Back in the day, I used to shop at Count's Western Wear up in Tenleytown -- cowboy shirts, cowboy boots, and a suede vest which I still have, all beat up and way too small. The seamstress at Count's was Lee Lally, one of the key figures of the Mass Transit activities in the early to mid 1970s. I never did know Lee very well. I would see her around once in a while. She gave a memorable reading in the Folio Books series, with Lee Howard, and that was about it. I never spent time with her socially, really. The night of her Folio reading she was surrounded by friends after the reading. She was a really good reader. Very present, very good at
projecting feeling in an oblique kind of way, even when the content was very direct, there was always something very subtle going on.
There was a lot of passion and humor in her work, although the humor was subtle, too, as I remember it. Her SOUP chapbook, These Days, sold out its first run, I want to say one thousand copies, I'm not sure, and was reprinted. I don't have These Days anymore, but I remember it as a very well made set of poems, not so much confessional as confrontational, i.e., with the self, with her experience, with everybody and everything, with the world. And, clearly, it resonated through a lot of people's lives.
Lee and I liked each other. In our casual exchanges at Count's, I saw someone who was very watchful, probably as hypervigilant as I was, with a warm but wary countenance. I wish that I had known her better, Because of my lack of first hand knowledge of her, I asked Michael to contribute to this post. Here is what he wrote:
Michael Lally on Lee Lally
Lee and I met in the Spring of ’61. She was a high school senior and I was a college freshman about to be kicked out, after which we became faithful correspondents. That Fall she entered the University of Buffalo (she grew up outside that city) and had poetry published in their literary magazine. Another student published one of Lee’s poems as his own, causing a minor scandal! She also played guitar and sang (blues and old style country music) in local coffee houses, and drew and painted well, was a New York State merit scholar and the state women’s fencing champion, as well as a prize winning skier and a professional puppeteer. Oh, and she sang and danced in her Catholic girls high school in musicals, e.g. she played “Bloody Mary” in South Pacific.
In August 1964 she left her job as a puppeteer on an island amusement park in Lake Erie (Fantasy Island?) and gave up the U. of Buffalo and her friends, including a pre-med student she was engaged to, to marry me and move to Spokane, Washington where I was stationed as an enlisted man in the Air Force, meaning I made less than a hundred bucks a month.
The wedding was a last minute decision, after not having seen each other since we met in ’61, instigated by various changes in my life, including most of my scene in Spokane getting arrested on various drug and sex charges. I was playing regularly in Spokane area clubs, but soon gave up drinking and the night life and we spent time writing collaborative poems, playing music, drawing, reading books aloud, going to plays (I was in my first professional play there, and underground film) and hanging with my bohemian friends who weren’t in jail.
Lee claimed to have no interest in publishing or performing publicly or going back to school. She was an incredible seamstress and cook, as well as artist, writer and musician, so she kept busy. By the time we left Spokane in ’66, I was getting published regularly in little mags around the country as that phenomenon began to take off, while she said she was contented to just write things for me.
One of the people who published me, and paid me for my poems and a short story, was a woman who was convinced I was going to write the great American novel and wanted to be my patron. She put us up in a fancy apartment in Brooklyn Heights where we lived from February ’66 to June. Lee was jealous of the woman, so when my mother passed that May, we made arrangements to move in with my father in Jersey and left the patron, the apartment, and the money she was giving me to live on.
I went to work at Overbrook Hospital, while Lee cooked and took care of the house and my dad. By the end of the summer she was fed up with that role and a Spokane friend who had moved on to the U. of Iowa Writers Workshop convinced me to come out to Iowa City and try to get in, so I did, just days before the semester started.
Lee instantly became a well known figure in Iowa City, due to her style—partly her own creations, including a cape and granny boots before they were big—as well as her unusual looks—tiny but voluptuous, black hair and penetrating green eyes, a slightly deformed chin and lips from a car accident she told me, but her parents later said it was a congenital condition from childhood (she had a scar that wrapped around one ear and ran along the bottom of the jaw line to her chin, which had no bone in it but was constructed of tissue from elsewhere).
One of the first people we befriended, outside of our Spokane friends Roy and Karen Harvey, was Ray DiPalma, a poet in the graduate workshop (I didn’t have a BA so I didn’t get in the graduate workshop until the following year) who Lee dug, and later the poet Robert Slater, who adored Lee from the minute they met and had a deep connection with her. When Ted Berrigan came to the workshop to teach around ’68, he too fell under Lee’s spell and they had a special connection as well.
A lot of the younger women students at Iowa dug Lee, and when the feminist movement of that period began to take shape, they came to her and wanted her to lead them, which she declined. She was wary of my developing politics—like running for sheriff of Johnson County, Iowa on the Peace and Freedom ticket—which took me away from home and made me a target of right wing death threats as well as gave me opportunities to appear in various student and underground films etc. Especially after she became pregnant and gave birth to our daughter in February of ’68 and then became pregnant with our son in ’69.
I met Gary Snyder that year, who hand wrote, in a calligraphy style that Lee sometimes was paid to do, one of his poems for her, which we framed and now hangs in our daughter’s home.
Upon getting my MFA from the workshop in August of ’69 I wanted to move to San Francisco where all the action seemed to be, or to Chicago, where I was working with a project attempting to turn white street gangs into revolutionaries called Rising up Angry, but Lee insisted I have a job somewhere before we moved. Through the auspices of a famous writer at the just started American Association of Writing Professors (or something like that, unfortunately I can’t remember the writers name), who I had never met but nonetheless recommended me to Trinity College in DC, a Catholic girls school, and they hired me sight unseen for their English Department.
So, we left for DC via Buffalo (detouring around the traffic mess at Woodstock, where we had intended to stop but decided it was too much trouble) and New York and Jersey. Our first apartment was in Hyattsville, because everywhere else we tried in the city wouldn’t take us with one infant and another on the way. Until we reached a “garden” apartment complex next to a huge intersection where two major roads intersected and there were no sidewalks.
There were a lot of ethnicities in the complex—Korean, Mexican, everything except African-American—and a lot of white “country folk” who Lee instantly befriended (her mother had been a country girl from upstate New York and Lee had many aunts and uncles and cousins who grew up and still lived on farms where she had spent her summers as a kid). That’s where we were when our son was born, and where we often housed visiting radicals, like the gang kids from Chicago in for demonstrations in DC, or poets, like Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley, who were staying with us when our kids accidentally ate rat poison (Ted wrote about it in a diary style piece of prose that was later published in an issue of The World).
Ray DiPalma was there when our son was born (he is his godfather). The place was usually filled with people, either from out of town or neighbors or new DC friends. It was while living there that Lee ran into an old friend from Buffalo in a supermarket who talked Lee into joining her at a “consciousness raising session” with several women at the home of a woman who talked about how she only married her husband to show the guy she wanted to marry up, because he wouldn’t marry her and it was all his fault and—as if you could ever invent this shit—it turned out that the guy was me.
I had met her the winter before I met Lee, at another upstate New York college. She was a beautiful and brilliant Italian-American woman who edited her college literary mag. When I wouldn’t marry her, she married this other guy and had three kids and now was unhappy! For which Lee came back pissed off at me! That was the beginning of the end for us, though we didn’t see it.
On a pot run to the Midwest in ‘71, I cheated for the first time in our then seven years together and brought back more than the pot. After that, I slept on the couch for weeks, and Lee went to more and more meetings with her growing feminist network. That same year an anthology of “movement” poetry came out, Campfires of the Resistance, with some of my poetry in it, so I organized a reading by anyone in the DC area in the anthology, at the Institute for Policy Studies (if I remember correctly) at which a very large standing room only crowd showed up to hear us.
Lee and I had already encountered the local academic poetry scene, which didn’t interest us, and I had been organizing readings at Trinity by all kinds of outré poets since ’69, but after the Campfires reading I decided to start a weekly reading series at the new location for the Community Bookshop on P Street. Dave Mancuse had started the shop around the time I arrived in DC in its first location on M I think, but had recently moved it to P near Dupont Circle. Lee became a regular at the new reading series, which we pretty quickly called Mass Transit (forget who came up with the name) and out of which some of us started a magazine by that name.
By the time we rented a house on Emery Place in “Friendship Heights” in early ’72, Lee had become a full blown feminist and I had been affected by the ideas as well. That same year we started a press called Some Of Us Press, along with Terence Winch and Ed Cox and others. My idea was to publish a chapbook of poetry by a local poet every month, which we managed to do for awhile. Lee helped choose and design some of the books, one of which was hers, These Days, which gathered the poems she had started writing again under the impetus of her feminist education and experiences. Some were published in feminist and gay and women’s publications that were beginning to crop up around the country, and all had been tried out at Mass Transit.
Lee wasn’t much to talk about her emotions, and didn’t care for others speculating on what she was thinking or feeling, but her poetry made it clear. She later claimed that she hadn’t been writing much poetry since her Buffalo days because of sexism, and that it was the nuns in her high school and her artist and feminist friends (Lee had many women artist friends over the years, including Joan Hanor, who designed the SOUP logo) who gave her the inspiration to take up poetry again. I always felt a little hurt by that explanation, because I had encouraged her to write, to publish, to do music and all the rest, even to return to college, but she always resisted. I also helped her put These Days together and got some of the poems in it published (in the Trinity Record and December, etc.) but she didn’t acknowledge me, or any of her other male friends and supporters, like Terry or Slater or Ed Cox et. al. in the book, just women.
At any rate, once she returned to writing and sharing a more public kind of poetry, she was an instant hit. Feminists adored her work and These Days had an immediate impact on many women, as well as men. The title came from a song that a feminist singer/songwriter whose name I don’t remember wrote and sang at a concert Lee attended in DC around ’71 (there’s a plethora of songs with that title on Google but not the one that Lee was referring to).
The poems in it were influenced by the blues Lee loved (Memphis Minnie was a particular icon of hers) and old timey country (Mama Maybelle Carter another of Lee’s great influences and loves). And of course it was influenced by the sexual politics we were living through and experimenting out of. Lee had taken a female lover and encouraged me to take male ones, as part of what we thought was going to be the liberation of future generations from the bonds of gender and sexual discrimination. The house on Emery had quickly become a “commune” in which all kinds of people lived or visited (Valerie Salinas was famously dropped off on our porch after she got out of prison and ended up a good friend of mine but intimidated the women in the commune because she didn’t like their brand of feminism, as she went back to hooking for her money and claimed to enjoy it even though she preferred women for romantic and long time sexual relations, she made the point that her idea of feminism was to create a world where women could do whatever the fuck they felt like doing, not follow some politically correct dictums).
In ’74, I moved out of what by then had turned from a crazy collection of all kinds of lefties, to a strictly lesbian feminist collective. Lee remained in the house with the other women and our kids, and I moved to apartments in the Dupont Circle area until in Spring of ’75 I moved to New York where our kids joined me for the summer and our son stayed. Our daughter returned to DC and her mother and the commune.
Eventually the commune fell apart and Lee ended up with a boyfriend, a younger man whose nickname was “Boo” from the movie of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee’s female lover, who she was with for several years before Boo, was nicknamed “Atticus” from the same movie. A favorite book and film of Lee’s I might add. What are the odds.
In early ’80, our daughter made the decision to come live with her brother and me in New York. The move was to take place at the start of the summer. But in March I think it was, Lee got sick and didn’t see a doctor and our daughter came home from school one day to find Lee unable to get out of bed. The boyfriend finally came home and took her to a nearby hospital, where they discovered a serious infection in her ovaries caused by an old IUD. During the operation to remove the IUD and the ovaries, Lee stopped breathing for a few minutes, and when they revived her, she was in a coma, which she remained in for six years before finally passing away.
There was a malpractice suit brought by the court appointed guardian for Lee (we were divorced by then and her parents signed over any rights). It ended up being I think the largest sum ever awarded in that part of the country, six million dollars. But they appealed and it was eventually reduced to two million, out of which the government took a third, the lawyers took a third and court costs, and the remaining money was used to care for Lee. Some of that money was invested by the guardian, and the kids ended up getting some after Lee passed.
By the time that happened, Some Of us Press had long folded and Lee’s These Days had been reprinted by a Baltimore feminist press called Diana’s (if I remember correctly). Lee accused the women at that press of ripping her off, by reprinting the book without giving her any royalties, and by understating the amount of copies printed and reprinted in several editions never marked as such, according to Lee. As of this date, they have never been accountable, or others who have reprinted Lee’s work, to Lee or to her children, though many of the same women claim Lee as a role model and an icon in their feminism.
I think a poem from These Days, “The Reading,” best expresses what I tried to recount here in terms of Lee’s relationship to her life and art:
to the readers.
Painfully some try to decide fast
‘what two poems will make them love me?’.
hearing all the cries,
a different hand stretches
to pat my belly.
I decided not so fast
but long ago
it didn’t matter.