A Touch of Glamour

Publicity still, late '40s
Santa Cruz, 1940s
Pete Peterson, Venice, 1940s
Peter Lawford, Santa Monica, mid-'40s

Before World War II, surfing lived in the reflected light of the tropics, with Duke Kahanamoku’s noble dark-eyed visage shining godlike from on high. Surfers and lifeguards were one and the same (in Australia), or close associates (in America), and the sport in general was lightly spritzed in heroism. After the war, surfing began its long march to the near and far corners of industry and media, and it became the cool new activity of choice for droves of revved-up bushy-blond suburban Southern California teenagers. It traveled with pandemic speed north to Santa Cruz, east to the Atlantic Seaboard, further east to Biarritz and Newquay, and south to Lima, Rio, and Durban. Surfing had in fact already been introduced to many of these places. But the postwar style of surfing—the Southern California style, with trunks worn low on the hips, and an often-shouted litany of stoking new words and phrases, and a fervor not just to ride waves but to be known as a wave-rider, and do so in a way that might piss off non-surfers—this was new.

Surfers already had a history of distancing themselves from mainstream society; that’s just what Depression-era masters like Tom Blake, Whitey Harrison, and Pete Peterson had done. There was continuity in this development. But in the hands of California youth, surfing wasn’t so much a refuge from society as an alternate universe. And because California during those crucial postwar years was also birthing modern American pop culture, that alternate universe, in short order, was broadcast around the globe.

Other cultural forces were at work, too. California was central to the emergence of America’s postwar suburban middle class. The state’s thriving industrial base—driven by big-ticket Pentagon defense contracts, which spurred a wave of military-supported aerospace companies—meant that it had plenty of well-paying jobs. California newcomers arrived in droves: 1.4 million arrived in Los Angeles County alone during the 1940s, and almost 2 million more came in the 1950s. Many of the newcomers were former GIs who’d trained at Pendleton or El Toro during the war and couldn’t wait to return in peacetime. In the early 1950s, Los Angeles County became the nation’s most populated county (breezing past Illinois’ Cook County), while Orange County and San Diego County soon followed in the top five. Fires, earthquakes, race riots, locally-bred cults and quacks—nothing could stop the migration to Southern California.

Suburban housing tracts multiplied by the thousands across Southern California’s interior, each one paving over a few acres of orange, lemon, or walnut groves. A massive new regional freeway system fanned out to connect dozens of just-incorporated and invitingly-named cities—Garden Grove, Lakewood, Thousand Oaks. These sleek multilane highways provided easy access to Highway One, which in turn linked every California surf break from Dana Point up to Huntington Pier and Malibu, and then way north, past Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz and beyond San Francisco into surfing’s great West Coast unknown. Right away, just from all the aerospace engineers looking for something to do on the weekends, there was a bump in the number of Southern California wave-riders.

In addition, Southern California was the beating heart of America’s entertainment industry, and the region had in large part already staked its reputation on celebrity and glamour. Los Angeles was a leader in radio, home to Hollywood and the American movie industry, and in the 1950s it would claim television as well. TV ownership nationwide went from ten thousand sets in 1946 to 5 million in 1950, and network coverage of Pasadena’s annual New Year’s Day Rose Parade taunted America’s frost-bound states with Southern California’s typical midwinter balminess. This alone likely convinced a few hundred thousand people each year to move west.

Glamour here had its own unique palette. No place else looked liked Southern California, and the hypersaturated Technicolor film that became a Hollywood standard in the early 1950s was the perfect media analogue to a landscape that could be similarly brilliant and unnatural—the turquoise blue swimming pools and water-sucking green lawns. Even the brilliant sunsets that so often bought a tranquil end to the surfer’s day at the beach owed much of their color and vividness to the abiding stratum of oxidizing smog that filled the Los Angeles Basin. (The electric-powered Red Car train system that had transported George Freeth so cheaply and efficiently between Redondo Beach and Venice Beach prior to World War I had been dismantled by the mid-fifties, by which time Los Angeles was the runaway national leader in both car ownership and air pollution.)

Meanwhile, Southern California’s celebrity culture touched and blessed surfing. After the Rindge family was forced to sell parts of their enormous Malibu Ranch, Hollywood quickly established a beachfront bedroom community in what was called the Malibu Colony. Former child star Jackie Coogan, tough-guy character actor Richard Jaeckel, Rat-Packer-in-the-making Peter Lawford, and a few other respectable B-listers bought surfboards and often walked down the point to ride and socialize with the Malibu regulars. Santa Monica surf-hunk Tommy Zahn dated a blond divorcée named Norma Dougherty in 1947, just months before she signed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox and changed her name to Marilyn Monroe. “I was twenty-two, and I guess she was twenty,” Zahn later recalled. “I used to take her surfing at Malibu, tandem surfing, in the dead of winter, and it didn’t phase her a bit. She was very good in the water. Very robust.” Other young newsmaking females were out there, too. Among California Governor Earl Warren’s brood of handsome and vivacious children, his stunning blue-eyed daughter Nina “Honey Bear” Warren dated surfers and became a semi-regular at Malibu.

Finally, it was Southern California that invented the cult of the teenager. The monster of demography known as the baby boom wouldn’t make its presence felt until the late 1950s, but California was already the national bellwether state for just about everything young and new. Disneyland had just opened. Seventeen magazine sold by the hundreds of thousands here. A galaxy of West Coast hot-rod and motorcycle clubs had just come into existence, and the Friday night cruising was endless on Van Nuys Boulevard and a hundred other Main Street drags from Bakersfield to Chula Vista.

Surfing after the war could survive pretty much anywhere. But only Southern California could launch it into a national, then international, craze.

The postwar style of surfing—the Southern California style, with trunks worn low on the hips, and a fervor not just to ride waves but to be known as a wave-rider, and do so in a way that might piss off non-surfers—this was new.