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The Cat’s Ninth Life

On visiting Miki Dora near the end.

Light / Dark

I had an appointment with Yvon Chouinard to meet early morning on December 18, a Tuesday, at his beachfront home north of Ventura. Yvon had suggested timing the drive up from San Clemente to coincide with a good swell, but it was late in the year and I wanted to present him with a thank-you gift for his consistent support over The Journal’s first ten years while it was still our tenth year. (The item being a self-portrait taken by Doc Ball in 1935 on which Doc had written, “Enjoy your years while you still have them.” —Doc Ball, 2001.)

Mickey Muñoz was riding along because he needed to pick up a large gasoline generator he’d bought from Yvon, so he could haul it down to his second home in Mexico, and a new Rocket Fish that was awaiting him at Clyde Beatty’s boardworks in Santa Barbara. I drive a cargo-friendly, heavy-duty pickup, so the joint mission made sense. Mickey and I have been friends since he employed me as his assistant at Ole Surfboards (after Hobie bought it) on Bay Boulevard in Seal Beach back in 1963. These days, we enjoy any excuse to spend rare time together, especially a coastal cruise. While discussing the trip, I suggested to Mickey that he might want to call Miki Dora’s father in Montecito and see if we could stop by and visit the failing Cat while he was still able to take visitors.

By now, word had spread that Dora was in the final stages of terminal cancer. Just two to three weeks previously, he had been flown first-class from Biarritz, France, to Loma Linda Clinic in Redlands, California, by Quiksilver Europe’s Harry Hodge, who had been putting Miki up in France. Dora had been quickly screened and judged untreatable, riddled with an illness too long ignored. Miki had refused the option of surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy, and had been moved to his father’s to fight the last fight. He had been given two months.

Word of Miki’s affliction had been the underground buzz for much of the last year, the news spreading like tendrils throughout a surfing world scattered with old friends and acquaintances. It was said that Miki had been reaching out via phone to certain individuals known to him as being either ill themselves or with some basis for knowledge of treatments, in his hour of need. The shocking reality of a terminal Dora struck hard into the psyche of the surfing community—a subculture that has seen itself age from its early 1960s popularity explosion, when it was composed of 99 percent teenagers, to today’s current demographic, weighed heavily with aging boomers and pre-boomers dropping dead, quite naturally, all around us. Only six months ago, a still rakishly tan, handsome, and fit Miki had reportedly received the doctor’s reports and chose to turn away from conventional debilitating treatments, preferring more homeopathic dietary strategies, juice fasts, golf, tennis, and surfing. Who could blame him?

To digress, over recent years, Dora had played cat-and-mouse with various film-industry figures who had expressed interest in making a picture based on his life story, while others wanted him to do the autobiographical, tell-all book. At one point, it was reported that Dora had turned down 50 grand cash up front to do “the book.” But it was the elusive movie deals that Miki chased in his own seemingly passive-aggressive way. For the most part, they were fostered by producer-directors who were themselves part of the Malibu scene, well versed in the Dora mystique, and now were bankable industry figures powerful enough to choose their own projects. 

With some understanding of the difficulty of two such supreme egos trying to mate, Dora coming to a contractual agreement with a filmmaker was a process doomed to failure. It went like this: The light bulb would go on for the Hollywood guys and they would put word out that they were interested. Even we would occasionally field “searching for Miki” calls at The Journal. We’d generally send them to Greg Noll, who would have a chuckle, then pass them on to Miki. 

Contact would eventually occur and meetings would be set up. Negotiations would progress between Miki, his lawyer, and the surfer-producer type until Dora’s suspicious nature and sense of propriety would revolt when faced with the Hollywood guy’s ideas for how it should be. Once the Hollywood guys experienced the reality of Miki’s persona in full bloom, the light bulb would burn out and there were none left calling.

Miki was aging; it seemed as if the moment of opportunity might be passing him by. Why Miki wanted a film of his life to be made, it’s hard to be sure. Originally, it had to be the money, plain and simple. Eventually, as interest waned, he came to see “the book” as a vehicle to rekindle interest in the film. By this point, Tom Adler, a Santa Barbara surfer, graphic designer, and marketing consultant who had created the acclaimed small-format book San Onofre to Point Dume, 1926–1942, of seminal Don James images that Dora much admired, had proposed a similar book to Miki, with longtime Dora confidant Craig Stecyk as writer. To this, Miki finally agreed. In fact, he even pursued Adler’s book. When his illness advanced and his time became short, Miki’s motivation for doing the book was no longer about the money and selling a movie deal, but about leaving a high-quality statement as a legacy.

To this end, Adler and Stecyk both became personally dedicated as well. For weeks, in November and December 2001, Stecyk had been frequenting Dora’s father’s house in Montecito, taping interviews when Miki’s energy level allowed. All the while, Adler, who had been visiting Dora in France to discuss the book and who lived nearby Miki’s father in Montecito, had become close to Miki and a constant support presence.

This was the scene that awaited Muñoz and I on our run up the coast.

We arrived at Chouinard’s house around 8:30 a.m. The surf was small and glassy, with occasional sets revealing signs of a freshening swell. The tide was too high out front, so Mickey and I followed Yvon down to C-Street in Ventura, where they enjoyed an hour in light-offshore, waist-to-shoulder conditions up on the far point. Both surfed with easy competence: Muñoz, in his traditional way, picking off inside waves, doing stand-up fade turns stiff-legged off the bottom, then flowing through section after section on down the beach, and Chouinard, who with a direct, unadorned body language, pulled deep takeoffs and easily made the zippy little outside curls. After the surf, we proceeded to Point Blank, Chouinard’s surfboard factory, where we horsed the heavy gasoline generator into the back of my truck and headed north on to 101.

The Dora family home is, by Montecito standards, a relatively modest but very comfortable cottage located on a small lane just inland of the highway. We followed Mr. Dora’s directions off the freeway and parked my big white Ford diesel against a hedge along the front of the house, behind a clean showroom-stock El Camino that looked like Craig Stecyk’s. 

On the drive up, Mickey and I had speculated on what we’d encounter. Visiting a terminal patient can be excruciatingly uncomfortable. Make that person the intimidating Miki Dora and the normal tension is magnified. While I had been of some assistance to Miki from a distance during his illness, as this day had approached, my not being an intimate friend of Miki’s made me feel awkward about violating his private space at such an intensely personal time. I’d been troubled over this and decided that if it felt inappropriate for me to go in, I’d wait in the car. 

However, Mickey had clearly mentioned to Mr. Dora that we were riding up together and he’d been enthusiastic, telling Muñoz, when queried about what he could bring, “to bring your sense of humor,” so we ended up figuring it would be okay. As a gift, Mickey had selected a silly surfing Santa that danced hula on a surfboard. Muñoz ventured that it represented perfectly everything that Miki hated about surfing, hopefully providing the perfect bit of levity. I had brought three never-before-printed, let alone published, mid-60s Ron Stoner black-and-whites of The Cat at Rincon, in his prime.

We both got out and walked to the front porch. While approaching the house through the yard, suddenly we could see Miki about 60 feet away, reclining in a sunny patch of patio off to the left side of the house with a lady (who turned out to be his stepmother, Christina) in attendance. Miklos Dora Sr. came to greet us at the door. We introduced ourselves, and he invited us in while apologizing that Miki was at the moment indisposed, taking sun out back. He bid us into the front room and we sat down, joining Craig Stecyk, who nodded to us from the couch.

The room was dominated by a large modern impressionist landscape hanging over the fireplace. Glancing around at the inner sanctum of Miki’s parents’, a space that under normal circumstances I never, ever would have intruded on, I observed the roots of Miki’s sophisticated tastes expressed by the assembly of family objets d’art, all of them time-appropriate to the senior Doras. This was obviously the well-appointed home of a financially secure elderly couple. I had heard that Mr. Dora was a retired wine merchant, and there indeed were framed, autographed grand cru labels from significant French vintages adorning the wall in the hall. But the most striking aspect of meeting Miki’s father was that he looked exactly like his famous surfer son: the shape of the head, the tight curls of the hair, the impish eyes, the nose and mouth, the facial structure and expressions. His precise English was spoken with a Hungarian accent, and the use of hands and shoulders to emphasize meanings. All of it immediately added up.

Mr. Dora went out to announce to Miki that he had visitors. I squirmed. We heard Miki exclaim, “Not now,” then more soft words. Mr. Dora returned to say that Muñoz was invited to join Miki in the garden. By way of preparing us for Miki’s gaunt appearance, he forewarned us that Miki was eating almost nothing, just taking sips of papaya juice at most. Mickey rose, glanced over at me, and followed Mr. Dora out the door, carrying the absurd Santa. Craig and I glanced at each other. 

Mr. Dora returned to keep us company while the two Mickeys visited. He sat down and we made small talk. What did I do? Oh, The Journal. He believed he had seen a copy. Silence. I questioned a trophy sitting on a sideboard and, with sudden enthusiasm, Mr. Dora launched into a description of his own tennis past. He had played at a top-ranked amateur level in the 40s and 50s, able to hold his own playing social matches at the LA Tennis Club with such period stars as Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzales. The foundation for Miki’s considerable tennis ability suddenly came clear. Mr. Dora politely excused himself and left the room.

By then, Muñoz had returned back inside. Miki had tired. Mickey looked at me and Craig and shook his head. It had been tough. He whispered to us that he had felt foolish giving Miki the funny Santa, that Miki had not reacted to it, but that when he reached down to take it with him as he left, Miki had put his hand on Mickey’s, indicating that he should leave it. 

Mr. Dora returned and invited us into the den, where the walls were covered with family photos. Pointing to an image on the wall, he explained the young boy and young man in surf trunks standing on the sand in front of a bluff: “Here I am with Miki on our first day at San Onofre in 1940. Miki is 6 in the photo.” Surprised, Muñoz asked, “Did you surf?” Miklos answered, “Oh, yes. I wasn’t ever that good, but I frequented the Cove and San Onofre back in the 30s and 40s. I took Miki to the Cove for his first surf at age 4.” 

We had both always assumed that it was Miki’s stepdad, Gard Chapin, who had launched his surfing, that his real father was more the city sophisticate removed from the beach scene. But no, not at all. More pieces fell into place. I noticed another small image of a grade-school-aged Dora looking angelic: parted hair, soft smile. And yet another: a defused, Johnny Mathis–style portrait of an adult Miki dressed in all white, sweater, slacks, white slip-ons, holding his beloved dog Scooter—named for the famous 1940s Waikiki surfing dog, Scooter-Boy—on his lap. (Miki would reputedly scam the pooch a seat next to him on plane flights by wearing dark glasses and claiming he was a seeing-eye dog.) The photo was made all the more poignant by the knowledge that Scooter had died in a house fire at Jeffreys Bay just a few years ago. 

When we returned to the front room, Mr. Dora scurried out to check on his son. I could hear Mr. Dora asking Miki if he could see a Mr. Pezman, who was here with Mickey. “Pezman? Is he here? Oh, God.” Then some more muffled words. Suddenly, Mr. Dora appeared in the doorway and invited me out to see Miki. Not wanting to make an uncomfortable scene worse by protesting, I rose and followed him out to the patio. 

There lay The Cat, on a padded chaise lounge, tanned to a dark hue, but with extremely emaciated shoulders and arms. He was nude, draped with a small white towel over his groin; a plastic catheter tube ran out from under the towel into a container on the ground at his side. Miki seemed unselfconscious of his state. His countenance looked like the Dora I had known, but was gaunt, his eyes dark hollows, his hair gray-speckled and shaggy around his darkly tanned features. 

Miki was resting head down, in apparent slumber. I sat and waited. He slowly looked up, registered on me, and said, “Pezman, sorry to have you see me in this wretched state.” With an abbreviated wave of his hand he said, “I can’t hold anything down.” I uttered a few inane words in reply, I can’t remember what, then said, “I had these prints made—Ron Stoner shots of you at Rincon, back in the…” I trailed off as he reached out and took the three 8x10s and shuffled through them, inspecting each carefully. After a moment, he looked up into my eyes, handed them back to me, and asked, “How much?” Caught off guard, I again fumbled for words. Was he joking or being serious? 

“I had them made for you.” 

He gestured for me to put them down. I set them on the ground. He said, “No, put them inside.” Then, tired from the exchange, his eyes closed and his head dropped. Christina came close and suggested we return to the front room, to let Miki move inside. It had grown chilly on the patio.

I returned to join the others and we waited while Miki walked slowly to his bedroom, put on a robe, and then moved to the front room to continue our audience from the couch. Miki rested from the effort, then looked up and gazed at each of us as if assessing our presence. He looked at me, then his hand moved to his forehead in that familiar Dora-esque gesture, and he spoke. 

“I spent my life traveling the world, looking for a good wave to ride by myself… I found a few…ten years before anyone else.” 

I nodded. Another pause. 

“I want to apologize for my past behaviors… The whole thing just got too big for me… The commercialism.” 

I was stunned. 

After a longer pause, “I’m fighting this thing, but it looks like it may beat me.” 

Yet a longer pause. 

“Don’t make a big deal out of my obituary… If you must write something, a few simple words. Just leave it at that.” 

Miki slowly got up to return to his room. It was time. Muñoz, myself, Stecyk, we all rose as did Miki, and we moved toward the door. Miki stopped and turned to face us, and he and Stecyk hugged. Then he and Muñoz hugged. Then Miki stopped in front of me and slowly extended his hand. His grasp was strong and firm; he looked into my eyes for a brief instant, searching for something, then moved away down the hall. 

Three weeks later, at 9:30 a.m., on January 3, 2002, I was sitting at my computer at home writing these words when Greg Noll called to tell me that Miki Dora had passed at 6 a.m. He had died peacefully in his sleep. His doctor had reportedly marveled that for being so sick, he had passed away easily and relatively pain-free.

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Essays, profiles, interviews, reporting, and other musings from five decades in surf publishing.

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