THE FATHER OF U.S. SURFING
by IAN WHITCOMB
(This article appears in an edited version in “American Heritage Magazine” August,2000. http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/2000/4/2000_4_34.shtml
Here is the original version of September, 1998).
…..Waikiki Beach in the early summer of 1907. Jack London, the famous and excitable All-American author had just arrived there with his wife-mate Charmian …
According to Jack London’s side of the story his first sight of surfing was while he was lolling in the shade of a date palm one morning on Waikiki Beach. The writer of muscular tales full of febrile excitement where men, stripped of civilization and bursting with atavism, fought like beasts and acted like boys, was taking it easy like a tourist should. He and his wife-mate had just sailed in on their home-made boat, “The Snark”, after a rough journey from San Francisco. Luckily, all the goods they’d brought with them had survived, including hundreds of books and gramophone records.
So here was London, after completing a fruit-filled breakfast and his ritual thousand words, kicking back in paradise, a little overweight but brimming with manliness. And then, quite suddenly, he was presented with a thrilling vision:
All morning the surf had been thundering and churning, and forming battle lines of waves with smoking crests or welters of spume and so on. But now, atop one of these growling rollers, there appeared a sea-god, a veritable Brown Mercury, a fully erect man of magnificent body, flying at you through the spray-filled air until–boomph!–he lands at your feet, picks up an enormous board at one fell swoop, gives you a careless glance as he strides past, and leaves you, slumped in your beach chair, to gaze at the remnants of breakers now falling spent on the sand. And you are spent with amazement.
This splendid fellow, decides the writer, is “a natural king, a member of the kingly species that has mastered matter and the brutes”. With winged heels, he has flown over the ocean’s back. He has Lorded it over Creation. A few minutes later, and with the careless Mercury out of the picture, London shakes himself out of his romantic stupor and injects a bit of hard reality. As an Anglo-Saxon he’s as good as this blackened creature with the big redwood plank. He too will try riding the waves.
But, at first, he’s hopeless at the surfing game–until a bearded man called Ford approaches to give him some pointers and then, a little later, introduces him to the sea-god himself, a kid named Freeth. Silently, the lad shows the author how to duck under or dive through the killer waves. Out in the blue yonder lies the greatest test of all, but for the moment remember never to be rigid, never to struggle against the mighty smokers. Always relax and yield to Nature. This London fully understands and always has. Over and over he tested the waves and they tested him back, with a vengeance.
Next day, he was flat on his back with a bad case of sunburn. How could Freeth be so deliciously nut-brown and he so raw beefsteak? For the story was that Freeth was only part native. Mostly, they said, he was Irish.
Painful though it was, London was determined to produce the daily thousand words. He ran way over, well into the thousands, for his cup was full and he was shaking with excitement. By lunchtime he had a complete article, straight from the heart, no revisions: “A Royal Sport” he scribbled on the top. I have held the manuscript in my hand here at The Huntington Library: loose, lined pages which start in ink and go into pencil (when he ran out of ink, or the nib broke due to his passion?), lots of crossings out, but mainly one continuous stream of words, punctuated with stains (jam or blood?) until, at the climax, he states his desire, his determination, to become, like Freeth, a sunburned, skinpeeled Mercury. “The Snark” will not leave until he achieves his aim.
In reality, he never became a surfer. He remained in bed another week and then off they sailed. In October, the article was published nation-wide in “A Woman’s Home Companion” and, a little later, as a chapter in his book, “The Cruise of The Snark”. Thus word was spread to the mainland, and then to the rest of the world, about a fabulous new sport.
But Jack London’s story, stirring though it be, is not exactly how things really happened.
Charmian, his wife, wrote her account in a later book called “Our Hawaii”. This, together with articles by Alexander Hume Ford (the bearded man whom London met in the breakers) provide the monochrome necessary to counterbalance the purple prose.
Jack and Charmian, in fact, met Ford not in the “accumulated agitation” of the foam but much earlier, and on dry land: at their dinner table in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Honolulu, on the evening of May 30, 1907. The couple had been enjoying cocktails and canapés when up strode a young man who immediately introduced himself as Alexander Hume Ford. He had a beard like the King of Spain and a rattling fine line in talk: “I’m told I resemble Bernard Shaw–what’d you think?”.
Both men admired each other’s firm handshake and, as it turned out, each other’s work. Of course, London was the star but Ford had a reputation as a travel writer and the star acknowledged that he’d read one of Ford’s pieces in “The Century Magazine”. Ford was staggered and, like a typical nervous fan, took this as a opportunity to tell London (with an occasional polite look at his wife) all about his own career and his wanderings and everything. You see, like most of us, Ford didn’t want to appear to be sucking up to the celebrity, to be gobbling morsels dropped from the great man’s table. So he jabbered away. And, in turn, the Londons ate and drank and thoroughly relaxed in the warm waves of information. In particular, Jack drank much more than he ate, and all his meats were raw.
They learned that Ford had been born in South Carolina to an old Southern family, had written plays with Mark Twain himself, had been globetrotting in the 1890s and had a string of articles published by “Harper’s” and “McClure’s” to support his traveler’s tales. He’d arrived in Hawaii only a few weeks ago but was already burrowing deep into the local culture and was anxious to revive the almost extinct art, yes art, of riding down hills of boiling foam, by half-naked islanders mounted on white horses. Had London ever seen such splendid physical specimens? Then he must, as soon as possible! Years ago, Ford’s friend Mark Twain, had witnessed such surf-bathing and had reported it in “Roughing It”. He’d been disgusted by the puritanism of the missionaries, ignoramuses who’d repressed the “natural ways of men”, who’d put a stop to native sea pleasures such as surf-bathing in the all-together when the girls’ breasts swung freely in the breeze and the boys’ privates smacked to and fro.
Upon this, Ford checked himself, offering an apology to Charmian. But London pooh-poohed the attempt, reminding Ford that Charmian was his “mate”. Suddenly, Ford got up and snapped his fingers: “Look here, old chap!”, he shouted, jutting out his beard in what appeared to be an aggressive manner except that London approved of such behavior in fired-up males. “Look here! If you’ll let me, I can introduce you to some whacking good material for your stories. My stuff is all rot”. He proceeded to invite the couple to join him next day for a trip to Waikiki. “So that you can see for yourself the natives as they sport and play in the big waves. And you must meet Freeth–he’s just your handwriting!”
So next morning the trio traveled by electric cable car to Waikiki. It was stifling hot and they got jostled by the excited holiday crowd around and between them. Nobody knew or cared about the famous Jack London. The air was full of solipsism and hedonism. Amidst the laughter and shouting and the hooting of party horns Ford’s constant monolog was hard to understand. He seemed to be a compulsive talker, always looking this way and that, like a nervy ostrich.
Sometime after lunch Ford mysteriously changed his outfit and was now garbed in a rather garish striped bathing costume. “Ta-ra!”, he said. Then off he stalked to find them some digs, returning in a short hour (just as London was really deep into his post-prandial nap) to inform them he’d secured a charming “free-standing residence”, annexed to the Seaside Hotel, complete with rambling green sward that ran straight into the ocean, and quite close to a well-known surfing beach which the local beach boys patronized. When the Londons saw the “residence” they realized it was really only a sort of canvas-and- wire erection. They loved it at once. Ford excused himself, saying he was staying with a local duke.
That evening the trio dined al fresco at the Miana Hotel, amid trees hung with Chinese lanterns, and to a delightful orchestra of guitars and ukuleles. “Plucked like Puck”, said London and quickly noted his new coinage in a leather-bound pad. Charmian wished out loud that if only Jack could dance … But he and Ford were immersed in beach plans for the morrow. She thought they looked like little boys at play.
“Wait till you meet Freeth!” Jack was dying to know all about him. “Never speaks, you know”, said Ford. “He’s a man of deeds, not words. His walk alone is eloquence in motion”. Jack pressed for more. Ford was only too happy to oblige. Charmian drew closer to the orchestra.
“Well, he’s twenty-three and only part Polynesian. His father was an Irish sailor and his mother we’re not quite certain about–probably a mulatto. Of course, the family claim to be descended from a local prince, but everybody here is royal, don’t you know, ha, ha! … Anyway, some noble uncle gave young Freeth a surfboard after the boy had seen an old picture of surfing in his relative’s house. By this time the missionaries had well nigh exterminated the sport. Well, the clandestine board was hellishly long–about sixteen feet–and Freeth had the bright idea of chopping it in two so’s he could at least pick it up. And then, of course, with the lighter board he was able to do lots more on it–like standing up, as the ancients did.
He’s the best swimmer and the best surfer in the islands–and that means he’s the world champion. And as I’m the best talker I knew that we should get together. Andorganize!
First of all, I weaned the beach boys from wearing those silly long puritan pantaloons. Put them back into the traditional loin cloths so that they could show off their natural attributes. Now I’m trying to stop them consuming dreadful mainland food such as cakes, ice cream and frankfurters. Ruining their physique–worse than missionary hymns! Freeth has attracted, in his special non-verbal way, a following among the local boys and they’re forming a waterman’s club–under my watchful eye, of course.
There’s something spiritual about Freeth that makes him stand out from the rest, like a bright light. He’s a paragon of modern youth, yet he resists the mainland imports, and holds to the old pantheism. Water is his God, and it’s all around and inside of him. When he rides the waves he’s almost–dare I say it?–a Christ-like figure. No–I’ve gone too far: he’s pre-Christian, of course. Sorry, I’m overdoing it, Jack. Must be the wine. You chose a good vintage.”
* * *
The Londons were up early, with Jack seeming none the worse for his night’s drinking. Within the hour he’d scribbled his ritual thousand words and gulped down two glasses of fresh orange juice. Charmian busied about the makeshift kitchen, chopping up raw beefsteak for stirring into Jack’s mess of eggs. Then they waited–and waited. Was Ford ever going to collect them for the surf lesson? What kind of time did they keep out here in Hawaii? Polynesian time, it turned out. Nothing happened before noon in these exotic parts.
And exactly at noon Ford appeared, in an even brighter swimming costume, to escort the couple to nearby Kuhio beach where the local watermen congregated. It was here that Jack first spied on Freeth. Ford pointed him out, a silhouette against the noonday sun, a nonchalant yet graceful outline of perfection way out beyond the reef, his hand resting easily on his hip. “Come”, ordered Ford. “He’s out where the blue breakers are”. Jack put down his notes, eager to be active. (So far he’d scribbled, “Freedom, beauty, wonder! No more celebration of the beast! Beauty conquers all! I must enter the contest!!”) But when Jack dashed off down the beach to join the siren out beyond the reef, Charmian held back, frightened. “Be a boy!”, said Ford. And he grabbed her hand and led her down to the sea and into the small waves and, eventually, out to where Freeth was still standing, staring at something well beyond the horizon. “Tell us your secrets, boy!” shouted Ford.
But Freeth never replied. Perhaps he never heard. All he did was slowly turn and disappear, like a conjuror’s trick, into a thundering huge wave. Jack London had met a lot of Hawaii’s big businessmen, the island power brokers, but this lad, this Freeth–he really took the biscuit.
* * *
“They don’t know what they’ve got here,” said the author to the promoter on the day of leaving. “The Snark” was ready, further adventures were waiting. Charmian was champing at the bit. “I mean, Ford”, he continued as he gave his new friend a hearty hand clasp of farewell, “That you are in a paradise on earth. Remember that!”
Ford remembered–and acted without delay. His friend had given him inspiration, and also the very fountain pen from off his writing desk. A few months later, “A Royal Sport”, the article on surfriding, appeared and soon boatloads of tourists were arriving, hell-bent on pleasures of the outdoor flesh. Ford was up to the occasion, the opportunity: he replaced the lackadaisical local surfer hangout with a proper organization, “The Outrigger Canoe & Surfboard Club”, complete with its own acre of beachfront, on a 20-year lease at $5 a year. Then he had trails cut in the mountains to facilitate tramping; he founded the Hands-Around-The-Pacific Club, and the Mid-Pacific Magazine. He boosted Hawaii and surfing in the same breath, and heavily in print. He was tireless. And all the time hotels were springing up, and friendly shrubbery planted, and drinks iced and towels fresh and always available. “These are the only islands in the world where men and boys ride upright upon the crests of the waves”, wrote Ford. They also wore next-to-nothing-loin cloths, thongs even–and the tourists were not ready for such costumes. Proper clothing was soon the order of the day, and now even the ladies had a go on the boards. By 1911 the waves were getting rather choked with riders, sometimes a hundred of them could be seen where once was only the silhouette of Freeth.
In 1915, when Jack and Charmian returned to Hawaii for a breather, the Outrigger Club had a long waiting list and an even longer row of numbered surfboard lockers. The couple had a terrible time getting a hotel room for the night. Ford came to the rescue, naturally. Of course, he was thrilled to renew his friendship with the great author in the flesh again. He later wrote a little memoir of these happy times with Jack in the shack he’d found for him, away from the tourists: “He aroused the boy that slumbers in every man”. Play began at 9 am, after the 1,000 words had been written, and play meant diving into the foam with wife-mate at the side. So adept were the couple now that they could swim a mile out, away from the tourist surfers, and sport–beyond the reef–in the heavenly blue waters.
But where was George Freeth, the inspiration for all these frolics?
* * *
He had answered the call of the mainland, he had gone where the spotlights fall. Shortly after the publication of “A Royal Sport” there arrived in the islands some heavy-suited men, agents of a big business empire. They represented one Henry Huntington, a railroad and real estate magnate of Southern California. They had an offer to make to the 23 year-old wizard of the waves: for a certain amount of money, at a certain time and a certain place, would the lad demonstrate his “walking on water”? His scheduled appearances could constitute a sterling attraction in the Southland. They would be well- advertised. George was willing and able. He asked no questions. He became, quite simply, part of the promotion. The Bronze Mercury was to be a lure.
For Mr. Huntington owned–among many other properties–a seaside town called Redondo Beach which, prior to his purchase, had been a barren spot, good only for sheep-herding. Henry’s brother-in-law, a canny businessman himself, had written that the very name “Redondo” made a capitalist “shy like a horse at an automobile.” However, Henry had vision and plans. In 1905 he bought 90% of the town; by 1907 he’d built a three story pavilion, a good restaurant, a large theatre. Next came the million dollar Hotel Redondo, designed on classic English lines with dreaming spires and tall wobbly chimneys and gold-framed prints of hunting scenes. Now he needed customers to not only come out for a holiday by the sea but also to buy up the available real estate. To this end he utilized his famous fleet of electric Red Cars, shipping out thousands of trippers by the day from nearby Los Angeles: “Free Excursions Every Twenty Minutes!”, screamed his ads in “The Los Angeles Times”. “Dirt Is Flying! Spikes Are Being Driven!”
George was imported in time for the summer season of 1908. All along the coast, from Santa Monica to Laguna, town criers were vying for the attention of the summer crowd, summoning up dazzling visions of pleasure piers and amusement palaces, glittering towers and winking lights. There was Venice- By-The-Sea and there was Naples-By-The-Sea. There was the promise of real freedom by the sea. An escape from the urban prison of thick, constricting clothing: of corduroy, serge, and high-buttoned boots; of underwear of mercurized gauze, featuring reinforced seats. An escape, too, from the ever-present inland threat of hideous diseases with Latin names that could give you nervous debility, bladder disorders, and also “The Gravel”. The papers were crammed with ads for metal nose cones and cork legs and the famous celery-and-peat mud bath. How simple to grab a Red Car for the beach, soak in the curative ozone and see a show.
The Red Car took you straight to the Hotel Redondo from where, after a full lunch, you could watch an exhibition of biblical proportions. At 2pm, and again at 4pm, a young Hawaiian “walked on the waters” without the aid of mirrors or smoke machines, without the aid of electricity. He just came creaming in on a wave, picked up his huge plank and ambled off with but the smallest hand gesture. The announcer said the wave-walker was an Irishman from Hawaii and that his board was 8 feet long, 2 feet wide, and weighed over 200 pounds. Also, he was single and had blue eyes and brown wavy hair. Women of all ages watched him closely, admiring the manly chest, the wasp waist, and all the curves and bulges outlined by his tight woolen swimsuit. He was a Greek god–that was the saying going around. They said his suit had to be forced on him because he’d arrived from the islands with much too brief an outfit, a sort of thin native loin cloth affair.
The dollars that rolled in because of George’s surfing eventually found their way to Mr. Huntington, way up in his solid stately home in San Marino, a stultifying town far inland, where the sun beat down mercilessly but where, safe behind thick brick was a growing treasure of great British art. Eventually the grand haul would include Caxton’s Bible, Shakespeare’s Quartos, crates of 18th century British oils and watercolours, and–crowning glory–Lawrence’s “Pinkie” gazing at Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy”.
George’s ocean skills had contributed to the cash that bought these treasures. Did Huntington and his agents ever consider that their surfer was a work of art himself? A living, breathing, undulating sea creature, a natural beauty every bit as enticing as “Pinkie” and the “Blue Boy?” Never, I’m sure. And as I sit here typing this at my basement desk in Henry Huntington’s Library I find it hard to summon up a vision of sun, sea and sinew in my windowless corner with its daunting walls of great literature staring at me.
Came the autumn of 1908 and the crowds melted like sandcastles. But there was still plenty of good work for George. In nearby Venice, a facsimile created by cigarette baron Abbott Kinney, George set up a volunteer life-saving crew based on the pier. Who bankrolled him nobody knows. But he got by–his needs were few. Nobody ever saw him in a regular suit. By wintertime he and his boys had saved 50 people from drowning. George was always the first to dive in. And what a diver, too! At every incident, it seemed, he was inventing a new dive: triple somersault, double twist with head between knees, cannonball curve (for a laugh)–and always he came home with his victim safe and sound.
On Wednesday, December 17 a terrible storm blew up in Santa Monica Bay. Huge walls of water came crashing in and the newspapers warned boatsmen not to venture out under any circumstances. But 11 Japanese fishermen, unaware of the danger, set off in a skiff from their beach village near the port of Los Angeles. There had been a temporary lull in the storm and they needed their daily catch of croaker to make ends meet. At noon a great gale to end all gales arose and they were in big trouble. George and his lifesavers, however, were there on the pier and ready for action. “It was a mad and crazy sea”, said the “Los Angeles Times” next day. But George was “the hero of the hour, battering through the water wall”, and leaping into the skiff full of terrified Japanese, who were praying hard to their gods.
Then, without a pause, he did an amazing thing: he seized the rudder and, standing up straight, he surfed the skiff through the angry rollers all the way back to the beach. Those waves were furious! They were at least “1,000 ton breakers”, reported the “Times”. On the beach local worthies of Santa Monica lined up to shake his hand and “girls crowded round (him) just to pat his tanned shoulders and smile at him”. The grateful Japanese fishermen renamed their village “Freeth” in his honor. He was awarded the Carnegie Medal and also a Congressional one.
Huntington’s men were reading. Next year when Redondo opened its magnificent bath house George was hired as the chief instructor. What a place it was!–as only California could boast: the largest heated saltwater “plunge” in the world with 3 pools, 1,350 dressing rooms, a Turkish and steam bath, even a trapeze. Two thousand bathers could be accommodated at one and the same time, and with George Freeth as an added attraction you could be sure that the laundry would be working non-stop processing fresh towels.
He was given an office for his new job, with a panoramic ocean view. Whenever he emerged from it he was always in work clothes–that is, a form-fitting woollen singlet in shiny green with “Swimming Instructor” pressing out from across his chest. Many wanted to know whether he owned a wardrobe of normal clothing, but nobody ever saw him after dark.
No matter. Why judge a man by his private life–even if it is wrapped in mystery–when he is doing such a splendid job by day and in full public view? He not only gave swimming lessons, teaching the new- fangled “crawl” and the “trudgeon” (his speciality) but he daily demonstrated the most amazing dives, elaborations on the ones he’d done from Venice pier when saving lives: he perfected the “two-and-a-half forward somersault with the double twist” and then he’d round off the exhibition by climbing up into the top beams of The Plunge and executing a swallow dive–almost 50 feet.
Ex-pupils of his, old men in the 1980s, remembered the magic of those dives: “He was doing a swallow but he looked more like a hawk”, said Harold Braude, a retired insurance salesman still living in Redondo Beach. “I see him in slow motion, almost frozen in the moment. I see him as a creature of the air. Yet at other times, when he was teaching us the trudgeon or playing water polo, he seemed to be permanently attached to the water, like he was a part of it”.
Faery-like to his boy pupils perhaps–but Freeth was also a man of action and accomplishment at The Plunge. He started the first water polo team, followed by water basketball. He led his teams to national championships. One night, up with his team in San Francisco for a diving contest, he was seen strumming a ukulele as his young admirer and protegé Duke Kahanamoku executed a hula. The Duke was to win a gold medal for swimming at the 1912 Olympics; Ludy Langer, another Freeth pupil, was later to win a silver medal. But George won nothing, except hearts and minds and imagination, because he was ineligible: he had been paid money to swim and dive and surf and stroll. He was a pro, not a gentleman.
Of course, he never said a word about this. He just kept moving. Innovating too: he set up the first lifeguard corps at Redondo Beach and, thus, the very first in the world. He designed their suits and the spread of the lettering; he had manufactured a cigar-shaped rescue canister (with cable attached) for use in life-saving; if the drama was taking place a long way from The Plunge then he’d send out his motor-cycle- and-sidecar unit, fully armed with can, cable, bandages, and iodine. And in between all this, often at sunset, he could be seen creaming in gracefully on a wave. Small boys followed him as he walked up the beach, until he disappeared into the gloaming.
Where did he go? Nobody knows. But in 1913 he was engaged as swimming instructor by the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Henry Huntington may have been behind this for he’d had a big say in the construction of the club’s enormous and good-looking swimming pool. His say had been to build it into the sixth floor of the downtown building so that athletes could look out of the windows and be aware of the business of business being carried on ceaselessly below. How did George react to the men in suits hurrying beneath him, to the gasoline fumes, the rattle of the trolley cars, the ringing of the telephone? More to the point, how did the burgeoning movie industry react to this superman of the sea?
Colonel Selig’s movie company had infested the Club’s gymnasium in 1912 to film a comedy about suffragettes. Next came the Oz Film Company, organized to film L. Frank Baum’s popular books. Witches flew threw the air in the gym. Harold Lloyd and Hal Roach were cast as Hottentots. Word got around and movie people found the club a pleasant place to use as digs: Charlie Chaplin and Al Jolson, for example.
Apart from the stars there were the frontline movie trenchmen at the club, too–taking, a steam bath or a rub-down–and talking turkey: agents, publicity men, producers. Why did none of them take notice of George and his heroism? Why didn’t they immediately star him in an action photoplay? Most of the movie actors of those days were pudgy thespians, veterans of the New York theatre. But George, for some mysterious reason, was passed on by even as he performed a straight arrow high dive. Later, in the 1930s, two other L.A. Athletic Club team members were to come to the notice of the movie men and given the chance to thrill the world with their swim-star physiques: Buster Crabbe and Johnny Weissmuller.
Frank Garbutt, an L.A. booster and oil magnate, was a mover-and-shaker of the club, and he loved new-fangled things–planes and autos and, especially movies. It was Garbutt who brought Jack London back into the vicinity of George by building a movie studio nearby for the purpose of filming London novels, starting with “The Sea Wolf” in 1913. Lots of sea and violence, but no work for George. Had London dropped him? What had George done–or not done? We’ll never know. But the great writer of viscera was rapidly deteriorating into a jellyfish full of aches and pains and bile. In 1915, during what was to be his last stay in Hawaii, he roared out passages from his new novel “The Mutiny of the Elsinore” to a rapt and floor-prone Alexander Hume Ford. The Northern European white man, ran the novel’s thrust- thesis, is being crowded out of America but before he disappears beneath the weight of the Latin, the Slav, and other lesser races, he will go down fighting. “Darn the wheel of the world! Why must it continually turn over? Where is the reverse gear?”, cried London. Next year, death, his dreaded “noseless one”, claimed him. And Ford stayed in Hawaii to count the tourists and to regret the boosterism of he and his great friend; the sea was becoming cluttered.
Perhaps George too began to feel the pressure of population, of too many jostling, hustling people. At any rate, by 1917, with London dead and Ford a portly and sedentary editor, the nature boy had moved on down the coast. In San Diego he continued to teach and to set up lifeguarding. Surfing became his secondary occupation, an entertainment not a necessity. Many more lives were saved by his diving into the ocean here and there and everywhere. In April, of 1919 he was in Oceanside, some distance from his San Diego base, rescuing a bunch of distressed swimmers. He emerged from the operation thoroughly exhausted and came down with a cold which then turned into ‘flu. But this was a special kind of ‘flu–the Spanish influenza pandemic that had been raging since 1918 and which was to eventually kill more people than had been killed in the recent Great War. George became a statistic on April 7, 1919. He was 35. He was like one of A. E. Housman’s “smart lads”, slipping away while still in his true glory, never becoming withered or paunchy, a club bore droning of forgotten exploits.
Did he leave papers, to be carefully indexed and stored for posterity and immortality at an institution such as The Huntington Library in which I now sit and write? No such luck. Nor is there a swimsuit or a movie. But near Redondo Pier stands a bust of George, and at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu lies his first surfboard.
George Freeth’s real legacy, though, is his life, a strong and silent one, full of heroic deeds: the introducing, by glamourous example, of surfing into Southern California, and from thence to the world; the saving of sea-threatened lives which led, without any desk-bound scheming, to the full-equipped Lifeguard in all his tanned glory who still today sits silent, high on a wooden perch, scanning the ocean for trouble. (And I haven’t even mentioned George’s spectacular capturing of a seal lion puppy by stealth of underwater swimming. The creature rode home on George’s back and was to be the delight of the Redondo Plunge.)
Rising over all this, though, is the figure of Freeth, curvy in his cosy swimsuit, and rather stern of face, with eyes that pierce.
After him Southern California beach culture expanded slowly and graciously for two decades. Even clandestinely, in one notable case: The Malibu, a private and heavily-guarded estate, was breached by two adventurous youths who found an Eden of a pristine beach, watered by small, fast, and sexy waves, Word was passed along to the select few. Next year saw the inauguration of The Pacific Coast Surf Board Championship in Orange County, with Duke Kahanamoku himself giving a demonstration of his waterman skills. In the 1930s hermitic knots of surfers were to be found (but not easily) in such spots as San Onofre, where they had a penchant for grass skirts and ukuleles, and Bluff Cove on the Palos Verdes Estates, where the waves could be monsters and turn boys into men.
In the tradition of George, surfers were looked up to as heroes, for they were always rescuing swimmers and boaters. They were also in terrific shape because of the great weight of their boards and their spartan diets (dictated by the Depression and the hard outdoor work ethic of those days). Though they might mix a little in bar or café these watermen were rugged and stoic individuals, manning their lonely but personal waves on mighty redwood planks and in proper woolen skin-tight swim trunks (not like the later baggies or today’s cowardly wetsuits), fighting fit on the eve of being shipped out to join American forces in World War Two. They had Wild Western names: “Red Dog”, “Black Bass”, “Scobblenoogin” and even “Nelly Bly”. Soon they’d be merely numbers. Some would be statistics. The pristine beaches of Eden waited.
In the early 1940s it was estimated that there were no more than 500 surfers in the world (which meant California). When Leroy Grannis, later a legendary surfing photographer, returned from the war and made his way to Malibu, beach of his dreams, he was disgusted to find no less than 15 guys crowding the waves. “That’s it!” he announced. “That’s the end of paradise!”
Paradise lost, but Industrialization gained. First there’s a revolution in boards. Gone are Freeth’s muscle-making planks and instead, thanks to the technological demands of the recent war, a new breed of brainy manufacturers offer lighter, streamlined products made out of fiberglass and styrofoam. A leading surfboard scientist is Bob Simmons, a Cal Tech graduate in aero and hydro dynamics and a bit of an eccentric, a cult figure with no time for social graces. Other people are a distraction from his study of the perfect board to suit his withered arm. He’s known for ordering interlopers away from his Malibu waves in no uncertain terms and with plenty of use of four letter words. In 1954, at age 35, he dies alone in wicked surf near San Diego, not far from where Freeth rescued his last bathers.
In the 1950s Malibu is the place for the In-Crowd, bland and beautiful and even famous, too: at The Pit you might find Peter Lawford and his pal Cliff Robertson. Pretty girls, in tight sweaters that make their breasts resemble big guns on a battleship, hang out with the boys–but females are optional extra, treated like objects. One of them, little Kathy Kohner, insinuates herself into the coterie of kookie beach bum surfers and is eventually accepted as their mascot. She tells her father Frederick of her adventures in this subculture and he rattles out a yarn called “Gidget” that sells a lot of books. It’s a glittering escape from the buttoned-down world of middle-class suburbia in the 50s. It features a life of nothing but surfing, eating, sleeping, and surfing. Nobody owes anybody anything, if they play it smart. No responsibility–no problems. Cliff Robertson, a real surfer and Malibu regular, plays Kahuna in the hit movie of 1959. He lives in a shack and studies existentialism. He’s a super cool dude, sexy too.
And now the secret’s out and the outsiders–the gremmies–flock in. “Gidget” spawns beach movies starring Italian-Americans Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, both clearly wave-scared. There’s “Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine”, and “Beach Blanket Bingo”. The lone surfer in the simple swimsuit is now jostled by a horde sporting Pendleton shirts, white Levi’s, baggies, woodies, and they’re lured by the siren of the Beach Boys with their chocolate harmonies. Nobody seems bothered by the bulging embonpoint of the singing brothers and their abhorrence of agitated water.
Nobody, that is, except the older original surfers, who now feel like outcasts and sometimes act like outlaws. Mickey (“Da Cat”) Dora, who used to laugh at Gidget’s surfing attempts back on the 50s, is the leader of the nay-sayers. He has film star looks and a laid-back way with a surfboard. The way he moves, the way he combs his hair, the way he pouts–define the ultimate in Southern California style. In his wallet he carries two photos: one of his father, the other of the perfect wave. One day he’ll find that wave and turn it over to scientists for analysis, he says in one of his rare eloquent moments. He’s the King of the Malibu Pit, and though he’s not shy about accepting money to show off his prowess in beach movies, he vents his anger on the new beach crowd stealing his waves by hazing them out of the ocean with intelligent use of his board. Because they won’t let you light a fire to wax your board. Indeed, he hates anyone in authority. His anti-social attitude owes a lot to the screen personas of Marlon Brando (as a biker) and James Dean (as a rebel). Suburban democracy, as recognized by America’s businessmen, is his enemy.
In the late Sixties he makes a visual statement of disgust by dropping his trunks and mooning the crowd (including a national television audience) during a Malibu surfing competition. Later he puts his beef into words: “I remember how things were before the subdivisions, the concessions, the lifeguards–before exploiters polluted the beaches like they do everything else . . . The water’s already curdling from the football-punchy Valley swingers, surf dopes, magazine and photo hacks . . . I hope you all become One while stewing in your own juices. For myself, I’m dropping out”. This is more than George Freeth said publicly in his entire life. But at least Mickey Dora was as good as his word: after some brushes with the law, and a spell in jail, he disappeared. Since then sightings have been reported in France, South Africa, and a college library in Orange County. The cat now resembles a hunted dog.
Meanwhile, back in the late 60s, beach culture is inducted into a drug culture of surf thugs in Nazi helmets and swinging metal Iron Crosses and Swastikas. Fixes are smuggled in hollowed-out boards from Peru and other far away places. In Hawaii, where our story began, the islanders grow impatient with overweening, exploitative haoles (mainlanders) and wage a war ranging from the throwing of angel cake to gang rape at gunpoint. One leading American surfer, visiting the islands for a big wave contest, kept a loaded shotgun under his hotel bed. Too many people chasing too few waves.
Today, on once-pristine and comradely beaches, I find dirty sand stuck with plastic and glass, rocks covered with graffiti, boomboxes thudding out war chants, and signs posted ordering you not to do this, that, and the other. Out on the ocean there are surf traffic jams and mass pile-ups. The lifeguard often has to rescue surfers who can’t swim.
And so I return to the image of George Freeth, the complete waterman: a noble fellow who could not only surf but also swim and dive and spear-fish and paddle an outrigger canoe and save lives. I see him at Waikiki in that fateful early summer of 1907. He is standing on air, out in the blue, beyond the reef, beyond the grasp of Jack and Charmian London and of Alexander Hume Ford. As the sun sets he evaporates and becomes a part of the ocean, a part of creation.
“Was he crooking his finger to us? Was he?”, wrote Ford to London. “My binoculars are pretty powerful–and I say HE WAS”. No reply came from London. Ford wrote again: “If he WAS crooking his finger, then what was he telling us??” Again, no reply.
In my dream George is not crooking but beckoning. He is telling me in his own way that there is somewhere a grand swimming place of endless crystal water and friendly lorelei, beyond time and beyond present understanding and belief.
THE HUNTINGTON LIBRARY
September 1, 1998