Gard Chapin of Hollywood was California’s best surfer in the late 1930s and early ’40s, which meant he was the best surfer in the world, not counting Hawaii. Chapin took off deeper than anybody, angled harder, and probably invented the cutback. “He was fantastic,” Windansea regular Woody Ekstrom told writer David Rensin a few years back. “He’d drop his knee to the deck of his board, twist his body, and just whip the thing around. Nobody else could do it. He’d be going north, drop that leg, and then he’d be going south.”
Chapin was also tall, handsome, funny, loud, ulcer-ridden, alcoholic, and abusive. Had a temper that speed-shifted from zero to 100 quickly and easily. He fired a load of buckshot over the heads of his neighbors one 4th of July afternoon, because they were celebrating too loudly. Another time he hot-rodded his way downtown, drunk as hell, parked, grabbed a baseball bat from the backseat, and went Scarface on the heads of a block’s worth of just-installed parking meters, raving that “Communism is taking over!” Chapin took his teenaged stepson Mickey with him on the parking meter romp. Mickey had been born to Miklos and Ramona Dora--he was an educated, urbane, former second lieutenant in the Hungarian Hussars; she was a stunning black-haired Beverly Hills High grad--but when Ramona, another habituated drinker, left Miklos and married Gard, she and her young son both took Chapin’s name.
In 1965, when SURFER ran it’s first interview with a man described as “the best surfer in the world,” he was introduced as “Mickey Chapin Dora,” and indeed he was very much a 50-50 product of his two fathers. Miklos introduced Mickey to surfing. Gard shaped Mickey a board, took him on weekend surf trips to San Onofre, and, by example, indoctrinated him into an aggressive, high-performance style of riding waves. Miklos gave him sophistication and worldliness. Gard gave him rebelliousness and distrust--as well as a lot of beatings. As Dora himself said, years later, “My own father taught me a gracious way of living, while my stepfather showed me how to survive. One showed me how to atone for indiscretions and the other demonstrated how to commit them.”
Dora died of pancreatic cancer in 2002, at Miklos’ house in Montecito, where he spent the last three months of his life. The two men grew closer during that period than they’d ever been. Dora spent a good part of his declining weeks on phone with old friends, receiving visitors, saying goodbye--being civil and decent in a way that seemed to reflect directly on Miklos. It was a lot of people’s belief that, in the end, Dora’s better, more honorable side came to the fore.
But father-son relationships, blood ties or not, are always more complicated than that.
Chapin’s own death, in 1957, had a profound effect on his 24-year-old stepson. Partly because the death itself was at the very least mysterious, and perhaps criminal. Chapin, more or less on the skids since a 1947 car accident left him with a year-long convalescence, a lost job, and a broken marriage, had driven to La Paz, Mexico, at the end of ’57, to go skindiving. After a boozy dinner one night, he poured himself into a dinghy, intending to row out to a friend’s boat. Five days later he was discovered floating dead in the bay. Dora talked briefly about Chapin in a 1969 SURFER interview, calling him “a unique surfing frontiersman, who had a profound influence on my life.” Dora also described Chapin’s death as premeditated murder. Furthermore, while Dora dropped “Chapin” from his name not long after Gard’s death, he sometimes had “misgivings on this decision.”
Few people--maybe none of us--ever get to the bottom of their father-son relationship. Dora told at least one person that Chapin was “the father that I hated.” Gard’s death story, additionally, seemed to change at Dora’s whim; Chapin was another prop in Dora’s lifelong biographical performance-art piece. Murder, in any event, was never proven. But according to Malibu surfer and occasional Dora confidante Bob Cooper, after Chapin’s death he “never saw Mickey laugh spontaneously again. Never a belly laugh. An amused laugh, maybe, or a constructed laugh. But never just a let-it-all-hang-out laugh.” Greg Noll said much the same thing. “When Gard died, it seemed like Mickey made a sharp left turn.”
Yes, Miklos’ voice came through more clearly at the end of Dora’s life. But Gard was there, too, faded maybe, but still angry and charismatic, crouched on the other shoulder.
For more on Gard Chapin, and much more on Dora, pick up David Rensin’s All For a Few Perfect Waves.