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Return of the Fat Man: Catching Up With Lionel Rolfe

Lionel Rolfe steps gingerly into the Musso & Frank Grill, his bespectacled gaze searching the landmark Hollywood eatery – but not for former regulars like Charles Bukowski, Gore Vidal or Rolfe’s friend, Life magazine photographer Phil Stern. They’ve left this room forever.

Rex Weiner

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Writer Lionel Rolfe refueling in a coffee shop. (Photo: Phoebe Sudrow)

Lionel Rolfe steps gingerly into the Musso & Frank Grill, his bespectacled gaze searching the landmark Hollywood eatery – not for regulars like Life magazine photographer Phil Stern (a frequent lunch companion whose subjects included James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and JFK); or for Charles Bukowski, with whom Rolfe survived a few escapades; or Gore Vidal, who could once be found seated by the bar with a gin and tonic, his respirator parked tableside. They’ve left this room forever. Instead, Rolfe is looking for an electrical outlet. His very own respirator, towed behind on wheels, needs plugging in.

“I’m a wreck!” he says, apologetic, but charmingly betrayed by a sly smile from behind his gray beard. His dinner companions—veteran journos themselves, and well into their first martinis—understand. Decades of cigarettes, cigars, alcohol, late night deadlines, multiple marriages and other occupational hazards, to which journalists in the pre-no-gluten-era were prone, have taken their toll on Rolfe.

Nonetheless, at 74, Rolfe has published his tenth book, The Fat Man Returns: The Elusive Hunt for California Bohemia & Other Matters. The jacket copy for the essay collection promises readers “…Yoga teacher Indra Devi, dying Sierra glaciers, the coffee house scene of the ‘60s in Venice, labor organizing, Echo Park bohemians, the decline of the Los Angeles Times, the once-famous L.A. Free Press, and other matters of great import.”

While “great import” may be taken tongue-in-cheek, the book takes the reader on serious journeys from the Orthodox Jewish realm of Brooklyn, where the author goes seeking his roots, to a cousin’s Australian vineyard, a murder on a Canyon Country animal rescue ranch and a poignantly sexy, platonic affair with actress Susan Anspach.

The blurb barely skims the surface of a career, the likes of which journalism, on its current trajectory into the digital cloud, may never again encompass. “One of the last frontier journalists,” according to Tony Newhall, former associate publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, where Rolfe worked for a spell. Newhall warmly described the journeyman reporter to me over the phone. Frontier journalism rarely pays a pension, unfortunately, and Rolfe survives frugally on Social Security and Medicare, although tonight my colleague and I are treating him to anything he likes.

“I like a lot of things,” he says with a rueful glance at Musso’s king-size menu. “I just can’t have ‘em.”

Rolfe was born into a world-famous classical music family: His uncle was international violin star Yehudi Menuhin, and his mother Yaltah and Aunt Hepzibah were also renowned concert pianist prodigies. It was perhaps the more down-to-earth worldview of his father, a judge, as well as an infatuation with leftist politics, that moved Rolfe in another direction. Inspired by Upton Sinclair, Jack London, John Steinbeck and his own grandfather’s allegiance to the Industrial Workers of the World, Rolfe embarked on a Golden State vocation harkening back to Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain. He toiled since age 19 for daily and weekly gazettes—the Turlock Journal and Livermore Independent, as well as the mainstream Los Angeles Times, Herald Examiner and edgier rags like the Los Angeles Free Press—that all came rolling off hot presses up and down California.

He recounts how he was fired from his first job at the Pismo Beach Times, in the small Central Coast town once known as the “Clam Capital of the World.” Rolfe’s articles investigating local school board corruption irked town figures active in the John Birch Society, resulting in a competing paper’s headline: “Reporter’s Red Links Disclosed.”

It turned out that a few years earlier Rolfe had joined the American Communist Party “for about six months,” he says. He’d sold copies of the party’s paper, the People’s World, sat at the feet of Southern California party chair Dorothy Healey. “I used to visit her down in South Central,” he recalls, where the party office was located. They were heady times for activists in the arts, and Rolfe received creative advice from screenwriter Alvah Bessie, one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten.

The waiter arrives and Rolfe wants the Crab Louie, but tells the waiter he can’t have salt. Doctor’s orders.

“Have you had the Louie here before?” the waiter asks.

“Many times.”

“Was it a problem?”

“No,” says Rolfe, “but I was younger then.”

He ends up with the grilled salmon. He’s trying to lose weight.

Rolfe’s other authored or co-authored books include Bread & Hyacinths: The Rise & Fall of Utopian Los Angeles, Death & Redemption in London & L.A., Literary L.A., and Fat Man on the Left: Four Decades in the Underground, to which the current volume is a sequel. The title riffs on Rush Limbaugh—the fat man on the Right, of course—who Rolfe pilloried in a profile for the Chronicle long before the talk-radio heavy became the Tea Party standard bearer. If prescience is what journalists get credited for after enough bylines add up to something like history, one could say Rolfe saw the future when he wrote that Limbaugh “…parlayed nothing more than the rehashed Republicanism that they used to use against President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal in the ’30s, into an army of true believers who took over Congress.”

“And now you have this guy Trump,” says Rolfe. “When you’re a good radical you keep fighting that fight. You get older, you get tired.”

Rolfe has never won a Pulitzer, but his copy—described to me as “prolific” and “flamboyant” by Jon Newhall, who hired Rolfe to work at the family-run Newhall Signal—filled countless column inches for many editors over the years. The research on his books and reporting dating from 1964 on multifarious subjects currently reside in nine linear feet of boxes in the USC Libraries Special Collections, and one may ask: Beyond a Dropbox in the Cloud and ephemeral Twitter feeds, can the increasingly online Fourth Estate look forward to bequeathing such a legacy to posterity?

“I’m feeling kind of discouraged now, with the state of journalism,” says Rolfe softly, as my colleague and I stare into our martinis, contemplating journalism’s future in the Snapchat era of intangible news — fake, real, whatever.

“The basic thing,” he says, on a more hopeful note, “is keeping a certain spirit alive, a desire to change things and not to take things as they are.” His latest book, he declares, “is my testimony to the free life.”

But as Hollywood likes a sequel to the sequel, will the Fat Man on the Left return again?

“Anything is possible,” Rolfe smiles.


Link to Rolfe’s books on Amazon.com

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