How Southern California capitalism and one mysterious loner met, courted, married, and gave birth to our modern surfing culture
I was hurrying down an endless corridor in San Francisco’s international airport, in a swirl of shapeless people and with a storm raging around, when I was suddenly brought to a stop.
For lining my route were blown-up photos of bronzed surfers in tints and monochromes, old-fashioned athletes wearing shapely bathing costumes, not the youths of today, snug in their thick rubber wet suits. A sign told me this was a special exhibit celebrating the history of surfing in California. I paused to look and to read, a lone peruser in that airport rush of cell phones and baseball caps.
Of course I found plenty of tributes to Duke Kahanamoku, the famous Hawaiian waterman and reputed father of modern surfing. That was fine. I’d shaken hands with the great old Polynesian during the 1960s, when I was in Honolulu appearing in a rock TV show, and a nicer gentleman you couldn’t imagine; he’d even shown us a couple of Watusi steps and said he admired the Beatles.
The problem for me was that there wasn’t a picture of George Freeth, his predecessor.
Poor forgotten George! Dead of influenza at thirty-five in 1919, after rescuing yet another victim from the angry Pacific. He who had innovated and innovated but not uttered a word that was ever reported. A perfect physical specimen but only part Hawaiian and therefore lacking the romantic ethnic appeal of Duke Kahanamoku. Yet, long before the Duke, George Freeth had formally introduced surf-riding to Southern California, and from there it had spread around the world. After that he’d shown them water polo, water basketball, and the crawl.
As the very first professional lifeguard, he had devised the torpedo-shaped “rescue can”—a four-foot-long can attached to a cable that can be thrown out to a sinking swimmer. It is still in use. The dives he demonstrated at Redondo Beach were legendary; boys followed him around, copying his walk. Still, he said nothing, hardly smiling. Silent George, always in sportswear, clean as a whistle, master of the agitated water.
I thought of Freeth, of his world of sun and sky, as I hurried down the concertina corridor and into the metal tube of the plane and out into the tin-can car and finally back in my furnace house in Los Angeles. At my basement desk at the Huntington Library I tried to fill in the details of how this man had brought beach culture to America.
The first stop would be Waikiki Beach in the late spring of 1907. Jack London, the famous and excitable all-American author, had just arrived there with his “wife-mate,” Charmian. According to London’s side of the story, he caught his first sight of surfing while he was lolling in the shade of a date palm one morning on Waikiki. He and Charmian had sailed in on their homemade boat, the Snark, after a rough journey from San Francisco. Kicking back in paradise, 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. Now, atop one of these growling rollers, there appeared a sea-god, flying through the spray-filled air until—boomph!—he landed at London’s feet, effortlessly picked up an enormous board, and left him gazing at the remnants of breakers falling spent on the sand.
This splendid fellow, decided the writer, was a “member of the kingly species that has mastered matter and the brutes.” It occurred to London that he was as good as this blackened creature with the big redwood plank. He too would ride the waves.
But he turned out to be hopeless at the surfing game —until a friend, Alexander Hume Ford, gave him some pointers and then, a little later, introduced him to the sea-god himself, a kid named Freeth. Silently the lad showed the author how to duck under or dive through the killer waves: Remember never to be rigid, never to struggle against the mighty smokers; always relax and yield to nature. This London fully understood and always had. All day long he tested the waves, and they tested him back, with a vengeance. The next morning he was flat on his back with a bad case of sunburn.
Though in pain, London was determined to produce his daily thousand words. He ran way over, well into the thousands, and by lunchtime he had a complete article, straight from his heart. “A Royal Sport” he scribbled at the top. I have held the manuscript in my hand here at the Huntington Library: loose, lined pages that start in ink and go into pencil (did he run out of ink, or did the nib break under his passion?), lots of crossings out, but mainly one continuous stream of words, punctuated with stains (jam? or blood?), until, at the climax, he declares his desire, his determination, to become a “sunburned, skinpeeling Mercury.” The Snark will not leave Waikiki until he has achieved his aim.
Actually, London sailed off before long. In October the article was published 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 about a fabulous new sport.
But Jack London’s story, stirring though it be, is not what really happened. Charmian wrote her account in a later book called Our Hawaii. This, together with articles by Ford, provides the monochrome necessary to counterbalance London’s purple.
Jack and Charmian had met Ford at their dinner table in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Honolulu, on the evening of May 29, 1907. The couple were enjoying cocktails and canapés when up strode the young man, who introduced himself. Jack London had heard of him; Ford had a reputation as a travel writer. The Londons learned that he 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 . He’d arrived in Hawaii only a few weeks before but was already burrowing deep into the local culture and was anxious to revive the almost extinct art of riding down hills of boiling foam.
Suddenly Ford got up and snapped his fingers. “Look here, old chap!” he shouted. “Look here! If you’ll let me, I can introduce you to some whacking good material for your stories.” He proceeded to invite the couple to join him the next day for a trip to Waikiki. “And you must meet Freeth—he’s just your handwriting!”
So the following morning the trio traveled by trolley car to Waikiki. That evening they dined al fresco at the Moana Hotel, amid trees hung with Chinese lanterns, serenaded by guitars and ukuleles. Charmian wished aloud that Jack would dance. … But he and Ford were immersed in beach plans for the morrow.
“Wait till you meet Freeth! 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. “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.
“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. … 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. Within the hour Jack had scribbled his ritual thousand words, while Charmian busied herself about the makeshift kitchen, chopping up raw beefsteak to stir into his mess of eggs. Then they waited—and waited. What kind of time did people keep out here in Hawaii?
Ford appeared at noon to escort the couple to nearby Kuhio Beach, where the local watermen congregated. It was here that Jack actually saw Freeth for the first time. Ford pointed him out, a silhouette way out beyond the reef, one 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 written, “Freedom, beauty, wonder! No more celebration of the beast! Beauty conquers all! I must enter the contest!!”) But when he dashed off down the beach to join the siren out beyond the reef, Charmian held back, frightened. “Be a boy!” said Ford. 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. “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 conjurer’s trick, into a thundering huge wave.
“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. “I mean, Ford,” he continued as he gave his new friend a hearty farewell handclasp, “that you are in a paradise on earth. Remember that!”
A few months later “A Royal Sport,” London’s article on surfriding, appeared, and soon boatloads of tourists began arriving, eager for pleasures of the outdoor flesh. Ford was ready for them: 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 twenty-year lease at five dollars a year; he had trails cut in the mountains to facilitate hiking. He boosted Hawaii and surfing in the same breath. He was tireless. And all the time hotels were springing up, and friendly shrubbery was planted, and drinks were iced and towels fresh and always available. By 1911 the waves were getting thick with riders; sometimes a hundred of them could be seen where once had been only Freeth’s silhouette.
In 1915, when Jack and Charmian returned to Hawaii for a breather, the Outrigger Club had a long waiting list, and the couple had a hard time getting a hotel room for the night. But where was George Freeth? He had answered the call of the mainland. Shortly after the publication of “A Royal Sport” there arrived in the islands some heavy-suited men who were agents of a business empire. They represented one Henry Huntington, a railroad and real estate magnate of Southern California. They had an offer to make to the twenty-three-year-old surfer: For a certain amount of money, at a certain time and a certain place, would the lad demonstrate his “walking on water”? George was willing and able. The Bronze Mercury was to be a lure.
For Huntington owned—among many other properties —a seaside town called Redondo Beach, which, prior to his purchase, had been a barren spot, good mainly for cattle ranching. Huntington’s brother-in-law, himself a canny businessman, 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 percent of the town; by 1907 he’d built a threestory pavilion, a good restaurant, a large theater. The Hotel Redondo, designed on classic English lines with dreamy spires and tall, wobbly chimneys, its walls covered with gold-framed prints of hunting scenes, had been built earlier. Now he needed customers not only to 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 as many as a thousand trippers by the day from nearby Los Angeles. “Free Excursions Every Twenty Minutes!” shouted his ads in the Los Angeles Times. “Dirt Is Flying! Spikes Are Being Driven!”
George Freeth was imported in time for the summer season of 1908. The Red Cars took visitors a short walking distance from the Hotel Redondo, where, after a full lunch, they could watch an extraordinary exhibition. At 2:00 P.M. and again at 4:00, a young Hawaiian “walked on the waters,” came creaming in on a wave, picked up his huge plank, and ambled off with the smallest hand gesture. The announcer said that his board was eight feet long and two feet wide and weighed more than two hundred pounds. Also, Freeth was single and had blue eyes and brown wavy hair. Women of all ages watched him closely.
The dollars that rolled in because of George’s surfing eventually found their way to 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 walls, was a growing treasure of great British art. Eventually the grand haul would include a Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare’s Quartos, crates of eighteenth-century British oils and watercolors, and—the crowning glory—Sir Thomas Lawrence’s Pinkie gazing at Gainsborough’s Blue Boy.
Came the autumn of 1908 and the crowds melted like sandcastles. But there was still plenty of good work for Freeth. In nearby Venice, a city of canals created by the cigarette baron Abbott Kinney, George set up a volunteer lifesaving crew based on the pier. Who bankrolled him nobody knows. But he got by; his needs were few. By wintertime he and his boys had saved fifty 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 16, a terrible storm blew up in Santa Monica Bay. Huge walls of water came crashing in. Eleven Japanese fishermen, unaware of the danger, had set off in skiffs from their beach village near the port of Los Angeles. By noon they were in big trouble. Freeth and his fellow lifesavers, however, were on the pier. “Masses of foamy waves … [were] picked up by the gale and flung half a thousand feet into the streets of the little city,” said the Los Angeles Times the next day. George was “the hero of the hour,” as he “dived into a great breaker just before it broke. The other members of the crew thought to see him dashed to death against the bulkhead. But he pierced the wall of water like a gigantic needle. … With skill born of long experience, Freeth caught the side of the little boat and … board[ed] the craft.”
Then, without a pause, he did an amazing thing: He seized the rudder and, standing up straight, he surfed the skiff through what the Times called “thousand-ton breakers” all the way back to the beach, where Venice residents lined up to shake his hand and “Girls crowded around [him] just to pat his tanned shoulders and smile at him.”
Huntington’s men were reading. The next year, when Redondo opened its magnificent bathhouse, Freeth was hired as the chief swimming instructor. It was a place such as only California could boast: the largest heated indoor saltwater “plunge” in the world, with three pools, 1,350 dressing rooms, Turkish and steam baths, even a trapeze. It could accommodate two thousand bathers at the same time. Freeth got an office, with a panoramic ocean view. Not only did he give swimming lessons, teaching the newfangled “crawl” and the “trudgeon” (his specialty, a stroke like the crawl but with the head kept above water), but he daily demonstrated the most amazing dives, elaborations on the ones he’d done from the Venice pier, including a two-and-a-half forward somersault with a double twist and a swallow dive from almost fifty feet.
In the 1980s ex-pupils of his, old men now, 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 permanently attached to the water, like he was part of it.”
Freeth started one of the first water polo teams, then formed another for water basketball. He led his teams to national championships. One night, up with one of his teams in San Francisco for a contest, he was seen strumming a ukulele as his young admirer and protégé Duke Kahanamoku executed a hula. The Duke was to win a gold medal for swimming at the 1912 Olympics and two more golds in 1920; Ludy Langer, another Freeth pupil, later won a silver medal. But George Freeth won nothing, because he was ineligible: He had been paid money to swim and dive and surf and stroll. He was a pro, not a gentleman.
He set up the first lifeguard corps at Redondo Beach. He had a cigar-shaped rescue canister (with cable attached) manufactured for use in lifesaving; if the drama was taking place a long way from the plunge, he’d send out his motorcycle-and-sidecar unit, fully armed with can, cable, bandages, and iodine. In between all this, often at sunset, he could be seen creaming in 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 1915 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, handsome swimming pool. Frank Garbutt, an L.A. booster and oil magnate, was a mover and shaker of the club, and he loved the newest things: planes and autos and especially movies. He brought Jack London back into George Freeth’s vicinity 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 writer was deteriorating. In 1915, during what was to be his last stay in Hawaii, he roared out passages from his recent novel, Mutiny of the Elsinore , to a rapt Alexander Hume Ford: The Northern European white man 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. The next year, death claimed him. And Ford stayed in Hawaii to count the tourists and to regret the boosterism of himself and his great friend; the sea was becoming cluttered.
Perhaps Freeth began to feel the pressure of population. At any rate, by 1917 he had moved on down the coast. In San Diego he continued to teach and to set up lifeguarding teams. Surfing became his secondary occupation; he kept saving lives. In April 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 that turned into flu. But this was a special kind of flu, the Spanish influenza pandemic that had been raging since 1918 and which was eventually to kill more people than the Great War had. It claimed Freeth on April 7, 1919. Like one of A. E. Housman’s “smart lads,” he slipped away while still in his glory.
Did he leave papers, to be indexed and stored 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.
George Freeth’s real legacy, though, is his vigorous, silent life: the introducing, by glamorous example, of surfing into Southern California, and thence to the world; the saving of sea-threatened lives, which led, without any desk-bound scheming, to the fully equipped lifeguard who still today sits silent, high on a wooden perch, scanning the ocean for trouble.
After Freeth, Southern California beach culture expanded slowly for two decades, even clandestinely in one notable case: The Malibu Ranch, a private and heavily guarded estate, was breached by two adventurous youths who found an Eden of a beach, watered by small, fast, and sexy waves. Word was passed along to a select few. The next year saw the inauguration of the Pacific Coast Surfriding Championship in Orange County, with Duke Kahanamoku himself giving a demonstration of his skills. In the 1930s hermetic knots of surfers were to be found 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.
In the tradition of George Freeth, surfers were looked up to as heroes, for they were always rescuing swimmers and boaters. They were also in terrific shape, because of the weight of their boards and their Spartan diets (dictated by the Depression), fighting fit on the eve of being shipped out to World War II. They had picturesque 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 five hundred surfers in the world (which meant California). Nevertheless, when Leroy Grannis, later a legendary surfing photographer, returned from the war and made his way to Malibu, the beach of his dreams, he was disgusted to find as many as fifteen guys crowding the waves. “That’s it! ” he announced. “That’s the end of paradise!”
First came a revolution in boards. Freeth’s musclemaking planks disappeared; instead, thanks to the technological demands of the war, a new breed of manufacturer offered lighter, streamlined products made out of fiberglass and Styrofoam. Perhaps the leading surfboard scientist was Bob Simmons, a Caltech graduate in aero- and hydrodynamics and a bit of an eccentric: He found other people a distraction from his study of the perfect board to suit his withered arm and was known for ordering interlopers away from his Malibu waves with profane fluency. In 1954, at the age of thirty-five, he died in wicked surf near San Diego, not far from where Freeth had rescued his last bathers.
In the 1950s Malibu was the place for what was being called the in-crowd, blond and beautiful and even famous. At the Pit you might find Peter Lawford and his pal Cliff Robertson. Pretty girls in tight sweaters hung out with the boys. One of them, little Kathy Kohner, insinuated herself into the coterie of kookie beach-bum surfers and was eventually accepted as their mascot. She told her father, Frederick, of her adventures in this subculture, and he rattled out a yarn called Gidget that sold a lot of books. Cliff Robertson, a real surfer and Malibu regular, played Kahuna in the hit movie of 1959. He lives in a shack and studies existentialism—a supercool dude.
Now the secret was out, and the outsiders—the gremmies—flocked in. Gidget spawned all the beach movies starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, both clearly wave-scared. There were Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine and Beach Blanket Bingo . The lone surfer in his simple swimsuit was now jostled by a horde sporting Pendleton shirts, white Levi’s, baggies, and woodies, lured by the siren song of the Beach Boys with their chocolate harmonies.
The older original surfers began to feel like outcasts and sometimes like outlaws. Mickey (“Da Cat”) Dora, who had laughed at Gidget’s surfing attempts back in the fifties, was the leader of the naysayers. He had film-star looks and a laid-back way with a surfboard. The way he moved, the way he combed his hair, the way he pouted defined the ultimate in Southern California style. He was the King of the Malibu Pit, and though he wasn’t shy about accepting money to show off his prowess in beach movies, he’d vent his anger on the new beach crowd stealing his waves by hazing them out of the ocean with supple use of his board. He hated lifeguards because they wouldn’t let him light a fire to wax the board. Indeed, he hated anyone in authority.
In the late sixties Mickey Dora made 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 put 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.
Meanwhile, back in the late sixties, beach culture was inducted into a drug culture of surf thugs in Nazi helmets and swinging metal iron crosses and swastikas. In Hawaii, where our story beean, the islanders grew impatient with overweening, exploitative haoles (mainlanders), and they came to wage a war ranging from the throwing of angel food 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 sand stuck with plastic and glass, rocks covered with graffiti, boom boxes thudding out war chants, and signs posted ordering you not to do this, that, and the other.
And so I return to the image of George Freeth, the complete waterman, a fellow who could not only surf but also swim and dive and spearfish and paddle an outrigger canoe and save lives. I see him at Waikiki, in that 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, becomes part of the ocean, 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.
To me George Freeth is not crooking but beckoning. He is saying that there is somewhere a grand swimming place of endless crystal water and friendly Loreleis, beyond time and beyond present understanding and belief.