Darrilyn, Oh Darrilyn

Tom Zahn and Darrilyn Zanuck, 1948
Matt Kivlin (right), 1949
Vicki Flaxman (left), Aggie Bane (right), 1951
Vicki Flaxman, Malibu. Photo: Joe Quigg
Joe Quigg (left) and Tom Zahn, Waikiki, 1948

Simmons wanted to ground the entire boardmaking process in numbers and equations, but it didn’t work that way. Improved surfboard design in the postwar years was advanced just as much by luck and providence, even romance. Young Santa Monica surfer-designers Joe Quigg and Matt Kivlin also launched breakthrough boards into the lineup during the late 1940s and early 1950s, but these weren’t so much prototypes as valentines—shorter, thinner, lighter all-balsa “girl boards” originally made more or less on a whim for surfers’ sweethearts, then quickly hijacked once the guys discovered how much fun they were to ride.

In 1947, Joe Quigg, one year out of the navy, was a GI Bill photography student at Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. He was also a weekend boardmaker. No other twenty-two-year-old in the state had as much surfing experience; Quigg had made himself a bellyboard at age four and had been riding waves ever since. He was a solid performer, especially in the bigger stuff, and was already earning a reputation as a first-rate craftsman. It might take a few weeks, months even, to get a Joe Quigg surfboard, but each one was a thing of beauty.

Matt Kivlin was eighteen. He’d been surfing for just four years—virtuoso surfer-boardmaker Pete Peterson of Santa Monica had pushed Kivlin into his first wave and been a mentor by example—but the older guys returning from the war immediately recognized him as the hottest young rider on the coast. In the mid-forties, Kivlin had gone wave-hunting a few times with Simmons, and not long after Quigg returned from service, he and Kivlin joined forces with Simmons to make a run of “sandwich” boards. The partnership quickly failed, mostly over design issues, but also because of differences in temperament. Quigg and Kivlin were friendly and good-looking, smooth and sociable; Kivlin had a reputation for throwing the best beach parties in LA County, and if he was more popular with the honeys than Quigg, it was by the tiniest of margins. The solitary Simmons, meanwhile, glowered across the beachfront like a resin-stained Diogenes.

In the summer of 1947, Quigg got a board request from Tommy Zahn, his best friend and a fellow navy veteran. Zahn had just started dating Darrilyn Zanuck, the tiny blond seventeen-year-old daughter of Twentieth Century Fox mogul Darryl Zanuck. Zahn asked Quigg to make a board small and light enough for Darrilyn to load herself into the backseat of her new Chrysler Town and Country convertible and drive up to Malibu. Quigg visited a half dozen lumber yards to find the lightest possible wood, and a week later he handed Zahn a 10-foot 2-inch, 40-pound redwood-and-balsa squaretail, lifted slightly on both ends and gently curved on the rail line from nose to tail, with egg-shaped rails. The whole idea was to make the learning process easier for a hundred-pound teenage girl; each feature was designed to make the board as forgiving as possible.

Zahn presented the board to Darrilyn, borrowed it and returned it, then borrowed it again, and again, and eventually didn’t bother to give it back. Dave Rochlen, another easygoing Santa Monica surfer-vet, rode the board and liked it as well. So did thirty-four-year-old surf hero Pete Peterson. Nobody really wanted to admit they liked it. When borrowed, the Darrilyn board, by unspoken protocol, had to be used in a kind of bluff, grinning, throwaway manner. It was okay to play around with your girlfriend’s board on a slow afternoon, when the surf was blown out. Serious wave-riding, though—that was still done on bigger, heavier, man-sized equipment.

The following year, after Zahn and Zanuck broke up, ownership of the 10-foot 2-inch board became an issue. Darrilyn, remembered fondly by Quigg as “the first girl to buy a surfboard, stick it in the back of her car, and drive up and down the coast learning how to surf,” finally had to break into Zahn’s garage and steal her own board back.

These promising if gender-fraught board developments were put on hold in the fall of 1947 as Quigg, Kivlin, Zahn, and Rochlen sailed off to Hawaii. Each surfer brought along a wide, straight-railed, fiberglassed Simmons-style board with either one or two fins. Waikiki’s best surfers were still riding spear-shaped hot curls, finless and coated in varnish instead of fiberglass. The Hawaiians weren’t impressed with the visitors’ boards, which were skittery in the larger, more powerful island surf.

When Quigg and his friends returned to Los Angeles in mid-1948, they incorporated some hot curl features into their new boards, slimming the template and pulling in the nose and tail. Not too much, because the weaker California surf was better tapped using a bit more surface area. But the new boards were at least two inches narrower than what Simmons was making, and that alone was enough to set off a regional design schism: Simmons and his straight-railed, unidirectional “machines” on one side, and the younger Quigg-led boardmakers on the other.

In the late 1940s, Quigg made the first in his “pintail” series, where the aft rails were drawn together like a pencil point, after dreaming about a rocket-shaped board fast enough to deliver him in a blur of speed from the top of the point at Rincon—California’s best winter break—three hundred yards down the coast to Highway One. The hot curl was already enshrined as the first big-wave board. Quigg’s pintail series brought a new level of sophistication and craftsmanship to this specialized field in board design.

Not until 1950 did Quigg turn his attention back to the kind of smaller, lighter performance board that he’d made three years earlier for Darrilyn Zanuck. A new group of high school girls were on the scene. Aggie Bane and Robin Grigg, both sixteen, met Quigg and Kivlin on the beach at Santa Monica; Bane got a huge crush on Quigg and decided to have a party and invite all the local surfers. The mixing and flirting continued through winter and early fall, and just before school let out for summer vacation, a handful of girls all placed orders at once for new start-up boards. Quigg made one for Bane (their shotgun wedding followed a few months later) and her friend Vicki Flaxman. Kivlin was a half-step behind Quigg as a craftsman, but he worked faster, and made boards for Robin Grigg, Diane Griffith, and Claire Cassidy. They were all about 9 feet long, with more rocker and a narrower profile than the still-circulating Darrilyn 10-footer, and by carefully picking only the lightest balsa, Quigg and Kivlin trimmed the weight down to 25 pounds. After each board was shaped, but before it was glassed, the owner would paint her name in big letters across the deck. From then on, each board was known by its moniker—the Vicki board, the Di-Di board, the Aggie board.

These new girl boards were the prototypes for what would soon be called the “Malibu chip”—thin, nose-lifted, yellow-beige, and covered in paraffin wax for traction, they looked like giant, greasy potato chips. Quigg and Kivlin for the most part kept their boards plain. It was Dave Rochlen, boardmaker to Peter Lawford and other Hollywood-connected Malibu Colony habitués, and future founder of the baggy-legged Jams line of surf trunks, who began finishing his boards with bright colors and designs.

These latest Malibu surfers were the daughters, sisters, and nieces of women who’d put on workpants and shot rivets at Lockheed, Douglas, and the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, and they arrived in their teenage years with a certain proto-feminist swagger. They were nice upper-middle-class girls, but they cursed and drank, smoked cigarettes, and often drove too fast. They were never going to be dilettante wave-riders, as nearly all previous female surfers had been over the past fifty-plus years, propped up ornamentally on the nose of their boyfriends’ boards. The Malibu girls had their own equipment, and by the fall of 1950, after just a few months’ practice, they had collectively advanced from beginner to high intermediate, while Flaxman and Cassidy were riding better than most of the men.

Quigg and Kivlin loved having the girls in the water, and often rode with them, side by side, shouting encouragement. But there was the occasional eruption of male resentment, especially from a thick-chested twenty-year-old Golden Gloves fighter named Buzzy Trent, and from Bob Simmons, who began his rides from further up the point at Malibu than anyone and made it clear while barreling across that he wouldn’t hesitate to mow down any or all of the distaff newcomers. (Vicki Flaxman never beefed with Simmons, and was even-tempered by nature, but she was a broad-shouldered 150-pound surfing Amazon, and if someone cut her off on a wave then smirked about it afterward she would paddle up, shove him into the water, lean over and growl, “Don’t you ever, ever take off in front of me again.”)

The only surfers who improved at a similar rate as Flaxman and Cassidy were the guys who, once again, began shuffling up and asking to borrow their boards. Kivlin and a nineteen-year-old New York transplant named Les Williams were the two best surfers at Malibu, and they couldn’t keep their hands off the Di-Di board and the Aggie board. By 1951, it was becoming obvious that the same lighter, smaller board design that had made learning so much easier for schoolgirl neophytes was also going to raise the high-end performance standard. Any lingering doubts about the propriety of a man riding a girl’s board didn’t last much longer. “The most macho guys on the beach,” Quigg later said, “all had one by that summer.”

This shift marked the start of what would be called the Malibu style of riding. During their Waikiki trip, Quigg and Kivlin had been inspired by Rabbit Kekai, the era’s quickest surfer. As Kivlin later recalled, “All of a sudden it became really important who could turn the best,” and the new boards opened the door to a new performance realm. Ten years earlier, in order to maintain any directional control at all, plank riders had to stand near the tail, and the unweighted front end would pitch and yaw as it came across any surface bump. The Malibu chip allowed the surfer to ride near the center, which kept the board on a much quieter track. Further, the new board didn’t just hold an angle. By leaning over one rail or the other and applying pressure, the surfer could now drive a few degrees up and down the wave face. Williams in particular took advantage of the new mobility, steering his chip into one banked turn after the other, and then as the wave flattened out, muscling the nose around until he was actually riding against the grain—a move soon known as a “cutback.”

Kivlin’s approach was reserved by comparison. He used a narrow stance, like the old plank riders. But where past masters like Tom Blake and Pete Peterson tried to keep the hips, chest, and shoulders turned forward, almost in a skiing style, Kivlin positioned his feet and body plumb along the board’s centerline. It was a more asymmetrical way of riding, but it somehow felt more rooted, and all of the Malibu locals were soon doing it this way; surfers were now distinguished as left-foot-forward “regularfoots” and right-foot-forward “goofyfoots.”

Turns were a big deal to Kivlin, but he didn't change direction with attacking glee the way Williams did. Kivlin was a dancer—knees bent, shoulders loose, left arm dropped below the waist, right hand extended smoothly to hip level or above as a balancing mechanism. Williams was hot. Kivlin was cool—so cool, in fact, that he became modern longboarding’s sui generis stylist. One Malibu surfer described Kivlin’s method as “performance cruising,” which perhaps had a double meaning. As Joe Quigg explained, Kivlin surfed the way he did mostly to impress a beachful of female admirers. “Matt had quite a following,” Quigg said. “And when you bring women into the picture, it affects riding style.”

The Malibu chip was first and foremost a better-riding board. But it was also a touchstone for a group of surfers who helped to change the sport’s disposition. In the hands of people like George Freeth, Tom Blake, Bob Simmons, and even Pete Peterson, surfing at times looked to be the province of loners and misfits. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, and they helped give the still-new sport it’s own particular energy and independence. But Joe Quigg, Matt Kivlin, Tommy Zahn, Dave Rochlen, and the rest of the Malibu chip innovators were closer in spirit to Duke Kahanamoku. They smiled their way through the whole process, from designing boards to wave-riding. They were sociable. They opened things up to girls and beginners, and managed the difficult trick—rarely achieved in decades to come—of presenting the sport as both cool and friendly.

These new surfers were the daughters, sisters, and nieces of women who’d put on workpants and shot rivets at Lockheed, Douglas, and the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, and they arrived in their teenage years with a certain protofeminist swagger.