Ignore the fact that circumstances were about to shoot the lights out on Stoner’s career, his love life, his sanity. Take in the happiness of this moment. Ron and Paulette, North Shore, 1967.
Ron Stoner was the world’s best surf photographer in 1966, and had some money in his pocket, and was good-looking in the bargain. But he was a wash-out with the ladies. Took his sister to SURFER Poll. Blew an easy chance to lose his virginity to the local party girl. That summer Stoner had his eyes on a stunning little blonde named Paulette Martinson, but couldn’t work up the nerve to ask her out. Partly because she was just 14—Stoner was 21—but more because he just had no game with the opposite sex. Finally asked a friend to call Paulette and see if she’d meet Ron. She did. They clicked, and a week or so later were going steady.
Kind of weird, you think, what with the age difference and all? Illegal? Immoral? Hard to argue. But 30 years later, in the mid-’90s, when I talked to Paulette about Ron, it sounded like everyone pretty much took it in stride. Ron got along great with Paulette’s mom. Paulette became good friends with Ron’s younger sister, and went to church with Ron’s parents. “He was kind and thoughtful, always,” Paulette told me, adding that when Ron went on surf trips he always, without fail, wrote her letters. For a year or so, the relationship sailed along nicely. For Paulette’s 15th birthday, Ron bought her a yellow-on-yellow polka-dot minidress. Took her to LA to see Buffalo Springfield. “He was my first love,” Paulette recalled in a sweet, matter-of-fact voice.
Then everything came undone. Swiftly and spectacularly. Ron’s as-yet-undiagnosed schizophrenia blossomed horribly. The sociable little half-doses of LSD he took in ’66 became, a year or so later, solo multi-tab trips that left Ron nearly catatonic. Stoner nailed six straight SURFER cover shots between 1967 and 1968, but already had one foot dangling off the ledge. When Martinson, at age 16, wrote him the inevitable Dear John letter in early 1968, he went into freefall. More drug use. Full-dress schizophrenic episodes. Before the year was out, he’d been institutionalized, sedated, straight-jacketed, and given the first of more than two-dozen electroshock therapy treatments. Eventually he was released to the custody of his parents. Paulette was virtually the only person from Stoner’s pre-breakdown life to come visit. “Ron’s mom and dad were watching Lawrence Welk,” she said, “and Ron would be sitting on the sofa with a blanket, very quiet. He’d talk a bit, then drift off.”
Stoner moved back and forth between Hawaii and California. He no longer worked. He got sick a lot, and lived on small checks sent to him by his parents. In 1977 he went missing. In 1994 he was declared dead.
I did a long Stoner profile for Surfer’s Journal in 1995, and 10 years later wrote a book on him. I interviewed 20 or so people, Stoner’s friends, family and coworkers, over the course of those two projects. Part of the job, for me, was easy. Stoner’s photography doesn’t need much explaining. It’s timeless and generous and kind of heartbreaking, in that it has a beauty and innocence that makes you want to hold your breath and stop time.
Stoner himself, though? Never got a fix on him. Not really. Which is probably why, over the past two decades, my mind had drifted back to his story more than anything other person or event I’ve written about. One thing for sure, though. Stoner always came across best when Paulette talked about him. She never played down the difficult parts of her relationship with Ron, but also never had to strain to recall the good times. As scary and messed-up as the whole thing was, my impression was that Paulette, on balance, was very much grateful for having been a part of Ron’s life; that she’d picked a fine first love.
For those of you out there who think he’s still alive (Paulette included), Ron would be 71.
Photos by Ron Stoner.