Published: Jun 14, 2011
There was only one Miki Dora.
He was born in Budapest in 1934. His parents moved to Los Angeles and divorced. When his mother married Gard Chapin, the boy’s fate was sealed — Chapin was a legendary surfer who saw nothing wrong with Miki ditching school when the surf was up. This was just a few years after a public road to Malibu was opened and movie stars started building houses there.
Miki Dora was dark and moviestar handsome, he had a dangerous, surly presence, and he surfed like no one else — he was so accomplished he could look laid-back. He quickly became the king of Malibu surfers, James Dean on a surfboard
Cool? Miki Dora defined it. His nickname: Da Cat.
A pure moment is just that — a moment. But no one used that moment better than Miki Dora. On the water, he could work everything out, live in the Now, be an artist. He had the waves to himself, and the girls, and the attention. He ruled.
And then, in the early ’50s, his world collapsed. It started with the invention of fiberglass-and-foam surfboards, a welcome replacement for the thick, heavy wood planks that had kept all but the hardiest athletes out of the winter. Now girls could surf as easily as guys. That meant summer fun. Soon there was quite a scene going on at Malibu.
The surf boom was just starting when Miki Dora turned against it. He could see the future — music, movies, beaches crowded with amateurs — and it sucked. But he was trapped. Bred-in-the-bone surfers do not do well in offices. When Hollywood called, he couldn’t say no — he was a "surf stuntman" on the "Gidget" movies. Later, he taught Sally Field how to look like she was hanging ten.
He liked Field; he loathed the film crews that polluted his beach: "I knew every one of the chubby flaccid pretenders. I did everything I could to screw them over and sabotage their methods."
Eventually, his hatred for Hollywood overwhelmed his need for cash: "Once I was sick as a dog from a rancorous case of dysentery I’d picked in Mexico. On camera they’re filming this sad-sack party scene with some Philly cheesecake crooner up in the spotlight, and I’m in the background puking. The director calls out, ‘Hey, dark kid in the back, I like what you’re doing. That’s a marvelous look. Save it for the next scene.’ I know I was kaput then."
He knew everyone: Henry Miller, Sharon Tate, Charlie Manson, Baron Rothschild, the Stones, Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen. And, because he went everywhere, he started to see new opportunities. He endorsed a line of "Da Cat" surfboards. Typically, in the ad, two boards are lashed together to make a cross, and Dora is tied to them as if crucified.
He bought luxury cars from the 1930s at bargain prices, cleaned them up and sold them for a profit. Sometimes for total profit — in this authorized biography, he hints that some were stolen. If so, these weren’t his only felonies. He was a scammer and a sociopath, and though he would later call himself a poet, his greatest writing may have been in the genre of bad checks. I can’t defend this behavior. I merely note that Miki Dora had a very colorful life. [To buy ‘Dora Lives’ from Amazon.com, click here.]
Dora moved to Europe in 1968, hustling his way through a pleasant exile with the help of altered credit cards and false passports. By the ’80s, he had pushed a credit-card spree to the point of fraud and was imprisoned. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2002.
This picture-and-text biography — the surfing shots and the photos of Malibu in the early days are well worth the price of the book — takes you deep into a subculture life. Like its subject, “Dora Lives” is brutally honest, totally warts-and-all. It’s also appropriately — and deservedly — admiring: "Miki Dora wasn’t perfect, but he had tendencies."
Lovingly published by a small press in Santa Barbara, this isn’t a book you’ll see on every coffee table — only the hippest.