By Stephanie Salter
TERRE HAUTE — In the 10-plus years we spoke to one another over our tiny San Francisco back yards, all I really knew about Lenore was that she was an unfailingly cheerful, elderly woman who adored the sun and wore her long silver hair in a braid down her back.
I did suspect from the way she moved her generous, ultra-feminine body (and from that counter-cultural long hair) that she’d been a bohemian in her day. I had no idea how much of a bohemian until I read her obituary last week on the San Francisco Chronicle’s sfgate.com.
Turns out, my California neighbor, Lenore Kandel, was one brave, talented and plugged-in dame, a rare female icon of the Beat Generation who sailed seamlessly on into the Psychedelic era. She knew the brilliant, tortured Beat boys — Kerouac, Rexroth, Snyder, et al — as friends and fellow poets. Like Allen Ginsberg, she had one of her works deemed pornographic by the authorities and ordered off the shelves of even the hippest bookstores in the city.
Google her name, and multiple images and bios materialize, some from foreign Web sites dedicated to the Beats and hippies (“Lenore Kandel mitt Timothy Leary, 1967”). One Web critic, John Yates, calls her “one of the very best and most significant poets of the modern era.”
Lenore died Oct. 18 in San Francisco at the age of 77. Her obituary, written by the Chronicle’s Julian Guthrie, says she had been diagnosed only two weeks before with lung cancer. Among the people quoted in the obit is the actor Peter Coyote, who said he met Lenore in 1965 at a gathering of artists opposed to the Vietnam War.
“She was working as a belly dancer and would sew these beaded curtains to make money on the side,” Coyote said. “We would sit around and smoke dope and talk about philosophy and art. She was an enlightened person, a great being.”
I knew the latter two characteristics to be true after the very first conversation I had with Lenore when I bought my house in San Francisco’s funky Bernal Heights district. Over the years, we didn’t talk much philosophy or art, but we did talk glorious weather, the beauty of ripe pears in a ceramic bowl, the companionship of classical music and — indirectly, through metaphor — the agony and ecstasy of loving a certain kind of man. The exciting kind that inevitably breaks your heart, but (in lengthy retrospect) seems worth the pain.
In Lenore’s obituary, I learned that one of her exciting men was the poet Lew Welch. Another was Bill Fritsch (also a poet), who rode a Harley and belonged to the Hell’s Angels. The tricky back Lenore mentioned once in a while during our chats apparently was the result of a spine injury she suffered as a passenger when Fritsch wrecked his bike.
As several Web sites attest, Lenore was the prototype for Jack Kerouac’s character Romana Swartz in his novel “Big Sur.” He described her as “a big Rumanian monster beauty of some kind I mean with big purple eyes and very tall and big (but Mae West big) . . . but also intelligent, well read, writes poetry, is a Zen student, knows everything …”
Even after I moved from San Francisco to Indiana in 2004 and rented out my house, I would talk with Lenore when I visited California. If the sun was out, I would resume my place on my second-floor deck and call to the east where the bareheaded Lenore sat in a straight-backed chair on the small landing of her apartment house’s back steps. I never saw her with shoes on.
A Buddhist (I now know), she said nothing about the time that had passed since our last chat. (Sometimes, I wondered if she even knew I’d moved 2,000 miles away and hadn’t just been busier than usual.) Always she would comment on the sumptuousness of the day and the sun upon her tanned skin.
Once, Lenore and a woman friend managed to wedge two chairs and a little table onto the landing and were having an afternoon tea party. They looked so beautiful and happy in the sun, I asked if I could take their picture from my deck. Lenore giggled — she never laughed that I can remember; she giggled like a girl being tickled on the soles of her feet — and said, of course.
It’s not a great picture. Not like the portraits of Lenore that are for sale on several photo Web sites. Not like the news photo from 1967 that ran with the Chronicle obituary. It shows Lenore, wearing a mouton coat and her dark hair in long braids, holding a copy of her “obscene” poetry collection, “The Book of Love.”
According to one Internet biography, Lenore defended the poems in court, saying they represented a 23-year “search for an appropriate way to worship” and an attempt to express her belief “that sexual acts between loving persons are religious acts.”
Knowing all of this, now, enriches one more memory I have of Lenore.
For the first year or so after I moved in, I had a terrible time getting anything to grow in my dark postage stamp of a back yard. Then I hit the jackpot with a bright orange clematis and an intensely fragrant, pale pink climbing rose bush. In two seasons, both of them went crazy.
The clematis crawled over the windows and roof of Lenore’s downstairs neighbor’s place, then leapt to the right into my next-door neighbor’s tall avocado tree. The rose bush, covered with killer thorns, followed the clematis, then veered left toward Lenore’s landing. With several high branches about six feet long, it would dance in the wind beneath her sun perch, spreading the roses’ scent upward for her pleasure.
All of my neighbors, understandably, hated the two giant plants. All except Lenore. When I told her I had to prune them way back (or make enemies forever), she cried, “No!”
“That’s Nature,” she said, gesturing toward the climbing paths of the clematis and rose bush. “Nature should go where she wants to go. Let them take over the whole block!”
When I read her obituary last Friday, I realized I had been in San Francisco — my only trip there this year — when Lenore died. It had been a jammed, short week with almost no time to sit on my deck. When I did make it, though, I looked across the two yards for Lenore in her chair on the landing. I should have known something was wrong when the sun came out and she didn’t.
Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.