The Surf Doc of Shores Beach
I’m working on a historical crime novel, set in La Jolla, CA in the nineteen-fifties. In the course of my research I’ve been able to interview some folks who lived here at that time. Here’s a profile of one of them, Dr. Herb McCoy, who turned 100 years old in December 2020.
Herb McCoy first visited La Jolla, California in 1940. His Dartmouth roommate, Francis Fowler III, heir to the Southern Comfort fortune, invited McCoy to join him at the family’s vacation home during summer break. A native New Yorker, Herb was thrilled by the opportunities for physical activity, the sunshine and beaches.
There were other highlights that summer as well. He entered and won the annual La Jolla Rough Water Swim. Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante and Pat O’Brien presented him with his medal and Pathe News filmed the ceremony. Back in New York, his mother exclaimed in surprise, “That’s my Herbie!” when he appeared onscreen in her local theater’s weekly newsreel. Herb dated a dancer that summer, one of “The Dancing Cansinos” performing at the Hotel Coronado. The young woman also acted in movies and would soon be a huge star, better known as Rita Hayworth.
By the end of that summer, Herb McCoy vowed he’d come back to live in La Jolla one day.
But first there was college and medical school, marriage and kids. Now Dr McCoy, he worked on a surgical team at Cornell that performed the first live catheterization. A plushy Park Avenue practice beckoned, but New York was cold, dirty and noisy. He couldn’t stop thinking about California. When his first daughter, an apartment baby, rebelled at having to sit outdoors on a grassy lawn, he decided La Jolla would be good for the family too. In 1950 he joined doctors Dieffenbach and Hellman as a junior partner in their La Jolla office. Later he became chief of medicine at the new Scripps Hospital.
Over the years, Dr McCoy’s patient list included any number of prominent locals and quite a few celebrated visitors. In the early years of the La Jolla Playhouse, he was the organization’s on-call doctor, taking care of Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and Jose Ferrer. He became friends with Delmar Davies, escorted Eartha Kitt to opening-night parties and taught Cornell Wilde how to surf.
Surfing became one of Herb’s passions. The doctor with the surfboard sticking up out of his white T-bird convertible became a well-known fixture at local surf spots. Legendary surfer Butch van Artesdale showed up at Herb’s office one day, his head gashed and bleeding from an accident at Windansea Beach down the street. Herb sewed him up and Butch headed right back to the water. On a business trip to Hawaii, Herb met and surfed Waikiki Beach with Duke Kahanamoku (a friend in La Jolla had provided a letter of introduction).
I asked Dr McCoy about some of the well-known writers who lived in La Jolla during the 1950s and 60s, several of whom appear in my novel. He said he’d met Raymond Chandler at a cocktail party once, but felt intimidated by Chandler’s literary reputation and prickly personality.
Another writer featured in my novel is Max Miller of I Cover the Waterfront fame. Miller lived in La Jolla from the 1940s until his death in 1967 and wrote several books about the area. He was a regular participant in the Rough Water Swim in which he proudly and loudly finished in last place every year. Dr McCoy recalled his own fascination with Miller’s practice of covering himself in grease before the swim to protect himself from the cold water.
Helen Geisel, Dr. Seuss’s first wife and collaborator, was one of Dr. McCoy’s patients (as was her husband, on occasion). She worried about her husband’s smoking, but also laughed when confiding to her doctor that her famous husband got nervous around children.
But my favorite story was about Emperor Hirohito’s visit to Scripps Oceanographic Institute in 1975. Unaware of the security precautions in place, Dr McCoy went for his regular morning run along Scripps Beach. He carried a rock in each hand for additional weight training. As he approached the pier that morning, he wondered why the beach seemed so deserted. He got his answer when a helicopter swooped in over head and FBI men confronted him with their guns drawn. Hirohito and his entourage had just started to walk out on the pier when an FBI spotter reported a man headed toward them armed with two hand grenades. Dr McCoy was detained momentarily by the authorities, but his misadventure was memorialized in the next day’s newspaper and in family lore forever.
He’s in great shape for his years, which he credits to a lifetime of regular exercise–surfing, swimming, tennis, running and scuba diving–and to his second wife, Lani. He’s lived in the same house above the Shores neighborhood since the 1960s. Sundays are family Zoom sessions with his kids (seven of them) and their families. Altogether a remarkable story about a kid from New York whose summer vacation 81 years ago changed his whole life.