Friday, August 11, 2017

Wende Wagner

"I've never worried about work.  I've been an actress and a model.  I can swim, dive, scuba, fish and surf.  I can fly a plane.  I create art that hangs in galleries and that people buy.  I'll always have work and it doesn't have to be near a camera."

This profile requires a confession.  I have to acknowledge something that has occasionally prevented me from getting a position in the Episcopal Church or in academia.  Are you ready?

I'm a heterosexual.

The reason I mention my heterosexuality is that, like other young men of my generation with blood that's red [trust me, I've seen enough of it], I had a "first crush".  I appreciate that this happens to most people, regardless of their sexual identification, but I wanted to get that shocking detail out of the way, given the antiseptic manner in which clergy are to comport themselves in public.

I also appreciate that "first crushes" are generally harmless and involve someone who is not only completely, totally unavailable, but may not even exist outside of some publicist's fortifications.  For example, my sister and her friends absolutely loved David Cassidy.  Around her room would be David Cassidy posters, Partridge Family posters, magazines featuring David Cassidy, and a 45 rpm version of "I Think I Love You" would be playing incessantly from the tinny, portable turntable.  As annoying as that could be for her older brother, it was normal and she outgrew it.  I think.

Mine was a little different, as she was not a mass-marketed celebrity [although she could have been if she had wanted that] and, unlike my sister's relationship with David Cassidy, an ardor that seemed to cool the more she learned of the real Cassidy, my appreciation for my first crush increased, mainly because of her singular accomplishments on the periphery of celebrity.

That, and she surfed.

Like many of the people whom I've admired and about whom I've written on Friday mornings, she did not easily fit into a simplified category.  She seemed effortlessly to exist outside the society's constraining box and was shruggingly indifferent to any attempts to place her in such a position.  I've known many people like that whom I've admired and envied.  For me, she serves an archtype for that healthy attitude.

Wende Wagner [yes, that's her parents' spelling of her forename, not Hollywood's] was born the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor to a Navy officer and his wife stationed in New London, Connecticut.  This meant that, before she could walk, she moved three times, as her father was transferred from here to there to back again as the United States ramped up the naval war in the Pacific.  Typical for military children, she never lived anywhere for very long, at least not until she was well into her teens.  By that time, her father was stationed at the vast naval base on Coronado Island in southern California.  It was actually an ideal setting, as Wagner's father had been a U.S. Olympic swimming coach and made sure that his daughter loved the ocean in all the ways possible.

It was the mid 1950's by now and the early surf culture was capturing its first collection of personalities.  Very particular personalities, actually, as these were the days when WWII and Korean War vets were self-treating their PTSD by shredding waves, building beach bonfires, and living in shacks made of driftwood.  Along side them were the usual collection of misfits, both young men and women, who embraced the surf culture before it was a "lifestyle brand".  They tended to be the teens that are inevitably tagged by their teachers as "having potential" if they would only "apply themselves".  [I think I just gave the reader the leitmotif of my own school records.]

Bright and worldly, the teenage Wagner found herself attracted to the waves and the collection of youths who were known informally as the Coronado Gypsies, guys with nicknames like "Dooley", "Skeeter", and "Gunker".  As Wagner was the only girl, she didn't need a nickname; she was just "the girl".  Anytime they could, the Gypsies could be found in the surf by the well-known Coronado Hotel bringing a certain California flair to their truancy.  She was a natural athlete and waterman [that term is gender-less, by the way] who would, when not surfing, swim back and forth the length of the beach in perfect, languid strides.

One day, the Gypsies were bid to move out of the way of some cameras that were filming scenes for a movie at the hotel.  This is normal in southern California, and they didn't take umbrage.  A curious figure, a short, portly, older man with a German accent, improbably wearing a suit and tie at the beach, gave his card to Wagner and invited her to make a screen test.  She was curious and mentioned it to her parents.  They preferred that she wait until she had graduated from high school.  What ensued was an argument recognizable to anyone who has ever raised a teenager.  In an episode of pure adolescent defiance, Wagner and the Gypies ran away to Hawaii to surf the bone-crushers of Oahu's North Shore.  She may have been the first non-Hawaiian woman to do so.

[For information about Rell Sunn, who was the queen of those waves, please follow the link.]

Wagner waxing her board with a puppy during her Gidget days
Inevitably, the money ran thin and her anger at her parents cooled.  Upon her return, they relented and allowed her a screen test.  She did have some advantages in that, however.  The odd man in a suit on the beach that day was Billy Wilder, at the time directing Some Like It Hot.  Observing Wagner, too, had been some of the actors in the film, including Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon.  With these references, and the fact that her screen test revealed that she could photograph as a Latina, an American Indian, a European, or an Amer-Asian, Wagner was almost immediately offered a role on an episode of the TV show Wagon Train.

It was fun, but not as exciting as modeling her way across Europe, or living with, and eventually marrying, a stunt man she met on the set.  Next thing her parents knew, Wende was living in the Bahamas and working as a scuba diver and stunt woman for the TV shows and movies that were being filmed in the area, including Flipper, The Aquanauts, and September Storm.  She even worked an underwater stunt or two on Sea Hunt. This work enabled her to live in the tropics, surf whenever and wherever she wanted, and raise a daughter.

With her first husband, helping him with his "monster" costume for an episode of Flipper
Eventually, the marriage that was born of impulse ended, and Wagner returned to California where she had no difficulty finding roles in westerns, thrillers, comedies, and TV shows.  In 1966, she landed her only steady television role, that of the stalwart secretary to the eponymous hero on The Green Hornet.

Wagner and her co-stars, including the fellow on the left who would have a pretty good career in kung fu movies

That was when I noticed her.  I may have watched the show to see the mad karate offered by Bruce Lee, but I would also watch for Wagner who, when I was ten-years-old, I wanted as my secretary.  It's a pity she really didn't do more than sit behind a desk and answer her boss' phone, that seemed a waste for someone as physical as Wagner.  But, she answered that phone beautifully.  Little did I realize that I had already seen her on Sea Hunt, but always with a scuba mask on.

After The Green Hornet was cancelled, she married again, this time to a Hollywood star's son, and moved to a beach house in Malibu, so close to the water that she could fish from her deck.  She accepted parts on episodes of Perry Mason, Mannix, and It Takes A Thief, but would otherwise avoid working too hard as she didn't want to be too far away from the water, her daughter, and now a son.

She would befriend other actresses, including one who was to be the next big thing, and who would become Wagner's best friend.  She would even serve as her friend's stunt double in a Dean Martin spy spoof.  So close were they that the friend's husband, a film director, would give Wagner a role in a well-known film about a woman who finds she's to give birth to Satan.  Although listed in the credits as "Wendy" Wagner, it would be her most significant work.

Wagner choreographing a stunt with Bruce Lee
The film, of course, was Rosemary's Baby, the director Roman Polanski, and Wagner's best friend was Sharon Tate.  After the infamous events of the summer of 1969, Wagner withdrew from television and film work and became remarkably anonymous.  The dark underside of Hollywood is well-known in our cultural history, and certainly to those who have lived in its viscera.  Being a Malibu mom, with days spent fishing, surfing, and swimming, seemed the best therapy in light of her best friend's horrific murder and the disintegration of her second marriage.

I can't help but wonder if she didn't recall those post-war beach bums from ten years before who, recoiling from the violence of the world, found solace and peace on those surf beaches in Hawaii and California, and decided that was the better portion.

There's one more chapter, however, and this is the best part.  When I was working as a free-lancer, I asked an editor if I could write a feature about the surfing scene in South Jersey, as I wanted to spend some time on the waves there and needed to have a justification for it, not to mention the 5 cents a word I would be paid in those days.  Ordinarily, he would say "no" to my ideas and then swear at me for awhile.  This time he said, "Yes".  I'm still not sure why, except that I volunteered to pay my own way and, maybe, he just wanted me out of his office.

There are various events that take place during summers at the shore, of course.  There are string band parades, beauty contests, concerts by over-the-hill rockers, and even a baby parade in one community.  There are also appeals to nostalgia that include former sports and television stars who agree to ride in the back of parade convertibles and be interviewed by the local media.  I'm not sure how I landed it, maybe because no one knew who she was, but at a celebration of 1960's TV shows, I was able to spend thirty minutes with Wende Wagner.  [Eat your heart out, sis.  You never got to meet David Cassidy.]

Instead of asking her about The Green Lantern, I asked about the early surfing days and what it was like to be the first, and for a long time the only, underwater stunt woman.  Her face changed, I remember, and instead of the studied expression of an actress well-rehearsed by publicists, she smiled [and what a fine smile it was, too] and spoke of the Coronado Gypsies, the set on Sea Hunt, the big waves of Oahu, and the aquatic life in the simpler days.  It was the fastest half hour of my life.  I didn't even care that the feature I wrote was never printed and my 5 cents a word never received.

Wende Wagner would die of cancer shortly after her 55th birthday in 1997.  Her ashes, appropriately, would be scattered in the Pacific, which was where she was most at home and the place to which she always returned for healing and purpose.

When I think of her I also think of those whom I've known who have thwarted the expectations of others and pursued that which granted them balance.  She never limited herself only to those things considered proper and appropriate for a woman, never became a studio mannequin, and knew when to walk away from the intoxication of fame.

Besides, she was a waterman, which means she was one of our bizarre fraternity, and I really don't need to add anything to that, do I?