Grown-up Gidget

Kathy Kohner

Courtesy Of Kathy Kohner Zuckerman

The name Gidget has been associated with Sandra Dee, Deborah Walley, Sally Field, Karen Valentine and the ever unmemorable Cindy Carol and Caryn Richman. The enduring beach character with the “girl midget” nickname was created by author and screenwriter Frederick Kohner in his book Gidget/The Little Girl with the Big Ideas. The book was based on tales his daughter Kathy told him about her days at the beach in Malibu. Now in her 60s, Kathy Kohner Zuckerman will appear at a benefit beach party for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society at the Harrah’s Auto Museum on Saturday, May 6 at 11:30 a.m.

Your father left Czechoslovakia during the Nazi period. A lot of the people who went through that had a dark view of life. He seems to have been fairly upbeat—Never Wave At A Wac, Gidget, and so on. How do you account for that?

Never talked about the dark time—ever. It wasn’t a topic in our home, and I remember in 1954 and 1955 we went to Berlin because my father got a writing job … I remember we rented a sort of a flat in somebody’s home, and I remember my mother saying something about the fact that she felt that maybe the people we were renting the house from had been involved with the bad period. It was the first time I ever heard the word “Nazi.” So yes, I mean, whether I was being protected or it was just something that they personally never experienced—except for my dad’s favorite aunt who went to the camps.

Did she get out alive?

No. That was something that—I really had a happy childhood. It was a happy household. My dad worked in the home, typing away on his Royal typewriter. And somebody asked me once, “How come you got to go to Malibu all the time?” And it was because the family car was always at home … He was very successful with Gidget. He never wrote a screenplay again, I don’t think.

Most people get to define themselves. Your father kind of defined you. All your life you’ve been Gidget.

Gidget is a work of fiction. I did hang out at Malibu. I was called Gidget. Everybody had nicknames. I think, probably, I was so happy that I got a nickname, too, because then I was part of the gang. It was my idea to write the story because I saw something so incredibly unusual at Malibu … And I said, “I want to write a story.” And my dad said, “You know, I’m the writer. I’ll write the story for you. Just tell me.” And actually I think I must have told him everything, without hesitation.

Did the book’s success make it difficult for you to move on to being someone else?

Well, I moved right along. I never went back to Malibu from 1960 on … I was out of the surfing scene. I was Kathy Kohner, and then I got married to Zuckerman, and I’ve been married for 41 years. Rarely did people call me Gidget … Now I’m very much Gidgety again because of the enormity of the interest, and the book is out. [It was reissued in 2001.]

Do you have contact with whoever Moondoggie was based on?

Yes, absolutely. His name is Bill Jensen. He lives in Taos, New Mexico. He was the major love interest. In fact, I was looking in my diary the other day. I documented every time he phoned me—you know, the day and time. And I didn’t marry Bill. … He and all the other young men would most likely say, “She was 15, 16. We were 19, 20, 21. She was jailbait.”