If you took James Dean's cool, Muhammad Ali's poetics, Harry Houdini's slipperiness, James Bond's jet-setting, George Carlin's irony and Kwai Chang Caine's Zen, and rolled them into one man with a longboard, you'd have something like Miki Dora, surfing's mythical antihero, the Black Knight of Malibu.
The short version of his story goes like this: introduced to surfing by his stepfather in the '30s, Miklos Sandor Dora III made a huge reputation for himself at Malibu throughout the '50s, riding the long, hot-dog waves of First Point with style and panache. Then came Gidget, the Beach Boys, beach-blanket bingo and the commodification of surfing. Dora was repulsed; his Malibu sanctuary had gone from pristine playground to kook/hodad/inlander-infested zoo.
He voiced his protest through a series of colorful acts. In one contest, Dora rode a 12-foot tandem board in the final (the surfing equivalent to running a 10K in ski boots). In another he went up to collect his first place trophy and, in front of fans, judges, media and fellow surfers, hurled the trophy straight into the sand. But his coup de grace came in the 1967 Malibu Invitational. In the semifinals, with thousands of surf-stoked spectators huddled on the beach, Dora took off on a wave, dropped his shorts, and flashed his bare ass whilst riding the length of First Point—his final fuck you. He then set off on what can only be called the greatest surf odyssey of the 20th century.
Funded primarily through bogus credit cards, forged checks and the kindness of bewitched, often deep-pocketed friends, Dora gallivanted about the globe riding the best waves, drinking the finest wines, and living life on his own terms, all the while avoiding any semblance of work. And the longer he stayed away, the more his legend grew. Throughout the '70s, '80s and '90s, Dora sightings flooded back to the States, always shrouded in romance and mystique—Dora the gypsy hopping trains in Budapest, Dora the nomad on the backs of camels in Kenya, Dora the bon vivant skiing in the French Alps, Dora the jewel thief hunting diamonds in Namibia, Dora the bullshit artist at the casino in Monte Carlo, Dora the hustler on the golf course in Biarritz .?.?. His surfboard was his magic carpet and his wits were his wings, and from the late '60s up until his death in 2002, excepting a couple brief prison stints, Dora lived the Endless Summer lifestyle, defining what it means to be a surfer:
"I drop in, set the thing up and behind me, all this stuff goes over my back; the screaming parents, teachers, police, priests, politicians—they're all going over the falls headfirst ?into the reef. And when it starts to close out, I pull out the back, pick up another wave and do the same goddamn thing."
Through the years, many asked Dora to sanction their version of his story, but he held out until the end, literally. Terminally ill, he finally entrusted longtime friend Craig Stecyk with the duty—which he and co-author Drew Kampion handle with love and honor.
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I ingested Dora Lives: The Authorized Story of Miki Dora, cover to cover in a hypnotic, four-hour sitting. It has the aura of an illuminated manuscript. If velvet covers, gilded pages and elegant script were what they did in the Middle Ages, then minimalist graphics, photographic smartness and tactile sleekness are what we do here in the 21st century. If you don't surf, the book is beautiful. If you do, it's nearly biblical—a portrait of surfing's original artist.
And the legend only grows. The more you try and define Dora (poet, prankster, philosopher), the more he squirms out the side. In the making of the book, co-author Kampion tells stories of multiple hard-drive crashes, unaccounted-for edits and the ghost of Miki appearing in his kitchen one morning. Even the screen rights to his life story have been slippery going, with rumors of skirmishes and shit fights. Perhaps Miki should have the last word:
"Real secrets will get you dead. I always forget to remember anything. I am a waterlogged, sun-baked old surf bum and that act always ends the inquisition. I wanted to be left alone. So I left alone. Now I don't want anything."
DORA LIVES: THE AUTHORIZED STORY OF MIKI DORA BY C.R. STECYK III AND DREW KAMPION; T. ADLER BOOKS, SANTA BARBARA. HARDCOVER, 142 PAGES, $45.