Arrival Story: Rachel Rosenthal

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KCET Departures asks, "What's your or your family's Los Angeles arrival story?"

Today, we hear from Rachel Rosenthal, cultural icon and Artistic Director and founder of The Rachel Rosenthal Company:

CHAPTER ONE

"I've spent most of my life in Los Angeles - I was thinking about that today.

"I've been here since 1955. But mine was a roundabout way to come to California.

"My parents were born in Russia. They were Russian Jews. My father, Leonard Rosenthal, was born in the south. My mother, whose maiden name was Mara Jacobovitch, was born in the north, in Riga in what's now Latvia. My father was twenty years older than my mother.

"He came to Paris - he went west, young man - from Russia when he was 14 - he didn't even speak French. And my mother came all the way down from the north to the south in order to leave Russia when the Bolshevik revolution came. So they both ended up in France, in Paris, and they fell in love around 1920.

"They married when I was seven years old - I was born out of wedlock because my father's first wife didn't give him a divorce. We were a very affluent family - my father was an importer of precious stones and pearls - and a very well known family of what was called then, 'assimilated Jews.'

"By the late 1930s, we were very much exposed to the worst that would happen through the [Nazi] Occupation.

"My father didn't want to leave France - he thought it was traitorous to leave the place that had given him his fortune and his life and everything.

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"But at the last moment, in 1940, we had to go and we crossed the border into Spain. We had tried to get out with more members of our family. Every time we went to the frontier, it was blocked, it was closed, we couldn't all get out.

"My father finally said, 'Let's try again, just the three of us.' And we went through like nothing was wrong.

"We stayed in Spain for approximately three days, waiting in a small mountain border village, for a smuggler to bring out my mother's jewelry in a little box, over the frontier.

"But that didn't work out. Because the Germans were all there, the army was already there, all over the border, waiting to come into France. And sure enough, we left and that afternoon the swastika was on our villa.

"The jewelry never came, and then we went by train to Portugal with the idea that we would end up in Lisbon and get visas to go to the U.S.

"Well, that didn't work out. At first, we couldn't get into Lisbon. Because it was so full of refugees and they refused people coming in from trains or anywhere else. They would reroute them to three choices of another city or town or village - and we ended up in a little spot called Luso. There was a beautiful, beautiful forest called Buçaco that was filled with hydrangeas.

"We ended up there because my father asked the train conductor, 'If you had to choose between these three, where would you go?' and the conductor said, 'Oh, I'd go to Luso.'

"So we ended up there. We spent three months trying to get exit visas. My father and several other refugees - also Jewish men with their families - rented a jalopy and every second night they would spend the whole night traveling to Lisbon. They would spend the day there going to all the consulates trying to get exit visas. Then they'd come back to Luso in order not to spend the night in Lisbon, which was not allowed.

"I was thirteen years old and enjoying myself. This was the first time I'd lived in a place like that - a little village. It was quite wonderful.

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"Meanwhile, our visa for staying in Portugal was coming to an end. We were then supposed to be sent back into France - where we would probably end up in a concentration camp and be killed.

"So my father is sitting in the Brazilian consulate's waiting room, waiting to talk to the consul to try to get our exits, and a guy passes by who happens to be the French ambassador to Portugal.

"And he looks at my father and says, 'Leonard, what are you doing here'? My father knew all these people. And so through the ambassador we got our visas and were on the next boat to Brazil, called the Baje. We ended up in Rio de Janeiro. We stayed ten months.

"We had no money left, because we didn't have the jewelry to make money and because my father was one of the few people who didn't have money in foreign banks, again because of his idea of patriotism - 'We don't take it out of France.'

"My father began to know people because we had been written about in the papers - 'Leonard Rosenthal and his family are here, blah blah blah.' So my father got entry into all these political places and money places and all of that.

"So we were continuing our lives, thinking we were settling in Brazil. And then one day, the American consul called my father.

"Little by little, it turned out that the Jews who were coming to Brazil from Europe and wanting to establish themselves there were either sent to prison or disappeared. Unbeknownst to anybody in the world, the Nazis had taken over the government in an underground coup.

"Our past overtures to come to the U.S. hadn't turned out because my mother's hometown in Riga had been taken over by the Bolsheviks who dissolved the consulate there so we couldn't access her records needed to emigrate.

"But the U.S. consulate began to know what was going on in the Brazilian government. The consul called and said to my father, 'Just between you and me, off the record, leave the country. There is a boat going to the U.S. in four days. Be on that boat.'

"We boarded that boat in Rio. We passed the equator one more time, stopping in Bahia, Trinidad, all these interesting Caribbean places, and one week later, we ended up in New York."

CHAPTER TWO

"In New York, I was accepted into the High School of Music & Art.

"It was an amazing time for me because it was so absolutely different from what I had known as a child in Paris. There, I was never alone. I was with a nurse or a governess or my mother. And I come to New York and I go on the subway by myself and I do what American children do.

"At first we were in a hotel up on Broadway, going up into Harlem. And then my father started to make money again and we were able to rent a duplex.

"Anywhere he was thinking of possibly alighting, the first thing he'd do is walk to the windows. It didn't matter if there was no kitchen, but there had to be a view.

"So we ended up on Central Park South, which is now Trump Tower. It looks a little different! I lived there during the War and after the War I was very nostalgic for Paris and especially for my half-brother Pierre, who I adored.

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"Pierre was killed in the Sahara campaign of 1943. But at the end of my stay in high school I still felt I wanted to go back to Paris. But I couldn't because my parents had me naturalized American. They wanted to become Americans and they figured if I'm already naturalized, it would be easier for them. I wasn't consulted, but there I was, an American girl.

"The law was, we weren't allowed to go back to our country of origin and stay more than a year at a time. So for the next eight years, I went back and forth between New York and Paris, one year here, one year there.

"It was really a lucky thing for me because I was in the right place at the right time. Because in Paris, it was the flowering of a new kind of theater. And in New York it was the flowering of a new kind of painting and visual arts.

"I was there to see both of those things happening on two different continents. And I met a lot of wonderful people in Paris and a lot of wonderful people in New York.

"In the early 1950s, I met Merce Cunningham and John Cage. I was a big fan of theirs in New York. And then I went to Paris and I was in a theater school there and the two of them came to do a master class. They couldn't speak French and I was one of their translators.

"When I returned to New York, I started to take classes from Merce. I became friendly enough with him and John to be part of their little circle of friends who were all beginners in the business of being artists and who eventually became the most important artists in the world. Bob Rauschenberg. Jasper Johns. People like that - Cy Twombly, who just died.

"I was lucky to be in this kind of society where I could learn so much. Because even though they were very young, they were already formed as artists. I was not. I was like a baby chick. And I felt, 'Why do they want me around?' Well I was flamboyant in those days, I was lots of fun, so I was sort of the company clown.

"I began to feel first of all more and more distanced from myself, because I wanted to bethem. I wanted to identify with them so much. And they were so big in my life. And I realized, I want to be an artist and I'll never make it and find myself if I'm under their umbrella."

CHAPTER THREE

"I moved to Los Angeles in 1955.

"That wasn't my first time coming here. That happened in 1941. Family on my mother's side - her cousins - already lived in Los Angeles, in Beverly Hills, actually. They were three brothers and a sister and half of them had emigrated quite a few years before the War. One of the guys was named Boris Ingster - or, at least he was given this name at the US Immigration entry! He was in the movie business and then TV when TV began to happen.

"When we first arrived from Rio to New York, we of course knew about our family in Beverly Hills. My father said, 'I want to spend the summer there as a vacation and to see if I want to stay there or stay in New York.'

"So we came west on the Super Chief, which is the big train that came all across America, and we spent a very lovely summer. I went to the Hollywood Bowl and saw a lot of ballet. And my mother's cousin Boris took us in his car - he had a big station wagon - to visit all of California. We went to Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, all those wonderful places.

"At the end of the summer, my mother and I said to my father, 'What have you decided?' He said, 'If I lived here, I would never do a stitch of work. We go back to New York. I have to work.'

"In the future, though, my parents would return to spend summers here. In 1955, while they were here, my father died at the age of 81.

"My mother wanted to move here to be near his grave. And I didn't want to leave her alone. I also thought this was an opportunity to get away from that group of people who were so important to me; I felt I should pay attention to myself.

"I headed out for my father's memorial and funeral. I took my two cats with me. The boy was named Tyutik - that's Russian. And the girl was a Calico named DiBiDi. [Pronounced, 'Dee-Bee-Dee.']

"I took the Super Chief. I completely forgot the fact that the cats would have to go to the bathroom. So they had to go to the bathroom in my compartment. And there was no way of cleaning things up without being very conspicuous, which I was trying to avoid. So for three days and three nights I was breathing that air.

"Pretty fast after we arrived, I was offered a job as a teacher at Pasadena Playhouse. I took a little room close to the Playhouse and me and my cats lived there for a semester. And then I left the Playhouse - I was a bit much for them, I think.

"Pasadena was conservative, but mainly so was the Playhouse. It was very traditional, and I was teaching my students things that I'd learned in my other studies. So they told me, 'Sorry, goodbye.'

"I ended up in West Hollywood. One thing led to another. And little by little I realized what I wanted to do. I wanted to create a certain type of theater based on improvisation - but not the funny kind that was being done then and since, the comedy type, but real theater, non-traditional experimental theater. So I created something that I called Instant Theater.

"Why? Because first of all it was instant, like the new coffee, and created in the moment. It was very Zen. It was very much inspired by John Cage and Merce and the other people I knew. It was so different and unexpected that it attracted artists in the audience.

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"And at the time there was a gallery called the Ferus Gallery. And the Ferus Gallery was an oasis, the only place in this desert where there was something happening of interest in the arts.

"There was Wallace Berman, there was Ed Ruscha, Ed Moses, Billy Al Bengston, George Herms, etc. The whole roster, including Ed Keinholtz and Walter Hopps who was the head of the gallery.

"And all these guys would come on the weekend when I did my little shows of Instant Theater and they were very much behind me and helping me, supporting what I was doing.

"So I knew all these guys and I visited with them and talked with them. They had girlfriends of course and their friends were poets and musicians and so I spent time with all that group. Berman had this place in Topanga. It was very hippie-like.

"And there was Samson DeBrier. My little theater where all this was taking place was on El Centro Avenue. Not in West Hollywood, but in the mid-part of Hollywood.

"Samson's place was a couple of blocks north. He had a house. He was an old queen. He had a salon where any artist or any actor or musician or anybody of name who came through Los Angeles would end up.

"He had these big, open house parties where he never even offered a glass of water to anyone. And yet everybody was there because they knew they would meet who they had to meet there - directors and people in the business and everything.

"So I became a friend and I would see him often. He brought a lot of people - Anais Nin, for instance, people like that. So there was a real nice kind of underground society that began to flourish. This was approximately 1956 or `57."

CHAPTER FOUR

"I always gravitated, it seems, because of my interest in art, toward gay men and gay people. They seem to be, in this country, more inclined to be accepting and loving of art than most.

"In New York I was very much involved with that whole group who were mainly gay men and some gay women. And I wanted to belong, so I was experimenting with my sexuality. It turned out I was not a very good lesbian. I started to think of myself as a gay man in a woman's body. See what I mean?

"I always looked pretty fantastic - I had big red hair and I dressed very much against fashion, a bit flamboyantly. And there were these animals always around me and I had a marvelous collection of art in those days - which unfortunately, I trickled out so I could have my theater running. The art paid for that.

"I married and moved to Tarzana. I had plenty of room for my cats and dogs. The Valley was full of cornfields then, like Orange County used to be with orange groves.

"In 1978 I left my husband and moved back to LA. I got involved with all the art that was happening in those days and the publications. In the seventies, I was very active in the Feminist Art Movement.

"I had been asked something in 1975 - that was the year my mother died, twenty years after my father - by two guys who had a gallery in the Valley called the Orlando Gallery. They had seen my Instant Theater and they wanted me to do a performance. And in those days I had stopped performing because my knees were deteriorating and couldn't move the way I wanted to move.

"I thought, 'Well, I'll go see what this performance business is about.' I saw a few and I said, 'I can do that.' So I did. I did this performance for them and I didn't stop for 25 years.

"I did my own pieces, they were not improvised, they were text. Because I felt I didn't move the way I did in the past, and so instead of that I talked a lot. I still moved some and I still did a lot of visuals.

"In 1980, I did a piece that I thought would be interesting about love and sex. It came in sections, like a lot of my pieces did.

"In those days I had long hair and bangs and everything, and for the end part of the piece, I had somebody shave me. So I ended up with a completely shaved head. At the time, before doing it, I thought, 'Well, I'll let it grow back.'

"And then as I saw myself I the mirror, I thought, 'I look now the way I feel.' It was me. It was the way I felt I truly am. So I never grew it back. For 25 years I preformed in this look.

"When I started shaving my head, I had all my investment money stolen and I ended up without a cent. I was bailed out by a friend who was very rich , it was really amazing, a miracle. But at the time, I couldn't go and buy clothes because I didn't have enough money.

"So I would go to the surplus army store and buy camouflage. So I had a bald head, camouflage, and at that time I had adopted my rat and he was always on my shoulders. Tatti Wattles was his name. I wrote a book about him. He became a famous art rat!

"Anyway, so I had an Army look, I had a rat on my shoulder, and I had a bald head. That was the image the world saw me as. It was all tongue in cheek, but a lot of people took it seriously. After a while, I started to wear clothes again, but I never changed the head.

"You know, for many, many years that I've lived here, I didn't live here. My feeling was, 'No I don't live in Los Angeles.' Although I lived in Los Angeles all that time.

"And I've only very recently started to feel like I live in Los Angeles and am part of it. It's about time, I decided. This is where my roots are. They've been creeping up all this time, unbeknownst to me.

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"You know what helped keep me in Los Angeles originally? I had seventeen cats.

"Of the two I arrived here with in 1955, Tyutik was killed by a car in Pasadena and DiBiDi stayed with me until she died at the age of eighteen.

"When she was six years old she fell from a great height and broke her back and became a paraplegic. The vet said, 'Maximum, six months. Cats can't live like that.' Well not only did she live, but she lived twelve more years. And I was her slave. I helped her run and I turned her around every two hours at night. And she came with me, we went back to New York to visit, we went up north, we went to all kinds of places, always with DiBiDi.

"She at first had litters, because in those days we didn't know about fixing an animal. That's how I ended up with so many cats because I couldn't give them away. And she despised me for that, she hated me, she didn't want any other cat but her.

"So when she was in that state, of not being able to move unless I helped her, she was happy because I was her slave. It was her delight. She was my soul mate and to this day I talk to her even though she's long dead. She protects me. She brings me what I ask her to bring me."

-- Rachel Rosenthal
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)

Photos:

    The following images are copyright and courtesy Rachel Rosenthal:
  • Present day image of Rosenthal in hat: Photo by Martin Cohen
  • Theatrical headshot: Photo by Heike Overberg
  • DiBiDi: Photo by Rachel Rosenthal
  • The following images are courtesy the Rachel Rosenthal Archives:
  • Rosenthal and her then-husband King Moody, circa 1955: Photo credit unknown
  • Newspaper clipping, circa 1941

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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