When it comes to surf history, I find Miki Dora, despite all his shortcomings, fascinating . So it came as a welcome surprise that he had captured the interest of talented writer and poet Dana Goodyear for an entire season of her true crime podcast, Lost Hills.
The season examines Miki’s life story, his criminal convictions, the manhunt he sparked around the world, and his ongoing, iconic presence in the surf world. Dana brought many guests on the show, including Kathy Kohner (Gidget), Matt Warshaw, Denny Aaberg, and Linda Cuy. I finished the entire season (all 13 episodes) in two days.
I had so many questions for Dana. To my delight, I got her on a Zoom call to chat about surfing, the process of researching the anti-legend, the dark heart of Malibu, and the unsolved questions that remain.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself as a surfer and a writer?
Definitely a writer first. I’ve been working in the field since I graduated from college in 1998. I started working at The New Yorker within the first year after I graduated, as an assistant, doing little stories. Then, I moved out to California and it was a while before I took up surfing there. So, I started late. But, at the time, I was also working on a piece about an artist named Barry McGee. He’s a really interesting surfer, skater, artist in San Francisco. He was sort of one of the first people to take graffiti art into the gallery and the fine art world.
It was a story about him and his first wife who was also this incredible artist. They were surfers together, and Barry’s really shy, and he said, “I don’t know if I can do a traditional interview. I’m just not comfortable. But maybe we could go surfing together and then maybe I would talk to you.” So I was like, ‘I’m going to learn how to surf ’cause I really wanna talk to Barry.’ He was paddling out in the winter at Ocean Beach in heavy surf. And I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ And, no leash for Barry. I was borrowing a board of his, so no leash for me. I got the bug and started to just really, as much as possible, orient my life around when I could get in the water. I’m a writer, but I also have a different life as a poet. I published two collections of poetry and a lot of my New Yorker work went into a nonfiction book about the food world. For the past five years I’ve been making this podcast Lost Hills about Malibu and true crime in Malibu and understanding the dark side of Malibu. That is what led me to Miki Dora, because he’s kind of the glittering dark heart of Malibu.
What sparked your interest in Miki Dora? I imagine that you had some contact with the folklore around him, just from being in California.
What I was starting to pick up on from surfing at Malibu and surfing at Topanga is that these kind of icons and legends of surf history are still around. There is this oral tradition where even though some are gone, they’re recently gone. And they’re holding on to these moments that have become so iconic that they almost feel like fables. And this is a 90-year history, approximately, in California. The most intense and fervent part of that history really starts in the fifties at Surfrider.
Surf culture quickly went from being this little artisanal culture to, suddenly, mass culture. Even something so basic as Gidget being a real person who works in Malibu and lives in my neighborhood and I see her on the hiking trails and at the bookstore. The contact with that history and that mythology really intrigued me. Miki’s not looked at that skeptically by a lot of people in the surf world. He’s kind of a hero, and I wanted to investigate that. At first I just was intrigued, looking at the videos of him surfing. There’s something about Miki that inspires a lot of curiosity. And partly it’s because he was spinning this incredible web of lies and deceptions and stories and mythology himself. And he had a lot of other people who were doing that around him.
But it’s also just incredibly fun to watch him surf, the still pictures and the few videos that are out there. But as I unpacked it I learned more and more about his very exclusionary, very problematic inner self. I just thought it was an opportunity to go in and explore this question that others have been raising: should this person be a hero? Dan Duane wrote that op-ed in the Times, two or three years ago, where he said, “let’s stop making a hero out of this person.” I wanted to look at how did Miki become a hero to surfers? Who is this hero?
Interesting. At Malibu, I think even just two months ago, “Dora Lives” was sprayed on the wall. Did you have a goal of setting things straight about Dora going into making this podcast?
Before I started the podcast about him, I was in that space of being interested in his life and the Catch Me If You Can, the con artist side of it. It was all intriguing: just this guy surfing all around the world and being this pioneering international surf nomad. But when I was talking with a friend of mine about the energy of Malibu. There’s the good energy that draws everyone there, and there’s like the bad energy that scares everyone away. My friend grew up in California and is a fifth-generation Californian and a lifelong surfer.
He said, “Have you read this famous piece that came out in the seventies in Surfer called The Curse of the Chumash?” It was the summer of 1976 issue of Surfer. I bought it on eBay and I started reading this essay and it was so quirky, kind of like a secret history of Malibu. Each entry has a date associated with it, and it’s all out of order. It’s insider knowledge of these devious and dark things that happened there. Throughout this essay was sprinkled these references to Dora. It seems like this love letter to Miki Dora, honestly. There’s some great pictures of Miki surfing and then there is a picture of Miki holding a surfboard with a swastika on it. I was shocked by that. Then I went back and was trying to figure out who wrote this? The author’s byline was the last name I Z A N. And I was like, what is that name? And then I was like, oh my God, it’s Nazi backwards. This was published in the most popular and authentic surf magazine and all the surfers read it and it played such a role in the popularization of the sport. They were publishing this in the mid to late seventies. So that was what made me also just realize that there’s so much more to this than just, Miki was a beautiful surfer who always had a fancier car than he could afford. The surface was glittering and intriguing but underneath was where all the really, really dark stuff lays.
On the show, you talked to a lot of people who knew Miki, but did you run into difficulties because there’s so much folklore and so much of what is known about Mickey is possibly fabricated? Is that what prompted you to bring Matt Warshaw on the show?
If you’re making a podcast about surf history, you’re just lucky if you can get Matt Warshaw to come on and talk to you about it. ‘Cause he’s done so much work, and he’s so authoritative and so fun to talk to. I was really happy that he was interested in talking about Miki and in sharing his own conflicted feelings about him. So he didn’t just bring the historical perspective. He brought a really personal perspective to it as well. Even David Rensin, who wrote the definitive oral history of Miki, he was like, you’ll never know what’s a lie and what’s the truth with him.
I tried to couch the things that I didn’t know the fact or fiction status of, and make it clear to people that this is what Miki said, and this is how the story goes, because the legend is just as central to this kind of folk figure that he is as any reality. You have to have people understand why we’re still talking about him, why people still write “Dora Lives” on the wall, why young surfers that I talk to know who Miki Dora is and some of them don’t know who Gidget is.
Do you think any of that has to do with who you ask? Miki’s such a central figure to surfers, but then I wonder if people outside of core surf culture would be more familiar with Gidget than Miki?
Yeah, I think it’s generational, too. But what I was surprised by was how some of the young people who hadn’t heard of Gidget had heard of Miki. It’s weird, ‘cause in general, she’s much more famous. You know, girl surfer, all of that is so emblazoned into pop culture. Miki was sly and sneaky and working the shadows and doing everything he could to make himself intriguing and to keep the conversation going about him. But you know, he’s also been gone off this Earth for more than 20 years. And Gidget’s still out there talking about the summer of 1956.
In one of the earlier episodes, you said that it felt like Miki fought for the soul of Malibu and sometimes it felt like he won. I was wondering if you could expand on what you meant by that.
Well, it gets at the heart of my fascination with Malibu, which is how it can be such a paradise and so inviting and also so forbidding at the same time. Miki is the forbidding part and that’s his legacy there. He’s the inventor of localism, and you still feel that at Malibu if you’re not from there and you don’t live there, you are kind of trespassing. But Miki also wasn’t from there, by the way. He didn’t live there. So he was a trespasser too. He was, I think, aware of that.
There’s something interesting about how he made himself the surfer most identified with Malibu at the most iconic moment in Malibu surf history. And this is just for people who’ve listened to the first two seasons also. So, the first two seasons are completely different true crime stories: season one is about a 2018 murder, and season two is about a 1981 double homicide and a 1976 suspicious death in the same family. But there was a through line with these three men who are the center of each season. They were literally all reading the same books, like this Beaudette book that Miki read and learned how to do credit card scams. Anthony Rauda, the drifter, who was recently convicted of killing Tristan Bodett in his tent in 2018, also had the same book, The Paper Trail, another book about doing scams. And then the person at the center of the second season was allegedly doing all kinds of insurance fraud. It was a surprise to me that there would be these three totally disparate characters living in completely different eras and guilty of completely different crimes, that would have in common this scaminess about them. And they all turned up in Malibu.
So I’m wondering about your personal opinion: is it possible to separate people from their beliefs? It’s something that comes up a lot in surf culture, generally. And people love to idolize Miki.
I feel in the case of Miki Dora, that if you try to find something to love and admire there, separate from his beliefs, you end up with nothing. I think that the reason people love him, even if they won’t admit it, is partially for his beliefs.
I’m not saying that everybody who loves him is a white supremacist or an anti-Semite or a racist. But there’s something in that attitude of his, the self involvement, the selfishness, the narcissism, the justification of localism. I think that’s what people find heroic in him. I am sure that some people would say, like Jim Kempton said, anyone who thinks what a cool guy Miki was never spent time with him. There’s an argument that Jim Kimpton also made that you can separate the artist from the art. So if we’re talking about Miki Dora, that means we can acknowledge he was a great surfer and really perfected a style and that’s all admirable.
But I think the reason people still know him and talk about him, unlike some of the other people who were surfing Malibu at the time, like Lance Carson, et cetera, who were arguably as good or better, is that they don’t have this persona that makes him an abiding figure in surf culture. So it may be possible with some people to separate what you make from what you think. But with Miki, I don’t think it’s possible.
When you were talking to some of these people such as his girlfriends, were there ever aspects that were personal or emotionally challenging? I’m thinking in the case of his second girlfriend, Linda. You mentioned he threw hot tea at her, things like that.
When you’re talking to people, you always develop empathy and a connection to their story, which is what happened with some of Miki’s other friends. But with the women… in a sense, their stories were even more interesting to me than Miki’s. A lot of the men he knew had never been in his home, had never had a meal with him, had only been lied to by him. Whatever version of that they took away was their sense of who Miki was. These women were really levelheaded and clear-eyed and they may have been totally swept off their feet by him at first, but they saw through him and certainly with the perspective of decades, they look back and can call it what it is. Linda Cuy in particular. She lives in Ventura and I got to meet her.
She was a fascinating and amazing person and she was doing these scams right alongside Miki, and her other boyfriend was also a scam artist surfer who was Miki’s rival. Linda was just as bad from the con artist perspective, but she was being pulled into it by these men. But, you know, I love that there was this woman who was as devoted to this surf nomad life as Miki, taking risks that were as great. I was sad that the cost of that life of acting like everything is free was exacted from her more than from Miki. But maybe in the end she wins. She’s got a great life, she’s happily married, she surfs all the time.
While doing this podcast, did your opinions on surf culture as a whole change at all? Did you form opinions especially about professionalism and commercialism of the industry?
I don’t agree with how Miki expressed it at all, but I do think I understand the sense of loss that he had – that beautiful wave at Malibu suddenly becoming so crowded that you can’t surf there. Losing that, but also losing the kind of small scale, the cottage industry feeling as something changed and became bigger. And even though surfing and professionalism feel separate to me, I don’t relate them at all, with the commercialization, I get it more. If, suddenly, surfboards are available everywhere, then they’re gonna be people in the water that were never there before.
That’s so true. I just have one thing that I really, really wanted to ask you. Was there anything that you wanted to find out about Miki that you couldn’t get an answer?
I wish I could talk to the FBI case agent who wrote these extraordinary memos about Miki when they were trying to bring him back to California. Miki had been arrested in France for using a phone booth in such a way that he could do free international calls. I mean, only Miki, right? While he was detained, there was a negotiation with the U.S. authorities and he basically decided, all right, I’m gonna go home. I’m tired of having to hide so much, I’m going to face whatever consequences there may be for stealing the ski equipment at Mammoth. And there was also the passport and the Diners Club fraud at that point. I would love to know why this guy wrote these crazy florid teletype memos about Miki. He must have known him. It’s almost like he’s so pissed off about his informant who is not cooperating, that he’s firing off these memos that he’s calling him “Scintillating Sandor” using his middle name. When the agent thought he’d lost Miki, he wrote, “Scintillating Sandor has sailed into the sunset”… what FBI informant is writing that? I wish I could talk to that person, whoever it is.
Listen to the Lost Hills podcast, here.