An interesting vintage image of Mary Anne Hawkins surfing the flooded streets of Long Beach, California back in the 1940s.
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Mary Ann Hawkins (1919–1993) was born and raised in Pasadena. Her father was a book-keeper and her mother a collector of antique dolls. At six years old, by her own recollection, Mary Ann was sickly and weak, so her parents enrolled her in a YWCA swim program. A couple of years later, it was Duke Kahanamoku’s swimming that captured her imagination. “I was about 10 when I saw Duke in the pool in Pasadena,” she recalled. “He was this big, beautiful Hawaiian man, making bubbling noises with his mouth and making everyone laugh. Duke would have been around 33. He fascinated me and I’ll never forget the first time I saw him.”
In 1929, she won her first honors for all around swimming and diving with the Pasadena Swim Club and had buried her parent’s mantel piece with 37 first-place ribbons. In 1933, Hawkins competed at the Southern Pacific Association Swimming and Diving Championships and won the 880-yard freestyle, beating the old record by 8 seconds. In 1934, she broke the 800-yard record again, and also won the National Junior championship in the half-mile, and the 100 yard freestyle.
She recalled that at the age of 15, “because of my love for ocean swimming – ocean races more than pool races – my mother bought a little house down in Costa Mesa, near Newport Beach and Corona Del Mar. That was 1934.” That same year, Mary Ann competed with the Ambassador Hotel Swim Team in an 880-yard paddleboard race and won-against men.
For a brief time, while hanging out with the likes of Tarzan Smith, Mary Ann was part of the Corona del Mar surf crew. While enjoying that status, she may have been part of the first surf expedition to San Onofre. “A group of surfers had come back from Mexico, and on their way back they had spotted San Onofre, and thought it looked like a great spot to surf. So they came on down to Corona del Mar and gathered up a second car load, including me, and the two car loads of us drove down to where they’d seen this fabulous surf. There was no road that we knew of to get in, or else it’s because you had to pay to get in, in those days… we parked on the road, and walked over fields, and went down the side of the cliff there to San Onofre, and surfed that way. And that was the beginning of San Onofre’s surf thing.”
Mary Ann’s stay at Costa Mesa and as a regular at Corona del Mar was brief, as she and her mother moved to Santa Monica in 1935. Now solidly in surf mode, she got her own board, which was almost unheard of in California in the mid-1930s. Although girls were part of the beach scene, few took to riding other than tandem. Also, the weight of surfboards was considerable. They were so heavy that they had to be literally dragged up and down the trail at places like Palos Verdes Cove. At the time, Mary Ann probably weighed less than her surfboard. “I wasn’t very good,” she said modestly, “and I was always the only girl out there surfing.” At Santa Monica, she fell in with a group of guys that included Tulie Clark, Hoppy Swarts, Bud Morrisey, Barney Wilkes and E.J. Oshier and her surfing improved.
Mary Ann tried out for the Olympics in 1936, at the age of 17, but didn’t make it in for reasons unknown. Despite this, she never expressed any disappointment that she did not follow in Duke’s wake in competitive swimming.
Even so, her swimming records were impressive. Mary Ann had started her swimming career at age nine and by the age of 17, she was the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) 500-meter freestyle champion. It is obvious she enjoyed surfing and paddling more, however. Between 1935 and 1941, she was the darling of the California surf scene, winning nearly every women’s surfing and paddleboarding event she entered. She also served as a model for the next generation of California female surfers, including Robin Grigg, Vicki Williams, and Aggie Bane. In 1939, Mary Ann “was invited to compete in the 1939 Duke Kahanamoku Swim Meet in Honolulu, where she broke the Hawaiian record for the 220 meter freestyle.
It was a big jump to make for an eighteen year-old woman, but she took the steamship ride to the Hawaiian Islands and competed in the Pacific Aquatic Festival. She won the women’s half-mile and the 880-yard and broke a record in the 220-yard. More importantly for her, however, was the chance to surf Queens and meet Duke Kahanamoku, who had inspired her as a young girl. “My very favorite surf spot in all this world is Canoe Surf in Waikiki,” Mary Ann declared many years later. “In 1939, when I was over there, Duke helped me in every way. He’d always have me get to his right, he’d coach me… Duke and his brother and I were a team together. He picked me to team with him, to surf against the Australians.” That surfing competition was cancelled, but Mary Ann came home from Hawaii with her most cherished memento: a photo of her shaking hands with Duke.
From 1938 to 1940, Mary Ann reigned as the women’s division champion of the Pacific Coast Surfboard Championships, and was also the paddleboard champion. In the late 1930s, aquaplaning was also a popular sport in southern California. The Catalina Aquaplane Race was a 44-mile pull from Avalon, on Catalina Island, to Hermosa Beach, and Mary Ann won that, as well.
A teenage swimming, paddling and surfing champion in the 1930s, Mary Ann drew lots of attention going on into her 20s. She was featured surfing in a 1938 issue of Life magazine. Shortly afterward and after appearing in newspapers and magazines for her various triumphs and feats, as well as being the poster girl for Palos Verdes, Mary Ann began to attract the attention of Hollywood. She was asked to double for Judy Garland, but was told she was too athletic to fool the camera – Garland was less than five feet tall. After trimming down, Mary Ann’s first role was an extra in the pool doing water ballet for Washington Melodrama in 1941.
Mary Ann doubled for Dorothy Lamour in Aloma of the South Seas (1941) and Beyond the Blue Horizon (1942), and then worked with Johnny Weissmuller in Jungle Jim (1948) and most of the of the 12 Tarzan pictures that ran from 1932 to 1948. She performed many stunts, including swinging from vines, swimming across burning rivers and putting her head in the mouth of a tiger.