You Can’t Always Sing & Dance: Memories Of A Particularly Special Person And Friend

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December 23, 2009 · Posted in Commentary 

By LIONEL ROLFE

December 23, 2009

My friend Karen Kaye, executive director of Connections for Children in Santa Monica, a non-profit provider of babysitting and other services for single working mothers, is dying. She’ll probably be gone by the time you read this.

It seemed she went quite quickly. I know she had undergone surgery and chemotherapy for cancer, but that was supposed to have cured her. I didn’t see her for a few weeks, and then realized she hadn’t called me about Thanksgiving. For the last several years, she has invited me to her Thanksgiving dinners, where old friends and family members met to consider how the year had gone.

I called her. She sounded a bit weak, which concerned me, but she said in a cheerful voice, yes, we’re getting together. Samantha, her niece, would be making a great dinner.

Samantha indeed made a great dinner, but Karen was in the bed. Weak. She said she had just had surgery. She wasn’t too specific about what it was. She didn’t look good. She was in a lot of pain and Samantha was in charge of giving her the palliatives.

That was shocking because usually Karen was full of energy. She was the same age as me, 67, but had always exercised and eaten carefully. She had plans to read and travel.

The last few years, Karen had become a high-powered executive in the non-profit field. I better remember her as just about my oldest friend on the planet. I’ve known her for half a century or so.

I was either 16 or 18 when I first met her. It probably was the latter, but I’m still a little confused about the details. I know I met her in a German or philosophy class at Los Angeles City College. It was either 1958 or 1960. I always thought 1958, she said it was 1960.

Karen, like me, hung out at some of the coffeehouses around City College, such as the old Viteloni, Pogo’s Swamp and Xanadu. In the last few years, I actually saw Karen only every few weeks, although we talked by phone more regularly.

One of the most regulars was Levi Kingston, who had founded Pogo’s Swamp.

Levi founded Pogo’s Swamp on Melrose Avenue, across the street from the Lithuanian Cultural Center. The Xanadu opened up shortly after, right next door to the Lithuanian Cultural Center.

The Xanadu became an important coffeehouse, for it is where a lot of Los Angeles Times journalists would come to gripe about how awful their paper was and how much Los Angeles needed a new newspaper.

Several famed characters came out of the Xanadu. One was Art Kunkin, an old Trotskyist, a machinist and printer. He’s the one who actually got the first issue of the Los Angeles Free Press, or the “Freep,” out. The Freep was the nation’s first underground newspaper. As a result of the “Freep,” a whole string of underground newspapers popped up across the nation, helping to organize the ’60s counter culture that had as its first goal ending the war in Vietnam.

Kunkin is still around and kicking, an alchemist and mystic who lives in the desert. He says he will never die.

Karen was never as radical as most of us were in those days. Rather than being sympathetic to communism, for example, she was a socialist, sort of a right-wing social democrat, even then.

I was 16 or 18, as I said, so I of course wanted a romantic relationship with her. She was a very beautiful woman, at least in my memories, but we never had a romantic relationship, sad to say.

Still, I was a regular at her home in “lower Beverly Hills” – that section of Beverly Hills which is just south of Olympic Boulevard. I loved to go there in part because I loved Karen’s father, who was a wonderful raconteur and old Yiddish theater actor who of course had grown up around the Left.

Everything was so political in those days I adopted the habit of calling Karen Kerensky, the old Menshevik, I think he was, or some such thing during the Russian Revolution. We used to talk intensely about things like that – Bolsheviks and Mensheviks and Trotskyists and Stalinists. We also argued about music and literature, of course.

We would sit around in Karen’s living room, talking with her father, who had been a small time character actor in b-movies from the 30s in Hollywood, but had come out of New York Yiddish Theater.

Karen’s father never made much of a living – Karen’s mom did most of that. Karen’s mom was a classic Jewish mother, in the sense that her son Stan was the great genius, and her daughter was just her daughter. Stan was perhaps a great genius, but the problem was he knew it, and was sometimes insufferable. Still, he was an important avant garde filmmaker in the early ’60s, and later helped create Quarterdeck, which invented one of the first “windows” programs for personal computers. Stan is bright, no doubt. Recently he turned up on the front of Los Angeles Magazine, which raved on and on about one of his his latest invention.

Stan was a regular at these Thanksgiving dinners, as was his mother and Levi Kingston and a number of other people as well. Karen’s mother wouldn’t be coming to this year’s Thanksgiving. But don’t feel too sorry for her, she lived well into her 90s, vigorous both physically and mentally almost to the end.

Karen’s mother had made a pretty good living as an executive secretary to Justin Dart, the owner of Rexall Drugstore and founder of Ronald Reagan’s kitchen cabinet of rich Republicans, who first made Reagan California governor and then president.

She made a fairly good living, although not an extravagant one. Her husband was in charge of the arts, films, politics, and good conversation.

Although the Kayes lived in the poor part of Beverly Hills, and their house was rather modest, Tony Curtis lived right down the street–I think he lived on Clark Street. I don’t know if the old house is still there. It’s probably been replaced by a mini-mansion or a giant apartment complex.

Karen and I never became lovers, but we did drive across country. We got stuck for a week in Vincennes, Indiana, where my car broke down. We were tantalizing close to Chicago, a real big city. But Karen found even Vincennes fascinating, and we spent most of that week prowling it’s charming streets and talking to its rustic denizens.

It was still much more interesting when we finally limped into Chicago. Then we took the turnpike to New York, where I proudly introduced Karen to my mother, the pianist Yaltah Menuhin. My mom fell in love with Karen too.

Not too many years later, I was married–working at my first official newspaper job at the Pismo Beach Times. It was the early ’60s. By that time, Karen was living in Berkeley, where she eventually got a degree in anthropology. My then wife and I went to Berkeley to visit her and our Fiat broke down. It remained in Berkeley and Karen lent us her VW to drive back to my first newspaper job at the Pismo Beach Times. We returned the VW the following weekend to pick up the Fiat and return her VW.

Karen went on to cheat death during her many travels. On a later occasion when she drove across country, this time with someone else, she was in a terrible car accident in Oklahoma and in the hospital for months.

That’s why I sometimes lost contact with Karen over the years. She went to India for five years or so, living with her boyfriend Gene, who worked for the Ford Foundation.

Later she returned to New York, where she married her one and only husband. He was at that time a leader of the student rebellions at Columbia University. He eventually became a doctor and Karen moved back to San Francisco where he took a job with Kaiser Permanente. He was becoming increasingly conservative, and Karen chaffed under his demands that she become a “doctor’s wife.”

When they split, the only thing Karen wanted to take with her was the piano. That Steinway stayed with her until the end. She never played that well, but she would noodle, and at her parties, there was always a friend who could play it better than her.

She kept traveling – every year she was going to Africa or Armenia, Bangladesh or Latin America. When we went to bookstores together, she would always first go to the travel section. She loved reading travel books.

For a few years, I lost contact with Karen. It was only when she moved back to Los Angeles that changed.

While I had fallen for London, she returned to Los Angeles and developed an unusual love of her own hometown. Unusual, because she had seen the world, and still found Los Angeles interesting and fascinating. Her training as an anthropologist was a good one for her.

She found me after reading something about me in a newspaper, a book signing or some such I was doing. It was a very pleasant surprise seeing her again. She looked great.

In her later years, Karen made up for the fact that she never had children by running Connections for Children. She also “adopted” neighborhood children, who were often around her house, determined to help them avoid gangs and to get educations.

I think it is very telling that as Karen’s mother, then in her 90s, was dying, Karen learned she had cancer. She did not tell her mother, not wanting her mother to worry about her daughter dying before she did. That was how Karen was.

Lloyd Ziff took this photo of Karen in the late ’60s.

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