In the span of five decades, veteran Los Angeles journalist Lionel Rolfe wrote thousands of news stories and features, covering police, politics, arts and culture for daily, weekly and later online publications. Also during that time, Rolfe authored a dozen books, one titled “Fat Man on the Left,” a self-deprecating description of his own physical appearance and political leanings.
Perhaps best known recently in local journalism circles for his work with City News Service (CNS), Huffington Post, Random Lengths and the Pasadena Weekly, Rolfe had been in poor health over the past three years. He died in his sleep on Nov. 6 of an apparent heart attack at a Glendale medical facility, said his daughter, Hyla Douglas. He was 76.
“He was a combination of gentle and kind, and was an intellectual, knowledgeable and opinionated. He was always fighting the good fight,” Douglas recalls of her father. “More importantly, he had passion, like a musician has for music. Perhaps it was his musical roots. However, his passion was the written word.”
Born in Medford, Oregon on Oct. 21, 1942 Rolfe was the son of celebrated classical pianist and poet Yalta Menuhin and nephew of violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin and pianist Hephzibah Menuhin. It was perhaps the more down-to-earth worldview of his father, Benjamin Rolfe, a Los Angeles judge, as well as his passion for social justice and leftist politics, that moved Rolfe away from playing music and into journalism. Still, he took great pride in his lineage and possessed a discerning and well-educated ear for classical music.
Although musically trained, Rolfe once said he knew that he was nowhere near the caliber of his elders and decided at an early age to get into writing, saying “I didn’t want to be a second-rate Menuhin.”
“Lionel hated mediocrity,” said his caregiver Rose Hugh. “He wanted others to explore, dream and discover.”
“Lionel became a freelance journalist at the age of 16 when he left his father’s home in West LA and moved into downtown LA, where he became involved in the coffee house scene of the early ’60s. He wrote for the Los Angeles Free Press, also called ‘The Freep’ which was one of the most widely distributed underground newspapers,” his daughter wrote in a formal statement about her father’s life.
Douglas said her dad had a desire to work at a small daily newspaper. But, she wrote, “When the Santa Maria newspaper of that time found out that he had written for People’s World and other ‘pinko’ publications he was blacklisted… He finally landed a job with Scott Newhall of the Newhall Signal who hired him specifically because he had been blacklisted. Newhall also was the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle for whom Lionel wrote,” his daughter writes. “Later Lionel wrote for the LA Times, the LA Reader and numerous other publications, including the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, who encouraged him to write an ongoing column about famous writers who had lived and worked in LA. This encouragement led to his most popular book, ‘Literary L.A.’ which was published three times, each as an expanded version.”
From 1974 to 1990 he served as an editor and writer for the B’nai B’rith Messenger.
“Even before Lionel wrote for us, I read his articles and was a fan,” said Daniel Brin, former editor in chief of Heritage Jewish Newspapers. “He displayed a socialist perspective. He was always waging a war against fascism that never ended.”
In the course of his career, Rolfe took on many guises — in the exploration of what it means to live in Los Angeles, to be a Democrat, a Jew, a writer, and a man.
He wrote extensively on memories, such as his experiences up and down the Pacific Coast with all kinds of people from his days as an itinerant newspaperman. Some of these stories appear in some of his novels and memoirs, including “Literary L.A.” (1981), The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey (1978) “Last Train North” (1987), “Fat Man on the Left: Four Decades in the Underground” (1998), “Death and Redemption in London and L.A.” (2003), “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather” (2004), “The Misadventures of Ari Mendelsohn” (2012) and “The Fat Man Returns: The Elusive Hunt for California Bohemia and Other Matters” (2017).
Rolfe and his second wife, musician and journalist Nigey Lennon, wrote articles and published three books together, including “Nature’s Twelve Magic Healers: Using Homeopathic Cell Salts to Protect or Restore Health” and “Bread and Hyacinths, The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles,” which they co-wrote with Paul Greenstein of Highland Park. They spent a year living in London where his mother had lived and relished the city’s rich history. Despite their divorce, she remained a presence in his life until her death in 2016.
Thrice married, Rolfe had two daughters by his first wife, singer-songwriter Dianna Preston: daughter Heather Pearce, whom he adopted, and a biological daughter, Hyla, who arrived a few years later. Today, Heather lives in Arcata. Hyla lives in Topanga Canyon and is a singer-songwriter.
Rolfe’s third marriage in 2004 was to Boryana Vladeva, who resides in Los Angeles. Their marriage also ended in divorce, but they also remained good friends, Douglas wrote. Rolfe also founded Boryanabooks.com, a literary website named in honor of his ex-wife on which he published and wrote a monthly commentary.
Rolfe was a cherished friend to writers, including Mary Reinholz. They both freelanced at the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Free Press. Reinholz is also a regular contributor to the Pasadena Weekly. He contacted her in 2013 when he needed material for his literary site. “You used to be called Weatherman Mary,” Reinholz remembers Lionel musing, recalling her days as a “lefty radical.”
As it turned out, she had the beginnings of a feminist crime novel, “Exit from Eden,” about a California girl who becomes a fugitive after killing a rapist in self- defense. She sent him her opening chapters. He published them and succeeding chapters online. He encouraged her every step of the way until she completed the novel that she had been trying to write for 40 years.
On a personal note, I met Lionel on an overcast day in March 1997 while walking with a friend around the Silver Lake Reservoir. At the time, Lionel had the arm of Nigey Lennon, his writing partner and second wife. I told Lionel that I had just had an article published and was basking in the satisfaction of seeing my name in print. Stroking his bushy beard, he cast a worried eye, asked a few questions and advised: “Remember, you’ll always regret what you didn’t do rather than what you did, kiddo.”
The world is littered with notorious men. Egocentric, loud men are easy to spot. Men of value are harder to find, as they do not make as much noise. Instead, they create and produce work to the best of their abilities for as long as they can. They change the way we think and live, and the way we view the world. Lionel Rolfe was just such a man.
Lionel is survived by his daughters Hyla Douglas and Heather Pearce, and by his grandchildren Caspin Hargreaves and Kara Pearce. Other survivors include his brother Robert Rolfe of Virginia, cousins Clara Menuhin Hauser of South Carolina and Kron Nicholas of Australia, and numerous good friends, extended family members, fellow writers, artists and musicians.
A memorial will be held on Sunday, Nov. 25.
For details about the memorial, please contact Hyla Douglas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PW Editor Kevin Uhrich contributed to this story.