Yesterday I learned Bess died. The beautiful girl whose strings are tied into my heart as fast today as they were the last time I saw her in 1968. My sad girl, my wicked girl, a friend who was a lot like me. Somehow I always thought I’d see her again one day and she’d tell me she was all right. She had come through. But she never did.
I first met Bess at San Francisco State in the fall of 1961. I was new on the scene and didn’t know anybody yet. I’d just transferred to State after a season of traveling in Mexico and New York. One night in October or thereabouts I went to an all-night vigil for peace outside the Commons, the schools’ poor attempt at a student union. I brought my Mexican guitar and sang Pretty Polly and We Shall Overcome and There Once Was A Union Maid through the night as the frat boys taunted us and threw eggs. By morning I knew all the peaceniks, the people who became my comrades for next few years, Solveig Otvos, Don Auclaire, Peter Weiss, Bob Kuehn, Eva Bessie, Peter Kraemer, Carmen O’Shaughnessy…and Bess.
Bess didn’t notice I existed, of course. Isn’t that how these stories start? Maybe she smiled at me once, I’m not sure. It wasn’t till months later I realized she was nearly blind without her glasses, which she refused to wear and she probably couldn’t see me.
Somebody invited me to a party on Clayton Steet that weekend, and Bess was there. Some haunting quality in her face drew me towards her. It must been her face because we’d never spoken. To me she was a charming, Audrey Hepburned sort of long-haired, brunette, eighteen or nineteen, mildly pre-Raphaelite, the kind of girl we called ‘woodsie-nymphsie.’ She had a big crush on a pink-cheeked, black bearded young radical named Steve something. She looked longingly at him, I looked longingly at her, and I sang “Oh my love, I’ve hungered for your touch a long lonely time” with great feeling. The party got real quiet. I had a good voice in those days and I knew how to sing.
Well, Bess and I never got together in the way you’re expecting, because Margarita got in the way. Margarita Bates. For now, let me just say she was peerless, I hungered for her magical presence, and Bess disappeared in her shadow – except she didn’t really. Instead, the oddest thing happened. Bess and I became friends.
As my love affair with Margarita proceeded from horror to horror, I found solace with Bess. She understood. She listened. She cared about me. As we got to know each other better, I discovered we also shared sensibilities. We both liked the same books, the same films, the same foggy streets, and we shared the same sliced up feeling inside.
As the sixties slowly burned down to the stub, I was never far from Bess. We spent days together wandering North Beach, drinking coffee in The Enigma or The Hot Dog Palace, playing Desafinado over and over on the juke box, sharing intimate secrets or just gossiping about mutual friends. I called her Ivich, after the character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy.
Late one afternoon in 1962 we were hanging out in Solveig’s place on Page Street. Solveig wasn’t home from work yet and there were just the two of us, listening to the Modern Jazz Quartet on Solveig’s record player. The late afternoon light faded away until there was only the light spreading from the little kitchen. You can guess what happened. Our buried longing for each other took over, and we lay together on the couch in the darkness until Solveig got home.
I felt horribly guilty, because I was married to somebody else, who was pregnant with my child. Cheating on my wife was the last thing I wanted to do, I thought. Turned out I was wrong. We never touched each other again. But I couldn’t keep away from Bess. I loved her.
Funny, I never considered that spending so much time with another woman was a form of cheating.
Bess was never cool, never a freak. She got her BA in English in the requisite four years, married an earnest young carpenter, settled down in an apartment on Downey Street and got a big dumb Afghan dog. She grew fat. She was unhappy. She was a bore. She didn’t go to the concerts or listen to the bands. But I couldn’t keep away from here for long, she was too deep a part of my life. Their apartment was a regular stop on my rounds of the Haight-Ashbury. Her husband got me work on his remodeling crew. By 1967 though, we had lost touch. Our lives had finally diverged too far. It was around then they moved home to Marin County.
OK, my first wife and I eventually split up and by mid-1968 I was living in the Eureka Valley neighborhood. The Haight had become a threadbare circus. The Hell’s Angels and meth freaks were taking over and the original hippies had mostly moved on.
But one morning I was over there for some reason, and standing and laughing on the street with a group of freaks I’d never seen before – I saw Bess. She was thin again. She was extroverted. She was merry. She was delighted to see me. She introduced me to her new friends and I was polite but I could see right away they were creeps, and they gave me the creeps. OK, I admit it. I was a complete snob in those days. Only the original hippies were cool. Everyone else please show your hip credentials before I’ll speak to you. But I knew a creep when I saw one, and they looked like creeps to me. Speed freaks.
We exchanged phone numbers and Bess (who by now was calling herself Lenore) invited me to a party at her house in Marin that weekend. I was playing guitar and singing with Hugh Harris at the time and suggested he come with me so we could try out our new set at the party. Saturday night we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge in Hugh’s VW bug, and soon we were somewhere deep in the redwood sided streets of Corte Madera.
‘Lenore’ met me at the door in a transparent gown with a drink in her hand. Her new friends were eating and drinking and grinning at me, showing off their missing teeth. Scott, Lenore’s husband, was kept busy running out for more beer. While he was gone, Lenore made laughing, snide comments about him. His earnest, straight-forward self was comedy material to her new crowd. There were no other women at the party.
I got the creeps big time and withdrew into myself. Hugh and I played some tunes, I talked with Scott a little bit, and we left early. On the drive back to the City, I realized we’d been dosed with MDA, the “love drug”. It must have been in the punch.
The high itself was nice, pleasant. It wasn’t that. It’s that she hadn’t told me. It was her little joke, a mischievous joke on me.
That was it. I wrote Bess out of life. She shouldn’t have done that. She broke my trust. And I didn’t dig her new friends.
I’ve never forgotten that night, and the knowledge I knew my dear girl was in trouble and I just wrote her off. Why didn’t I say something? Beat her up? Ask her what the fuck she was doing? Listen to her like she’d listened to me. Cared about her. Been there for her.
I was such a hippie. No interference. That’s cool, man. Good-bye.
I looked for her half-heartedly over the years. She’d moved. Changed her name. Who knew? But I always thought one day I’d see her again. And her face has haunted me these long years.
The other day Greg Hoffman mentioned he was going to interview Wes Wilson for his new book. Wes is the artist who basically created the psychedelic dance poster in his early work for the Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms. I remembered his wife had been Bess’s best friend in those early days at State, so I asked Greg to see if Eva knew what become of her. Last night Greg called me. She’s laying in the ground these fifteen years. From uterine cancer. I’ll never see her no more. It’s too late, she’s gone.