Eulogy for Lionel Rolfe

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December 1, 2018 · Posted in Commentary 

 

Lionel Rolfe, photo by Bonnie Perkinson.

 

By Lee Boek

[Lee Boek is the Artistic Director of the Public Works Improvisational Theater Company. He is a former Fundamentalist Evangelist preacher, radio host, actor in film and television, writer, and producer. He is a long-time resident of Silverlake.]

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Lee Boek

Lionel Menuhin Rolfe was born on Oct. 21, 1942, in Medford, Oregon, and died of a heart attack, apparently in his sleep, after a long illness, on November 6, 2018, in Glendale, California, at the age of 76.

We, who loved him, have grieved a lot already and will grieve more. His daughters will miss their Dad. His friends will wonder what Lionel would have said about this or that, or remember what he did say, or just plain wish we could hear him say more in his own inimitable style.

This begins then to speak of the celebration of his life; his writing, his wit and enjoyment of music, literature, history, glaciers and many other topics upon which he was well informed. He loved to tell and to hear a good story, and he loved the brisket sandwich at Tam O’Shanter.

He had a way with words and an ability to put just what he thought and how he looked at things to words. He loved those words and their powers and abilities and crafted much of his life and work accordingly.  He was a prolific writer, who wrote and co-wrote and republished 14 books and numerous articles, reporting what he saw and how he saw it from his own unique perspective as a journalist who’d been writing since he left his father’s home at the age of sixteen and took up life in the coffeehouses of Los Angeles in the early sixties.

He was already well educated by virtue of his own family, the Menuhins, wunderkind musical child prodigies now adults raising him and his brother Robert.  There was Uncle Yehudi Menuhin, often billed as the greatest violin player of the twentieth century, Aunt Hephzibah, pianist, writer, and human rights campaigner, whom Lionel adored, and his mother, Yaltah, a pianist, painter, and poet, whose sweetness and character inspired Lionel’s best qualities.

He was as a youngster immersed in culture and humanistic-centered political thought, surrounded by the many activist efforts and commitments of his family on behalf of the imprisoned, the blacklisted, the poverty stricken and the refugee.

Lionel knew that he didn’t want to be a musician, though he passionately loved music and knew a lot about it. He did a concert at the age of eleven. It failed to give him satisfaction in spite of the encouragement of his mentors. He seemed to feel that he could never do music justice. However, he felt differently about writing.  He was very confident of his place in the world as a son of these dedicated artists and activists. It is no wonder that he struck out on his own at the young age of sixteen. This left him room to live a long and fruitful life participating journalistically and often meaningfully in the dialogue of the era in which he lived.

He became a free lance journalist, writing for the Free Press, People’s World and other radical publications during those heady days of the sixties and early seventies. In these early years he wrote for many California newspapers during an era in which he was living the dream as a newspaper man. When it was discovered he had written for the People’s World he was blacklisted, and found it nearly impossible to get work until Scott Newhall, editor of the SF Chronicle, hired him to write for another paper he owned called the Newhall Signal. Lionel said that Scott claimed he hired him because he had been blacklisted.

At a young age Lionel had the pleasure of meeting and knowing many of the writers about whom he wrote in Literary L.A., his best-known work. He could write with some knowledge and authority about their work and what it meant or could mean to contemporary American literature and the social and political dialogue.  Some of the great writers visited in his family’s home when he was a boy and he grew up around the intelligent conversations of some of the great intellectuals of the last century.

Later he found many of these same authors and book people discussed, frequently through the haze of one of the city’s coffeehouses. His love of writing, and his journalistic ambitions drew him to still other great writers. His all star list in Literary L.A. included Oscar Zeta Acosta, Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Ken Kesey, Carey McWilliams, Charles Lummis, Jacob Zeitlin, Louis Adamic, Nathanael West, Robinson Jeffers, Malcolm Lowry, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Aldous Huxley, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, and many others.

Lionel and singer Nigey (Lennon), bless her memory, lived down around the corner from us on Maltman in Silverlake in the late 1970s early 1980s. They lived in an apartment house that had a swimming pool. We, Marlene Rasnick, bless her memory as well, and I would take our cadre of local street children from the hood and go swimming there on very hot days and have good visits with Lionel, Nigey and their parrots. Lionel’s love for those parrots was intense.

He and Nigey were writers, we were actors and neighbors and we were all veterans of the free speech, civil rights and antiwar movements. We were “fellow travelers,” hard working artists who would find time for potluck dinners, visits and delicious conversation.

Eventually they moved to Occidental Ave. near Silverlake Blvd. where we lost touch for a while until Lionel and Nigey split up and she moved to New York, where she finished out the days of her life. He always thought of her fondly and suffered a good with her absence and his own loneliness, and would come to us for empathy and a good ear. Years later Lionel, who had very little, would send Nigey, who had nothing, a little money to help from time to time when needed. He could be quite generous and selfless.

Several years later he met Boryana Vladeva of Bulgaria. He was able to travel there and he loved it, loved Boryana, and loved to talk about it all when they returned. They asked me to officiate at their wedding ceremony, which was quite a festive occasion in the clubhouse and around the pool at Veselich Avenue where they lived. He had some very happy years with Boryana, started Boryanabooks and went right on writing and working. Unfortunately, the time came when they also separated, a separation that would pain him deeply and fill him with yearnings and regrets the rest of his life. It truly pained him that he couldn’t win her back.

Lionel was the happiest when he felt he had a good idea about a subject, wrote it, got it published, and got paid. It was little enough to ask.

He worked for the B’nai B’rith Messenger from the mid-1980s to 1995, and for City News Service as a reporter and editor from 1997-2016, and still wrote books and numerous articles while doing so.

He and I remained friends through the years and really began communicating a lot more in 2010 when my theater company, Public Works Improvisational Theatre, decided to do an “art project” called LATimes Bomb. Eric Vollmer, host of our monthly show Voice in the Well, at Beyond Baroque in Venice, and I asked Lionel to collaborate with us on the subject of LATimes Bomb because I remembered having read Bread and Hyacinths, The Rise and Fall of Utopian L.A., written and compiled by Lionel, Nigey Lennon and Paul Greenstein, who was also a good neighbor of mine in Silverlake and contributed his invaluable insights into the project as well. I had read the book when first written and remember when they were writing it, but the subject rose again on the hundredth anniversary of the bombing of the L.A. Times in 1910.

In 2009 and 2010, Eric and I would go to Lionel’s apartment on Vesilich Ave., where we would enjoy a good hot Jacuzzi and a lengthy swim with him, in the pool while having good discussions about the subject of Los Angeles and the United States, unionism, politics, history and literature. It was always fun to speak with Lionel about these matters and many others. We also all took a field trip to the USC library to research the bombing. We did numerous performances of the LATimes Bomb in various venues all over town and in San Pedro.

Long after the LATImes Bomb project went on hold,  Lionel and I would continue to meet and to Jacuzzi, swim and discuss what he should or could write about of contemporary significance and value, for the Huffington Post, which paid nothing, or for the Pasadena Weekly, which did pay him some, or for some other publication. He lamented the difficulty to acquire pay for writing very creative articles, contributing to the success these periodicals experienced.  He was a wealth of information, although he never did finish college. He said he “…had a lot of experiences and arcane knowledge.”

He would also sometimes help me decide what story or song I might use at my next storytelling event or inform me further about  union history, the blacklist era, Wilson, Hoover, Roosevelt, Wallace, Truman, Nixon, Reagan and numerous other important historical stuff.

Lionel loved that I had been a “defrocked preacher,” as he liked to call it, a former fundamentalist evangelist, and he eagerly supported my play “Confessions of a Pulpiteer,” which deals with all that.  He was a good teacher and an excellent audience and I was sometimes a good muse for him.

We were friends for nearly forty years.

Lionel leaves us with a lot of wonderful memories. He had lots of friends from many walks of life as well as writers and artists. He was a great admirer of women, many of whom loved him and appreciated the generosity he showed them at key moments in their lives. I’m sure he had his critics, like most of us, nobody is perfect, but I think Lionel was grateful for the good life he lived and the many loves and friendships he experienced, and he had a great appreciation of the opportunities and privileges that were his and he loved to participate in and write about all he saw and heard.

I am grateful for our friendship.

11/10/18

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