We lost a true friend today, the writer and Underground Gardener Elizabeth Stromme. Cancer took her, but she dictated the terms, fighting to the end to maintain the value and principle she held and embodied more than any other 10 people combined -- independence.
There's so much to choose from in talking about Liz, and I'm sure I'll get a detail or three wrong, but maybe one place to start is that she wrote the best novel I have ever read about Echo Park (or mid-'90s Eastside), called Joe's Word. About a "public writer" -- you know, the guy who does notary stuff, resumes, maybe ghosts a few love letters to that mail-order gal in the Philippines -- it is subtly and un-self-consciously (perhaps even unconsciously altogether) an archaeological artifact of a time that's hard to even picture now (though it was only maybe 12 years ago), when Echo Park and in fact most everywhere east of Highland and south of Franklin was a jittery slum, or at least felt that way, with bars on the windows, helicopters constantly hovering, graffiti everywhere, jabbering quasi-homeless guys and a sense of extremely fragile truce over the whole arrangement. Her little novel of non-major events, told through the point of view of this cheapjack noir-lite character, is nonetheless an expression of "Yeah, this place is basically a pit, but it's my pit." One filled with scruffy delights, surprising acts of kindness and pettiness, and the first burgeoning seeds of a hipster-lifer gentrification battle which was then mostly an act of extrapolative imagination. Which is all to say, whether Liz intended this or not, it reads to me as a great example of the post-Mike Davis school of L.A. writing (this from a woman left of the center of the left), in which the book's very existence is an expression of tough love, warts and all, for the mess that was left over after all the madness in the early '90s.
Liz and her husband Philippe, who is one of the great writers working in the French language (and also one of the best chroniclers of Los Angeles), bought a ramshackle Craftsman from a stripper on an eroded bluff near the Silver Lake/Echo Park line overlooking the north side of Sunset Blvd. back I think in the 1980s, when white folk didn't normally do such things. Liz had a habit not to do as she was told, going from a childhood in Minnesota to, for example, basically hitchhiking (or at least backpacking) around the world, solo. This is a quarter-century ago, when ... aw, it's still crazy. She was always tall, rail-thin, with a brillo-pad electric shock of hair. A hippie through and through, but always with a sharp and angular sense of understated style; no sloppiness or patchouli for this gal. I can't recall with accuracy the precise details of how she met Philippe, and the crazy things they did in those early days, but I can tell you that years and years later, when we finally met up with them, they were a model of how any couple -- let alone a Franco-American couple of two writers living in Silver Lake -- can live and thrive and love. She was high strung, needing to exhale, quick with a smile; he laconic and frowny, until he finds something worth laughing and laughing about. They both shared an abiding and sophisticated love of good food and a proper drink. Philippe's an irascible old coot in the body of a suave and fit middle-aged Frenchman; forever writing long obituaries of unfairly forgotten Hollywood figures for newspapers and magazines he helped make famous with his rock writing. Liz would wake up every day and open straight to the Business section, to see what the Enemy was up to, and issue slightly paranoid edicts to her politically oblivious husband. She worked for the Man for a while, in advertising, and it left her both with an abiding distaste and yet an appreciation for how the other half operates. Hers was the type of lefty politics that had very little time for the Democratic Party (or any other political party, for that matter), and was quick to sniff out the corruption of power in allegedly progressive organizations. She cared strongly enough to be one of those handful of people -- you saw them, on Friday nights across the street from the Vista Theater -- banging on bongo drums & whatnot against the Iraq War. In 2002. I walked by her once or twice on the way back from the metro, and would say something like "get a job, hippie!" and she'd smile and be happy to see me ... but mostly remain locked in with genuine passion about a war she found demonstrably objectionable before almost anyone else.
She was a late-bloomer with writing, especially compared to her literarily famous husband, but by now she's had three books published to great notices in France (with less luck, regrettably, in the States). She wrote opinion and/or gardening-related pieces for the old Buzz, the L.A. Times, the San Francisco Chronicle; and she had a fab column for the Silver Lake Press (since renamed and shuttered) entitled The Underground Gardener, where she mixed politics with seeds (and oh man, could she school you about The Politics of Seeds.... In fact, she wrote a whole noir-thriller book about it, called Against the Grain). "Weed out corporations from your own back yard," her website urges, and if you had as many gin & tonics in that marvel of a garden, you'd be apt to listen to what the woman said.
Do I have a picture of that garden? Let's look.... Ah, yes. Here's Emmanuelle, watering the lower portion of it. The hill juts up to the right, with an overgrown stairway cutting into the hill up to a little landing patio, but basically the whole thing's a robust desert California hillside ecosystem. Take a look:
This ain't no Sunset magazine back yard, or some Brits-gone-wild hyper-anal place to drink tea. This was mostly native non-watering plants, delicious mint for your Mojitos, fat lemons, delicate desert flowers, poppies, succulents, bushy trees, a certain pungent weed of note maybe, and basically a thousand different things to look at if you prodded Liz to show you (and she didn't take much prodding). It was an achievement without being oppressive, an earthy and pleasing place to sit and sip and talk and act human. It was, and is, a living organism, a testament to her values, a place that respected how the wild things are.
Due largely to Liz' occasional ministrations, the many dirt-and-glass patches in our own back yard began over time to evolve into this:
It's impossible to enjoy our bounty without thinking of her.
I'd like to say more, but the clock's almost at midnight. I hope those of you who didn't know her, or didn't know her well, will consider sampling one of her books, which deserve more attention than they've received (her best work yet is still in manuscript form). And I'd really like it if anyone who knew her left a thought or memory in the comments. Liz was a genuinely warm person, thoughtful and giving without thinking twice about even thinking about it. She created her own path in life, and lived on her own terms, which is more than most of us can say. We'll miss her deeply.