality. And I don’t know what each thought of the other, but knowing Cleary, I know that Miki was a perfect subject for Cleary’s book. What I mean by Cleary’s “book” is that he was the sort of person who goes through life writing a novel; he’s the protagonist and all those around him are the supporting cast. Some of the supporting cast are more highlighted than others. Cleary clearly saw Miki as someone noteworthy.

RICK HODGSON: The legend of Miki was in part created and fostered by Bill Cleary in Surf Guide magazine. You can’t talk about Miki without talking about Bill. He was the hero-maker, a great writer.

A careful reading of Cleary’s observations about Dora reveals that they form the root-concepts that have long-informed the Dora legend, words that quickly became memes and infiltrated into almost every recollection of experiencing Dora to follow. Some even credit Cleary with naming Dora “Da Cat.” Greg Noll, who made Dora’s “Da Cat” surfboard model would probably disagree, and rightly so, but Cleary does deserve credit for perhaps the earliest public exaltations of Dora’s “feline” style.

Cleary also thought Dora was “a genius who didn’t suffer fools, whose personality is too complicated and wound with contradiction and paradox. Even those close to him cannot claim to understand him.”

“Dora is wild, feral, feline,” he wrote in this brief excerpt from his unpublished manifesto, Nine Lives of Da Cat. “He is not savage. The savage is marked by innocence, and Dora doesn’t have a shard of innocence left in him anywhere.

“Dora is afloat in a sea of hostile elements. Rage is always lurking beneath his surface.

“As complex as Da Cat may seem, much of it is camouflage.

“Conversation with Mickey Dora is never dull. His wit is as lightening quick as it is acerbic. There is more than a little gypsy to him with the dark, feral cast to those eyes of his, which are always roving, reflecting a mind that is never still. When he is in one of his moods, conversation is a good deal like having your pocket picked.

"One can see everything there is to see in Mickey Dora when he is surfing. He is quick, supremely conscious, and he is always the first to know when the waves are coming and where. His timing and balance defy description. He is upon occasion even playful, but there is no one who takes his surfing more seriously than Mickey Dora.

"In surfing as in his life, Mickey Dora has made up his own game, plays it by his own rules, harvests his own re-wards. Nobody understands him. Even those intelligent enough to relate seldom grasp what he is saying and doing — because the Cat never lets anyone get too close. He is good at what he does, and he does it with grace and style. That's enough for me. People like him should be granted special status. Maybe they should be turned into national parks. At the very least they should be left alone."

"The magazines made a hero out of him. Everything he said was gospel, and they began to look at him as a kind of a god. He complained about surf movies made in Hollywood and yet he'd work for them. He complained about competition and then he'd compete, about the crowds and he was one of the crowd."
— LeRoy Grannis,
surf photographer emeritus

Debuting in January of 1963, Surf Guide magazine grew in circulation and influence, but it wasn't until Bill Cleary pried away art director John Van Hamersveld from Surfer in mid-1964 that the competition between the two surf bibles accelerated toward its crescendo.

JOHN VAN HAMERSVELD: Bill Cleary had said, "Come work for me. Let's do something together." I was at Surfer at the time and not supposed to work for anybody else, so says John Severson. I'd done the Endless Summer poster, and he was still pissed off that I did it while I was working for him. Bill and I sat down. "I'm on the entrails of this whole surf thing," I explained. "The whole thing is just out of control. It doesn't make sense to go in the water. It doesn't make sense to work for anybody that's connected to this. It's an artificial super-hype thing, and there are a lot of other things to do in the world than this." It was the Southerners against the Northerners, and I said, "Let's take the north and focus on the archetype" — the Malibu thing — "and let's take the people we know who are so great and a part of it, and have interviews."

The Golden Age of surfing was over. It was the mid-'60s. Kennedy was dead, the government, the war, the draft — all those issues are going on. What are we to do? We're like ducks on a telephone line. So we mobilized in the Surf Guide office. We got a room, and I set up a storyboard and kind of designed the magazine. Feigel sold the ads. Jim Ganzer was my paste-up assistant. Jimmy Fitzpatrick is the skateboarder on the team. The publisher, R.L. Stevenson, is a kind of entrepreneur. Bill is very charming; he's living in Topanga in one of the rooms off the Fitzpatrick house. It's quite amazing.

Cleary had already scored with The Angry Young Man of Surfing. As the first full-length interview ever given by Dora, the text introduced him to a generation of post-Gidget surfers. The story was also a wake-up call and notice

to his peers who, familiar with the Dora persona, were either horrified or bemused to read it in print.

After Van Hamersveld's arrival, Cleary wanted to take another shot with Dora. This time the King of Malibu resisted.

"One time around with you was enough, sweetheart," Cleary reported as Dora's response in the Nine Lives of Da Cat. "Forget it. I still say surfing magazines are for illiterates. Why else do you think they all look like comic books? The creepos who buy that magazine of yours can't even read, so why should I waste my breath?"

Another factor, according to Jim (later Jimmy 2.) Ganzer, "Miki hadn't done too many interviews. Whatever he did, he wanted to do it in a very special way, with a lot of constraints so you wouldn't really know what you had. He was a strange character."

"But Cleary was also a tricky guy," Bob Beadle remembers. "He'd resort to anything in order to embellish or direct the 'novel' that he -was writing. He'd do anything. Anything."

The "anything" Beadle refers to could account for the story of how Cleary managed to get that interview with Dora for the November 1964 Malibu issue. Rumor has it that the subterfuge required what Cleary later described as "rigging a couple of tape recorders, wiring them into my answering machine and stashing them out of sight." Then Cleary gathered interviews with the other story principals —Lance Carson, Kemp Aaberg, Tom Morey, Dave Rochlen — and waited for word to spread and Miki to feel left out. Cleary figured that Da Cat is always curious.

Cleary was right. Dora dropped by. They "had a beer and watched the sunset." Then Cleary flicked on the tape recorders and prodded Dora into conversation. "Listening to the tape later, I knew I had got exactly what I wanted. His dialog was perfect. I could print it word for word."

But had he?

BARBARA DENTZEL CLEARY: Bill told me the story of secretly taping Miki over and over again. That is 100 percent Bill. He was into the fun, secret I Spy stuff. I have no doubt it happened.

JIM GANZER: Cleary had hidden the recorder and did the interview during a typical social day surfing at Topanga. So Miki being Miki, he talked about everything from the demise of Western civilization, right on down the line. Remember, Cleary is a young novelist with a lot of energy, an ex-Marine who was at Camp Pendleton taking away people's boards. He was the bad guy who became a good guy.

Later, Cleary played back this interview for me one afternoon, and I was just in stitches because Miki had this fascinating delivery, a fantastic patois and canter, if you will. We still use it all the time. If we're in any situation where we feel like we're capering, we'll break right into being Miki... baby.

I said to Cleary, "Can you write it like that?" And he did. When it came out, Miki was furious because it was verbatim. It caught the inflection. Somebody else could read it and sound like Miki Dora, and he hated that. It was too much for him. It flipped him out; nobody had done that to him before. The interview was such an overwhelming success — people's recognition and love for Miki just skyrocketed at that point. Right after that was when The Cat models and all that stuff started to happen.

But not everyone is so sure.

JIM FITZPATRICK: I never saw Bill use a tape recorder, and I never heard a tape. It's possible, though. Cleary was bright and capable enough to 1) as a creative writer, create anything and make it sound authentic, and 2) was capable of remembering conversations nearly verbatim. But whatever happened, Miki seemed to feel betrayed because his conversations weren't to be published. They were serious stuff between peers discussing ideas, and he trusted that relationship. He wasn't just talking. In one way or another, I don't think Bill published the story with Miki's full approval.

BOB FEIGEL: Bill had an active imagination and his memory could be very selective and self-serving. But having said that, I'm still of the opinion that the "secret" taped interview episode actually took place in some form or other because I remember Bill talking about it shortly after the event. Nor was it one of the stories that he embellished or changed during the intervening years. The story originally involved one or two tape recorders — and I do know that he had two reel-to-reel recorders. He also showed me where he'd hidden the microphones.

Bill and I talked about a lot of things during that period because we spent weeks and weeks driving to Costa Rica from Malibu and back. He was gleeful that he got one over on Miki — who was always getting one over on everyone else.

After the story came out, Miki stormed into the Surf Guide warehouse at 26th and Colorado. He was pissed off, giving everyone dirty looks. Later, I heard him and Cleary screaming about it. He had been taken for more than he was willing to give. He was angry.

Eventually they called a truce. Dora's rationale, according to Cleary: "At least you didn't misquote me."

Or maybe...

DARRYL STOLPER: Miki and I had worked on a script for one interview. He always wanted to look controversial and sort of Mort Sahl-ish. We would try to come up with things for him to say that made him look controversial but not criminal. We went over it on the phone for two or three days — how much information they wanted, what we wanted to talk about, things like that. We'd kick around different ideas that would make Miki look like Miki. One of the scripts we worked on was supposedly for an interview done with a secret microphone by Bill Cleary. Dora being Dora, he didn't always shy away from the microphone.

PETER DIXON: When I started to write my book, Men Who Ride Mountains, I needed Miki's help. The book was in several sections; one was the Malibu scene. I began audiotaping various people. Miki was very

important — and a little bit difficult to pin down. I thought, this guy's being exploited a lot; they want him for this, they want him for that and nobody's paying him. I was being paid a pretty good sum of money by Bantam Books, so I figured if I was going to ask Miki for his time, I'd better pay him something. I made it a business proposition. I said, "What do you think, Miki? I don't want to exploit you, but I want to hear what you have to say and I want to ask you some questions."

He looked at me, quite surprised that I was treating him as a professional, and maybe a professional storyteller. He said, "OK. What do you want to pay?"

I said, "I don't know. I've never done this. I've $200 or $300 left over from the advance. How about $20 an hour." This was in 1965, so it's probably equal to $100 an hour today. He liked that. He said, "Yeah, let's do it."

I had a teeny office under a beach house at Topanga. Cleary was up the beach and was publishing Surf Guide magazine for which I had written many short stories. I said, "Come on over to my office at 3:30 tomorrow." He said, "I'll be there." Sure enough, at 3:30, he was promptly there, and he was prepared.

I had a list of questions. He was sort of formal at first and then began to relax. He didn't so much tell me about his early days and Card Chapin and all that, but what he felt about surfing at that time—how he really liked it and how he felt it was going to hell and was being exploited. And that he may not have been surfing as well then as he was five years ago, and that's why he didn't want to go into competition.

We had about five sessions. Every time he was there on time. There was no friction, no great ego. He was being professional.

He went through his life story: how he grew up, Malibu and the Pit, Tubesteak and all that. He was very matter-of-fact. He didn't act and wasn't expansive until he got to talking about what was happening to surfing. I can see in my mind's eye today his body posture sort of withdrawing in a gesture that I interpreted as, "I'm not so happy about this any more."

I never told anybody about the interviews, and I sensed that he would not want me to talk about it. It was just between the two of us. I had written three other books previously, and evidently he knew of my work and respected it. Also, I'd written many magazine pieces. When I had all this tape together, I began listening to it and it was almost a confessional. At that time, I wasn't perceptive enough to see that I really had something: a document about this guy's soul. I just wanted to tell a story that I could put in the book.

Finally, when I had finished editing Men Who Ride Mountains, Miki got short shrift. I could only give him several pages when he should have had the whole chapter.


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Los Angeles, California, United States
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