By Jim Smith
I can’t remember when I first met Carol. It may have been at a Venice Town Council meeting in the 1970s. I do remember that, to me, Carol was a fearsome presence. I knew that she was hell-on-wheels in the Beachhead, but she was just as capable of taking someone apart face-to-face. Frankly, I was afraid of her, so I kept my interaction with her to the level of pleasantries.
At that time, the Free Venice personalities that I was most in agreement with were Bob Wells, Marvena Kennedy and Rick Davidson, with whom Carol had a contentious relationship. Carol called them the “gang of three,” after Mao’s followers in China who were known as the “gang of four.” I certainly did not want to become noticed by Carol to the extent that she would elevate the Venice group to the “gang of four.”
Flash forward 25 years. Yolanda Miranda and I, and perhaps others, are walking up Rose Avenue after our regular Sunday afternoon peace march on Ocean Front Walk. We had been talking about the need for a regularly published Free Venice Beachhead. Walking past the lobby of the 5 Rose building, I notice Carol sitting on the couch by an open window (the new, yuppified lobby removed the couch and chairs to prevent tenants from socializing). We stopped and chatted with Carol. I tell her that we’d love to start a new Beachhead Collective that would include her. To my surprise, she was all for it. Later, John Haag and Chuck Bloomquist – old Beachhead hands – also helped get us going.
Working with Carol on the Beachhead forced me to change my preconceptions about her. She turned out to be very sweet, not an ogre at all. As I got to know her better, she reminded me of the lion in the Wizard of Oz. Carol was brave in spite of herself. At heart she was a pussycat. But brave she was, and she inspired others to be braver and more persistent than they might have intended.
Any newsroom can be filled with opposing ideas when it comes to deciding what should go in the paper and on what page. The Beachhead is no exception. In our sometimes hot discussions, Carol was usually the one to find a middle ground and sooth everyone’s feelings.
Her own articles were a different matter. When they were read aloud, which is done with everything at the Collective meetings, I would sometimes cringe at the thought of putting her searing comments about someone in the paper. But we did it. Carol was never edited for content – who would dare do it? Her outspokenness, along with her humor, was what separated Carol from the run-of-the-mill journalist. It was also an example to strive for on our Collective, and I’m sure, on Collectives over the years. This is one way in which Carol put her stamp on the Beachhead.
In a different universe, Carol could have been as well-known and well-read as Molly Ivins, or Dorothy Parker. Her writing was good enough, but the country wasn’t ready for her. Carol was content to write for her beloved Beachhead, knowing that she had a devoted following here in Venice.
In her earlier days, Carol was active in the Peace and Freedom Party, even taking on Tom Hayden for state assembly. But Carol was also a member of the rejectionist party to which so many Venetians belong. Its members are those who can bear to live in no other place in this vast wasteland. They, we, reject the cultural values of this puritan land. Like so many others, Carol expected nothing but trouble from America. That didn’t keep her from fighting for every scrap, every morsel, that the powerful would fling our way, particularly for low-cost housing.
As poor health overwhelmed Carol in the past few years, she attended fewer and fewer Collective meetings. We would talk on the phone, usually once a week and often for more than an hour, about what we were planning for the next issue. Even if she didn’t attend a meeting, Carol was a great resource for the paper. She was a living library of Venice history. She knew who did what to whom throughout the past half century. She could tell you why someone was a jerk or why someone was better than he or she appeared to be. That vast repository of information has been lost with her death. Other old timers may know a lot about the Venice past, but I would wager their knowledge is not as comprehensive as Carol’s. She was in the thick of everything that happened in Venice.
Often, Carol would turn our conversation to the constant noise that she experienced from the Ocean Front Walk (she did not like the term, Boardwalk). She often felt like a prisoner in her small apartment – a former hotel room – looming over the beach front. Musicians, some newly arrived in Venice, had little sympathy for this old lady who asked them to turn down the volume. “Why don’t you move if you don’t like it,” was a common response according to Carol. This made her really indignant since she had been living close to the beach since the early 1960s. She wasn’t going anywhere! It also displayed an ignorance about how rent works in Venice. If you stay in the same place, your rent can only increase with the rate of inflation, but if you rent a new place, the sky’s the limit.
Complaints to the city bureaucracy and officials about the “auditory rapists,” as Carol called bad musicians, who had a limited repertoire, usually fell on deaf ears. Some even said, “Why don’t you move.” Unfortunately, Carol’s desire to be able to sleep or watch TV without enduring blaring sound from outside alienated her from much of the scene on OFW. She felt that many of the activists there who demanded free speech were being hypocritical when they attacked her free speech. The result was that they lost a powerful ally and she lost a pleasant place to walk or sit in the sun.
Knowing and being friends with Carol turned out to be a litmus test of broadmindedness. Some people involved in the same struggles as Carol disliked her because she disagreed with them on one or another issue. Too bad for them. They don’t know what they missed by not opening their tight little minds to Carol.
And so, we mourn for Carol Berman, Carol Fondiller. But we also mourn for ourselves. We who are left without her brilliant mind, her charming personality and her unflinching character.