The Writing Disorder


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by Joanne Levine with Paul Monroe

“Some say her grandfather was Levi Strauss.”


Growing up in Los Angeles during the 1970’s and ‘80s, there were several stylish and eccentric people who became well-known icons to residents of the area. Some rode buses, like General Hershey Bar, and some just walked around town or hung out in neighborhoods. One of the more celebrated and flamboyant icons of the era was a woman who became known as the Lava Lady, although she wasn’t called that at the time. In fact, she wasn’t called by any name that I knew of. She was just a looming vision walking the streets of my neighborhood, which was around Melrose and La Brea in Hollywood. Looming is the best adjective I can come up with when I think of her. She wore at least 5-inch high platform shoes, billowing velvet pants, or a long velvet dress covering the shoes to make her look taller than she was. And to make herself appear even taller, she wore her hair in a half-foot long anti-gravity braid that stood vertically atop her head. Along with the outfits she created, she wore very heavy, but expertly done, makeup.

I lived off of Clinton Street, and she lived on the corner, which was a few blocks east of me. So I often saw her extremely erect figure (although over the years at a slight angle) walking ever so precisely along on her way to wherever her destination might be. I never talked to her, except once, when she juxtaposed herself from looming mystery to surprisingly cheerful volunteer at my local polling place. However, most people kept their distance, and those that did approach her found her to be polite, but somewhat aloof. She seemed to like her solitude.

She acquired the name Lava Lady because the outside of her house was covered with black lava-like stone. I never knew anyone that had actually been inside the mysterious lava-laden home of this mysterious lady, except for my friend Paul. I sat down with him recently and discussed his encounter with the Lava Lady.

Joanne: How did you meet the Lava Lady?

Paul: At the Glamour shop, a resale thrift store on La Brea Avenue. I did have a previous experience with her when she had asked me to take a doll that I had made in her image out of the window of my friend’s hair salon. She acted a bit stiff, but later came by to give us a little gift as a thank you. We actually had more of a real conversation when I volunteered at the Glamour shop and she came in one day. The Lava Lady needed help moving a refrigerator that she had purchased there back to her house. As repayment she invited me to her house for lunch. This was back in 2002.

J: Do you her know her real name?

P: Susan Strauss. Some say that her grandfather was Levi Strauss.

J: What was her home like inside?

P: She welcomed me in and gave me a full tour of the house. It was all pure white — the rugs, walls, and furniture. There were white bubble lamps all over the ceiling so her paintings wouldn’t be affected by any outside color or light. The paintings were all created by her.

J: What did her paintings look like?

P: Moody, muddy abstracts.

J: What was her demeanor?

P: Cordial, dignified, well spoken. She talked about art and fabric. She loved velvets, brocades, and she altered outfits with them. She had an emotionless air to her — no lightness or humor. Very serious. She also talked about her two children, one lived in New York, and the other lived in Palm Beach, Florida. They wanted her to move to either New York or Palm Beach so they could look after her.

J: What did she make you for lunch?

P: A square egg, on individual white trays — one for her, and one for me.

J: Square eggs?

P: Yup. She only ate dairy, including six fresh eggs every day. And they had to be fresh. That was one thing the Lava Lady was worried about: that there wouldn’t be any fresh eggs in Palm Beach (which is where she ended up moving to).

J: Anything else besides the egg?

P: No, Just the one square egg. And water. No toast, salt or pepper.

J: What did she wear?

P: All black.

J: What was the most surprising thing about her house?

P: Just that it was so pure, stark, and white inside, which contrasted with the black exterior. I thought it would be more elaborate with mementos, or that she would be a hoarder. Outside of her amazing outfits, there was nothing really crazy about her.

J: How long did you stay for lunch?

P: About 45 minutes. At the end of our lunch, she gave me a tour of her garden, which was then a sort of graceful way of ending the stay.

J: Did you see her after that?

P: Over the next six months, I did run into her a few times. She told me that she was moving to Palm Beach, and was worried that she wouldn’t be able to find any fresh eggs, and also about the bus system there.

J: Do you have any idea of her current status?

P: As far as I know, she’s still in Palm Beach.

To view photographs of the real Lava Lady, see our feature under ART.

Joanne Levine and Paul Monroe have been friends for many years. Paul is an artist who splits his time between Beverly Hills and Paris. Joanne is currently at work on a children's book.

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