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Gidget the All-Powerful

Kathy Kohner, around 1957
Kathy Kohner
Kathy Kohner and Miki Dora
Kathy Kohner
Kathy Kohner, Malibu

Tubesteak Tracy was the first to notice 15-year-old Kathy Kohner as she passed by on the beach at Malibu during the summer of 1956. After a bit of obligatory heckling, Tracy shouted out, “See you around, Gidget!” Kohner was five-feet tall and weighed 95 pounds; as the better part of the Western world would soon learn, “Gidget” was a mashup of “girl” and “midget.”

Kohner learned to surf by trading peanut butter sandwiches—made herself in the kitchen of her family’s airy suburban ranch house in...