Remembering Lionel Rolfe who carried the Torch for Writers and for a Bulgarian Woman named Boryana

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December 1, 2018 · Posted in Commentary 

Boryana, Lionel, and Nigey during visit to New York by Lionel and Boryana in 2009. Photo by Eric Weaver, who married Nigey in 1997 and lived with her until her death in 2016.

By Mary Reinholz

Looking back on the journey of Lionel Rolfe, my late Los Angeles friend and late life mentor, I think of a gentle lion in winter who had been an author, journalist and fighter for social justice since adolescence. A member of a famous musical family (his uncle was the late violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin), he succumbed at 76 to the tumult that ravaged his body in recent years.

The bearded bohemian Rolfe, who was overweight, thrice divorced and the father of two daughters from his first marriage, had suffered a stroke in 2015 while on the job as a police reporter at City News Service (CNS). He retired after 20 years with the 24-hour wire service, later injuring two vertebrae during a fall in his Atwater Village home. He was unable to walk.

“Basically, I’m strapped to the bed and being fed antibiotics,” Lionel told me when I interviewed him on the phone at a Glendale nursing home for Pasadena Weekly “They got me to stand up today, but it was very hard.”

He had also been given morphine to relieve excruciating pain. He died Nov. 6.

Months earlier, his lawyer William Toppi pursued a California Workers Compensation claim for $100,000 against CNS, telling me that Lionel’s boss had contributed to his stroke by berating his work and putting pressure on him to retire. (The boss strongly disputed the allegations). Toppi said CNS had offered $50,000 to resolve the matter which was fine by Lionel. “I want to leave something for my daughters,” he said.

Toppi didn’t return calls regarding the status of the case by press time. Hyla Douglas, one of Lionel’s daughters, said Toppi secured a settlement, but declined to state the amount.

Now all I can do is hope that a good and unusually caring man, who loved California writers like Ambrose Bierce, Jack London and Upton Sinclair, has found some measure of peace. Heartbreak had consumed him after the ending of his third marriage to a woman from Bulgaria named Boryana Vladeva.

He married Boryana in 2004, though they had been together for a couple of years already – “I went to Bulgaria to get her,” he told me in one of our long-distance talks. Lionel named this literary site Boryanabooks after her. He dated other women and was briefly infatuated with the late actress Susan Anspach, but no one seemed to fill his longing for the wife who had left him.

He never explained the reasons for Boryana’s departure and I didn’t ask many questions. After all, I didn’t know Lionel that well and don’t recall meeting him face to face. He had contacted me out of the blue late in 2013, noting we had both freelanced for the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Free Press, the now defunct weekly that had been a granddaddy of the Southern California underground press during the 1960s and 70s. He wanted to know if I had anything he could publish in Boryanabooks.

As it turned out, I had four chapters from a feminist crime novel in progress, “Exit from Eden,” which included a graphic description of a California girl on a road trip who fatally stabs a rapist while he’s choking her in the kitchen of his Arkansas motel.

“I liked it,” said Lionel with his customary brevity. “But I have a question. Did you ever actually kill a man?”

Mary Reinholz (left) with a dark haired yippie friend in East Village, 1970, shortly after returning from a Black Panther convention in D.C. Illustration from Exit from Eden, serialized on Boryanabooks.com.

I told him, no, and he proceeded to run my four chapters, adding more as I wrote them for him on a monthly basis until I finished “Exit” a year later. He promoted each chapter with blaring headlines, came up with art including mine and encouraged me every step of the way. I know few editors like Lionel who can give writers the sense of working in a freedom zone where they can feel confident of expressing themselves without fear of getting censored. For this unusual opportunity, I will be grateful to Lionel for the rest of my life for helping me complete a racy novel that I had struggled to put together for 40 years.

In my grief, I posted a notice of his death on Facebook and got a warm response from a friend who had informed me of Lionel’s death.

“RIP to our dear friend and sterling journalist colleague of many decades,” wrote back Chicago writer and editor Umberto Tosi, who worked with both Lionel and me at the Los Angeles Times in decades past. “Lionel was always outspoken, knowledgeable, passionate, truthful and a courageous writer whose voice will be missed.”

Indeed. I also contacted Dan Bessie, author, screenwriter and creative writing teacher who knew Lionel in Los Angeles and now lives in France. His late screenwriter father Alvah Bessie was one of the notorious Hollywood Ten, imprisoned and later blacklisted by the major studios after refusing to confirm or deny Communist sympathies before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947.

Dan, who shared Lionel’s leftist views, was saddened by the news of his death and emailed me some of his recollections of his younger friend, recalling their “back and forth” over his unrequited love for Boryana.

“I did my best to offer suggestions about how he might move on, and I know that he tried but don’t think he could ever stop carrying the torch, and I kind of feel that tormented him for the rest of his life,” Dan wrote in his missive, adding that he believes the breakup of Lionel’s third marriage “also led, from what I can figure out, to him not taking care of himself physically. Guess I feel that his years with Nigey were the best for him,” Dan continued, referring to Lionel’s marriage of 25 years to the late Nigey Lennon, a musician and writer who co-authored several books with him.

“Nevertheless,” he went on, Lionel “produced some noble work, helped many people (including yourself) and his life is certainly one to be celebrated.”

Lionel got write-ups and reviews in the local press after his tenth book, The Fat Man Returns: The Elusive Hunt for California Bohemia & Other Matters, was published last year. One account of the writer was by an old friend of mine, Rex Weiner, who once published the radical short-lived New York Ace weekly during the early 70s. He interviewed Lionel for the site Capital & Main at Musso & Frank Grill, the famed Hollywood watering hole favored by the likes of Gore Vidal, noting that Lionel arrived there with his own respirator, which he parked table side.

“Decades of cigarettes, cigars, alcohol, late night deadlines, multiple marriages and other occupational hazards, to which journalists in the pre-no-gluten-era were prone, have taken their toll on Rolfe,” wrote Weiner who then described Lionel’s essay collection about the coffeehouse scene of the 60s in Venice, labor organizing, Echo Park bohemians and the alleged decline of the Los Angeles Times, among other subjects.

Lionel Rolfe wrote for numerous California newspapers, among them the San Francisco Chronicle. Weiner quoted Scott Newhall, its former associate publisher, who summed him up as “one of the last frontier journalists.”

Let’s just say he was a very rare bird.

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