Marge Booth Calhoun was born in Hollywood in 1924 and raised in the pristine California that only her generation knew. Open spaces, clean, clear air, wide beaches -all invited daredevil exploration, and Marge sampled it all. Her dad would take her to Venice Beach and put her through basic calisthenics to make her strong and supple.
She was a natural waterwoman – a competitive swimmer, diver, Olympic hopeful, stuntwoman, and synchronized swimmer
In the mid-1950s husband Tom surprised her with a Joe Quigg balsa board, and she took it out to the colony at Malibu to try her luck. There she ran into Malibu regular Darrylin Zanuck (daughter of movie mogul Darryl Zanuck), who became her friend and mentor. She also got some solid pointers in 10-foot surf from the fearless Buzzy Trent. Marge was hooked from the first wave she caught. “I cherished that first board and surfed it until it was too beat up to take out in the water,” Marge recalled.
“I was a big, strong woman and happened to enjoy big surf.” She and Eve Fletcher took a month’s surf safari to Oahu in 1958, where Marge ended up winning the Makaha Invitational.
With daughters Candy and Robin ever by her side, Marge was a fixture at popular surf sites and contests. In 1961 she was the first secretary of the newly-formed USSA, and its first and only female judge. “The Calhouns were all beautiful and athletic, with sun-streaked hair and radiant smiles, and were often celebrated as the feminine surfing ideal,” wrote Matt Warshaw, in the Encyclopedia of Surfing. LeRoy Grannis shot hundreds of photos of the athletic trio, whether surfing, skateboarding, or appearing on the contest awards stand. Mike Doyle said: “They were like Greek goddesses, each one beautiful, and together they were just overwhelming.”
But it was Marge’s ability to hold you spellbound with her storytelling that always captured me. I never met her, but we somehow became fast friends in her later years, speaking regularly on the phone from her home in Morro Bay, and exchanging dozens of letters. Here’s one of my favorite of her recollections:
“Kit Horn had phoned me [in the late 1960s-early 70s] and told me that he and Les Williams had heard a rumor about massive surf conditions, and they were heading north, where the swells would be biggest. They said they had targeted a little town in the middle of nowhere, called ‘Surf,’ and it was on or just outside Vandenberg Air Force Base. He told me to take this dirt road that ended at a tiny railroad station, but that’s all the directions I had. By the time Candy and I drove up there, it was quite late. It was dark but we were able to make out their car, so we just parked nearby and went to sleep. Sometime later we were shocked awake by a horrendously loud noise, the ground shook, and we thought I had parked on the railroad tracks and we were about to be smashed by a train. Boy, did we jump to get out of that car! What we didn’t know was that Vandenberg had launched a missile in the middle of the night, the sky lit up and we all watched the vapor trail in amazement. Better than being killed by the train.
“At daylight the four of us went down this path to the beach and caught a good look at the absolutely wild surf – it was all over the place and simply crazy. We sat there for a while and calculated our chances, and decided, heck – might as well go on out. It was big, wild, horrendous – absolute hell to paddle out, but, believe it or not, I paddled through on my favorite Joe Quigg balsa board* and beat the guys out to the line-up, such as it was. Once we got out there, we looked at each other again, like, what were we doing out here, the surf going off every which way, and it was cold, in November I think. Well, it ended up that we each caught one wave and got the heck out of there. Candy and I went home, and the guys continued north up to Half Moon Bay, or wherever they were going. All in all, a pretty wild adventure, and I loved every minute of it!”
*Marge later commented on her favorite board: “Joe Quigg made my first surfboard, it was a dream board, like magic, absolute magic, lightweight and narrow. It had a great kick in the nose. Phil Edwards and Renny Yater both like a flat board, but I like a kick in the nose. I surfed during the time of so many transitions and experienced them all, from pure balsa on, and that Quigg board fit right into my style.”