Yesterday I received word that one of my oldest and dearest friends died. Although we had a parting of the ways around 12 years ago, she still meant a lot to me. From what I can glean from people who have stayed in touch with her, she had lost the will to live. A couple of days ago she took a nasty fall that resulted in a head injury. Despite its seriousness, she refused to go to a hospital. Her ex-husband had phoned her Brooklyn apartment repeatedly only to get no answer. He then he asked a neighbor to check in on her, who discovered that she had passed away.
Laura was a year or so older than me and grew up in the same little village in the Catskill Mountains. I became friends with her when taking a seniors English class in 1960 in order to get the extra credit I needed to graduate a year early. My mother had grown increasingly alarmed about my alienation from the high school scene and decided to send me off to Bard College as a 16 year old freshman. Although Laura was not as much of a misfit as me, she had begun to develop an interest in the bohemian/beat culture that we had learned about from reading Time Magazine. She appreciated my take on the poetry we discussed in class, from Dylan Thomas to T.S. Eliot, and soon adopted me as a kindred spirit.
Given my general hostility and ill manners, it was no surprise that her Republican golf-playing parents looked askance at me. Her mother, who was a regular customer at my father’s fruit store, once told Laura that I had an “amorphous” personality. We both had a big laugh over that. I may have been cold and obnoxious but there was nothing “amorphous” about me. At the age of 16 I had already developed the jagged, sharp-edged personality that has helped define me on and off the Internet, for better or for worse.
In 1961 we went off to college. Laura went to Boston University to study art and I went to Bard College. These places served as a kind of bohemian finishing school where the two of us got up to speed on all the cultural icons of the age, from Williams S. Burroughs to Lenny Bruce. It was also when both of us began to smoke pot, which at the time was almost as transgressive as drinking absinthe.
In the summer of 1961, when her parents were off vacationing somewhere, I dropped by her house to smoke some weed. We got totally blasted and took a tour of the house, including a look her father’s tie collection which both of us found totally hilarious. Later that night—still totally blasted—I turned on the TV in the basement apartment at my parent’s house that I had turned into a “beatnik pad” and watched Ella Fitzgerald scat-singing “How High the Moon” on the Ed Sullivan show. That evening was one of the first in my life when I felt truly happy.
Not long after I graduated Bard, I got involved in Trotskyist politics and pretty much turned my back on the bohemian scene even though I had absorbed enough of it to prevent me from becoming thoroughly assimilated into the SWP. Thank goodness for William S. Burroughs. Laura had married a sculptor named Tony Long and the two of them lived in a loft on the Bowery which I used to visit from time to time. She had a job at Grove Press, one of the hippest publishing houses in the U.S. that had challenged obscenity laws involving “Lady Chatterly’s Lover”, “Tropic of Cancer” et al. One of the senior editors was Harry Braverman who co-edited American Socialist in the 1950s, a magazine that I strongly identify with.
Laura had begun to spend her evenings at Max’s Kansas City in New York, a “happening” scene where Andy Warhol and his entourage held court. She gravitated immediately toward this milieu and developed a friendship with Viva, who appeared in his movies. Years later, in tow with Laura, I met Viva at the Chelsea Hotel in New York and found her pleasant enough. But I didn’t understand her mystique.
The scene at Max’s Kansas City testified to the breadth of the cultural and political revolution going on at the time. For those too young to remember the sixties, it is easy to reduce it to the radical movement and the hippies. But there was another undercurrent that Max’s and the Chelsea Hotel symbolized. It was the world of Patti Smith, the Warhol groupies, the downtown art scene and hard drugs, all of which had not that much to do with the “groovy” vibe of Woodstock and Vermont communes.
In 1970 I went up to Boston in order to get involved in a faction fight developing in the SWP and lost touch with Laura who would soon break up with Tony and marry Frank Cavestani, a Broadway actor who had just completed his service as an artilleryman in Vietnam. Frank and Laura shared an enthusiasm for making videos, using equipment that had become affordable by the early 1970s.
Frank had returned from Vietnam as an opponent of the war and sought Laura’s help in making a groundbreaking documentary on the protests at the 1972 Miami Republican Party convention titled “Operation Last Patrol” that I reviewed here. The movie featured Ron Kovic, whose autobiography “Born on the Fourth of July” was made into a movie by Oliver Stone, who hired Frank to supervise the protest scenes. Frank also had a small part wheeling around Tom Cruise during the movie’s reenactment of the Miami protests.
Excerpt from “Operation Last Patrol”
If Laura had one foot in the downtown, Warholian scene, she had another in the left even it had little to do with the kind of organized Leninist business I was involved with. She made a short video about Abby Hoffman making gefilte fish that is priceless.
Excerpt from “Abby Hoffman makes gefilte fish”
In the mid-80s, long after I had washed my hands of American Trotskyism, I attended a high school reunion in my home town. Laura showed up, much to my delight. I learned that she had a new husband (Frank) and had moved out to Los Angeles with him, where they were in the screenwriting business. She seemed totally happy with her life. For old time’s sake, we smoked a joint out on the terrace of the house where the reunion was being held and where we were joined by a former math teacher that students lived in fear of. The influence of the 1960s counter-culture was powerful enough to have mellowed out even him.
A couple of years later I made the first in a series of trips out to the West Coast to meet with Peter Camejo who had been booted out of the SWP and who was trying to launch a new non-sectarian network called North Star. At the same time I met with Michael Urmann, the executive director of Tecnica, the solidarity group working in Nicaragua whose East Coast recruitment efforts I was directing.
The trips included a visit to Frank and Laura’s place on Mulholland Drive, the famous neighborhood in Hollywood Hills that featured houses on stilts overlooking the canyons just like the one that Mel Gibson tore down in “Lethal Weapon 2”. Theirs, however, rested firmly on a small lot.
I looked forward to my stays with Frank and Laura, even if I realize now that it was very possibly an imposition on them. After having guests from Turkey staying at our apartment in New York, I understand now what a job it is to have company for more than a day or two. But I would have rather spent a week with them than any tourist hotel in the world for they were perfectly hospitable and great fun to spend time with. I remember spending hours on end chatting about politics with Frank who felt that the intervention in El Salvador and Nicaragua was a repeat of the Vietnam War.
Laura had come into her own as a hostess for the Hollywood hipster/left community and threw memorable parties when I was there. Although the guests never included superstars like Mel Gibson (who would want that creep anyhow), they were much more interesting. I remember a conversation with director Michael Elias vividly. Elias, who had grown up in the next town from Laura’s and mine, was best known for silly comedies like “Young Doctors in Love”. Our conversation, however, revolved around American society and politics. Like Frank, he was unhappy with the Reagan presidency.
Laura never quite agreed with my socialist views and had particular problems with my anti-Zionism. She used to badger me about the need to be effective, which for her meant getting coverage in Time Magazine. Looking back in retrospect, I guess that her friendship with Abby Hoffman involved more than gefilte fish. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for me, there was nothing that I could have ever said or done to warrant attention from Time Magazine.
Although physically petite, there was nothing petite about Laura’s personality. She was brassy enough to take me on in political debate—something that takes a lot of guts from man or woman. She was also hard-laughing, hard-drinking, hard-eating and not above using recreational drugs of one sort or another. Most of all, she loved to party and lived as if each day was her last on earth.
Frank and Laura split up in the early 90s, as far as I can remember, and she returned to New York where she lived off an inheritance from her father. We began spending time together and I tried—not too successfully—to join her in late-night jaunts to places that were as “happening” as Max’s Kansas City once was. One night I went with her to a disco called Nell’s on 14th street and was shocked to see it filled with people dancing at 3am on a weekday night. Earlier in the evening we had visited Laura’s friend, a photographer who was famous for her portraits of John Belushi and who shared Laura’s (and Belushi’s) appetite for hard drugs.
As much as she enjoyed partying and the night life, Laura was unhappy being single. Now that she was over fifty, it was harder to find Mr. Right. One night in the mid-90s she met a painter half her age at a disco and the two of them hooked up immediately. After he moved in with her our friendship came to an end since he insisted that she could not spend time with me alone and I couldn’t stand his company.
Unlike her earlier marriages, this artist did not do much for her culturally or psychologically. I have only learned after her death that the two descended into a long journey into drugs and alcohol that left her in a state of despair. After he left their apartment a couple of months ago, she fell into a deep depression that eventually led to her untimely death. Laura was one of the most remarkable women I ever knew. I only regret that I lost contact with her nearly 15 years ago, if only to have provided some moral support in difficult times.
Ultimately, her fate was not that much different from many rebellious figures from my youth who have had lots of trouble adjusting to middle age and onwards. As we move into the autumn and now winter of our lives, it takes a lot more than booze and drugs to give you a lift. I only wish that Laura had found something more to keep her going in the past 10 years or so since she had so much to offer the world, and consequently herself.
I just received a couple of photos of Frank and Laura Cavestani from their old friend Fred Baker with this note: