A Lotus By Any Other Name

by Bob Weide

Years ago, Lotus Weinstock was sitting around with three of her closest girlfriends and thumbing through a magazine article which reported the grave statistic that one out of every four women would be struck with cancer at some point in their lives. Lotus recalled putting down the magazine, taking a good look at her three friends and finally facing heavenward and calling out, "All right! I'll take it."

It sounds apocryphal, but no one who really knew Lotus could ever doubt its authenticity. And when she died from a malignant brain tumor last August, it was just one more confirmation of her direct line to a higher cosmic power.

In the past thirty years, any comedian worth their salt knew of Lotus Weinstock's respected place in the grand scheme of stand-up, yet she missed out on ever becoming a household name. Instead, she became den mother and mentor to a younger group of comedians who loved and admired her and did become household names. In a business that worships youth, she never hesitated to reveal her age, often doing so from the stage, saying it was the one line she knew no other comic would ever steal.

She was born Marlena Weinstock in Philadelphia in 1943. She started performing under the name Maurey Haydn in the mid-sixties heyday of Greenwich Village. After the 1966 death of her boyfriend Lenny Bruce, she reinvented herself, reclaiming the name Weinstock, but trading in "Marlena" for "Lotus". The oxymoronic implications of her adopted name were not lost on her. "Lotus," she said, "wants to be totally free. Weinstock will settle for a discount."

The dichotomy suited her perfectly. She was immensely spiritual yet entirely irreverent. She was one of the most profound people I've ever met, but also one of the best laughers. I'm fairly certain she understood the meaning of life, yet she could never figure out how to use her automated banking card. (When I replaced a burned out light-bulb in her apartment one evening, she called me a genius. And she meant it.)

I first approached her one night in 1986 as she was holding court at a comedian's round table at the L.A. Improvisation. She was dressed in bright yellow, from hat to Reeboks. A yellow feather boa was wrapped around her shoulders. Big Bird in drag. I told her I was producing a documentary on Lenny Bruce and I wanted to talk to her about living with him during his final year. I figured we'd chat for a few moments that night, exchange phone numbers and reconvene in a few weeks. Instead, we drove around L.A., discussing a myriad of subjects until the sun came up.

At two A.M. we wound up at my apartment. She had lugged in a three foot long carrying case, telling me it contained eyeliner. "You never know when you'll need more," she reasoned.

In actuality it contained a hefty Casio electronic keyboard. She wanted to play me a song called "The Love I Have For You," which she had written for her teenage daughter Lili. The lyrics wouldn't fully register on me for another eleven years. At the time, I was concerned about the volume of the music and worrying about my roommate William who was trying to sleep in the next room. She asked me about William and in the ensuing conversation I mentioned that his mother had committed suicide when William was twelve and that he had the grim burden of discovering the body. When Lotus heard this, tears welled up in her eyes and she stood up. I asked where she was going. "To hug him," she said.

"He's sleeping!" I reminded her.

She said, "I'll wake him up."

I told her if she insisted on this, she should at least let me wake him up and prepare him. I knocked on William's door and entered. "There's a crazy woman in my room all dressed in yellow. Don't be scared. She just wants to give you a hug... something about your mother."

As William tried to make sense of this, Lotus entered, gave him a maternal embrace, stroked his hair, and wiped tears from her own eyes. When she finally exited, I mumbled to William that I would explain in the morning.

Around dawn, when I finally drove her back to her yellow Toyota Corolla, I asked if she had maybe taken the "yellow thing" a bit too far. "You don't know the half of it," she confessed. "I even married a man with hepatitis."

As she drove off, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. All I wanted was an interview for my Lenny Bruce documentary. I suspected that what I got in the bargain was a friend for life.

As a child, she cherished the unconditional approval that came from her parents' laughter, which she learned to coax from them as often as possible. In junior high school, she befriended future comedy writer Kenny Solms and they'd improvise bits, (a la Nichols & May) to amuse friends and each other right through high school. She put in some time at Emerson College, then dropped out to give New York a try.

She studied acting and dance, landed a few roles Off-Broadway and in summer stock, and even procured a one-line don't-sneeze cameo in the film How To Succeed In Business. (Her line: "The first clue... Ooooooh!")

In 1963, she scored a hostessing job at Greenwich Village's famed Bitter End night club. She was checking hats and doing schtick in the coat room, pulling in $50 a night in tips which had to be turned over to the boss. (One regular performer, a young comic named Woody Allen, found this practice unfair. He would often pocket her tips, then give them to her at the end of the night.) Bob Dylan tried to get in for free one night. When Lotus stopped him, someone informed her that he wrote "Blowin' In the Wind." She still made him pay.

Other club regulars fine-tuning their acts included Bill Cosby, Judy Collins, Jose Feliciano, Richie Havens (who remained a friend and recorded one of Lotus' songs), and what would eventually become the Lovin' Spoonful and the Mamas and the Papas (she would later live with Cass Elliot for a spell). On Hootenanny night she saw a school teacher named Robert Klein debut his first five minutes of stand-up. Dick Cavett (an occasional date at the time) was just considering performing stand-up. Hanging out with the club regulars, Lotus' desire to become a "legitimate actress" was fading as she became increasingly hypnotized by the cabaret scene.

Cosby and Cass' manager, Roy Silver, auditioned and hired Lotus for a musical comedy duo (with Jimmy Gavin) called "The Turtles" (no relation to the music group). They toured on the Folk Scene circuit, which included the Blue Angel in NY, Mr. Kelly's in Chicago and the Hungry i in San Fran. When Cosby got "I Spy," Silver relocated to L.A., and Lotus followed. She started dating folk legend Tim Hardin ("He was not the ideal boyfriend," she would recall. "When he wasn't creating, he was destroying. I knew he was trouble, but he was a musical genius.") He wrote the song "Misty Roses" for her.

Lotus was at the recording studio when the Mamas and Papas cut their first album. One night, Cass, Michelle Phillips and Lotus went to the Park Sunset Hotel to visit John Sebastian in his room. Sebastian strummed his guitar and asked, "What do you think of this tune I've been working on?", then started whistling, "What a Day For A Day Dream."

A day-dream indeed.

Then along came Lenny.

In the autumn of '65, "Maurey" was 22 and Lenny Bruce was 40 when his roommate John Judnich brought her up to their house in the Hollywood Hills to meet the Master. She was sitting on a couch in Lenny's office when the comedian entered, wearing jeans and a denim jacket, sat next to her and dead-panned,"The dentist is very bugged today and if you don't give him some bread right away, he's gonna pull out a couple of teeth that don't have to come out." Without missing a beat, Lotus answered, "I think you're mistaken, Sir. I'm here for an internal." It was the beginning of an intense nine-month relationship.

At that time, Lenny's only personal appearances were in front of his parole officer. Club owners were afraid to put their licences at risk for presenting an "obscene" show, so the bookings dried up. He had little time for the stage anyway. He was holed up in the house full-time, surrounded by law books and legal briefs, working on his appeals for obscenity and narcotics convictions.

Legend has it that he had lost his sense of humor. Lotus didn't remember it that way.

"We laughed a lot," she told me. "And Lenny's laugh involved every cell in his body. It was a head-to-toe laugh. His standard outfit for the last few months was this long white denim nightgown. Whenever people started to get too reverential around him, I would pull up his nightgown to expose his tush and shout 'Everybody look!' It always made him giggle. But yes, he was obsessed with his appeals during that last year and rarely left the typewriter. He wasn't even questioning his First Amendment rights. He was absolutely obsessed with the fact that he had never been given a fair trial. But he still respected the system, the same way Anne Frank still believed that people were basically good, Lenny totally believed that the Constitution worked."

He called her by her original name, Marlena, because he thought "Maurey" sounded like an aging vaudeville tap-dancer. One night, he whispered his entire classic "Frank Dell at the Palladium" routine in her ear. She had never heard it before. When he brought her a flower from the garden one morning, she playfully told him that if he really loved her, he would retrieve the one lone rose that was hanging over the cliff behind the house. She then watched, terrified, as he climbed up the hill in his nightgown and hung precariously over a ridge to pluck it.

Some days were shockingly domestic. One morning she was making him breakfast and caught him reading the stock exchange. She teased him for his lack of business acumen. "You don't even know what you're looking at," she said. "You just think those are tiny sentences." When he recovered from his laugh he said, "I think we should get married." She put down her spatula and asked, "Is this a trick?" He assured her it wasn't. They both called their respective mothers to give them the news and even set a date for February. Later that day, Lenny got very quiet and bemoaned that all Lotus was getting out of the deal was "an old jailbird."

"In the last months," Lotus recalled, "he had two very clear messages that he was giving himself. One was his plan to live and one was his plan to die. One Friday night, he said to me, 'I just need to air something and I don't want you to have a dramatic reaction. I feel I'm gonna die this year.' And I said to him 'Well, if I get you some raisin cookies will you wait a year?' And he laughed, he said yes. So I ran right out and got him some raisin cookies. I thought for sure he was going to wait at least another year and by that time I'd come up with another way to postpone it."

In June of '66, he hand-wrote a cryptic note to her, mysteriously dating it "1961." It read:

Dearest Marlena, This is the last message I shall be allowed to write you. Oh my dear, sweet Marlena. Tomorrow they take me to D-Area where I will be reoriented to forget. To forget, dear, sweet Marlena. I weep with regret that I am forced to forget.

On August 2nd he assured her, "You can always trust me. I'll never hurt you."

So two days later, when there was a report on the radio that Lenny had died from an apparent drug overdose the night before, she went into denial. She assumed it was a misunderstanding stemming from the premature eulogy of Lenny that Paul Krassner had published in The Realist two years earlier.

She called the house and Judnich answered. "John," she begged, "Let me talk to Lenny." "Oh, Baby," he replied, "Sit down."

"I screamed and flipped out into the next part of my life. I went outside and screamed up the to sky, 'How could you do this? You said you'd never hurt me!' Of course, I took it personally."

If Lotus' friends were each to compile their top five adjectives to describe her, the word "magic" would come up repeatedly. That magic was part of the metamorphosis that came from the love and loss of Lenny.

From the cocoon of Maurey's mourning emerged "Lotus." (The name was adopted as one of the by-rules of a Sufi-based religious commune where she lived for six months. She maintained some affiliation for five years.) Her spirituality now ran deeper. Her love of humanity and her compassion for the world's lost and lonely souls was amplified. She also started to find her own comic voice, priding herself for never putting down other people in her act -- drawing a distinct line between humor and ridicule. It was also when Lotus would marry (but never live with) a man whom would inspire some of her best material, including the signature line: "I married 'Mr. Right'. Mr. Always Fucking Right!" Most importantly, from that union came Lotus' daughter, Lili.

It was a mother/daughter bond as unique as the two individuals who comprised it. Lili truly was an extension of Lotus. Sometimes literally. ("I practically wore Lili for the first five years," Lotus would boast.) If Lotus' theories about parenting ever seemed a bit too "precious," they were borne out by the extraordinary creature Lili was growing into. Part little girl, part wizened sage, Lili left an indelible impression on everyone who met her. Even a spiritual skeptic like myself could clearly could see that this wasn't the first time Lotus and Lili had shared their life together. It was Lili's violin that sealed it. She dreamed of playing it from the time she was a baby, and almost from the moment she first picked one up, she could break your heart with it. Lotus, of course, cried at every lesson.

Showbiz took a back seat for the first five years of Lili's life as mothering became Lotus' first priority. When she finally returned to the stage, it was the dawn of the mid-seventies stand-up comedy boom. She would become one of the premiere performers responsible for opening the famous Belly Room for female comedians at the Comedy Store on Sunset. There were a few national TV shots and she was frequently profiled in the press and on TV magazine shows as one of the up-and-coming "Queens of Comedy."

Sandra Bernhard would remember, "When I started out in stand-up, I heard Lotus' name again and again as one of the really exciting sophisticated performers on the scene. Friends kept saying to me, "Wait 'til you see her Miss America bit. It's brilliant!" (What will I do if I win? Well, Bert... before I was helping the poor and ugly. But what I want most of all is to become a human being. I think... I think that human beings are an important part of humanity.)

She and Bernhard would often perform together at the Belly Room, improvising wild scenes and staging mock fights, generally shaking up the place and creating a sense of excitement that would bring customers back again and again.

Lotus formed a lifetime bond with Bernhard and a number of other female performers who would nurture each other through their various successes and failures, on and off the stage. Lotus was well-suited to the role of Queen Bee and her advice and insights were usually so on-the-money that few of her friends made major life decisions (such as marriage or divorce) without seeking Lotus' seal of approval.

As the 1980's came around, she was still working hard at a career that never quite kicked into high gear. Some said she was "too cerebral" for TV. Others cited her lack of the killer instinct needed to get ahead. In any event, she continued to hone her material. Though it's a slight injustice to randomly pull quotes from her act, out of context, here are a few of my favorite lines:

  • "Use a woman -- go to hell."
  • "With so many Jews being comics, how come Israel doesn't have a Laughing Wall?"
  • "Dear Abby: Is it wrong to fake orgasm during masturbation?"
  • "My goal is to be able to say: 'Fame and fortune just didn't bring me happiness.'"
  • "Even if you don't believe a word of the Bible, you've got to respect the person who typed all that!"
  • "Laughter is one of the strongest medicines on the planet... If it's strong enough to kill an orgasm, surely it's strong enough to kill cancer."
  • "It may be lonely at the top, but it's so fucking crowded at the bottom."
  • "It's later than it's ever been."

Some of her quips found their way onto bumper stickers, including "Curb Your Dogma" "I Brake For Insights" and "I Brake Like A Little Girl."

"Fame for a comedian is like a degree to a doctor," Lotus would say. "You can't practice without it." Although she was one the of most quoted (and least credited) performers on the scene, she remained in need of the big break that would finally put her on the map. Comedian Bill ("My name... Jose Jimenez") Dana suggested she collect some of her bits and personal anecdotes for a book, which he would help get published. Thus was born The Lotus Position, published by Bantam in 1982. Lotus would often hawk it from the stage, saying, "You can buy it from me after the show. It only costs five bucks and if you don't like it I'll pay you back."

The book sold respectably, but it would indirectly provide a greater detriment to her career than Jackie Mason's alleged gesture on the Sullivan show or Shelly Berman slamming down the phone on national TV.

Lotus had a long-term casual acquaintance with Joan Rivers, going back to their mutual Greenwich Village days. Although the content and style of their respective acts bore no resemblance, they shared the distinction of being women who had broken through in a field predominated by men and both were raising daughters in the midst of showbiz careers. Prior to its publication, Lotus was looking for an established performer to write a foreword to her book, hoping to lend it a final stamp of validation. She submitted the manuscript to Rivers, then at the peak of her own powers.

Rivers agreed, but then declined the request and the manuscript was returned. When Lotus found the package in her mailbox, the envelope had already been opened. Someone had obviously read the enclosed rejection letter and had scrawled their own bizarre message of sympathy to Lotus... something about Joan Rivers not getting away with this. Well-meaning wackos and hangers-on were not uncommon in Lotus' life. Although she was disturbed that someone was breaking into her mail, she was prepared to dismiss the incident until Gavin DeBecker, the not-yet-famous security-consultant-to-the-overpaid, showed up one day at Lotus' apartment to question her about the "death threat" that was sent to Joan Rivers on Lotus' behalf. A stunned Lotus was shown the plastic encased note, hand-written in red ink. Dazed and confused, Lotus got as far as a reference to feeding Joan her husband's testicles, when she let out a scream and ran into her bedroom.

Lotus' friend, actress Lucy Webb, was visiting that day and asked to see the note. She assured DeBecker that anyone who knew Lotus knew that she was the last person capable of even entertaining the thought of writing such a letter. DeBecker thanked her for her time and submitted his findings to Rivers: Lotus was definitely behind the note and her drugged-out room-mate (Lucy) knew more than she was saying. To Lotus' extended family of friends, the only thing equally as preposterous as Lotus orchestrating the letter was labeling the Tennessee-raised Lucy Webb as "drugged-out."

Not prepared to accept the fact that she had wasted her money on DeBecker, Rivers passed the investigator's findings on to as many influential people as possible, taking very public opportunities to bad-mouth Lotus and encourage those in a position to hire her, not to.

Lotus was horrified to be falsely accused of such a hideous crime. She would call Rivers, begging for a minute on the phone to clear the mess up. Rivers' husband Edgar would not put Joan on the phone. Compassion-seeking letters sent to Rivers on Lotus' behalf went unanswered. At a time in her life when Lotus' career was best positioned to take off, she found herself on a sort of "gray-list" which kept her from working the kind of gigs that could have brought her national attention. Fifteen years later, long after River's own fall from grace, Lotus, literally on her deathbed, would still be haunted by the false accusation that wouldn't go away.

Even after Lotus' death, Rivers would rehash her misguided version of the episode for the New York Post. In an article titled, "No Rivers of Tears For Dead 'Pal'" writer Neal Travis quoted Rivers as saying, "She left a sick note in my mailbox. It gravely disturbed me and my family. We had to get the Los Angeles police to investigate."

Outraged that the Post would spread unfounded libel against Lotus even in death, a rebuttal letter was sent to the paper, co-signed by twenty-seven of Lotus' friends and associates, including Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Paul Krassner, Bill Maher, Paul Reiser, David Steinberg, Larry Miller, Kevin Pollak and Sandra Bernhard. The Post never printed the letter.

There were times, of course, when Lotus needed no one but herself to put the kibosh on a meaningful career move. One week in 1986 she was headlining another generic comedy club in the Midwest when she received a call inviting her to perform at the first Comic Relief. Lotus was concerned about bailing on her scheduled gig, though she certainly understood the benefits of a highly publicized national TV shot. But when hard-core Lotus groupies showed up at that night's show with yellow T-shirts in her honor, she lost the nerve to cancel the club date and decided instead to forego Comic Relief. Not since Herve Villachez left Fantasy Island had an artist masterminded such an ill-advised career move for themselves.

She would continue to work comedy clubs around the country, a taxing lifestyle that most comics dream of ending with a sitcom or a film career. Eventually, even the road scene would slow down and Lotus found herself pioneering the "Parlor Performance" venue, playing to intimate groups who would gather in one's living room for wine, poetry, music, comedy and h'or-dourves. Throughout it all, she would continue to play benefits up the yin-yang. If anyone had a cause, Lotus was there. She once performed at a benefit in Berkeley to help raise money for Paul Krassner's back surgery. During her performance, Lotus, to whom gravity was often an enemy, took a fall on stage and messed up her own back. She lived with the pain, resigning herself to the unlikelihood of back-to-back back benefits.

In '95, she played a benefit for a friend of hers undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Lotus spoke of the healing power of the kiss, recalling how our mothers would kiss our hurts to make them heal. She could sell such a notion like no one else. Lotus encouraged her audience to take the stage and kiss the ailing woman's breast. They did.

Unlike most "Hollywood humanitarians", her concern for the less fortunate was not confined to well-publicized photo-ops. She definitely walked the walk. On more than one occasion, she and I would be on our way to dinner or a movie, when we'd come across a homeless person on a street corner. I would tend to go a few steps out of my way to avoid contact with them. Lotus, however, would make a bee-line for them, look them straight in the eye and ask if there was anything she could do to help. Even if their answer was mainly gibberish, she would take the time to decipher what they wanted. I'd get increasingly frustrated as Lotus took time out of "my" evening to duck into the nearest convenience store and buy a sandwich for someone who often didn't have the presence of mind to thank her.

It didn't end there. She would occasionally put strangers up in her own home who were desperate for shelter. Occasionally they would steal from her. Her friend Jill Merin once asked her, "When are you going to stop bringing these people who steal from you into your home?" Lotus' response was, "When the need to steal subsides." When she gave away her TV set to a homeless man, her friend Phyllis Katz asked her, "Where do you imagine he's going to plug it in?" Lotus had to laugh. She hadn't thought it through that far.

It was this kind of behavior that prompted a fitting comment from Mavis Leno (Jay's wife): "God said he would spare Sodom and Gomorra while there was one innocent person left in the city. That's why I get nervous every time Lotus leaves town."

During Thanksgiving week in '96, I had dinner at Canter's Deli in Hollywood with Lotus and Lili. Lotus told me she was concerned that over the past few months her coordination and short-term memory had been repeatedly failing her. I laughed it off, saying that coordination and short-term memory had never been her strong suits. But when I took a moment to really look in her eyes, I could tell she was scared. I asked when she first started noticing the symptoms. She replied, "Right around Politically Incorrect." (She had done the show three months earlier.) Two days later, Lotus went for an MRI which revealed a very large, very aggressive brain tumor.

For years, Lotus and I would get into a sick, mock argument whenever we got frustrated with each others' bull-headedness. "Aw, you've got cancer!" "No, you've got cancer." "No, sir. YOU'VE got cancer!" The night the biopsy results came in, she called me from her bathtub to tell me I had won. She had cancer.

It was deemed untreatable. So Lotus and Lili were headed down to a clinic in La Jolla specializing in alternative medicine. The night before they were scheduled to leave, Lotus suffered a seizure which resulted in a herniated brainstem. It was a devastating blow, leaving Lotus in much the same condition as a stroke victim: partially paralyzed with limited motor skills and difficulty speaking. Much of what she did say didn't make much sense. But she was clearly cognizant of her surroundings. Through the haze, friends like Larry Miller and Kevin Pollak could still make her laugh from her hospital bed.

On one of my visits I got curious as to which of her circuits were still fully functional. Pointing out some yellow tulips near her bed, I asked her what color they were, reminding her that they were her favorite. She turned towards the flowers, then smiled at me and said, "You're a tricky one." She wouldn't admit that she didn't have the word. Moments later though, I heard her humming perfect harmony to a song playing on a portable CD player. She could still laugh at jokes and carry a tune. The music and humor circuits were fully in tact.

At one point, I passed along a "hello" from my friend William. I told her that he'd never forgotten the night the crazy yellow lady broke into his room to give him a hug. Eleven years later, tears welled up again in those big saucer eyes as Lotus recalled how William lost his mother. "Now do you see why I had to?" she asked.

I did. Finally.

When the final moments came, Lotus was literally surrounded by her circle of friends. There was nothing morose about the scene. Her bedside was awash in laughter, love, prayer and song. Some were worried about how Lili would respond when the inevitable moment arrived. When the vital signs finally went flat on the monitor, Lili's countenance was overtaken by a beatific smile. She leaned right into Lotus' face and whispered, "Thank you, Mama."

To give Lili some final private moments in the hospital room, the friends migrated into the visitor's lounge where we became transfixed by a TV set broadcasting live reports of the death of Princess Diana from a traffic accident in Paris. It was just surrealistic enough to temporarily take our minds off the scene we had witnessed only minutes ago. After a while, I turned to the group and said, "You realize that Lotus is looking down at us right now and saying, 'Excuse me... uh, Hello?? Remember me??'"

At the funeral service, Lili played a soaring, heart-wrenching melody on her violin. I could feel Lotus kvelling with every note. Lili then cried and laughed her way through a poem Lotus had written called "Find Comfort." One stanza read,

Find comfort in your daily walk
my child and say hello to things you've never known
and lift yourself
to touch their hands
and love them,
for all time,
For soon again, you know you'll have to walk alone.

It could have been a deathbed farewell to her daughter, but Lotus had written it in 1967, in anticipation of the daughter who wasn't yet born.

Then it struck me: All the show business struggles, the missed opportunities, longing for the big break... it was all a red herring. Lotus' purpose was to prepare her daughter to carry on in her absence. And suddenly I remembered a stanza from the song Lotus had written for Lili; the one she sang to me eleven years ago at two A.M. while William slept in the next room:

When I get to heaven's gate
and my life is reviewed,
I know that my saving grace
will be the love I have for you.

A memorial tribute was held for her at the L.A. Improv a week following the funeral. Long before the scheduled start time, the room went SRO, and scores of well-wishers, including Richard Lewis, Bill Maher and David Steinberg were turned away at the door.

Laughter beat out tears three-to-one. The marquee on Melrose Avenue read

"Lotus Weinstock / 1943-1997 / Humorist and Humanist."

When I saw it I smiled and remembered another great quote of Lotus': "I used to want to save the world. Now I just want to leave the room with some dignity."

In her very unique way, Lotus managed to do both.

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