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Phoebe Liebig & the Lachrymae of L.A.

May 26, 2022

Los Angeles has less of a pull on me every decade. I went to four high schools there, though my parents never moved during those years in the Sixties, other than apart from each other. Both passed away in their nineties, my dad 21 years ago and my mom five. In between those funerals my brother Flip (Philip) died of a brain tumor due, he believed, to an addiction to Diet Coke/aspartame. My sister Debbie finally got out of L.A. this year, a move with her nuclear family and toward more kindred folk in an affordable new home just south of Nashville. And my dear friend Phoebe cast off this mortal coil in 2021 (of Alzheimer’s and then finally cancer). Her memorial was last week.

Phoebe was a person who knew about giving refuge to outsiders. Her classroom at Madison Junior High in the San Fernando Valley was the go-to lunch spot for young intellectual eggheads like me (and my friend Mark Savit) and independent girls (such as little Vicky Sweet, now Dr. Victoria Sweet, physician/author of the wonderful non-fiction book “God’s Hotel”). Phoebe’s junior high teacher years in the late 1960s were sandwiched between her life as an Early Music practitioner, going back to the days of Michael Agnello’s “happenings” and the Gregg Smith Singers, and then later as a gerontology researcher in India and at the Andrus Institute of USC. 

We stayed friends, and I learned her full name was Phoebe Goodrich Stone Liebig Whitehead. She dropped the military husband Whitehead‘s after their divorce, keeping the name of her beloved son Steuart Liebig’s dad as the last in the queue. The third of her surnames marked her descending from Harlan F. Stone, the 12th Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court during the 1940s. Goodrich goes way back to an old Massachusetts family who, she told me with a twinkle, were as dismayed by her choice to waste a Radcliffe education on settling for being a public schoolteacher as they would have been had she voiced an intention to become a streetwalker.

Having been kicked out of my first high school already—for daring to finish an assigned oral report on the Vietnam War with a quote from ex-President Eisenhower himself warning of the dangers of the coming “military-industrial complex,” I was ordered to the principal’s office, to a standing ovation by my tenth-grade peers. Pacific Palisades High was the only school left that had no dress code (i.e., prohibition on long hair) so I was looking for a way to go there. Once I had my mom’s permission, Phoebe offered me and a friend very low rent on her converted garage with a baby grand piano at her Palisades address, to allow us to attend. This included meals and the presence of young Steuart who one day ran into the kitchen to tell her there was a big cat outside. After receiving the equivalent of “That’s nice!” he returned a few minutes later, huge gashes spurting from his arm. It turned out to be an escaped ocelot.

I lasted three-quarters of a semester at Pali, getting tossed out either, along with actor Sterling Hayden’s sons, for leading a school walk-out over a new dress code or for helping people buy LSD. This was in addition to my regular afterschool job washing large pots and vacuum-mopping floors at Soderholm’s Bakery (with custard donuts as a perq). I returned to the Valley and to Van Nuys High until a teacher there refused to continue after that semester if I was allowed to remain. It was that dear commander Whitehead, convinced in his own mind that I had something going on with Phoebe.

I got my high school diploma and Phoebe and I continued to stay friends during and long past my almost-lost years as a hippie in San Francisco and then as a conscientious objector and draft counselor during Vietnam, and then as a nurse. This was due mostly to her diligence in remembering every birthday and holiday with at least a card or a small gift. She flew in for my 50th birthday party at the Musée Mechanique on a windswept stormy night at Land’s End in San Francisco, as I did just a few years ago for her commemoration as the Jouyssance ensemble’s longest-singing soprano. Due to her persistent support I brought my documentary film Transgender Tuesdays* to an Art in Aging section that she organized for the American Gerontology Conference held in San Francisco.

I still treasure a picture painted by Phoebe’s mother that has place of honor in our kitchen, and a lemon geranium on the back porch, grown from a planting she carried up from L.A. Plus a few photos from a Baja vacation she shared with my sister Debbie and I, as well as one I took of her witchily offering a pomegranate (as if in an ancient fertility rite-of-passage) a mere decade ago. Phoebe was my oldest friend, but we never outgrow needing a mentor, and I miss her dearly. 

I can’t say that I miss Los Angeles all that much. But I noticed an interesting thing as I zig-zagged across the metropolitan area from the Airport, through Santa Monica to the Valley (the original one of Moon Unit Zappa’s “Valley Girl” fame—as in “gag me with a spoon!”) and the next day passing through downtown to USC and back to LAX. It was a new experience: getting choked up remembering places as I passed them. Just like when I saw my childhood favorite, Cupid’s chili dog stand, in the 2021 film Licorice Pizza. Or the iconic magazine rack at Doc’s Farmacy in the new West Side Story movie, displaying men’s magazine and 10-cent comic books (35-cents for Mad Magazine back then). What was new was that I could now feel how it felt back then. From about age 10 on I had stopped crying. I wasn’t going to let anything get to me anymore. I emotionally turned off through the decade we were supposed to turn on to. But not now.

The spot where I had a fender-bender (back then fenders were meant to bend) during my first time driving on the freeway. I must have been 16, because back then in that locus of car culture everyone got their “learner’s permit” at age 15 and a half. I hadn’t recalled being scared until now. But I do remember getting a knot in my stomach any time I returned and drove through the Valley in the ‘70s or ‘80s, past the area where my dad lived in some lonely condos on his own, or where my mom went back to work. The office where she saw her therapist of many years to gain courage to separate from my father. Once she sent me to her psychologist for an evaluation of the wayward son. I was honest about my use of psychedelics and proclivity toward both genders and that butch dyke gave me a two-thumbs-up, telling my mother “You have nothing to worry about with that one!” About a year later she sold her classic Jaguar XKE sports car and moved to Paris. Shades of Gertrude Stein.

A sign to the Calabasas off-ramp reminded me that a friend once had taken me there to meet a “witch”—his name appropriately was Pumpkin and he turned out to be a ruddy middle-aged gay man. On passing by Coldwater Canyon, the memory of going to meet some woman in her wildly overgrown wooden home in the middle of all the new housing tracts; she was another artist, though her name is lost to me. This was probably before I knew the term “bohemian,” but in those days between Suzuki Beane and Lenny Bruce any grown-up weirdo was someone you just had to meet—a kindred soul and a reassuring proof of future possibilities.

I even had some unusual ones in the family, mostly on my mom’s side. There was her great aunt Miriam, who hitchhiked alone cross-country from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Boyle Heights in downtown L.A. in the 1920s (wearing Army shorts!). This was to nurse her sister, who had left shirtwaist factory work in NYC to L.A. for the “better air”, but nevertheless she died of consumption (TB) when my mom was three years old. Miriam worked in Harlem as a social worker, then got a doctorate in psychology in her sixties, while her husband Ben, a tailor from Russia, had retired from the rag trade and daily crossed Central Park West to oil paint in the park. What I mostly recall is his sweetness when I visited them, as he walked around their redbrick union-subsidized apartment wearing only boxer shorts, a white tank-top and his round spectacles, and looking very much like Mohandas Gandhi.

There was also a trio of my mom’s aunts who helped raise her, Dudley and Jane and Min: one was a flapper from the ‘20s; one a card-carrying Commie whose politics and hair stayed bright red even after the Stalinist purges became known; one a diabetic whose granddaughter Jill still has her art deco ceramic pitcher that always hid forbidden cookies in the bottom. Jane was married to “Doc”, a raised-Christian biologist. Dudley married the only Scot in our family, and the kindest and most understanding of all my uncles. He let me learn to steer between his legs in his Cadillac pick-up truck on the way to Mexicali when I was 12 or so, and there tried to get me dance with one of the peso-a-dance women at a bar. Nice try, Uncie.

When traversing Topanga Canyon on the way to my Cousin Jill’s I passed a local landmark, the Theatricum Botanicum, a theater project of Will Geer’s; once blacklisted as a leftie, he later became Grandpa Walton on TV. Also, an old Victorian “castle” off the Hollywood Freeway that we believed to be the home of Edward Everett Horton, the effete sidekick in Fred Astaire movies and the fey narrator of Fractured Flickers on the Rocky & Bullwinkle show. The equally questionable Vincent Price, art collector and gourmet cook, had a deco palace above the San Diego Freeway near Laguna Beach. I knew none of these famous “ancestors,” just to be clear.

But I do remember meeting up with my pal Curren, who dressed all in black well before punk rockers (or anyone but Johnny Cash, for that matter) to join our crew of Liberal Religious Youth at the downtown L.A. Unitarian Church and to walk together to anti-nuclear-bomb rallies. LRY was made up of handfuls of us “peace creeps” at almost every high school from Tarzana to Long Beach and was the first “in-group of outsiders” that I ever had. In the Valley we met at the upside-down onion-shaped Unitarian Church* whose youth group was very loosely chaperoned by True-Ann Heitz and a husband whose name also escapes me. But I am happy to be back in touch both with Vicky Sweet and Curren Warf now, all of us writers, retired medical folk, and still kicking at the goads, or maybe gonads. 

Passing the offramp to Melrose Avenue I remembered how, long before designer shops, it harbored the best folk-music venue in L.A. or maybe the whole country. A center of culture for the many budding folkies, including LRY guitarists, this was Ed Pearl’s Ash Grove. It lasted from 1958 to 1973, when it was firebombed by anti-Castro Cubans. Its doorman was the young Taj Mahal, who was also the accompanist for every acoustic blues icon who came to play there, from Mississippi John Hurt to Lightning Hopkins. I remember loving its soulful house band The Chambers Brothers, as did a (too) young Stone Ponies’ singer Linda Ronstadt, sadly.*  

“I learned my lesson. It left a scar. But now I see how you really are…” Linda Ronstadt, You’re No Good

It was reconnecting with the emotions of my childhood that hit me as a great difference on this trip to Phoebe’s memorial. As a child first seeing the inadequacies of one’s parents, only later realizing that they did rather well given that neither one had ever received much loving growing up. Then as a pre-teen despairing at all that is wrong—at a time when feelings will never be more intense– such as being boo-ed on your way to the batter’s cage by your own team’s families in Little League. As a teenager I learned that I could replace my emotions with experiences. But doing (everything possible thank you very much!) is not an actual substitute for the intensity of feeling that builds up in our youngest years, damages which apparently must be repressed to some degree if we can continue to progress into so-called adulthood. In other words, we did the best with what we had. This includes learning later how to lay aside some blame, of course.

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get to L.A. for one night, and there were lots of reasons not to. But every time I talked to friends or co-counselors about not going to my oldest friend Phoebe’s farewell, I found myself breaking out in wracking tears. Once arriving in Los Angeles, being able to have feelings connected to never “gotten over” places from those years was a real gift. They are like a last card and CD sent to a youngish old person (early ‘70s in my case) by an older one (from her late ‘80s). Which gives me a chance to say, again, thank you Phoebe.

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*Transgender Tuesdays the movie is viewable at www.Queer4Decades.com/Transgender.

More details on the Linda Ronstadt/Chambers Brothers can be found in a history piece, The Stud Bar: Decade by Decade at www.Queer4Decades.com/Characters.

The first Acid Test at the Unitarian Church in the Valley, and early meetings of the once-mixed civil rights group SNCC I attended get mentioned in my gay lib memoir Coming Out as A Gay Maoist on the Queer4Decades.com/Featuring page. 

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