Florsheims in the Sand

In 1969, Richard Nixon moved next door to Surfer magazine founder John Severson. The San Clemente beach wasn’t big enough for the both of them.

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A Cautionary Tale

When John Severson hired me as associate editor of Surfer magazine in the spring of 1968, he didn’t much know what he was getting into, nor did I. 

I was a “communications” man with an English degree working at the new Wall Street Journal production plant on Page Mill Road near Palo Alto, California, on the peninsula south of San Francisco. I commuted 45 miles north from the Santa Cruz apartment I shared with my wife, which was almost directly across East Cliff Drive from the surf spot known as The Hook. Up the road a bit was Pleasure Point. 

I didn’t especially know where I was headed in life, but things were going all right. I was an aspiring writer. I’d been accumulating my own short stories into a book that had gone through a couple of working titles. Goodnight Irene was one.

My best friend, Mike, lived at the back of our U-shaped apartment molecule. We shared an interest in weed, literature, talking about ideas, and, to some degree, the ocean. He was working on his Ph.D. in marine biology up at the UC Santa Cruz campus, researching the problem of DDT in local aquatic mammals, mostly seals. He had grown up in Idaho and was not a surfer, but he spent time out on Año Nuevo Island, north of Santa Cruz, and I made a couple of trips out there with him. I watched him hacksaw into a dead seal’s brain to extract a sample.

I’d been surfing since the summer of 1962, but I hadn’t considered writing about it until the unlikely moment when the news broke that an upcoming contest at Steamer Lane would be a professional event with $1,000 in prize money on the line. It would be the first real pro contest in surfing history. 

My wife was a subscriber to Surfer, so I wrote a letter to Severson offering to cover the event for the magazine. He wrote me back: “Sure.”

While Bernstein and Woodward, Congress, and David Frost would prove worthy Nixon foils, the president’s conflict with Surfer founder and publisher John Severson shook up both the magazine and, in a way, surf culture itself. Photograph by Bill Ray.

After a heavily whacked version of my story appeared in the March 1968 issue, I was emboldened to pitch John on covering the first Western Surfing Association AAAA contest, coincidentally also in Santa Cruz, a few months later. Again he said, “Sure,” and that he’d send up staff photographer Brad Barrett to shoot it. 

Meanwhile, as I awaited the AAAA and the photographer, I wrote a short story and sent it off to Mr. Severson. I forget what I’d called it, but it was published as “Beyond the Green Diamonds.” I didn’t entirely love the title, but I wasn’t about to argue, because, a year or so earlier, the magazine’s managing editor, Patrick McNulty, had published an editorial or two condemning the use of marijuana and other illegal drugs by surfers. America was obviously under attack. Surfing was a healthy sport. If you wanted to get fucked up, then do it with something legal, like booze, and if you had to smoke something, smoke cigarettes, like people did. My story, then, could be read as a cautionary tale. 

“Beyond the Green Diamonds” was about a young surfer named Ray Stickles, who drives his VW bus out to the coast and parks at the beach. He looks out toward the waves, mulls the situation, and drops acid as night falls. So, it wasn’t the usual Surfer story, and I was a bit apprehensive about submitting it. But John accepted it, likely because Ray suffers a bad trip and dies.

So…time came for the AAAA, and Barrett showed up to cover the action. He stayed at our place in the mag’s VW bus, the contest was held at Rivermouth, and all went well. I got to meet and talk withsome big-name surfers, like Mark Martinson and Dale Dobson, and the next thing I knew I had an invitation to attend the annual Surfer Poll awards banquet at the San Clemente Inn. I can’t recall how I made it down to the event, but I did, and I met more big-name surfers, like David Nuuhiwa, Joyce Hoffman, Skip Frye, and Corky Carroll. And then I met, in person, John Severson, who offered me a job to assist Mr. McNulty as an associate editor of Surfer alongside the highly respected Bill Cleary, whom I never actually met.

Proximity & Access

The Surfer mag offices were on the second floor of a long, two-story building tucked a ways back of Capistrano Beach. Mr. Severson, his wife, Louise, and their two daughters lived in a gated community just south of the San Clemente Inn. Cypress Shore was the southernmost residential enclave on the Orange County coast, and the Seversons lived on the southernmost beachfront lot—the farthest south you could live without being in San Diego County, except for the impressive property next door. On that piece of ground stood a Spanish-style mansion erected in 1926 for Hamilton H. Cotton, one of the financial founders of San Clemente.

The Severson home was a beach and surf lover’s dream setup, a multistory modern design with the top floor and garage at cul-de-sac level. Train tracks sat at the foot of the low bluff below their two decks, which offered long views out onto the Pacific and up toward Santa Catalina Island. On the south side of the house, an access road ran down from the cul-de-sac and across the tracks to a lovely sandy beach.

Up the beach was San Clemente. Down the beach, past the Cotton estate and across the barbed-wire border of San Diego County, was the US Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton—17 miles of off-limits coastline all the way to Oceanside, except for a negotiated exception for the San Onofre Surf Club, which evolved over the 1930s and 40s and was more formally created in 1951. But nearer to the Severson home, just beyond that wave-pummeled and ineffectual barbed-wire fence, was the Trestles constellation: Uppers, Lowers, Middles, Church, and, finally, San Onofre.

For surfers, the Cotton estate was incidental to the surf spot just out front, which was called Cotton’s Point. This was a subtle point, but when a southern-hemi was pumping up the coast, it could produce luscious left-breaking waves as good as you’d be likely to encounter anywhere in California. When that happened, the tail end of the break tapered off right in front of the Severson home. (Checking it out on the satellite view today, I can hardly recognize the place. No inch of “ocean view” has been spared development.)

I took the job at Surfer and moved south from Santa Cruz in June 1968. My wife and I rented a home in San Clemente for $135 a month, which was a big chunk of the $500 per month salary John awarded me. However, a significant fringe benefit was access to the beach at Cotton’s, which meant access to Trestles and its environs as long as I didn’t get caught.

When I say that John didn’t know what he was getting into when he hired me, I primarily reference the anti-marijuana, rather conservative editorial posture of the mag under McNulty, who was writing on the side for The Saturday Evening Post. Within a month, Pat retired from Surfer. I was not privy to the formal arrangement, but he packed up his office and I moved in. And I wasn’t the lone pioneer. A corner had already been turned at Surfer by the time I showed up. The increasingly spacey work of cartoonist Rick Griffin was imbuing the popular comic “Adventures of Griffin and (Ron) Stoner” with insidious allusions not only to marijuana, but to that freaky acid stuff. But John hadn’t really noticed, hadn’t picked up on it yet.

And then there was my new friend and blues tutor, Brad “Blues Boy” Barrett, who took most everything sideways into uncharted territory, at least for me. He definitely made things fun, and he surfed some. But, as I settled into my undeserved position at the mag, I began to gather that John himself had somewhat drifted away from his magazine’s subject matter. He hadn’t surfed much in the year prior, but he was making regular trips north to the Long Beach area, where he had majored in art at the college, to golf. This was probably a factor in my rather abrupt assumption of the lion’s share of the magazine’s editorial direction.

Given, in retrospect, a shocking excess of freedom to produce and publish, I introduced regular surf-related poetry, off-the-wall essays, experimental editorial styles, and some anti-competition, anti-war, anti-authoritarian, Bob Dylan–inspired exposition that no doubt contributed in getting the attention of John’s soon-to-be new neighbors.

La Casa Pacifica

Soon after his inauguration in January 1969, Richard Nixon purchased the Cotton estate from Cotton’s widow, paying $1.4 million for the 5.45-acre property. Dick renamed the place La Casa Pacifica in July and subsequently began traveling there on personal and state visits to host world leaders, US government officials, and other important people right next door to La Casa Severson.

Sniffing the obvious opportunity, John immediately pitched LIFE magazine on covering the president’s move to the new Western White House. John would provide truly exclusive photographs, and I was attached to the pitch as the author of a piece that he immediately titled “Prez Nix Rox San Clem!”

The beach at Cotton’s Point is sloped, and the sand near the water tends to be soft and a little gooey. Watching the president walking the water’s edge in street shoes and socks, wearing slacks and a “casual” shirt, was a bit sad. This was about the time we saw Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, and, truth be told, Mr. Nixon looked about as at home on that beach as Mr. Armstrong had appeared shuffling over lunar rock. In fact, Neil seemed to be having a lot more fun. But who knows what’s in a man’s heart?

John started documenting it all from his upper deck, just a narrow gully away from the Nixon home. Mounting the magazine’s 1,000-millimeter f/8 Century lens on a Miller fluid-head tripod and aiming it at Nixon was a photo-op gold mine. Bear in mind that said lens was 4 feet long and fat and black and, to the casual observer, might have resembled a bazooka. Remember also that the neighbor over there, about two surfboard lengths across the narrow access lane, in the crosshairs of John’s camera, was, in fact, the president of the United States of America. Remember that, and ponder.

Now make a note of this, too: Over the preceding winter, knowing that I was prone to imbibe, and smelling it here and there around the office, John expressed cautious interest in learning more about “the evil weed.” He was curious and he was my boss, so I invited him over to our house and proceeded to assist him in getting stoned, which, as it happened, he very much enjoyed. I think he basically said, “Whooooo-wheee!” or something to that effect. However, when he informed Louise about his experience, she was less than pleased and opined to him that I was a bad influence, which persisted until Louise herself experienced the wicked smoke. She, too, loved it. From then on, consciousness in the Severson household and at Surfer magazine headquarters began to shift, possibly to expand.

Things thus being out in the open, we began to occasionally enjoy a smoke at the Severson house. And, as the world of psychotropics was opening to them—and to all of us—John and Louise were doing a bit of experimenting. Psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, hash, LSD? I don’t know, and all in moderation, of course, but driven by a genuine urge to explore these new realms of experience. After all, John was an artist, and Louise was not one to be left behind. And this was the visceral visionary currency of the era.

Tricky Dick

Something about Tricky Dick Nixon was very much at odds with those liberating, liberal-leaning times—something to do with the Vietnam “War.” (In fact, the US has not been involved in constitutionally legal declared war since World War II.) But, even more fundamentally, it was in line with the president’s anti-communist, anti-left political history going back to the House Un American Activities investigations of the early 1950s.

In the spirit of the times, I dutifully mocked Nixon in the magazine some. Even so, he was a big star in largely conservative Cypress Shore. Following visits to the Western White House, word of an impending departure was passed discreetly from the gate guards to residents, and the citizens would muster to cheer on the president, who would wave and smile to their cheers, creating a vibe of triumphal departure. 

On one such occasion, I was heading back to the office after a surf when I encountered a scrum of residents lining the road leading from the Western White House out toward the gate. Joining this patriotic throng, I positioned myself squarely at the corner of Calle Isabella, where the neighborhood street turned into Avenue de Las Palmas, which was the main drag out. As the formidable black limo approached, I worked my toes out over the curb right at the corner to get the best possible view. I could see that the Nixons were in the back seat—his wife, Pat, on my side, Dick on the driver’s side. The limo slowed to a virtual crawl as it rounded the corner. I could see the back window was down, and there was Pat, smiling and nodding at all the friendly natives, including me. And then, as the car slowly took the corner, virtually grazing my knee, I had a sudden impulse and leaned into the open window, grinned at the prez, and spoke rather forcefully, “Hello there, Big Dick!”

Just next door to the Prez, the once straight-as-an-arrow Severson was on a fully realized path of THC-enhanced discovery. Photograph by Bill Ray.

I immediately snapped back out of the window and into a stiff upright position, the image of Nixon’s slack-jawed surprise fresh in my mind. That’s when I noticed the two black cars staffed with Secret Service following behind. These gentlemen were in dark suits, and they were fumbling at their pockets, glowering at me with laser stink-eyes. I have no doubt that if this scene had happened 50 years later, I would have been spitting out a few rounds of my teeth as I was hauled off to prison. Instead, stink-eyes were all I got. But I knew what they were thinking: Fuck! We are so lucky that asshole wasn’t a shooter!

Coincidentally or not, within a few days John called me into his office. “Close the door.” I did. John proceeded to tell me that the pot parties at his house were over. He had received a message from the Cypress Shore gate guard, passed to him from Misters Ehrlichman and Haldeman, that the presence or consumption of any illegal substance in the Severson domicile would result in John’s removal from the community for an extended length of time, long enough that he would no longer be remembered…or words to that effect. This is what John told me, to my best recollection. But he seemed agitated and did not repeat the info again. At that point, we both knew, or assumed, that our office and home phones, as well as our houses, were bugged.

Men in Black

Feeling as young as I was and appropriately invincible, I was rather energized by this turn of events. But John, infinitely more invested in the situation, appeared increasingly anxious. Late in 1969, as I was preparing to fly off to Australia to cover the 1970 World Contest, a number of men in black suits showed up at the Surfer offices. When I asked John who these men were, he told me they were accountants, and said that this was a normal annual accounting routine. Doin’ the books. I was suspicious—just a little. 

These accountants met with John and they met with his father, Hugh, who oversaw the accounting. They opened filing cabinets and they ran tape through adding machines. Their presence cramped our casual pot-smoking after-hours routine, as the place could not smell of smoke in the morning. I understood, banged out an issue, and took off for Oz.

Severson’s paparazzo shots of Nixon from across the lawn with Surfer’s famous Century 1000 lens would spark the proverbial beef between the two after they appeared in LIFE magazine, setting the stage for the publisher’s exit from his business and Southern California. Photograph by Ron Stoner.

I spent almost two and a half months in Australia on that trip. Wonderful times. But when I returned to San Clemente and the Surfer offices, there were still men in black suits in the building. I slipped into John’s office. “Pssst! Why are those accountants still here?”

“Those aren’t accountants,” John replied. “Those are the new owners.”

The new owner was For Better Living Inc., and their business was manufacturing and selling precast concrete products. Think freeway systems, stuff like that. But, with the acquisition of Surfer, they entered the business of publishing specialty magazines. I didn’t like the looks of it and was not in the mood to return to “corporate” employment, so I retooled my position with John just as he was doing the same for himself. Within a couple of issues, Steve Pezman was doing both of our jobs quite well, and John and I were associate editors on the masthead—he corresponding from the South Pacific, I from Santa Cruz. 

Could things have gone differently? Certainly. They always can, but, if you’ve noticed, they never do. 

President Richard Milhous Nixon, as photographed by John Severson.