Other Points of View

I received the following email from John Severson on 22 July 2005.

 

Hi Bob, Forty years ago, and it's still a mystery. Let me see if I can fill in a few blanks.

My recollection is that we had an attorney write a very strong warning letter, threatening a law suit, in hopes of stopping any further liable. A million? That would have been a coincidence number.

Of course we were paying attention to the what Surfguide was doing. It was much more interesting than what we were doing at the time, but we felt it was a jolt of reality, and we needed to do a better job. However, the attack on a personal level in print was something we couldn't let continue.

An apology in the magazine, and no more low blows, was our goal. "We're sorry, Severson's not stingy, and Moorehouse can swim," would have ended it.

So when Surfguide folded up the tent on the basis of the warning letter, we were stunned. My guess at the time was that the magazine was losing money, and the publisher used the letter as an excuse to quit. Magazines are notorious money eaters. Since there was only a letter, there was no suit to be withdrawn. As for threatening advertisers if they took Surfguide ads, that would have been restriction of trade, and highly illegal. I wouldn't have done that.

During this time I was talking to Bill, who told me that the article was slipped in without his knowing the content. That explains why I would offer him a job, besides desperately needing a good surf writer.

Vince Moorehouse was mad, but probably didn't want conflict.

There was a lot of concern that Dana Point was "taking over" the industry through collusion (The Dana Point Mafia). In reality, this was pretty far fetched, as Bruce Brown and I were competitors in films, and Hobie was not in cahoots with anyone except Clark. We just happened to be successful, and living in a different area. The upshot was a lot of loose rumors and smears. We're all human, and not without faults, and maybe I ran a tight ship just so we could survive. I put most of my money back into the magazine, and we had the highest salaries and buy-outs in surfing. But we weren't Sports Illustrated.

As a misplaced artist, my withdrawal from social contacts probably got me an "aloof" rep. I was strong at the reins of the magazine. I blew off insurance salesmen and printing reps who could eat up your hours. I didn't go up and down the coast smoozing advertisers. "Success" comes with a lot of potshots. As a family man and artist, I was looking for the door, and found it in 1971.

In the end, the biggest mystery to me was that a class act like Surfguide would bother with character smears. I never understood that.

Anyway, why not start Surfguide again? There's still wide open spaces for something that creative and personality oriented. Use the Tracks newspaper format. Possible winner.

I turned you to parties and psychedelic adventures? Well, at least something good came of all this.

Aloha, John

 
 
My reply on 31 July 2005. There has been no further communication.

 

Hello John, and kia ora from Aotearoa.

Thank you for taking the time to write. I found your email quite enlightening.

Bill Cleary obviously told you a different story than he told me (and others), but that's par for the course. I'm attaching a brief excerpt from his 23, 044 word story "The Short Happy Life of SurfGuide & Nine Lives of Da Cat" so you can see one of his favourite versions of events. Despite the inaccuracies and downright lies, I've cut and pasted it verbatim.

A few points:

You wrote that Vince was "mad" about the article, but that's not what Vince told me when he phoned. In fact, he said he'd found the bit about him not being able to swim funny. You'll find my description of our conversation at: http://www.surfwriter.net/deathofasurfmag.htm.

After I was fired, I was still required to attend a meeting in Los Angeles with Larry Stevenson, Bill and the lawyers for the company that insured Surfguide (Fireman's Fund). At that meeting we were told that even though the threat to sue had not been acted upon, it possibly could, and that we had to keep the firm informed of our whereabouts for the next ten years just in case you and your lawyers decided proceed after all. They took your lawyer's threat on your behalf very seriously - after all, it went so far as to specify the amount of the damages you were seeking.

Despite what Bill claims in the excerpt I've attached, he did not close down the magazine. Makaha's new moneymen did. As I stated in Death of a Surf Mag, we'd launched another publication (Waterski & Small Craft) that was a complete failure and lost quite a bit of money during its short life. That's what crippled Makaha/Surfguide and your threat of a lawsuit simply played into the hands of the moneymen who wanted to close the magazine anyway.

Had Surfguide been allowed to continue on its current course, however, it would have eventually recouped the losses. But not quickly enough for Larry's new backers. I also recall that his (Bill's) share of Makaha was substantially eroded when the new money came into the equation - so while he (Bill) may have owned 40% of the show before then, he certainly didn't own anywhere near that percentage by the time the decision to close Surfguide was made. What tangled webs ...

Looking back on it, I must say that I still find it hard to believe that you found Bill's references to you in my fable so offensive. But you obviously did and that's all history now.

Despite his flaws, Surfguide was always Bill's creation and I wouldn't dream of trying to refloat it. Besides, the website has had nearly two million visitors so far and the daily tally keeps increasing. So I'm happy with that and writing the occasional article for other magazines.

All the best, John. You are the creative pioneer who created the whole industry and I will always respect you for what you've contributed to surfing - and to my personal enjoyment via Surfer. Aloha, Bob

 

The following is the brief excerpt from Bill Cleary's 23, 044 word story "The Short Happy Life of SurfGuide & Nine Lives of Da Cat." 

 

The outer world intruded at this point. I was forced to abandon these musings and recollections and hearken to the clarion call to war. John Severson, SURFER Magazine's publisher was sweating bullets. He had declared war and launched his first offensive in the form of diplomatic emissaries who visited our art director, John Van Hamersveld, and endeavored to woo him away.

I thought that to be in very poor taste. I had only recently stolen the VanHam from SURFER, myself, and really hadn't had time to enjoy him yet. I wasn't worried though. Topanga life agreed with John; and he had fallen in love again, this time with a pair of identical twins; musicians, they were, whom he had met at a benefit for the Hollywood Philharmonic. They were his usual Brunnehilda types with long blonde hair; one played tuba and the other played flute. The VanHam, who loved women, certainly had his hands full this time.

I picked up the phone one day and Severson himself was at the other end. "How about lunch?" he said. He showed up at the beach house the next day and we sat on the porch under the bamboo and made the moo-moo baa-baa noises people make when they're getting to know each other. Severson glanced at me and took in my tattered sweatshirt and bare feet. I checked out his double-knit Banlon. His Italian Raybans. His spud-sucker white Purcells. So much for the fashion plate.

A puny wave broke at the point. Severson followed the path of foam it left behind with a critical eye. He smiled a self-satisfied smile and yawned. "So this is the famous Topanga."

"This is it," I said without comment. What did I care if he wanted to judge a thoroughbred by the runt of the litter?

He took in the funky redwood walls and the sagging front porch with its thrift store furniture. He smiled again and checked his watch. "Ready for lunch?"

"Sure, we can eat at the Raft, it's not far."

The Raft was a sleazy dive across PCH from Topanga Cove. I gave him directions and we drove off in separate cars. Both of us owned Porsches. Mine was a funky old '58 coupe; it was fire engine red. Severson's was brand new; a gleaming emerald metallic.

From the very first, it was mano a mano. The Raft was all but deserted. We found a table and sat down across from each other like wary gunslingers. I ordered a lousy bowl of Italian fungoolo and listened to Severson's pitch. He was offering big buckaroos for me to quit SurfGuide and come down to Dana Point and be his editor.

"You could leave tonight," he said and mentioned the money again.

I shook my head. Severson doubled my salary. I nodded and he doubled it again. So much for the new math. He sat there inhaling his pasta and snapping his fingers in the air like a demented flamenco dancer every time a waiter came within range. Without comment, I kept staring at him until the bill came.

This was the great John Severson. Suddenly I remembered an earlier encounter. It was a huge day in August 1958. There was a hurricane off Hawaii and the surf from this Hawaiian mama was so big there was only one spot left on the south coast that wasn't closed out: Killer Dana.

The wave of the day was so huge it blotted out the sky. Five of us were way outside, waiting. We were three rocks beyond when she came. When a wave this big comes bearing down on you there is only one way out: you've got to ride.

I barely made the drop. I hit the bottom and leaned into the turn but this wave had so much juice my fin didn't hold, the board skidded out of control, and the wave just reached out and flicked me like a bottle-cap. I came hurtling out of the mouth of this huge barrel, completely out of control. But then suddenly my fin caught, and I was back in control again. Amazing! It looked like I was going to make it - but suddenly, right in front of me, Drummond was taking off in his canoe. In slow motion and to my disbelieving horror, his canoe dug a rail, spun out of control, and snapped in half. Chards of aluminum were flying like shrapnel in all directions. The front half of the canoe came hurtling down and flew over my right shoulder. And now, incredibly, I glanced to my left only to see this guy on a surfboard going over the falls right in front of me backwards!

I bailed. Underwater I heard the sickening crunch of our boards colliding. I lunged for the surface and popped up and found myself staring into a face. The face was grinning like Alfred E. Newman! Without a doubt, it was Big John. Suddenly something Mickey said once leapt into my mind and grabbed center stage. "Those guys down south," said the Miklos. "They've got hay in their teeth!"

I looked into Big John's face. He had a handsome set of buck teeth but I didn't see any hay. On the beach, I found my board broken into three pieces, crushed.

I snapped back into time present. Big John and I were leaving the restaurant. "Well, how about it?" he said.

"What's that?"

"The job offer."

I told him I would have to think about that. He slipped behind the wheel of his spiffy new Porsche with the golf clubs in back. Big John smiled at me the same way he did that day at Killer Dana. He smiled and said, "If you don't come 'round, I'll crush you!"

I clenched my fists. The memory of that day long past at Killer Dana flashed onto my screen. I saw my surfboard lying on the beach. In two pieces. Crushed. I had to get even but how? If only he had brought his surfboard. The golf course was no place for getting even. Revenge, they say, is best served cold, but I had been nursing this grudge for ten eff-ing years. A solid decade! That wasn't just cold, it had hair on it! Revenge was for sissies. Vengeance was the connoisseur's dish. And Big John was ripe!

Suddenly the answer came to me: "You wanta go for pink slips?" I started to say. I knew I could take him. My little red fugitive from the Wehrmacht had a red-hot mill purring under her hood. And with Spyder gears she was unbeatable coming off the line.

"Well, how about it?" he said.

"How about what?"

"The job."

"You want told go for pink slips?" I said.

"Some other time," he said and drove off.

That was Turning Point Number Two. Number one was when I stole John Van Hamersveld from Surfer Magazine. That was a key move, strategically; but it made Big John very very angry. Turning Point Number Three was right around the corner. The skies would open up and take an unholy dump on my head. For awhile I would think it was all in reaction to me sending Stoner down to SURFER as our Trojan Horse, a secret agent. Of course we made it look as if he had defected from SurfGuide. None of us ever dreamed he would become a Surfer Magazine celebrity! As such I can see how he might never have told anyone he had originally been sent down to SURFER as a SurfGuide mole. But then again maybe Stoner just forgot.

Right after Big John's failed recruiting mission, he launched a salvo neatly designed to keep his promise and crush the life out of SurfGuide. The way it all came down was bizarre.

Just before press time for our next issue, I got word that the scheduled Feigel's Fable was no go. Fig had penned a classic satire on Phil Surfboards, and we all loved it. Our attorney was the one who nixed the piece. He adjudged it libelous but he stalled delivering the bad news to me till so close to press-time it was almost too late to pull the story. The way things turned out I should have run the story anyway. I called Fig and told him to get down to the office.

"You've got to write us a quickie," I said. "We can't run the Phil piece."

"I'm working on the Now Testament," he said and hung up on me. I dialed and dialed but he'd taken the phone off the hook. I sat back and reflected. What to do? Feigel's Now Testament was brilliant; a hip version of Genesis, and whenever Fig was working on that he wouldn't budge.

Everybody loved Fig's stories. His fables consistently drew more mail than anything else. I was the only one who knew Feigel's primadonna side. He could whirl off into a purple sulk at the drop of a hat. He took weeks to write one of his fables and now there wasn't time for him to conjure a new one. Besides, he was too busy selling ad space. I sat down at the typewriter. Feigel hanging up on me had been a blessing in disguise. I spooled a sheet of paper into the machine and began to type.

Severson's threat to crush SurfGuide was still sloshing around in my brain, and once I started typing, the words seemed to fly out of my fingertips. An hour later the substitute Feigel Fable was done. I rolled the final page out of the machine, tossed the story in a folder and took off for the beach house where my girlfriend was cooking dinner. I could do all the last minute editing there and still get everything to the printers by our midnight deadline.

The story, as it turned out, wasn't bad. The magazine went to press and I forgot about it until a few days later when our lawyer paid me an unprecedented visit at the office.

Before I even got the door shut, he was off and running. "Dammit, I told you to cool it on the Feigel Fables!"

"Yeah, I guess you're right. Maybe you could warn me a little earlier next time? I barely had time to get another story together."

"The one you ran was an improvement?" he gasped.

"Well, I liked it," I hedged.

"Okay, now I'm going to tell you a story!" the attorney barked. "Severson just served us. My girlfriend at the prosecutor's office says the D.A. figures it could be the biggest suit since Dreyphus!"

"Dreyphus was about treason, you twit!"

"So they'll probably charge you with treason, too! What's the difference we're all out of jobs if he collects. Insurance companies from here to London could go down the tubes!"

"Hey, it's not like it was World War Three!"

"Explain me the difference," he said and mentioned a sum of money with so many zeroes in it I blanked out. "That's how much the magazine is getting sued for," he said.

"Severson doesn't have a leg to stand on, " I said. "The judge will throw it out of court. That piece was satire."

"Satire?" he choked.

"Yeah, I thought it was pretty subtle. Nobody can prove it's about him." I tried for a confident smile but couldn't get its motor started.

"You want I should supply you proof?" the attorney wheezed. He looked at me like I was something the dog did. His eyes went out of focus. His lips began to flap. Saliva was flying in all directions. "Try this on for size, buster! Number One: the guy in your story is Prince John, right? Severson's first name just happens to be John. Number Two ."

He whizzed through his proof like some kind of religious fanatic ticking off sins. By the end of this my faith was quaking in its muk-luks. He had run out of fingers to count on. He was shaking his fist in my face. "You call this subtle? Prince John suicides by jumping off Dana Point, right?"

"Right."

"And he drowns in the Angry Sea, right?"

"Lots of guys named John down in Dana Point," I said.

"Not so many who made a movie named The Angry Sea," he said.

I had to admit he had a point there. Shortly thereafter SurfGuide sank from sight; and I surfaced on the masthead of SURFER as Associate Editor.

Everybody thinks it was John Severson who killed SurfGuide, but that's not true. I really loved SurfGuide; so did the VanHam, and despite the fact that we had a blast working together, it was time for both of us to move on. We used the lawsuit as an excuse to fold our tent, that's all. Also, by quitting, we saved Stevenson over a million bucks in penalties for my poison pen.

I tried to tell Severson the wave was all his; that I wouldn't be competing anymore, but either he didn't believe me or he was playing it safe, because he insisted on paying me for ten years after that just to make sure SurfGuide wouldn't come back to haunt him. Of course it never did.

"You get paid whether you write anything for us or not," he said.

"You don't have to do that," I said.

"I would feel better," he said.

"I wouldn't want you to feel bad," I said, and he was so grateful he shook my hand and took me home to Cotton's Point for a nice afternoon surf and a fancy dinner. I drove home feeling rich. I still owned forty percent of the Makaha Skateboard company. I had a new job awaiting me at Life Magazine. My agent had already sold two books. My writing career was ready to launch.

I did a few more stories for SURFER but none was as good as the ones in SurfGuide. That mag was the real thing. We were living the good life; and the life was very very good.