Surfing is a game and a hustle, says Matt Warshaw. And Miki Dora did it with…style!
What do you know about Miki Dora? Anything? Maybe it’s as a vague apparition, or it’s the dusty odour of what we usually call a “legend”, maybe nothing at all.
I’ll be brief. Miklos Sandor Dora aka Miki aka Da Cat was a Hungarian-born surfer who inhaled the surfing dream hungrily. He flamed! He was style in the water, suits out of it, convertibles, Hollywood and movie stars. He was also a thief, a scammer and an impossible loner who travelled the world chasing adventure and waves, his only real friend a small dog called Scooter Boy.
A few days ago, the noted historian Matt Warshaw posted an entry about Miki’s step-dad Gard Chapin. (Read it here, it’s rad.) And, because Matt does history better than anyone in the game, I figured it was finally time for he and I to exchange on Miki.
Was he as great as they said? Does he still matter?
Between San Francisco (Matt) and Sydney (DR), we back and forthed.
BeachGrit: So you just posted a piece on the death, murder of whatever, of Gard Chapin, Miki Dora’s stepdad. And this interests me, because it reminds me of American surfing culture’s fetish for Dora and what he represents: rebellion, individuality, perfection of style. I met Miki a few times in France and was deeply unimpressed despite the fact he was surrounded by acolytes. What don’t I get?
Matt: Okay, but first — you met him? I never did. Tell me a little about it. I know that five people meeting Dora could easily have five different impressions.
BeachGrit: I was living in Hossegor and hanging with the guys from Quiksilver, mostly, and they were paying Miki to be Miki, as in a witty golf partner, living surf legend. And my pals kept asking, “Do you want to play golf with Miki?” And, me, being anti-nostalgia and terrified of being dragged down golf’s hole, kept knocking it back. The first time I met him was at Stephen Bell’s board factory out the back of Hossegor. Mark Phipps was shaping his boards, these eight-foot-ish gun things, beautiful, and I was there when Miki came to pick up a board. And, let me tell you this, Matt, he was a gorgeous old man, late sixties, this was just before he found out he had pancreatic cancer. He was wearing a sort of pleated sports shirt, big pants belted high, was six-two or so, and had coffee-coloured skin.
Matt: So in fact you actually weren’t deeply unimpressed. You were impressed!
BeachGrit: Yeah, I liked what I saw. And then that book All For a Few Perfect Waves (click here to inspect) landed and I liked him a little more. But why is he so fetishised? He must’ve been a pain in the ass to have as a pal. Why do you like him?
Matt: What he was really like as a person doesn’t interest me at all. Maybe he was a total dickhead, maybe he had a secret heart of gold, maybe he was acting all the time, maybe just some of the time. Who knows? Who cares what Dora was really like? What counts is what he represents. Surfing is a game and a hustle. For all of us, just on different levels. You want to surf a lot, you gotta hustle. You lie to your boss, your wife. You break laws, even if its just jumping lights to get to the beach faster. And . . . and . . . you try and do it with style! You out-style the fuckers! So Dora. I mean, never mind the surfing. He was either the most stylish longboarder ever, or in the top three, whatever. Forget that for a second. He’s smartest guy in the room. He owns a tux. He owns tennis whites. He can pick the right wine at Musso & Frank. He can talk about Europe. He does irony. He’s worldly, when every other hot-shit surfer, then and today, is completely lost on the other side of the coast highway. You like eye-rolling the Gudauskas brothers? How can Dora not be your man?
BeachGrit: …yeah, you’re right, he… played it. Did that part in Surfers the Movie do it for you? I still watch it.
Matt: No, exactly, I was just going to bring up Surfers: the Movie. It was Chas Smith, or maybe it was you, Derek, who said the whole point of us interacting as surfers — again, not counting the wave-riding part — is to be entertaining. To NOT be boring. So I would maybe amend that and add a few exceptions, but okay, for the most part I accept that statement. And on that basis Dora was so far out ahead of the rest, past and present, that nobody else really registers. And that’s exactly what you get in Surfers: the Movie. Christian Fletcher, Arch, Cheyne, Johnny-Boy, Rabbit, Owl — all these guys with rebel cred totally disappear once Dora’s onscreen. Just vanish. Dora’s amazing rant is the only thing anybody remembers about that movie. And a big part, a huge part, of why that rant is so perfect is that Dora admit’s that his life in a lot of ways is messed up. That he’s lonely. He was damaged as a kid, and he’s further damaged himself as an adult. His closest companion is a little fucking dog. In other words, yes, Dora’s out-styling everybody, and out-rebelling everybody, but he’s lost. He’s stuck. The fact that he died at his father’s house, because he didn’t have his own family, is incredibly sad.
BeachGrit: I was actually very impressed by the way Dora died, tanning by a pool in Montecito. I thought it a very civilised and beautiful way to depart. Can you describe those final couple of months?
I just know what I read in David Rensin’s book All for a few Perfect Waves and from what I heard from Steve Pezman, who visited Miki a couple weeks before he died. I don’t know if it was all that beautiful. A lot of pain meds, a lot of morphine, a catheter. But yeah. He was out there tanning. At some point an old friend came by in a Ferrari and took Miki out for a long tear-ass drive through the Santa Barbara hills. Right up till the end, if the pain left, Miki made jokes and laughed. And he made amends to people he may have hurt or offended. He was gracious.
BeachGrit: Is there a contemporary equivalent of Dora?
Matt: Noa Deane yelling “Fuck the WSL!” at the SURFER Poll, and being thought of as rebellious — it almost makes me glad Dora died when he did, so he didn’t have to witness how far we’ve sunk in terms of being cool and different and maybe a little dangerous.