Irresistible American surf rogue, originally from Hollywood, California; the light-footed master of Malibu during the 1950s and '60s, and surfing's definitive outlaw figure. "Those who knew Miki Dora," biographer David Rensin wrote, "those who wish they had or never had, all agree: there will never be another character in surfing like him. No one. Not even close."
Dora was born (1934) in Budapest, Hungary, the son of a wine merchant. His parents divorced when Dora was six, and his mother soon married Gard Chapin, regarded by many at the time as California's best surfer, as well as the angriest and most disliked. Chapin sent his stepson to boarding school, which Dora hated, but also introduced him to surfing.
In the early '50s, Dora gravitated to Malibu, which had already become the hot spot surfing world; by 1956, Dora, along with Dewey Weber, Mike Doyle, Mickey Muñoz, and young Lance Carson were setting new performance standards in the water, while Terry "Tubesteak" Tracy and Billy "Moondoggie" Bengston invented an easy-going but elitist surfer-nomad way of living. Dora interacted with the regulars at Malibu, Windansea, Santa Monica, and elsewhere, but the surf scene was never a big part of his social life. "Living at the beach isn't the answer," he once said. "Guys who live at the beach get waterlogged. I'm there for the waves, nothing else." Through the decades he remained something of a loner.
Dora patterned his surfing style on that of postwar Malibu ace Matt Kivlin, riding with a slight curve to his upper back, his trailing knee tucked inward, hands held palm-down at waist level. Dora's turns and cutbacks, taken individually, were similar to those of Phil Edwards, Mike Doyle, and the rest of the era's top riders. But Dora set himself apart with the constant adjustments he made between moves—hands, head, shoulders, and feet bebopping to a complex rhythm no other surfer heard—and by the elegant trim line he drew across the wave face. Strong and broad-shouldered, with a mat of black hair across his chest, Dora was nonetheless light on his feet, earning himself the nickname "Da Cat." Head-high California point waves matched his riding style perfectly, but he also did well in small beachbreak surf. While Dora called himself a "four-foot-and-under man," and tended to stay away from big waves, he turned in some of the year's best performances at Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay during his only extended visit to the North Shore, in the winter of 1962–63.
Dora meanwhile earned a reputation as a prankster, shooting army surplus rockets off the end of Malibu pier, and releasing a jar of moths into a theater during the screening of a surf movie. Some of his ploys were more intricate. "Mickey loved fraud," filmmaker and '50s Malibu surfer John Milius once said. "He'd turn up at some function with a couple of young guys and word would pass around that Dora is gay. Three days later he'd show up with the most extraordinary girl on his arm." At the 1967 Malibu Invitational (one of perhaps a half-dozen surf contests Dora entered in his life), he advanced to the semifinals, where he paddled into a wave, stood and trimmed, dropped his trunks to moon the judging panel, and left the beach. Dora skirmished constantly with the ever-growing number of surfers at Malibu, threading his way past other riders, or shoving them off their boards, or sometimes using his own board to knock them down.
Darkly handsome, with a mischievous grin and a low, affected manner of speech, Dora (then going by the name "Mickey," not "Miki") was labeled by the surf press as "the angry young man of surfing." He railed against the thronging Malibu crowd in a 1967 Surfer magazine article, saying the break had been all but ruined by the influx of "kooks of all colors, fags, finks, ego heroes, Amen groupies and football-punchy Valley swingers." Never afraid to be self-contradicting, Dora fumed against surfing's commercialization even as he hired out as an extra or stunt double in a series of Hollywood surf-themed movies, including Gidget (1959), Beach Party (1963), and Ride the Wild Surf (1964). He also posed for Hang Ten surfwear ads, and promoted his signature Greg Noll Surfboards Da Cat model with full-page surf magazine ads in 1966 and 1967—including one with Dora crucified on a cross made of two surfboards. Dora's act struck a nerve with magazine readers, many writing letters to the editor in praise, while others described him as a "sick and ignorant" person who should be "banned from the beach."
The late-'60s shortboard revolution pushed Dora out of the wave-riding vanguard, but he continued to have a strong presence. He wrote a lengthy article for Surfer in early 1969, was interviewed by the magazine a few months later, then gave a short but articulate on-screen harangue in the 1970 surf movie Pacific Vibrations.
A warrant for credit card and check fraud charges was issued in Dora's name in 1973, and while he engaged the legal system for a couple of years, earning a probational sentence, more charges followed, another warrant was signed, probation was broken, and by 1975, at age 41, he was on the run. He traveled constantly over the next three decades, spending much of his time in France and South Africa, but also visiting Argentina, Brazil, Namibia, Angola, and Australia. In 1981 he was arrested in France, and spent three months in jail. He then returned to stand trial in California and Colorado, and was incarcerated for most of 1982.
The Dora mystique only grew during this period, and in 1983 he was featured in a California magazine cover story titled "Endless Summer: From Surfing Legend to International Fugitive, the Wild Ride of Mickey Dora." Surfer magazine paid Dora $10,000—still the highest figure ever paid by a surf magazine—for a long and discursive 1987 first-person article titled "Million Days to Darkness." Three years later, Dora gave one last grand public performance, with a bitter-funny soliloquy in Surfers: The Movie (1990). He remained on the fringes of surf society, but turned up occasionally at old-timers' events. He continued to surf often and well: "Dora Still the King" was the title of a short article by surf journalist Derek Hynd, published in Australia's Surfing Life magazine in 1997, describing Dora's magnificent two-minute-long ride at Jeffreys Bay, South Africa. (By this time, Dora had changed the spelling of his first name to "Miki," to reflect his birth name of "Miklos.")
Dora never had a profession, and lived for the most part off the good will of friends and admirers. He raised money in the late '90s and early '00s by selling personal effects, including an ID bracelet and signed family photos. In the early '90s, he asked that he be referred to as "Miki," the correct diminutive spelling of Miklos, rather than Mickey.
Dora died of pancreatic cancer in early 2002, at age 67, after spending his last few months at his birth-father's home in Montecito, California. He never married and had no children. Newspapers around the world noted his death; a London Times obituary described him as a "West Coast archetype and antihero . . . the siren voice of a nonconformist surfing lifestyle."
Dora was inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame in 1966, and the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 2002; in 1999 he was cited as one of the "25 Most Influential Surfers of the Century" by Surfer; in 2009, the magazine listed Dora at #14 in its "50 Greatest Surfers of All Time" feature. The Inertia website, in 2013, named Dora the second-most influential surfer of all time, behind Duke Kahanamoku, and just ahead of Kelly Slater.
A documentary titled In Search of Da Cat was released in 1998. Dora was also featured in about 40 other surf movies, videos, and documentaries, including Search for Surf (1958), Surfing Hollow Days (1962), Gun Ho! (1963), Inside Out (1965), The Endless Summer (1966), Golden Breed (1968), A Sea for Yourself (1973), Legends of Malibu (1987), and Great Waves (1999).
Dora Lives: The Authorized Story of Miki Dora, a compilation of interviews with Dora, along articles written by Drew Kampion and Craig Stecyk, was published in 2005. All For a Few Perfect Waves: The Audacious Life and Legend of Rebel Surfer Miki Dora, an oral history biography compiled by David Rensin, was published by Harper in 2008.