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A Tribute to One of My Best Friends


Len Rosenberg
When Dallas, Texas Interlacker Kevin Gould visited New York City back in the late '70s, his trip report referred to Len Rosenberg as "Ken's hero." I remember reading that and thinking, "I'll go along with that." I still do. We'd been best friends since I first started printing his Interlac apazines on my mimeograph machine back when we were both in our early 20s. Before that, Len was just one of the guys. One of the many Legion of Super-Heroes fans who'd hang out together at comic book conventions (mostly run by Phil Seuling in those days).

But we hung out during and after I printed his 'zines and I found out how much more there was to the man than comic books. Much more. He was one of the smartest and most well-read and cleverest people I've ever met. One of the first interests that I discovered that we had in common was etymology. But he had knowledge of the history and derivation of words to go with the interest. Then I discovered our common interest in anthropology and mythology. And again, he had the knowledge to go with it. Sometimes our conversation took a teacher-student direction.

He was the person who introduced filksongs to Interlac with his filk of Joni Mitchell's "Ladies of the Canyon" as "Ladies of the Legion." Happily, when Kevin visited, he taped Len singing that and recently put it on YouTube with appropriate graphics. I confess to my eyes tearing up when I first heard that at Len's sister's place. His sister Anita liked it, too, I should add.

I subscribed to Natural History magazine (it was bundled with membership in the Museum of Natuiral History back then) right after I sold my first story and we'd have long phone conversations over many of the anthropological articles in it. He could have written many of them himself. I credit him for taking my slight interest in comparative religions and anthropology and making it a passion because I was able to talk with him about them and ask tons of questions and he was always so interesting when he told stories.

I used to attend lectures at the Museum of Natural History and one day I went to one on the Yoruba religion of Nigeria. I thought, "Here's something I'll be able to tell Len about instead of the other way around." Wrong, of course. He knew more than what came up in the lecture and told me of the amazing similarities between the Yoruba and Norse religions. Thor has a lot of aspects of Shango (right down to the red beard and making thunder) and a lot of the two pantheons have correlations. It's unusual for such different eco-systems to inspire gods that are so similar.

I remember being on the subway with Len and Cat Yronwode in the late '70s, with Cat telling this really interesting Hindu myth. Then Len continued the story and it went from very interesting to absolutely fascinating. That's when I realized just how good a storyteller Len was, because Cat's an excellent storyteller, too, but by comparison, Len was amazing.

When one of our friends married someone whom we never thought she would, Len said, "The rocks in his head fit the holes in hers." I've been using that line ever since to describe seemingly mismatched couples. I can't think of a better phrase. People think I'm so clever when I use it. Thanks, Len

I remember going through a really bad break-up and Len was a great friend when I needed one most.

This favorite Len Rosenberg story took place in the late '70s. "Catch 22" was one of the more acclaimed books of the time and author Joseph Heller was speaking at NYU. Len went and in the course of his lecture, Heller said there is no such thing as good science fiction. During the q&a, Len brought that up and asked him if he didn't think "1984" and "Brave New World" were good. Heller snapped, "They're not science fiction" and Len snapped back, "Catch 22" and walked out on a very angry Joseph Heller.

I was in a writers' workshop with Len. I had been published a few times by then (one fiction and some nonfiction), but Len was the best writer in the workshop. He'd been in the prestigious Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop and was a great asset to our little group. One day, his assignment was so incredibly written that the rest of us marveled over it for a while. Len never completed another assignment. He still came to meetings and critiqued other assignments, but never did another of his own.

When I invited him to write for Evolution Comics, he came up with an incredible series concept which included a fictional version of the legendary Rivendell Bookshop and included Greek, Egyptian and Norse mythology. But he never wrote one script. He couldn't write at his home, he couldn't write in my home, not even if I started things.

I sometimes think he didn't write anything, but of course that is not true, it's just that I wish he'd written more. He wrote articles for Green Egg magazine and Harvest, a kind of ecumenical fanzine. He wrote for The Legion Outpost #10 that I edited and earlier issues as well. He wrote some wonderful neopagan filks that they still sing and probably always will, such as "Witches Just Wanna Cast Spells" to Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and "Become a Gardnerian" to Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon." He wrote an incredible story called "No Ragnarok," which I always called "the Thor story." He eventually read it aloud on two different WBAI shows, once in the '80s and once in the '90s. I hope to replay it, but my copy of it is missing the beginning. Sidney Smith is pretty sure he has his aircheck of it, but he hasn't found it yet.

I am glad to be able to say that I introduced him to two of the most important people in his life: his lover Alexei Kondratiev and one of his spiritual mentors (for lack of a better word), Judy Harrow. He and Judy used to argue often and he'd often tell me she was mad at him and would never talk to him again. Even after years of this, he would still say that. For the first few years of his relationship with Alexei, he'd call me in a panic that they'd had a terrible argument and had broken up. It took years for him to not assume that every argument was a break-up. We found a teddy bear Valentine's card from Alexei in Len's stuff inscribed with something like "I love you, now do you believe me, silly?"

He'd been in and out of the hospital for cancer and other problems for the past two years. The rest of the time he was in a nursing home (except for two weeks at home). After a lifetime of not eating vegetables OR fruit, mostly just meat and sugar, his body had lost the ability to process potassium, a necessary nutrient. He had dialysis three times a week to rid his blood of excess potassium, which also improved his mood. On Friday afternoon, October 15th, he died quietly. His sister had visited him that morning, Erich Heinemann (another close friend) and I had been by the day before and Judy had visited that Monday with several other people from the Pagan community (including Margot Adler). It seemed like he was waiting to say good bye first. Len was 59.

Alexei was sort of Len's primary caregiver. The nursing home had been trying to make Len turn his disability check over to them, which meant he wouldn't ever be able to go home, so he resisted. That resistance died with Alexei. He had a month to clear out his apartment.

As you can imagine, Len had a lot of books. I was helping organize the books (he was a really lousy house-keeper, one of the worst I know). Len was limited to one bookcase at the home. That meant several bookcases worth would not be available to him. I got chills at some of the things Len said to me that month and, well, it wasn't a good month for me, either. It's even more chilling now, with hindsight, and not something I'm comfortable talking about in detail. To make matters worse, many on the staff of the nursing home were not book readers and referred to books as "clutter."

I took him to his apartment one more time so he could go through the rest of his books. When he said he didn't want his etymology book, I asked for it and told him why. I got a raised eyebrow at that. I think he'd forgotten our early conversations about words. I didn't.

A month of stress for him - losing his apartment and his belongings only a few months after losing his lover. I thought he'd last more than two weeks afterward, but he didn't.

Thank you.

Ken Gale, NYC, November & December, 2010 and March, 2011

There is another wonderful tribute to Len on the Wild Hunt web site.

I invite your comments, E-mail me


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