Visiting Judith Malina

Pic: Claire Palmer



How good and only good we must be to one another
To compensate for life’s brevity.
Julian Beck

I was holidaying with my family on Long Island, and took the opportunity to go to New York and visit Judith.  I hadn’t seen her in two years. She is 86 and ailing.

The first time I’d seen the Living Theatre was in 1969, in London. The sight of a naked Julian Beck proclaiming: “You can’t travel without a passport,” from the stage of the Roundhouse, where they were performing Paradise Now, is tattooed on my memory. Not in my wildest imaginings did it occur to me then, that some 8 years later, when the Living moved to Rome, where I was living at the time also, Judith would offer me her friendship. When the troupe left Italy in 1983 I was heartbroken to lose her. We did, however, through the years, see each other on many occasions: when she came to Rome to perform and give workshops, or when I was in New York.

On my way to our rendezvous at her home on the Lower East Side of New York, I buy a bouquet of flowers.

She had always dreamed of living above her theatre, and in 2006, when the company rented the premises on Clinton Street, her dream came true. The 100 seater theatre, where the troupe’s members find something to busy themselves with at all times, whether it’s performing, rehearsing, working with the lights, clearing, cleaning or simply hanging out; and where some even bed-down for the night, is in the basement. Judith’s two-bedroom apartment is on the first floor.

Antwan, a radiant young actor, one of an eclectic group who take care of Judith, lets me in and takes me to her room.

“Forgive me my darling, but I’m not well enough to get out of bed,” she says as she looks at me with tender, olive eyes.

“Hullo Judith, it’s great to see you.” I’m careful not to embrace her too forcefully as she seems very fragile.

“You look so lovely,” she says. “All in white. I always wear black. Everyone in New York wears black.”

“You too look good, Judith.” Although to my eyes she appears unwell and much aged since the last time we met, my heart perceives her as eternal.

“Oh no I don’t. But I put on some make up for you,” she retorts with a smile as she inserts the prongs of a nasal cannula into her nostrils. “I need my oxygen,” she tells me.

She has emphysema. All those grass joints and hash pipes she has smoked through the years have taken their toll on her lungs.

As always the television at the feet of her bed is on, but muted now that I’m here. The New York Times, note-pads, loose papers, her diary, a box of Kleenex, folders, writing implements and The Piscator Notebook, her recently published book on the German  socio-political theatre director who had been her first mentor, surround her on the bed. The bed she had shared with her beloved husband, Hanon.

I happened to be passing through New York the day after Judith and Hanon married in 1988, and went to congratulate them. The pink wedding cake was heart shaped. “I didn’t want to do it, but Hanon was insistent,” she said, glowing in the security of love. “I have a good man who will look after me. I am so fortunate.” Hanon was 24 years her junior.

She telephoned me some time after he died in 2008. “My darling,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about you so much. You’ve had so much tragedy in your life also.”  

She had been crying on their terrace the day it happened; the ever-present financial pressure was getting her down. Hanon had put his arms around her, and as he said: “Don’t cry, Judith, I’ll always take care of you,” he collapsed at her feet.

She had the mattress of their bed put in the sitting room (“I couldn’t lie in the bed we had shared for so many years.”) and remained on it for weeks, only to get up for the most elementary needs. Sleep was almost impossible, she couldn’t eat. (“I thought I was going to die. I wanted to die.”) Then she remembered the play Hanon had been writing, and the urge to finish it and put it on in their theatre gave her the strength to resume living.

The rest of a cold coffee in a paper cup, a half-drunk bottle of water, a red cola drink, pills in a plastic container, a little, engraved tin box, a scrunched handkerchief crowd her small bedside table. 

We don’t talk for long before she murmurs, “I’m sorry, Hanja, I have to lie back for a moment. I’m so tired.”

“Ever since I’ve known you, Judith, my darling, you’ve been tired. But now, of course, now you are even more tired.”

“I’ll just close my eyes for a moment, but I’m not sleeping. Just hang on,” she sighs deeply as she eases herself onto the pillows.

I read the Piscator book for some ten minutes, then she sits up, sips the red cola through a straw, puts it back on the bedside table and says: “Oh I’m so pleased to see you my darling. I’m sorry I’m in such a state.” We hold hands.

“I wanted to take you out to lunch, Judith. Any chance you feel like doing that?” I ask.

Saddened by her condition, she tells me she is too weak to leave her bed.

She shakes her frail head and readjusts the cannula tubing to her nostrils. It’s an obviously uncomfortable contraption. I notice that her fingernails are still long and groomed, but no longer lacquered.

“How is Katya?” She enquires after my daughter.

 “She’s well. Still very happily married and devoted to her two children, and seems to enjoy living on Long Island. How is Isha?”

Our two girls had been the best of friends in Rome when they were 11 year olds.

“She lives in this ugly little town in Florida. But she says she’s happy and I’m of course happy for her. I hardly see her, and my son, Garrick, who sadly you have never met, comes to see me about twice a year, stays for four or five days . . .” She shrugs her shoulders in resignation and adds: “It’s sad to see so little of one’s children.”

But then the Living Theatre has always been the child she was most devoted to, and now, in her old age, it’s this batch of young actors who are her family, the children who are her carers.

Essentially she’s been doing extremely well of late.  She’d had great success and rave reviews for The History of the World which she wrote and directed in 2011, then the Piscator book was finally published, and last April, Love and Politics, a documentary about her, was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival. Now she’s writing a new play. “I’m finding it very hard, I’m so tired. But the actors are anxiously waiting for me to finish it. I have to do it for them, but I have little inspiration.”

“Julian once told me, when he was writing the Archaeology of Sleep, that he wished on anything one could possibly wish upon for creativity.”

“Ah, Julian,” she gives a deep sigh. “I think about him every day. I miss him every day.”

She met Julian Beck in 1943, when she was 17. He was an existential abstract painter at the time, but quickly came to share her passion for political theatre, and in 1947 they founded The Living Theatre. A year later they married, in time had two children and tirelessly dedicated themselves to the non-violent Anarchist revolution, until his death in 1985.

“I need to make wishes for creativity for this play, also.” Judith murmurs.

“Judith, I’ve just remembered! There’s a blue moon at the end of the month, you could wish on that!”

“Yes, I know. I know all about the blue moon,” she says with a sybilline timbre in her husky voice.

 “Judith, do you remember a party at Ronnie Laing’s when he played the piano all night, and we all sang: me, Jutta, Fran Landesman . . .  and you sang Blue Moon?” 

That was in 1981, when I was on one of my London visits from Rome, staying with my friends, Jutta and Ronnie Laing. The Living Theatre was also in town at the time, and this was a good excuse for R.D. and his beautiful wife to throw one of their sparkling musical shindigs.

“Yes, I remember.” She sings the song for me. Then she drops back onto her pillows, and when she sits up tells me: “I’ve been writing poems on the decrepitude of old age, I’d like to read you the latest ones.”

“Having gone all the way
And seeing that it is nothing,
She yawned on her bed of resignation
And smiled at the sky, and she said:
‘Remember me.’
….And Slept

…..And so she woke
And started all over again.”

“Do you have a lover?” Judith asks. “Or maybe you have a lot of lovers? You’re so gorgeous.”

 “No I don’t. I’m done with that.”

“That’s a shame. I’d like to have a lover.” There’s a twinkle in her eyes.

She and Hanon had made love daily. Sometimes twice a day.

“That’s what you need, Judith, a lover to give you inspiration!”

We laugh merrily, like teen-age girls.

Then her expression changes.

“Do you get depressed?” she asks.

“At times, but normally I find it quite easy to connect with the joy inside of me.”

She looks almost perplexed. “Joy? Oh I have no joy, I’m always depressed.”

“Ah, I’m sorry about that.”

She picks up the little tin box from her bedside table, takes out one of her thinly rolled grass joints and hands it to me. “I can’t smoke anymore, just one puff makes me cough so much that it’s not worth it, but I like to turn my friends on.”

“Probably you’re depressed because you can’t get high anymore. You have major withdrawal symptoms. Couldn’t your crew here make you hash cookies?”

“No, they can’t do anything like that. They’re actors, you know.”  There’s resignation in her voice. Both Hanon and Julian, notable actors themselves, would have made sure that Alice B. Toklas brownies would at all times be on her bedside table.

Antwan breezes in to ask if we need anything. “Take Hanja to see the flowers on the terrace,” she says to him, and to me says: “Get him high also. He’s a very nice young man and an excellent actor.”

On the large terrace Antwan points out cherry tomatoes, herbs, flowers and potted shrubs.

“She doesn’t look well,” I say. “So terribly tired and weak.”

“She’s on and off.” Antwan reassures me.” At times she’s much better than today. But the constant struggle for money is very hard on her.”

“She’s one of the great actresses, thinkers and visionaries of our times, she should be honoured instead of constantly being in this dire financial condition.”

Antwan shakes his head. “I love working with her. She’s so inspiring.”

“Have you read her published diaries? They’re historic, don’t you think?”

“Oh yes. She’s historic.”

No sooner am I back at her bedside that we are joined by Mary Round. Various actors take it in turn to cook for Judith. Mary cooks on Mondays. Judith has never cooked. “The kitchen is a cruel place,” she would say. “All those living things one has to kill, chop up, cook and eat.” She’s, of course, a vegetarian.

Mary says she will be making sauté potatoes topped with grilled cheese (“A cheese specially made to go on potatoes,” she tells us), and peas (frozen) on the side. She asks me whether I’d like to eat with Judith also.

“Definitely. Thanks.”

When Mary leaves Judith tells me about her last tour. “I went to Europe in June; we performed plays in three different cities.  Brad and several of my actors managed to get me on the plane and took care of everything for me. It totally exhausted me.” Then she adds with a proud smile: “We had full houses.”

“Why did you go? Such an arduous trip.”

“Because I needed the money. They pay me well over there. You know I need 20.000 dollars a month to cover rent and other expenses.”

Since I’ve known her, Judith has always coughed, been tired and broke.

“I can’t understand why the US Arts Council won’t give you a grant.” 

“I can’t tell you how many grant letters I’ve written. I can write the best grant applications, but they still refuse me.”

“I heard that someone at Random House referred to you as a communist. But you’re not a communist.”

“No, I’m a non-violent anarchist, and they don’t subsidise anarchists either.”

“It’s a disgrace!” I say.

 And yes, it’s a disgrace. She is a central force in the pacifist movement. The Living Theatre is a legend in the annals of political theatre, and yet, last year, she was forced to get meals on wheels.

“It was absolutely awful. They gave me the same meal for one year, so I gave it up. Couldn’t do it.”

“What did they give you?”

“A veggie burger with squash and a green vegetable on the side. I used to love veggie burgers, but now I don’t ever want to see one again.” Then, patting the journal on her bed, continues: “I still write my diary. Every day. Tonight I shall write that you came to visit me and looked so lovely.”

When we lived in Rome and our girls were young I’d often take them to the cinema, but on occasions Isha would insist her mother did so. At those times Judith wore a mining helmet equipped with a small, potent light to help the wearer see in the dark.  That way she would not have to watch some film she hated, but could use the light to write in her diary.

 “How do you keep yourself in such good shape?” She asks.

“I exercise just about every day . . .”

“I’ve never exercised,” she shakes her head and readjusts the tubes in her nostrils.

“I eat the right food, which you’ve never been bothered about.”

She never eats fruit, even apples give her indigestion.

“I’m also 11 years younger than you. That’s a veritable eon at our age.”

I remember how energetic and feisty she was at 75.

 “They never told us how to cope with old age. They said you must grow up, but then left it at that.” She groans, as do I.

“Every day I battle not to go under, Judith. Not to succumb.  Old age is not a place for sissies, as Bette Davis said.”

“We have to protest!” Judith gaily suggests.

“Yes protest!”

“What shall we protest about — the body or time?” Judith asks. We laugh.

Interrupting our merriment Mary comes to tell us lunch is ready. Judith is inclined to want to eat in bed, but we persuade her to come to the table.

Antwan has put the vase with the little carnations I brought on the table.

“What is the name of these pretty flowers?” Judith asks as she gently fingers a purple petal.


“Of course.”

Mary serves us the special potatoes. She doesn’t know how to cook, she tells me, but now that she’s cooking for Judith she has become more adventurous.

Poking around the meal with her fork, Judith doesn’t say anything throughout the lunch she unenthusiastically nibbles. I’d forgotten that earlier she had told me she never wants to hear any talk about food while she’s eating, yet I continue chatting to Mary about the subject. “I bet this would be good using sweet potatoes also.”

Mary nods. “A much healthier choice. I’ll make that for you next week, Judith.”

There is no reaction from Judith. She doesn’t care for ‘healthy choices’.

Mary tells me she made a film with Judith. Nothing Really Happens.

“It was fantastic working with Judith.”

The terrace looks inviting and after lunch we persuade Judith to go out there. But the sun is merciless and there’s not a sliver of shade anywhere, so almost immediately, winding unsteadily through the sitting room she slowly makes for her bed. And takes a rest.

When she props herself up from her cushions I ask: “Would you want to die, Judith?”

“I don’t know; sometimes I do, other times I don’t. I would like to finish this play.”

She’s never been one to give up.

“What is the play about?”

“About all of us. Many stories, but I haven’t quite found a way to bind it together.”

“Do you think you’ve made a difference, Judith?”

She thinks for a moment. “Yes, I think I’ve made a difference; as have you; as have so many of us working at making this a better world. It would have been worse without us.”

“What will happen to the Living when you’re gone?”

She shrugs: “Not my business anymore. They will take it over. Brad will.”

Brad, a slim young man with shoulder-length brown hair, had been Hanon’s assistant, and after Hanon died he took over. He sleeps in the small room adjacent to Judith’s, the one that had been Hanon’s office, and often states how privileged he feels to be Judith’s flatmate. Judith can’t be alone; she never could be, not even for five minutes, so there’s always someone with her, and that someone is mostly Brad.

“Isn’t it all so impermanent, so temporary, Judith? Peggy Lee’s song, Is This All There Is? has been crossing my mind lately.”

“Yes, impermanent,” she agrees, and we don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

It’s getting late, almost time for me to leave. But before I go I run downstairs to the next-door Coco Café to get her a fresh coffee. And whilst I’m about it, I purchase a few little chocolates to take to my grandchildren. When I tell them that I’d been visiting my friend who was the granny in the Adams Family they’ll be impressed.

Judith didn’t get to act in the film’s sequel, because of her uncompromising and enduring politics. The Gulf War had broken out during the shooting of The Adams Family, and everyone on the set was given a little American flag to wear. But Judith refused to do so, and this gesture cost her the role in the sequel.

“Here’s a cold coffee Judith. I’ve asked them to put extra sugar in for you. I’m afraid I’ll have to be going. I need to avoid the brutal rush hour.”

She sits up, fretting. “Oh, must you go so soon? My darling, I don’t know if we will ever meet again.”

“I’ll come to see you when I’m back on Long Island in February. You’ll be rehearsing your new play then. I’ll come and see a rehearsal.”

“Oh yes, my darling, I hope I will still be around. Give me your hand.”

She draws me towards her; we embrace, and I rush out of the room.

How much time do we have left?  Shall we two ever meet again?


Text: Hanja Kochansky

Art: Claire Palmer 

 Photography: Toby Marshall












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2 Responses to Visiting Judith Malina

    1. very sad, very true, very lovely

      Comment by bill sherman on 18 January, 2013 at 10:28 pm
    2. Yeh. As moving and knowing a piece of arts journalism as you can get.

      Comment by Niall on 19 January, 2013 at 3:39 pm

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