Pieces of Life
Actress Susan Anspach completes a long-broken circle in the life of an LA writer
By Lionel Rolfe 08/07/2014
I met her on Thanksgiving Day 2012. Karen Kaye, the sister of avant-garde filmmaker Stanton Kaye, had been throwing holiday get-togethers for years at her Echo Park home. Many who gathered at Karen’s were the core of the vibrant Hollywood bohemian scene. I liked going to these parties because many of the people there were some of the greatest eccentrics of the era. That’s how I met Susan Anspach, who was as eccentric as any of us.
Karen died in 2009, but her niece Samantha had kept the holiday tradition going. Normally I’m a bit jaded when meeting new folks, but Susan was different. I spotted her sitting demurely behind a dining room table and couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I couldn’t decide if she was an older biker chick or a slightly faded apparition of a former grand dame. Was she in her early 40s or early 60s? She wore her years well. I felt like I should have known her name, but I didn’t. I was convinced that I had known her in some past life, but when? I just kept staring before I awkwardly asked, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”
I instantly felt embarrassed, knowing that I had clearly said the wrong thing. She answered in a tone suggesting this was a question that she regularly answered and resented hearing.
As a movie star, Susan moved in more rarified circles than me, explaining why I had never met her. But she had been in a film that had a personal meaning for me: “Five Easy Pieces,” one of Jack Nicholson’s breakout roles.
In the film, Susan plays a pianist, but she made sure I understood that she was not like the character in the movie. “I was ebullient and free; she was restrained, uptight,” Susan said. There were two female leads. One of them was Susan’s character, Catherine Van Oost. The other, Rayette Dipesto, played by Karen Black, was an old-fashioned girl who stood by her man to the point of obsequiousness. Susan was definitely more like the character she played than the one played by Black, who earned an Academy Award nomination and tied with Maureen Stapleton that year for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. While it may be true Susan was not exactly like the character she played, she obviously is a serious and intellectual person — as is the pianist in the film. She said writer/director Bob Rafelson initially offered her Black’s role, but after reading the script she told him that it would make a lot more sense for her to play the pianist. In any event, I strongly related to “Five Easy Pieces,” a classic of the era, primarily because I saw a great deal of my own life story in Bobby Dupea, a characterization that also won Nicholson Oscar and Golden Globe nominations.
Rebels With a Cause
I first learned about the film in 1970 from my friend Gene Vier, a copy editor, or “rimrat,” at the Los Angeles Times, the Daily News of Los Angeles and a number of other papers. Vier seemed to know everyone. His persona was immortalized by Peter Falk as clever but sloppy police Lt. Columbo in the eponymously named television series. Vier told me that John Cassavetes, a friend of Falk’s, arranged for him to have lunch with the actor at Tiny Naylor’s in Studio City during which Falk studied Vier’s odd persona and mannerisms — mussed hair, rumpled clothes, an ever-present half-smoked cigar.
Vier woke me up one day with a 6 a.m. call. “They made a movie about you,” he told me in characteristic spurts of words that came in between puffs on his cigar. Of course I was curious. He didn’t literally mean it was a film about me.
In the film, as Vier explained, Nicholson plays a piano prodigy, the black sheep of a prominent musical family from Seattle. Vier knew well that my mother was pianist Yaltah Menuhin and my uncle was violinist Yehudi Menuhin. I wasn’t a prodigy. Nor did I light out to be a wildcatter in Bakersfield, as Nicholson’s character did. But I had worked as a newspaper reporter in places like Turlock, Livermore and Pismo Beach. I wrote for the Underground Press with many good writers of the period, best exemplified by Charles Bukowski.
‘Under the Volcano’
On the Thanksgiving that I met Susan, I thought my faux pas had ended any further conversation. But such was not the case. We both moved out to the porch and stood talking face to face. I quickly realized that she made me feel like I was walking on eggshells, about to be pounced upon for saying something wrong. I started to dance away, made increasingly nervous by the nastiness of her retorts. But when she saw I was withdrawing, she took my hand and pressed it to her body, as if to say don’t go away. We moved toward a large couch in the front room, sat down side by side, still talking, still holding hands. I learned then that to love Susan meant you had to take copious daubs of love and hate.
It struck me that Susan was taking some joy in punching holes in my illusion that “Five Easy Pieces” was somehow based on me, even if Vier had been accurate in seeing some strong parallels. Nicholson, Susan told me, knew nothing about classical music. In real life, Anspach famously had an affair with Nicholson, who fathered her son Caleb, and then the two had nasty years-long court battles.
That Thanksgiving, Susan and I became oblivious to everything around us as we engaged in intense conversation. I had been divorced for a year at this point and was still hopelessly in love with my ex-wife. But talking with Susan prompted me to make a movie, only one in my mind. Of course, I was the star, playing opposite her — just like Nicholson. Actually, I saw myself more as Malcolm Lowry, the hopelessly dysfunctional author who in 1939 was scribbling early drafts of “Under the Volcano” at the Normandie Hotel, near Wilshire Boulevard. There’s a famous story of Lowry meeting his second wife Margerie at a bus stop at Western Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard. They took one look at each other and were suddenly hugging and kissing as if they were long-lost lovers. Margerie had such an influence on Lowry that it was suggested that she should have been listed as a co-author of Lowry’s great masterpiece. This, then, was a moment straight out of literary history and I was starring in it with Susan. Somehow, at that moment, Susan had made me feel like that bumbling figure of a great author, ready for the right woman to come along and save him.
Susan was never likely to play second fiddle in my orchestra. She was in many films in the 1970s and ’80s. One of them was Woody Allen’s “Play It Again, Sam.” Once, as we were watching “Running” with Michael Douglas as a would-be long-distance runner trying to go to the Olympics, she burst into tears. At a critical point, Douglas stumbles and falls and has to be carted off by paramedics. Susan played his ex, who still was lovingly standing by him even though her husband’s obsession had destroyed their marriage.
A Place to Meet
Susan is proudly political. Her children stood with her on Wilshire Boulevard holding signs for Cesar Chavez, with whom she later marched and fasted. Chavez gave her a much-treasured cross.
She cried when Obama won the presidency. “We fought so hard in the ’60s for civil rights,” she said. She remembered the time that she and Billy Dee Williams, who were both starring in Broadway plays at that time, were turned away from a restaurant in New York because Williams is black. And although she was adamant that “something is rotten in the USA,” she asked me if I thought Hillary Clinton could win. “Imagine, if I’m still alive, I’ll live to see a black man and a woman become presidents. Wow,” she exclaimed.
Of all of her films that we watched, her masterpiece may have been “Montenegro,” a 1981 black comedy by Yugoslav director Dušan Makavejev, which was shot in Sweden with actors from some of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpieces. Susan plays a bored blonde housewife from America living with her very boring Swedish husband. In the film, she is kidnapped by gypsies and only sort of tries to escape. Susan said she saw her character as a kind of Marilyn Monroe. As a young drama student in New York, Susan joined other important actors like Monroe and Dustin Hoffman in being trained by Lee Strasberg. Before leaving New York to come to Hollywood, Susan made her mark on Broadway: she played the lead in the original “Hair.” Broadway was also where she met her lifelong friend, Hoffman, also a Broadway actor.
Susan now feels a bit slighted by Hoffman, whose career is churning along well enough. There was a lot of emotion in her voice when she spoke of him. When we later tried working out the logistics of meeting up one day, I suggested Canter’s Deli in the Fairfax District. Canter’s had been a central meeting place in Los Angeles since at least the ’60s. Susan strongly nixed that as a destination. She said that she used to meet up with Hoffman there and did not want to rekindle old memories.
We carried on this way for more than a year. Then our essentially platonic affair came to an end for various reasons. But I deeply value the time we shared. Running into Susan that Thanksgiving, and later spending time with her, watching movies and talking late into the night, helped me connect several pieces of my own life that I thought were missing until we met. n
Lionel Rolfe is the author of a number of books including “Literary LA,” “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey,” “Fat Man on the Left: Four Decades in the Underground” and “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather,” all available at Amazon’s Kindle Store.