The Death of Leon Levy

Not this Leon Levy. He seems like a great guy. I recently saw a plaque dedicated to him at the New York Botanical Garden.  Every once in a while, over the years, Leon and I would get random mail obviously meant to go to this Leon Levy and/or his missus.

This one

Things I didn’t know about Leon when I was married to him:  The main one was that his father was an alcoholic. I also didn’t know his mother was a singer. There are many, many things I did not know about Leon, and I will never know them. I was with him for nine years, and people used to ask me, “What is Leon really like?” I would say, “You’ve met him, right? Well, that is what he is really like.” 

Deep in Thought

He never told me anything he didn’t manage to tell someone—anyone—else. Even the story about when he accidentally had sex with a man who was dressed up like a woman: “By the time I figured it out, it was too late.” That doesn’t mean he was an open book—he was a closed book, in a lockbox, buried in a well, on another continent. When he died, he had a couple of best friends. I’m sure they knew more about him than I did. They’ll never tell, nor do I expect them to. Oh, he was a relative of Sophie Tucker and actually visited her in her NY apartment.

His friend Jay told me that when the three friends would go off on their “guy trips,”  wherever they went, the locals always remembered Leon. They’d walk into one of their regular haunts and it was all about Leon, who had returned to their delight. Everyone remembered him. Jay would say, “What am I—chopped liver?”  He wasn’t and isn’t, but he was when Leon was around. 

Leon was an okay-looking guy, not particularly prepossessing, with a peculiar bow-legged walk that I used to imitate. He had nice blue eyes and a good head of hair. He went gray early on. He was handsome in his way and the way I like—maybe Jean-Paul Belmondo as opposed to Robert Redford?  Women and gay men found him irresistible. He used to get flowery notes from girls in Synanon wishing him a “Merry this” or “Happy that,” and those notes were always to Leon, never Leon and Cory. 

He broke my heart often in Synanon, so by the time he broke up with me for real, I was prepared for it. It helped that some others had broken up—and then wow, Changing Partners happened. So the fact that he had dumped me before it happened was obscured, and we just became part of the gang of the broken up—time for musical chairs. Leon wasn’t particularly affectionate when we were together, and I thought, Someday he will tell me that he really loved me.  He did—at our separation ceremony. Thanks, Leon. He got pretty mushy in the days of drunk Synanon, too. By that point, I just found it embarrassing. Not that I didn’t still love him, but I knew it was just the booze talking.

Weird fact: When I went to get married to Geoff, I discovered I was still legally married to Leon. He had told me he’d taken care of the divorce—he hadn’t. So, I was married to him for ten years longer than I thought. 

He could be so eloquent. At the separation ceremony, he talked about the miracle that these two bat-shit crazy people had managed to live reasonably sane lives for nine whole years without getting high or worse and that we had made this adorable little girl together. Blah blah blah. He had us all crying. Then he went and got with Nanette, and I went off to try and make love happen with Tom. With Tom, I made like and respect happen, but not so much love. I realized later that I did love Tom—but just not in that way. I’m glad I got to tell Tom before he died.  What is it with these great guys dying all over the place?  

“That a marriage ends is less than ideal; but all things end under heaven, and if temporality is held to be invalidating, then nothing real succeeds.”

John Updike

This John Updike quote about marriage so easily applied to Synanon—and for that matter, life.


“Laughter not time destroyed my voice
And put that crack in it,
And when the moon’s pot-bellied
I get a laughing fit …”
—W.B. Yeats

The best thing about Leon is that he made me feel like the funniest person in the world. He not only laughed at all my wisecracks, he told other people: “Listen to this: Cory said …” and then he would get them laughing, too. Maybe laughter was his “love language.”

There are two other people in my life who I can cap and riff and make laugh as I did with Leon: One is our daughter Zoe, who laughs with me to the annoyance of those near us who don’t “get it.” The other person is Ted Dibble. Sadly, Ted’s health keeps us from having long, hilarious conversations like we used to. Sometimes I can get my husband laughing, but it has to be quick and catch him by surprise.  Geoff is funny, too, but quick, very quick, hard to keep up. I’m slow-funny if that makes sense. Alas as of this posting Ted is gone as well.

The Soundtrack of Our Marriage

Leon was a music lover, and he was a little musical himself. One of his favorite groups was Bad Company. He also loved the blues, and in a move that would be deemed politically incorrect or cultural appropriation these days, he used to put on a performance in the character of Blind Lemon Levy, where he sang like an old-time black blues singer and sort of played the guitar. I am embarrassed to admit this because I have a lot of cool young friends (when I say young, I’m talking in their fifties), and hopefully they won’t judge me too harshly, but Leon and I listened to a lot of Eagles records. Mea culpa to “The Dude” from The Big Lewbowski.  In any case, I can’t hear an Eagles tune without being drawn back into the ’70s and married to Leon. When I made him a quilt, I labeled it with this little Eagles reference. He loved the quilt, he was always very appreciative of any creative efforts.

“For the Desperado Who never runs with the pack Happy Birthday With deep affection, The Girl from Yesterday”

The Eagles

And that is who Leon always represented to me—the Desperado—and after a scant nine years until the end, I was The Girl from Yesterday. (I actually don’t care for that particular song, but it fits.)

The First Visit

Jay is still mad at him for dying. Because both Jay and Leon (Leon, posthumously) are grandfathers. And Jay is overwhelmed by the joy that being a grandfather brings him. He just can’t get over the fact that Leon left this world without meeting Oliver Leon. Recently when our daughter was going through some pretty awful stuff that brought up some terrible feelings she had about having been raised in Synanon and anger at her biological and step-ological parental units and other stuff, I thought, Boy, I could really use Leon’s charming self right now to help her sort this shit out. But he is gone.

So how many gallons of water went under that bridge to get me to the point where I found myself in Encinitas, California? Funny, I always thought Encinitas was in Mexico. No, it’s over on the other side of the I-5 north of San Diego. When the big quake happens, it may end up as the new coast, but for now, it’s inland.  That first visit, which I thought was going to be the last visit, I don’t remember who picked me up at the airport. Was it Alice or did I take a cab? We are driving down the street looking for his house, and he is outside wearing a sweatshirt and flannel pajama bottoms waving us over to his driveway.

Never again would I have to hunt for his house in this homogenized neighborhood because in his front yard was a monstrous Norfolk Pine growing out of the ground at a ridiculous, inelegant angle. Zoe and I named it Norton. I think we had a little version of Norton on the terrazzo at the Home Place. I didn’t even know that this type of tree could achieve this size. I thought they were large houseplants. Norton was the Andre the Giant of Norfolk Pines.

The second thing I noticed was that Leon looked like shit. I couldn’t help it—I said it. He laughed. “That’s what everyone says.” I wish I hadn’t said it.

“A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all;
Many times he died,
Many times he rose again.” 
—W.B. Yeats 

I feared Leon’s luck had run out. Up until that point, he seemed to be one of those people who landed on their feet. He had come to a few credits short of a BA while addicted to heroin. He had cleaned up in Synanon and rose to the top. He figured out how to finish up that BA in Synanon and went on to get a Master’s degree. He slipped out of Synanon at the tail end, worked for AdGap for a while, and then managed to find work within the State of California Community College network.  He’d found well-paying jobs within that system. There were some surgeries on his overworked joints, and he almost died during one. There was the embarrassment of having his second wife and his (number unknown) girlfriend show up in a mutual panic at the hospital. There was a somewhat messy breakup with the second wife, a brief fall off the wagon with Reg, and then he started smoking for Chrissake. (Who starts smoking when they are 45!?) 

But then he pulled all his assets out of the market before the 2008 crash, and with his third wife, pooled their resources and bought this great house in Encinitas (which is not in Mexico). He told me about this at Zoe’s wedding party. He told me he was retiring, that both Rowena and he now had this great house and this fantastic pension, and “We are set,” he explained. He invited me to come to visit. At the event, I meet Rowena, a buxom, age-appropriate blond. But something ain’t right with her. I conclude she’s mixing valium with alcohol to be more comfortable around a bunch of people she doesn’t know. I don’t fault her. I could do something like that if it wouldn’t set me to barfing in the backyard of Tom and the love of his life Kathryn’s backyard. Wow, two ex-lovers at the same party. Wasn’t I the femme fatale?  

Well, it wasn’t valium or alcohol. It was the buildup of beta-amyloid proteins in the cerebral cortex. Yikes. Zoe calls to tell me “early onset”. Rowena was 65, at the time I was 59 or so. That’s not so early, I thought. Now I’m 72, and Wow, that’s really early, I think. 

“To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; for in that sleep of death what dreams may come.” (Hamlet, 3.1)

Wm. Shakespeare

Taking a break from Yeats here because I wanted to use the expression “here’s the rub” and down the internet rabbit hole, I went. Of course, it is Shakespeare and of course, it is a tragedy.

Here are some things I learned about Leon’s physiognomy: All those surgeries kept him ambulatory, but they didn’t keep him out of pain. He also had an incredibly high tolerance for drugs. The reason he almost died during surgery is that he wasn’t given enough anesthesia, and he woke up in the middle and went into shock to find his body flayed open. Leon drank socially, and he downed a lot of Vicodin to keep the pain at bay. You know, he might have lived to be in his 80s or at least late 70s, but here is the rub: Hepatitis C—the silent killer that wiped out more of my dope-fiend associates than AIDS: Louie, Zev, Floyd, Oscar, Janice, Jack, Jim. I know a disproportionate number of people who have battled Hep C, including my current husband. You know, I know way too many dope fiends.   

What was that other Hepatitis that dogged dope fiends in the ’60s—was it A or B?  Leon told me about walking down the street one day. I can’t remember if it was during a phase of being clean or if he had been using, but he described suddenly being overcome with extreme exhaustion. He could not take another step. He sat down on the curb and woke up in the hospital, where he found that he had Hepatitis “something.” He was shocked to see his yellow eyeballs in the bathroom mirror. I wonder now, Did that make his blue eyes green? 

He knew he had Hep C, but he ignored it. A death wish? The great Leon Levy can’t be bothered by this nonsense. 

For a time, sustained by Vicodin, he made the valiant attempt to keep Rowena home as her brain succumbed to the bindweed of alien proteins. At first, she forgot how to get to the health club and the grocery store, so Leon drew her maps. Oh, how she loved her little red sports car, and he said one of the worst days was when they (at this point her son had become involved) had to take it away from her. He would wake up to find her at 3 a.m. with her face mascaraed and rouged, impeccably dressed, clomping around their wooden floors in four-inch heels. “Leon, hurry up, we are going to be late.” On other days, she just walked around the house aimlessly with their aptly named cat Stoic draped over her arm.  He found her on the sidewalk in a virulent argument with a neighbor she believed was stealing their trash can. I spoke to the neighbor later and she said, “I knew something was wrong with her.” Leon found that Turner Classic Movies soothed the savage breast and assuaged the agitated mind. There were hours of her on that couch with the black and white images flickering before her, Stoic on her lap.  Then one day it was too much, and she was off to a care facility. 

I believe his dependence on Vicodin accelerated into full-blown addiction, and a clever man like Leon knew how to keep those prescriptions coming. I think that is the reason that he didn’t make it onto the transplant list on the first attempt and the fact that he smoked.  

What are you fellas up to?

When I arrived for that first visit, Reg and Jay were there, and I could see that they were scheming how they were going to get their buddy taken care of during this bad turn. I’m not sure where Reg’s head was, but Jay was convinced that it was just a matter of time and Leon would be a candidate for a transplant. Both guys had wives and lives and day jobs and more. I don’t begrudge them for not having the bandwidth to care for their friend.

I understood that they felt that this responsibility should go to Zoe. They were laying the groundwork to ask her, and I stepped in. I guess after years of inefficient parenting, I decided to put my foot down. There is no way in hell that I was going to let Zoe be put in a position to upend her life to care for her father.

I tried a few angles. I knew Leon had money and could pay for some help. I called RH who was doing housesitting to see if he was up for some Leon sitting. He had a full plate. I contacted Rod Mullen at Amity house, remembering that Lou Delgado, Jimmie Troiano, and Zev Putterman had wound down at one of their facilities.

“Rod, I was wondering if Amity still has the ability to take care of old dope fiends.  Leon is in end-stage liver disease, and his wife has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers and is in a care home. Leon may be eligible for a transplant, but in the meantime, he needs more care than can be given at home. He is not destitute, and he has resources to contribute. Thank you, Cory”

“Cory, I’m sorry to say that at the present time, we just can’t help. There have been a lot of changes over the years, and those changes (most of them from the ‘outside’) have restricted our ability to provide the kind of help that Leon needs—and deserves. My heart goes out to him. Rod”

Rod and my interchange on FB Messenger.

So, I took over. I worked it out with my then-and-current husband, who showed amazing tolerance to the idea that I would take on the responsibility of helping Leon.

Off I went to Encinitas for a second time. I still had a job but have laptop will travel. That first trip, was I going there to say goodbye? For this trip, I called Leon and said, “I’m on my way.” He explained that he had only one extra bed, and Zoe was going to be visiting. I laughed.

“Leon, you know Zoe used to live inside of me, don’t you think it’s feasible that we can share a double bed?” 

“You have a point,” he said. I ended up sleeping on the couch anyway. It was more comfortable. Stoic slept on my chest. And I mostly continued to sleep on the couch from then on so visiting friends could have the bed if they chose to stay.

There I was in Encinitas, going home to Austin when I could, trying to keep my ex-husband alive until he could get a liver transplant. Honestly, I’m no saint, and I am not what we used to refer to in Synanon as a death groupie. I don’t know—I was just doing what had to be done. 

Plans, big plans

“Life is a long preparation for something that never happens.” 
― W.B. Yeats

What about my big plans to do whatever? I always have big plans, but I’m used to life getting in the way. I once read an article about the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. One of them was being questioned about how victimized he must feel having his parents executed when he was so young, and didn’t he feel a terrible injustice done to him? I just remember his response to the journalist: “I’m just not that important.”

I don’t know, but that sort of sums up how I feel about my life. This is not about feeling sorry for myself or some ploy to get people to say you are important—like some kind of self-help gobbledygook. Why wouldn’t I be the one to take care of an old friend from long ago? Will this stop me from curing cancer, inciting world peace? Nope. I’m just not that important.

We were driving to the hospital or to a doctor’s appointment. Leon did these strange hand movements directing me when to make turns. He didn’t trust the GPS. I chattered, trying to give him hope. I wanted him to live. I just think it is normal but not necessarily the wisest thing to try to give the dying hope. I’m normal, not wise. Just as I said whatever I said, we made a right turn off the dull, old I-5 and came over the crest of a hill—and there was the Pacific Ocean in all its blue vastness and the water was sparkling and the sun was shining and there were boats and perfect clouds in a perfect sky. And I practically wailed, “If you are dead, you will never see this again.” He grunted.

Horseplay, literally

“There where the racecourse is
Delight makes all of the one mind
The riders upon the swift horses
The field that closes in behind.”
—W.B. Yeats

“Leon, I’m going to the store, do you need anything”?  He was in bed. He had the races on his big-screen TV. His closet was open, and there was a tidy array of short-sleeve collared shirts. Some looked mildly Hawaiian and others were plain. I think they call them camp shirts. He had nearly thirty of them all facing the same way on the hangers. He kept his winnings from the track in the front pockets of several of those shirts. 

Leon played the horses, and he lived within ten miles of the Del Mar track, right off of Jimmy Durante Blvd. So that’s why he picked Encinitas. Before he retired from Mira Costa College, he had been teaching English for business majors, he had a couple of other types of business management classes, and he convinced the college to let him teach handicapping. That, of course, set him up to take the entire class over to the racetrack to place bets as part of their classwork. You see what I mean about a guy who knew how to get things going his way?

Anyway, he had a system and part of that included keeping the winnings in his shirt pockets. He bet only with his winnings. Now, he wasn’t betting, so he started using the cash for things like groceries.

Leon’s last words to me:  “Take some money.” By the time of his last words to me, all the shirt pockets had been emptied. I didn’t know how to do what he said, so I took his J.A. Henckels French knife. It’s a pretty good knife.

Oh, and I also pinched Leon’s copy of “The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats (Clever reader—you may have guessed that.) If you are in the mood, read some Yeats. His poetry is maybe a little magical, and if you liked Leon, it might give you some insight into him. He loved Yeats.

He has fallen and he can’t get up

“An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless …” *
—W.B Yeats 

*Unless, at this time, there is no “unless.” 

So I called the fire department because I couldn’t lift him either.

I opened the door, and my first thought was The bachelorette party is next door, fellas. Standing before me were three vivid-faced, godlike members of the fire department. This was no job for old men. I was amazed and not a little mortified. I was dressed in a baggy T-shirt and sweatpants, my hair wasn’t combed. I felt so diminished in their striding big-booted presence. They were exceedingly polite as if they knew how I was feeling. I led them to the bedroom where they whisked Leon back into his bed like he was … a tattered coat.

“Is there anything else we can do, ma’am?”

As if I might have had some more frail old men lying around the house.

They left as they had arrived, all manner of buckles and straps jangling on their huge stiff clothing. It was not the last time I had to call them, but after that, I always took a few minutes to fix myself up before they arrived.

Stoic the cat

When Leon was with wife number two, they lived in a charming house, in a good neighborhood, and they had two beautiful Siamese cats. Zoe lived with them, and I found out that much to wife number two’s consternation, Zoe disliked these cats. Jealous?

After the dissolution of his marriage to that wife, he was living what appeared to be a lovely, uncomplicated bachelor life. Zoe got her revenge by gifting Leon two sickly feral kittens. “You aren’t getting off that easy, Dad.”

I suppose Leon was a cat lover. He did not immediately drive the creatures off to the pound or do to them what someone else had already done (dump them in the woods). He took them to the vet. One of the kittens was beyond help, though awfully sick, it spat, scratched, and hissed like a demon. It was suggested that the best thing for this evil spawn was a blissful trip over the rainbow bridge. Done. That left one very sick little kitten, who quietly endured the handling and administering of medicines and poultices. All this cost Leon numerous sheckels. Can you hear it—a gleeful cackle from Zoe’s shadow self? Leon named the cat Stoic.

She became the bachelor’s uncomplaining companion. I don’t know much about their life together. I know he lived in pet-friendly condos, had decent jobs, made decent money, played the horses, and had girlfriends. He told me about a younger woman who broke his heart. Hmm, now you know what it feels like, I didn’t say. Stoic was there.

Eventually, Leon married for the third time, bought a house, and Stoic was there. Then Leon got sick, I flew in to play my role as Nightingale. Stoic was there, and stoic as ever. I, given to anthropomorphizing, imagined that Stoic missed being slung over Rowena’s arm. She never let on.
I like cats, and when I sat down on the couch, Stoic was always welcome on my lap. What surprised me was that she was not welcome on Leon’s bed. He yelled at her and kicked her out of his room sometimes literally. His voice was harsh, gravelly, and filled with rancor as opposed to mere annoyance. I like sleeping with animals. I think I would like to die with a couple of domestic animals in bed with me, but maybe I’ll be angry, too.

Then I got it. This whole mess was Stoic’s fault—the wife’s clogged brain, the bad liver, the regrets, the hurts from his younger life, the asshole who shot the last mountain lion, the trifecta that missed by a nose. That damn cat was a pox. I tried to keep her out of his room. His angry voice, the voice that he would rarely use toward a human, upset me.

One weird thing Leon and Rowena had done was put Stoic’s cat litter box right in the dining room! They had purchased this expensive pagoda-like structure to put over the box but there was still a pan of cat shit right in the dining room. This necessitated me having to clean the box every single day. Did Florence Nightingale have to clean litter boxes?

Most folks have random fears. One of mine is Toxoplasma gondii, a parasitic infection one gets from cat poop. I always had outdoor/indoor cats who did their business outside, and when that became the incorrect way to have cats (save the birds), I stopped having cats because I don’t like litter boxes.
I watched Stoic, then thirteen years old, padding around the house, her chubby furred body on stiff little arthritic legs tick-tick-ticking her claws on the hardwood floor. I started to cry. Stoic must have caused this whole mess. I knew she needed to go and thought, Once she is gone everything is going to be just fine.

After I had exhausted my search with every animal rescue place in San Diego County, I called Zoe, who placed a finely crafted, tear-inducing ad on Craig’s List explaining the situation.

Zoe made the arrangements, and I drove over to Vista with Stoic and giant bags of litter and food. I met this nice lady with a couple of cats. She said Zoe’s story had broken her heart. She laughed at how much food and litter I had brought: “I think that will be enough.” We let Stoic out of her crate (I gave the lady the crate, too). I gave her the papers from the vet where she had her most recent check-up and came out with a clean bill of health. Stoic took a stiff-legged walkabout and moseyed into a closet.

Recently, I called Zoe to fact-check details regarding the rehoming of Stoic.

“I think that lady ate Stoic.”

“What do you mean, Zoe!?”

Zoe explained that she had sent numerous emails after the drop-off, asking how Stoic was doing and got nothing back from the woman.

Wow. I don’t know what to think about it. I want to believe that Stoic had a nice life there with the woman and her other two cats. I don’t seriously think she ate Stoic, but I have to wonder, Not even an “Everything is fine”? Was she part of an evil cabal that sold cats to research facilities? I could imagine Stoic, uncomplainingly having her eyelashes mascaraed or something worse. Do cats have eyelashes?

Then when the pandemic hit, I remembered all the bad things Stoic had brought about and knew she had to still be alive.

“The cat went here and there
And the moon spun round like a top,
And the nearest kin of the moon,
The creeping cat, looked up.”
—W.B. Yeats

The Real Wife

Mostly because we had a child in common, I felt a strong connection to Leon, but not so much as Mrs. Levy. I think that may have to do with the fact that Synanon was such a huge impinging factor in our marriage, maybe the seven-year age difference, and before we were married Leon broke up with me three or four times. There was only a piece of paper that said we were married, and serial monogamy was the norm in Synanon—but that is for a different story.

Leon introduced me to non-Synanon friends, doctors, nurses, social workers, etc. as his ex-wife. That seemed to freak people out. I got a little tired of the comments and double-takes. “How did you let this one go? Ha ha.” Leon looked so bad that often they mistook me for his daughter. I teased him, “Leon, stop calling me your ex-wife.”

“Well, what do you want me to call you?”

“Your baby mama. That’s the cool way,” I suggested. I managed to get a laugh out of him. None of it mattered. I think he just started calling me “a friend.”

Sometimes at his house without much to do, I would go through his trove of photographs. I found a naked photo of me—pregnant with a bald head. I mean huge and bald. I’d sort of forgotten that Nicole Dederich had talked me into posing for it. Of course, at the time I’m sure I was all into “The Beauty of the Birth” as my birth coach Pilar said. Actually, she said, “The Booty of thee Behth” in her strong South American accent that is difficult to reproduce in writing. Was he meaning to blackmail me and changed his mind? What a thing to keep in a random stack of photos.

There were a few photos of family members and of course of Zoe, many of which I had at home, but the bulk of the photos—dozens and dozens of them—were of him with his second wife. Leon and wife in Africa, Leon and wife on a sailboat in the Caribbean with Macyl and Ellen and Glenda and Lee. Not wanting to leave the Far East out, here they are smiling from a sampan in Phuket and at a bazaar in China. Seventeen years of fun in the sun with wife number two.

This is the wife he cohabitated with in the big real world and contributed to the mortgage payment with. Together they entertained guests around a Duncan Phyfe dining room set. I thought back to the days of Leon and moving around Synanon facilities without owning a stick of furniture. This is the wife who raised the teen-aged Zoe, who was there when her period started, gave her hell when she threw a party when they were out of town. Appropriately, Zoe calls her Mom. This was the wife with a capital “W.”

This is not how I imagined my life as Leon’s wife and Zoe’s mom playing out, but it is the way it did. And the one true thing I know is that that second wife always had Zoe’s best interest at heart. And so did I. Therefore, I let it be. Most things did not turn out the way I thought I wanted. Take Synanon, for example. Once again, I demur—that is for another story.

That being said, it was no surprise to me that they eventually broke up. I noted with some cynicism that the marriage began to founder as Zoe was aging out of kid-dom. Leon’s icon animal was the lone wolf, and he never envisioned himself on a porch swing watching the sun set on golden pond while holding mutually wrinkled hands with the old lady. That is not the way of the lone wolf, and in nature without the pack, they tend to die young.

I once asked my father if he felt guilty that he didn’t come and get me when my mother died (they had divorced when I was one). He said, “Nope.” I wish I could be more like my dad.

Who am I? I am who I am—a pal and a mom, too. I’m not too important, but I am important enough to take care of an old friend from long ago and make my daughter’s life a little easier. Maybe I never wanted to be the real wife. There’s that.

As he lay dying

OK, yes, Leon was dying, and the medical stuff was a drag, but I had a great time down in San Diego. There were bunches of ex-Synanon residents who lived in the area, and they were amazing. I got to drive Leon’s new car instead of my ancient van with a window that randomly got stuck open at inopportune times, like at the entrance to the automatic car wash. I was free from my own household chores and obligations in Austin, and Leon’s place was easy to keep clean. He had great kitchen tools, expensive sharp knives, and great pans. Cooking was fun. People came to visit—Matt and Herma, Brooks and Fran, Jay from LA, Reg would check in, Doug and Glenda from Mexico. Barbara and David had me over to dinner, and Kent was there. Richard Baxter lived a freeway exit away, and we hung out.

When we still thought he might opt for a transplant, I had some great talks with Lou Beatty. It was like being in dozens of mini-reunions. It was a joy to connect with people I hadn’t seen in years, but not all at once, which is physically and psychically overwhelming. Every Sunday, I went to Alice and Jerry’s beautifully appointed Hobbit House for bagels, coffee, and the Sunday Times. I got to bask in Zoe’s gratitude for taking care of her dad, and I got to see her and Ian often.

Rick S. came down full of Buddhist wisdom and good energy. We went to Whole Foods to look for healthy stuff that might help Leon get more calories. I teased Rick because the woman stocking the shelves flirted with him shamelessly. “You’ve still got it,” I told him. We hadn’t seen each other in 25 years, and we ended up having the sorts of intimate conversations that could happen only because of our connection to Synanon.

Leon had a nice office where I set up my laptop and worked, and after work, I walked on the beach with the ocean right over the hill. There is a reason that part of the world is so crowded.

We got a visit from Ted Dibble and his daughter. He was dressed like Thurston Howell III (“The Millionaire” on Gilligan’s Island) in a navy double-breasted jacket. One of the things I treasure is this note he wrote me after Leon died.

“Leon is gone.
In his last months, a mensch cared for him. I feel compelled to get down on paper my admiration and respect for you. As your daughters may read this in years to come, I want to repeat for them my definition of a mensch.

Most people do what they have to do. A mensch does more than she had to do. To care for Leon, you left the ease and comfort of your home to attend to him in San Diego, and you did this for months. You did far more than you had to do. It is an honor to be your friend.

I met you when you were nineteen. Let’s face it: Most people aren’t much fun. You are always fun. You are an intelligent, literate, conscious, witty, talented, and loving woman. When we met in the hospital, you were firm and serious and businesslike about Leon’s last days. But you didn’t take yourself (or your role) seriously, and you made Maureen and me comfortable with your humor and dead-on observations.

So, my dear friend, I salute you.

Looking over the list of those people who helped, I’m sad. Many of them are infirm or gone, and there will be more and more until it is all of us. As Leon said to me in his second-to-last words: “Everybody’s gotta die.”

Maybe I failed him. I could not coax him to go for the transplant, to take a long shot at living. He decided to let the passage happen without further interference. Zoe, on the other hand, took this gratifying point of view:


So, Dad has been just under the surface for this week, and I have been thinking of little else. I have been thinking about all of these other people with Hep C and how they are going about it — most of them seem to have adopted the sensible approach. Eat better. Drink better. Live longer. Dad did it his own way, and I never felt angry about that. However, it made me think about his illness in particular. It seemed to me that long before the Hep C got him, Dad was dying of loneliness. I realize that I can never take away the coulda, woulda, shouldas that plague you. So, maybe I can’t erase all of your doubt or frustration, but I can tell you this:

We had no control over the Hep C nor how Dad chose to deal with it. We had no control over how the disease eroded Dad. We had no control over how the medicines he took would affect his body. In fact, the only thing we had control over was showing up and being present. So, while you could not save Dad from dying of Hep C, you did save him from dying of loneliness — and there is no amount of coulda, woulda, shoulda that can diminish that.

Your forever thankful daughter
Zoe T Levy Bagger”

Leon died on February 13, 2011, a few days after his 69th birthday. Jay was beside him until the end.


Alas, another giant has fallen. After Leon’s estate was settled and the house sold, Norton was cut down by the new owners. I’ll never be able to find that house again. Not that I’d want to. And I got a little money.

Subject: Leon is Gone 
Leon died last night. Peacefully, the email said,
his friend, J, by his side.
These emails come more frequently now,
any old time of night or day. 

I wondered how he felt at the end, 
if he’d shared one last joke with his friend—
and hearing he’d said, I’m done, no more, 
and knowing what he’d told me just a month before 
with his signature laugh of no regret. 
Then I got dressed. Sat on the floor to tie my shoes,
cried a hard storm – for a few minutes – 
while forty years rushed up to greet me.
A thousand sweet turtledoves of my days 
wanting suddenly to fly the coop too – let loose. 
What a ruckus!   All those wings flapping wildly,

each saying,  Hey! Remember this! 
All you’ve lived, loved, not lost at all, 
always here for you  – your own wondrous life!

Jady Montgomery
   with gratitude to Leon

14 responses to “The Death of Leon Levy”

  1. I love this piece by Cory.
    I feel we are lucky to have a writer and artist of her abilities and integrity writing for us and building Morning Meeting for us.
    Jady, thanks for that heart touching poem.
    David Gerstel

  2. Hi darling Cory. I just read your Leon piece. 1) There never was a death groupie. There were a few people who like you showed up when needed. Lovely, some funny, some sad, some barely able, but showed up anyway. 2) Leon was a good friend to Kenny thus I got to spend time with him. He also helped me divorce when I was drowning but didn’t know it. So I loved you honoring him with your words. I so love your humor, your way of bringing our feet to the earth. I identify with your not feeling what you do as important in the scheme of things: you show up when needed and to you it’s not a big deal. To me either. To me it is the same as showing up at my studio. No biggee. I do not know what will emerge, but if you show up, good stuff happens, at least most of the time. Thank you Cory.

  3. Lovely writing, Cory, so full of your love and depth and sense of humor. Good writing always stabs me in the heart. I find myself rather emotional at the moment for all the things this memoir has stirred. I hope no customers come in the store for a little bit. Oops.

  4. Cory, your words are full of hope, hard work, and some pain. Thank you.

  5. Cory – that was as it should be, when you can…a lovely slice of a lovely real life with a man loved by many and known so well by you. The collective bunch of you guys are just an amazing group of people that are jewels amongst humanity for what the Synanon experience has meant to so many…as personally as it gets, We are gifts to each other and love along with a good dose of the stories of life are the coin of the realm. Write, write write to your hearts content. There are so many wonderful people in our lives…with real stories and fruitful recollections of our lives past and present. Our children are magic – they are literate and aware.

  6. Adrienne Auciello Avatar
    Adrienne Auciello

    Cory, how lucky we were to have certain people in our lives. Big Al has been gone 18 years now, but I still have the note Leon sent me quoting Al’s malaprops he had collected through the years. Ted D. said Al was the last of the Damon Runyon
    characters. Al’s choice to die was his own as he exclaimed “I’m going to the big game in the sky.”. Truly unforgettable.

    1. Oh Adrienne, thank you so much. Yes, so many memories of Big Al a true original.

  7. Cory,
    This is an amazing piece of writing. Of all of the people I knew during my 5.5 years in Synanon, I remember you and Leon among the best. I remember riding in a van to Tomales when I was very new and had come in through New York. I remember the 2 of you were in the back seat, and I was in front of you. Leon kept quizzing me about being raised in the Bronx until he let on we were next door neighbors. I knew his brother, Phillip and his mother, Frances. During the summer all of us kids played outside of our building until we were called in. I remember Leon, and you as well, being so talented and funny in our Ted-inspired theatre groups and performances. I still remember both of your voices, and how much I enjoyed being around you.
    I hope you are well and happy and that you have a legacy of your own. I would be surprised if you didn’t.
    Edna Stewart

  8. Beautiful piece Cory…also the lovely poem by Jady. Ah, love….

  9. Thank you for sharing this amazing and honesty story. Your writing is very descriptive. I remember Norton, at the Home Place.

  10. Cory, I was about to go to bed. It’s now 50 minutes later. I couldn’t put down your piece about Leon. What a lovely tribute to a complicated talented man as well as telling your own moving story. You are one terrific cookie and a terrific writer, you come through all the stories as the pure soul you are. Thank you.

  11. This whole thing takes my breath away — such a wonderful piece of writing, along with Jady’s beautiful poem. I love your writing, Cory. Really. I can hear your voice and spark of humor there along with the awful-ness that you describe. I was one of Leon’s biggest fans because of the several times he went out of his way to help me, which served to change my life’s trajectory. I’m sure I’ve told you and you remember (’cause you were there) that he helped me move into Synanon when I was a (more traumatized than I let on) teenager. I didn’t realize he had a coterie of note writers. I don’t *think* I was one of them, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that I was… Leon (and you) represented what I loved most about Synanon: the people. Funny, thoughtful, smart, did I say funny? Community-minded. What I wanted to be like. Whatever problems or issues you and he may have had, they were completely lost on me. You were true role models. Jady’s poem is the icing on the cake here. Love, Judi E.

  12. Shannon Rawstron Michael Avatar
    Shannon Rawstron Michael

    I will be studying this beautifully written piece for quite a while. I’ve read it once, and plan to read it more carefully at least a couple of more times. Thank you for writing it. Thank you for having such clarity about your own voice and place in the world.

  13. This is such a beautiful and funny piece of writing! It is just so authentic and honest. Thank you for sharing.

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