Obituary for Lionel Rolfe

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December 1, 2018 · Posted in Commentary 

Lionel Frederick Menuhin Rolfe. Photo by Bonnie Perkinson.

[The following is by Hyla Douglas, Lionel Rolfe’s daugher.]

Hyla Douglas

Lionel Menuhin Rolfe died on November 6, 2018, at the age of 76, in the Glendale Healthcare Center, in Glendale, California, where he had resided off and on since April, after a stroke three years prior and followed by a long illness. He died in his sleep, of a heart attack.

Lionel was born on October 21, 1942, in Medford, Oregon, where his father, Benjamin Rolfe, was stationed during WWII. His mother was Yaltah Menuhin, one of the three Menuhin child prodigies who became world famous musicians, especially Lionel’s uncle, famed violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

Lionel had such a powerful musical heritage that he was somewhat expected to be a musician as well. However, after a recital in which he didn’t feel satisfied with his performance he withdrew himself from that pursuit and eventually became a journalist, writer and literary figure of some note for the rest of his days. He was always a music lover with very specific opinions about music and a well-educated ear.

His mother Yaltah, born in San Francisco, became well known as a pianist, artist and poet who lived in London. Aunt Hephzibah was an American-Australian pianist, writer, and human rights campaigner, and Uncle Yehudi was an American-born violinist and conductor, considered one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century. They each settled in London and were very vocal in their disgust with racism and intolerance in general. They believed passionately that musicians have to stand for what they believe. They were activists and humanists as well as musicians.

Lionel was an avid reader who was also well versed in the affairs of the world and in politics and history through his family. He attended L.A. City College, and then later dropped out of Cal State L.A. a semester before graduating. He said, “…to fight for civil rights and anti-Vietnam things.” He said he had “no degree but plenty of experiences and arcane knowledge.”

Lionel became a freelance journalist at the age of 16 when he left his father’s home in West L.A. and moved into downtown L.A. where he became involved in the coffeehouse scene of the early 60s. He wrote for the Los Angeles Free Press, also called “The Freep,” which was one of the most widely distributed underground newspapers. His strong political viewpoints found resonance with the revolutionary movements of the times. During this time he also set out looking to work for a small town newspaper.

When the Santa Maria newspaper of that time found out that he had written for People’s World and other “pinko” publications he was blacklisted, which made it very difficult for him to find work. He finally landed a job with Scott Newhall of the Newhall Signal who hired him specifically because he had been blacklisted. Newhall also was the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle for which Lionel wrote. Later Lionel wrote for the L.A. Times, the L.A. Reader and numerous other publications including the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, which encouraged him to write an ongoing column about famous writers who had lived and worked in L.A. This encouragement led to his most popular book, Literary L.A., which was published three times, each as an expanded version.

In the mid-80s through the mid-90s he worked for the B’nai B’rith Messenger as an editor and writer. He worked for City News Service as a journalist and reporter from 1997 until 2016. He also wrote regularly for the Pasadena Weekly, Random Lengths News and the Huffington Post among other periodicals. Lionel was a member of the Communications Workers of America.

Lionel was married three times. His first marriage was to musician and songwriter Dianna Preston, whose daughter Heather Pearce, currently of Arcata California, he adopted. He served as grandfather to her two children, Caspin Hargreaves and Kara Pearce, both also of Arcata California. Lionel and Dianna had a daughter together, singer and songwriter Hyla Douglas of Topanga Canyon.

In the mid seventies he married musician and journalist Nigey Lennon of Los Angeles. While they had no children, they did collaborate on numerous articles and books including Bread and Hyacinths, The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles, which they co-wrote with Paul Greenstein of Highland Park. They separated in 1997. Nigey moved to Northport, New York, in 2000, where she died in November of 2016. She had divorced Lionel in 2004.

His third marriage in 2004 was to Bulgarian-born Boryana Vladeva, who currently resides in Los Angeles. Their marriage ended in divorce, but they remained good friends.

Lionel was the author of several books including Literary L.A., The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey, The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather, Last Train North, The Misadventures of Ari Mendelssohn, A Mostly True Memoir of California Journalism, and co-writer of Bread and Hyacinths, The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles. He was also anthologized in two major collections: Unknown California, Classics and Contemporary Writing on California Culture, Society and Politics (Macmillan, 1985) and On Bohemia: The Code of the Self Exile (Transaction/Rutgers, 1990). His last book was The Fat Man Returns, the Elusive Hunt for California Bohemia and Other Matters, which is a sequel to his 1998 book Fat Man on the Left, Four Decades in the Underground.

He is survived by his daughters Hyla Douglas and Heather Pearce and by his grandchildren Caspin Hargreaves and Kara Pearce, also by his brother Robert Rolfe of Virginia, his cousins Clara Menuhin Hauser of South Carolina and Kron Nicholas of Australia and by numerous good friends, extended family, fellow writers, artists and musicians.

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