Long Live Dora

Hard to believe, Da Cat would be 80

Mickey Dora was always a little slippery about his age. “Approximately one year older than the world renowned aquanaut and international surfing master of ceremony Rick Grigg,” Dora replied, when asked how old he was in a 1969 SURFER interview. “And nine years older than Bunker Spreckels, the genetic space child.”

I’m guessing that what Dora was doing there, apart from the throwing the usual handful of smoke in the face his interviewer, was dodging the fact that he was older than what most people thought. Either 34 or 35 (the exact interview date is unknown), which in 1969, at the very height of surfing’s anti-authority, hyper-ageist, throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater period of reinvention and exclusion—also known as the Shortboard Revolution—put him just this side of Methuselah. Hell, when Surf Guide called Dora “The Angry Young Man of Surfing” in 1963, he was already 29.

Be that as it may, I was still shocked to learn that today would have been Dora’s 80th birthday. It’s relatively easy to picture what might have looked like today, had he lived. Neatly groomed, nine-tenths Continental and one-tenth SoCal, combed-back white widow’s peak, sunglasses, golf shirt. Leathery and fit. Still surfing, and doing it very well. But I have no idea how he would have evolved as a person. Twice I’ve read All for a Few Perfect Waves, David Rensin’s thorough oral-history biography on Dora, and while some people in the book were better than others at penetrating the Dora mystique, nobody, looking back on his life, seemed to really understand him. Speculate as to what he’d be like as a surfing octogenarian? Not a chance.

Instead I offer this humble overview of Dora’s life and contribution to the sport, as pulled from The History of Surfing.

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Dora and Johnny Fain. Styling.
Dora and Johnny Fain. Styling.

Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy and Mickey Dora went further than anybody in defining the surfer-rebel; for putting the sport at a louder, bawdier, more creative remove from society at large. Culturally, the time was ripe. In 1950s America, conformity was the rule–but it was a big, rich, freedom-worshipping nation, confident to a fault, and there was a new cachet in not doing what everybody was doing. As a bit player, the midcentury surfer took his place on a stage already bowing under the gathered iconoclastic weight of Pollack and Presley, Ginsberg and Brando, Charlie Parker, Holden Caulfied, and Alfred E. Neuman.

Nonconformity, of course, had been a hallmark of modern surfing ever since Tom Blake, who sailed as far off the shores of convention as Dora or Tracy. Blake, though, was a surfing proselytizer who wanted everyone to enjoy what he enjoyed. From their Malibu vantage point, Dora and Tracy viewed the rest of the world – nonsurfers, beginning and intermediate surfers, nearly all visiting surfers–as real or potential invaders, there to be ignored, mocked, hustled, and repelled. The Malibu lineup was getting crowded. A more aggressive rebel stance, above all, was a simple matter of resource hoarding. But establishing rank and position had a lot to do with it, too. First Point was nearly clouded over in the antiauthoritarian charisma that wafted off both Tracy and Dora, and anyone on the beach at Malibu who wanted to be cool–which meant just about everyone–copied their mannerisms, their phrasing, their outlook. "I ruled the beach," Tracy later explained with a shrug, "Mickey ruled the water." And because Malibu set the tone for the sport up and down the coast, surfers elsewhere also began to view the rest of the world as something to be dodged or pranked, and to line up behind their own rebel surf leaders.

Tracy and Dora both arrived at Malibu in the early 1950s as teenagers from broken homes. They were sharp-tongued and quick with a putdown for newcomers, but Tracy didn't have Dora's taste for genuine verbal cruelty. Tracy, in fact, liked people–or he liked the two dozen or so Malibu regulars who gathered around him like courtiers in an area near the base of the point called "the Pit"–and he went to Malibu more to socialize than to ride waves. Dora didn't hang out on the beach after surfing, unless he was resting up for another session; then, to kill time, he might wander over to the Pit and chat with Tracy's group. "When there's surf, I'm totally committed," Dora explained, years later. "When there's none, it doesn't exist."

Though a Malibu fixture, Tracy embodied the idea that surfing was a movable feast, a celebratory beachfront beggar's banquet, and surfers from the 1950s forward never strayed too far from this notion. Mickey Dora wasn't the opposite, exactly. He was just as theatrical as Tracy and could be equally comedic. For the Malibu morning surf check, he'd step out of his car in tennis whites, or a smoking jacket, or a black leather Nazi trenchcoat. Finishing a ride, he'd walk back up the point holding his board by the fin, letting the nose drag over the sand and rocks. "Nobody did that," fellow Malibu surfer Bob Cooper recalled. "You treated this weapon with respect. You put it under your arm or on your head." Every surfer waxed the deck of his board with paraffin, which only came in white. When Dora turned up with a gaudy multicolor wax job one day, Cooper looked astounded and asked how he'd done it. Dora gave Cooper a pitying look and said one word: "Crayon."

Despite these lighter moments, Dora's outlook was relentlessly, even apocalyptically grim, and he perfectly rode surf media's opening wave to become the sport's first and greatest antihero. But by the late fifties it was already an article of faith with Dora that surfing, and Southern California, and the world in general, were all being dismantled by a vast and conspiratorial range of forces, and that Malibu–"my perfect wave," site of "my cherished days," as Dora put it in a rare noncombative moment of reflection–had been the first place to fall. In response, he became a scammer and a thief. Either that, or his world-in-decay viewpoint was his justification for all the scamming and thieving. Meanwhile, he rode waves with surpassing grace and elegance, and radiated a kind of tense, dangerous cool that would have done Marlon Brando proud.

Mickey Dora was the product of two diametrically opposed men: his birth-father Miklos Dora Sr., a refined and educated Hungarian national who later became a representative for Rothschild wines; and his stepfather Gard Chapin, a snarling Santa Monica woodworker considered by many to be California's most talented and least-liked Depression-era surfer. Born in Budapest, Mickey was six months old in 1935 when the family moved to Los Angeles. Miklos, his father, became a dilettante surfer, and by 1938 he was bringing his young son with him on surf trips to Palos Verdes and San Onofre. The elder Dora wasn't an especially hands-on father-he enrolled Mickey in boarding schools and military academies, and left the country altogether from 1948 to 1953-but he passed on to his son a love of culture. Dora would become the best-dressed surfer of his generation, and was singular in his interest and appreciation for art, wine, food, and tennis. Both men were aloof and quiet-voiced. Both could be charming. But where Miklos was gracious, his son invariably deployed graciousness only in satirical form.

Dora was six when his mother, a budding alcoholic, left the family and married Chapin, who became the boy's surfing mentor and took Dora to Malibu for the first time. The youngster occasionally helped Chapin and Bob Simmons make surfboards. Meanwhile, just as Dora picked up on Miklos Sr.'s urbanity, so too was he imprinted by Chapin's anger and aggression. Late one night, Chapin got Dora out of bed in a fit of rage and drove him to the corner of Sunset and Vine, where he pulled a baseball bat from the trunk and smashed the heads off of a block's worth of just-installed parking meters. "Mickey," he said, "these bastards want to control everything. Now they want to make us pay money to park on the street." Disintegration in the name of progress, and lawlessness as the appropriate response–Dora's belief system in a nutshell–were ideas passed on from his stepfather.

Dora didn't become a full-time surfer until 1950, at age fifteen, but he was strong and agile and a quick study. He arrived at Malibu just as Matt Kivlin and Joe Quigg rolled out their maneuverable Malibu chips. (Dora bought his first Quigg in 1953 and always claimed it was the best board he ever owned.) Kivlin was Dora's favorite surfer, and he copied the older surfer's stance directly: lowered arms, back knee bent in toward the front, a casual slouch while trimming. Dora eventually became a far more active surfer than Kivlin. At the right moment he'd straighten his torso, arch his back, and lead with the hips; his hands would rise to make odd little swirls in the air; and his right arm occasionally curled up behind his head like a plume. He was nicknamed "da Cat," mostly for his untouchable footwork, which was soft and quick as he peddled the length of his board, then rooted in place as he negotiated long sections with tiny ankle-driven adjustments to his trim line. Dora could be showy. From the middle of his board, he'd pivot and ride backward, or he'd drop into parallel-stance crouch with a foot on either rail. But function and artistry always came first. Other surfers of Dora's era would be best known for a specific move: Phil Edwards and his big water-shifting turns, or Lance Carson and his noseriding. Dora's surfing consisted mostly of bright staccato grace notes, strung together as quickly and unexpectedly as a John Coltrane solo, with move-to-move transitions so smooth as to be invisible.

Dora worked hard at his surfing. He rode constantly, drove the coast seeking out new breaks, and kept a watchful if secretive eye on all the other hot surfers. He ran through a never-ending series of boards, always looking for one that would add a bit more snap to his turns, a bit more velocity to his trim line. Yet Dora, like so much else in surfing during the 1940s and 1950s, seemed to be very much a creation of Malibu itself. The wave didn't just suit his jazz-inflected style, it nearly dictated it. Dora couldn't ride left-breaking waves anywhere near as well he could going right, and he wasn't much interested in bigger surf. "Let's face it," he once said, "by choice, I'm a four-foot and under man." Also, because Malibu presented itself as surfing's own earthly paradise, it helped justify Dora's decision to do whatever it took to stay on the surf beat and never miss a day of waves, which in turn steered him to a life of resistance and transgression.

Black-haired and handsome, with a flashing gap-toothed Bowery Boys grin, Dora looked the part of the rebellious surfer even before he fully embraced the role. He was an enthusiastic prankster with a taste for lighting firecrackers at public gatherings, and a gifted party crasher who kept a tuxedo in the trunk of his car for quick-change makeovers that got him into some of Hollywood's most exclusive black tie events. On the beach or in the banquet room, Dora was a smart and witty conversationalist, with expressive long-fingered hands that often floated up in vaguely European gestures; his tone of voice was often mocking, derisive, or world-weary. Rarely did he speak directly to the point. As a matter of habit, he would answer a question with a question. Bob Simmons was the sport's first real cynic, but Dora was next in line and a lot better at it: Simmons was cynical and grumpy, Dora was cynical and entertaining.

By the mid-fifties he'd become an icon to a growing number of California surfers. The Malibu crew in particular were soon copying it all—the grin and the hand movements; the evasive, gentlemanly voice; the slouched but jittering riding style.

Dora held jobs briefly and intermittently in his early twenties, first as a parking lot attendant for the Beverly Hilton Hotel, then as a host at an upscale Sunset Boulevard restaurant called Frascati, then as a delivery boy for a wine distributor. But surfing took over his life to a degree that was incompatible with any kind of work schedule. He existed for the most part on handouts from friends and supporters, usually in the form of an open guestroom and meals. He also shoplifted and stole from his employers; shook down awestruck young surfers; and convinced surfboard manufacturers to give him an endless supply of free "team rider" boards, which he used a few times then sold. (Dora stepped up the criminal activities in his thirties, and eventually served time for felony check-writing and credit card fraud, as well as violating probation.)

Dora had his detractors, even during the Malibu glory years. Terry Tracy, his first surfing buddy and a lifelong acquaintance, allowed that Dora had "incredible presence," but accused him of being congenitally mean-spirited. "He'd irritate the little guy. He'd take a guy's board, some poor, helpless little guy, then a few days later he'd give it back–after charging him a few bucks." Most surfers, though, admired Dora, many to the point of zealotry, believing that Dora lied, stole, and scammed because that was the only way a genuine surfing purist could get by. Even those who regarded Dora as little more than an charismatic sociopath felt a kinship with him. Few played the rebel with Dora's commitment, but nearly all surfers embraced the concept and lived the part in smaller ways. Maybe they'd never commit felonies in the name of wave-riding, but for a few extra hours in the surf they'd ditch class or leave work early; or lie to their parents, their boss, their wife; or speed through red lights just to get to the beach two minutes quicker. Dora's transgressions were everyone's, writ large. By championing him, surfers championed themselves.