Dandelion: Memoir of a Free Spirit

Dandelion: Memoir of a Free Spirit

by Catherine James

Catherine James’ relationship with her young, beautiful and wickedly irresponsible mother informed her Los Angeles childhood—neglected enough that she was strapped to a chair at night while her mother cavorted on the Sunset Strip, Catherine longed not for normalcy, but just for the chance to get away. To get away to her beloved grandmother Mimi, or to

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Catherine James’ relationship with her young, beautiful and wickedly irresponsible mother informed her Los Angeles childhood—neglected enough that she was strapped to a chair at night while her mother cavorted on the Sunset Strip, Catherine longed not for normalcy, but just for the chance to get away. To get away to her beloved grandmother Mimi, or to her Aunt Claire’s, a Hollywood version of Grey Gardens stuffed with racks of the former beauty queen’s 1930’s ball gowns and memories of grand parties with Claire’s ex-husband Busby Berkeley. To get away to her father, a dashing race car driver who had been out of her life almost since the day she was born. To even get away to school, where she would at least be taken care of. Instead, Catherine was finally abandoned by her furious mother to become a ward of the state before she reached her teens.

It wasn’t until a chance meeting with a very young Bob Dylan inspired Catherine to make her escape—as a real runaway, breaking out of the California orphanage with only one goal: to get to Greenwich Village. DANDELION then becomes a look through the eye of a needle, as Catherine experiments with Eric Clapton; a peek through the viewfinder of a Polaroid, as Catherine is taken up by the beautiful people in Andy Warhol’s Factory; and a glimpse through a haze of smoke, as she begins romances with rockers Jackson Browne and Jimmy Page.

While raising her son, whose father was Denny Laine of the Moody Blues, Catherine finally returns to her west coast roots, reconnects with her family and discovers that her mother hasn’t changed but her father has: he’s become a heartbreakingly garish transsexual.

Moving and shocking by turns, DANDELION is a completely different view of a celebrated pop culture scene, and a dramatic mother-daughter relationship.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Like Pamela Des Barres (I'm with the Band), James was a California It Girl and very young groupie of the early rock-and-rollers, and in this candid, workmanlike autobiography, she shares her accidental fame. James was the product of beautiful, well-connected Beverly Hills parents who divorced: the father became a transvestite, coming out to James when she was a young adult at Musso & Frank's in Hollywood, as depicted in a wild opening chapter; the mother, Diana, went through a succession of husbands and eventually relinquished caretaking of her daughter to the state. Having dated Bob Dylan by age 13, James ran away from the Visa Del Mar orphanage to New York and hung out at Andy Warhol's Factory. She met Denny Laine of the Moody Blues, who became an abusive husband and father of her child while she was still in her teens. She shopped on Kings Road in Chelsea and partied with members of the Beatles, the Who and the Rolling Stones, among others. When the marriage didn't work, she took her son back to California and romanced Jackson Browne. Somehow James makes do with a little help from her friends, finding modeling work, doubling for Diane Keaton and going back to school. Ever cheery, never self-pitying, her memoir is by turns insipid and sweet. (Oct.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

First-time author James was born in Hollywood in 1950 to an abusive mother and a neglectful father who quickly exited via divorce. During early childhood, her nights were spent alone tied to a chair so her mother could roam Sunset Strip. At 11 years of age, James ran away and was arrested and thrown into juvenile detention, where she refused to give her name. At 14, after being put into state custody, she ran away from an orphanage, staying one step ahead of the authorities with the aid of Michael Stewart, who got her a job as nanny for his brother John, the lead singer of the Kingston Trio. Three months later, James ran again, making her way to New York City's Greenwich Village; to London with Denny Laine of the Moody Blues, who fathered her only child; then to Connecticut with her baby son; and eventually back to California. Through the years, numerous celebrities paraded through her life, among them Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Jackson Browne. These cameos certainly hold the reader's attention, but so do the author's resourcefulness and strength of character. This straightforward, conversational read is recommended for public libraries catering to baby boomers.
—Dorris Douglass

Kirkus Reviews
Abused child and lover of many a rock star puts her life down on paper. James first hit the music scene in the 1960s, when the Gods of Rock still blazed paths of wanton devastation across America before retiring to their well-appointed British castles for heroin and philosophy. She came from a Southern California kind of nowhere, raised by a speed-freak mother of uncommon brutality and a mostly absent, alcoholic father who later became the world's ugliest transsexual (we learn this in a shocking flash-forward that opens the book). Sent to an orphanage at age 12, James managed to get out one weekend and make friends with 22-year-old Bob Dylan, who was playing a gig in Santa Monica. In 1964, still only 14 years old, she lit out for Greenwich Village. Being someone who makes things happen, she remade herself into a fabulous It girl, landing a screen test with Andy Warhol and partying with rock stars. Two years later, involved in a romance with the Moody Blues' Denny Laine, she forged papers to get a passport and joined him in London, where she bore his child. More harrowing abuse, a whirlwind romance with Mick Jagger, infatuation with Jimmy Page and plenty of Performance-like decadence followed. Her later years were calmer, as she concentrated on raising son Damian Christian and finding odd employment as a model, a movie scenery painter and a stand-in for Diane Keaton, but she still found time to fall hard for Jackson Browne. James is no prose stylist, but she cuts to the quick with an admirable economy, treating the mundane passages of her life with the same sanguinity as the ones littered with the rich and famous. There's plenty of pain here, but little wallowing. The rarecelebrity-crammed memoir that would be worth reading even without the bold-faced names. Agent: Peter McGuigan/Foundry Literary & Media

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Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.70(w) x 9.08(h) x 0.96(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The first time I saw my father as a woman was at the grand old restaurant Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard. He had called me the week before asking if we could meet for lunch, as he had something important he wanted to discuss. It sounded serious, but he didn’t want to speak about it on the telephone. I had my suspicions as to what the conversation might be about, but nothing could have prepared me for that notable afternoon.

I arrived at noon, and Musso’s was buzzing with its regular upscale crowd and a battalion of aging Italian waiters who were as stiff as the white table linens.

My heart sank when I saw a frightful-looking character coyly flagging a paisley handkerchief in my direction. I thought, “Dear God, please don’t let this be my father.”

The distant sight of him made me feel faint, like I was being pulled to my knees by a magnetic force. I’d grown up in Hollywood, and I’d certainly seen my share of cross-dressers, transvestites, and transsexuals, but this was my dad. We used to come here for hot flannel cakes when I was a child. I forged my way to the brown leather booth where he had positioned himself, and put on my nicest smile like nothing was out of the ordinary. As he stood up to greet me, I said, “Hi Dad,” and lightly pecked his powdered cheek.

In place of the handsome, he-man race-car driver that I remembered stood an unknown, eerie entity. As he leaned over to kiss me I smelled his familiar scent of Jack Daniel’s, only this time it was mixed with a spritz of eau de gardenia. The sweet, musty odor reminded me of crumpled perfumed tissues mixed with cherry LifeSavers. He smelled like my grandmother’s purse. As we sat down, he crossed his bony nylon-clad legs and daintily folded his large hands in front of him.

“Are you surprised?” he beamed.

I wasn’t really sure how to respond. I think “mortified” was the feeling, but not wanting to spoil his moment, I replied, “Yep, I’m truly amazed.”

My dad couldn’t wait to fill me in on all the scary details of his operation. As he explained how the doctor nipped off his private parts and constructed a new vagina, I was completely lost in his shocking transformation.

He was wearing artificial, spiky, long eyelashes with iridescent blue eye shadow. He had lined his pale blue eyes with black liner and painted on the old-fashioned fishtails curling up at the ends. Dramatic, heavy brown eyebrows scrawled down to his temples, and pasty pancake foundation gave his complexion a dull, deathlike pallor. His lips were stained in a blaze of scarlet, and silver hoop earrings dangled from his large earlobes. I noticed that his gold Rolex had been replaced with the smaller female version, and feminine rings that I recognized as belonging to his late wife, Loren, were squeezed onto his swollen fingers. He held onto a fifties-style red handbag and wore matching red pumps with one wonky heel.

More strange was seeing my dad in full female regalia. He was wearing a fancy knit ensemble with a short, slim-fit skirt that showcased his stick-straight legs. To top off the whole new look, he had donned a long auburn thatch that sat slightly askew on his graying pate. The entire image was a fright.

When the waiter came to take our order, my dad suddenly developed laryngitis, and in a scratchy, high-pitched whisper ordered the grilled chops and another Jack on the rocks. My appetite had pretty much vanished when I walked in the door, but in my cheeriest tone I ordered the seafood salad and a Hires root-beer float. The waiter took off, and my dad’s deep timbre suddenly came back. I guess we had fooled him; just a couple of nice girls out for an afternoon lunch.

“So what do you think? How do I look?” he gushed.

The only word I could think of was “scary,” but I managed to squeak out, “Very nice, you look great, if this is what makes you happy.”

My dad stared at me like I’d lost my mind and slurred, “I’m not gay, you know, I only did this so I would never be unfaithful to Loren, God rest her soul.”

I was beginning to lose the plot. Wasn’t this just a little excessive? I heard that a person had to go through an extensive psychiatric assessment before even being considered for this sort of procedure. It was obvious that my father was out of touch.

He went on to tell me that he had made some new friends in Palm Springs, and that they hadn’t a clue that he was a transsexual. He wanted me to come out to the desert and to introduce me to these people. As what, I wondered, his daughter or her daughter? Was he supposed to be my mom now? I definitely had to draw the absurd line somewhere.

My dad liked to smoke cigarettes while he ate and now had two Lucky Strikes burning, one gripped between his fingertips and the other smoldering away in the ashtray. I noticed that he had spilled a spot of A-1 sauce on the front of his jacket, and smiled to myself remembering how my grandfather used to tease me, saying, “Baby, you look good in everything you eat.”

I passed him my napkin so he could wipe off the sauce, then tactfully doused the extra burning butt with a teaspoon of water. I could see the booze was beginning to take effect, which always made my dad a bit maudlin and tearfully sentimental. He broke down.

“Thank God I found you, you’re all I have left in the world.”

He professed how much he loved me, but I wasn’t biting. It was true, next to him I was the last surviving member of his family, but he’d always known exactly where to find me. It was he who had stayed away from me. I continued sipping my float to the noisy last drop, when all of a sudden he burst into tears. Something about seeing my dad cry was disarming. I had spent the last hour trying to dismiss him as a nutter, but now I felt a cold chill. There was a real person lost somewhere in there. This was the man who had given me life. I managed to choke out the uncomfortable words, “And I love you too.”

We’d already had three different servers wait on our table, and when the fourth waiter came to bring the check I realized something was up. They were all taking turns, coming to gaze at my garishly made-up father. My dad rummaged through his red handbag and handed me a heap of credit cards held together with a rubber band. He asked me to sign the check, as he was going to go “freshen up.” Everyone in the restaurant stared openly as he drunkenly tottered past their tables on his way to the powder room.

Shuffling through the lot of cards I noticed he’d already changed his name on every one of them. Even his driver’s license read sex: female, height: 6'4". Instead of Robert he was now Robin. It was all so shockingly official.

I started to realize that this whole transformation had been long thought out. I was pretty sure it didn’t have anything to do with being faithful to Loren. If anything, he’d had to wait for her to die before he could go through with the procedure. My stepmother had been a jealous, suspicious witch. I was sure that if she had had even an inkling of this possibility, she would have divorced him and sued his pantyhose off. Hmm, she did die rather suddenly. The coroner said it was heart failure. Wow! What if he really killed her! With that frightening thought, I signed the receipt “Robin James,” collected my belongings, and went to see what was taking the old girl so long in the ladies’ room.

On entering I found my father leaning close to the mirror dabbing on a little more Max Factor pancake. As he applied more crimson lipstick, I had an anxious feeling, like I was about to be caught doing something I shouldn’t, but what I wasn’t sure. I worried that some unsuspecting female diner would breeze into the powder room and get a shock.

While my dad was taking his/her time preening in the mirror, I urgently needed to pee. I eyed the vacant stall, then looked back at his reflection in the glass. If it had been a girlfriend or even a beau with me, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, but something about my dad in the ladies’ room dressed like Aunt Bea made it a little too intimate, so I decided I could hold it. Here I was in a little pink bathroom on Hollywood Boulevard watching my father put the final touches on his already overly made-up face. He took a tissue, folded it in half, and carefully blotted his lips. It was an old-fashioned technique he must have learned from observing his late wife. With one last glance in the mirror he was ready to meet the public.

I held the door open, thinking he would exit before me and I would trail inconspicuously behind, but he politely waited for me to catch up. Like a tipsy jester, he took my arm and we slowly paraded through the dining room of Musso & Frank. When we reached the exit, he stopped and waited for me to open the door, and I respectfully held it ajar. He asked if I wouldn’t mind giving him a ride to his hotel, and again took my arm as we plodded to the parking lot. Seeing my little black VW convertible in the distance brought a welcome sense of reality. Not wanting to tarry, I tipped the valet a fiver and made a beeline for the Volkswagen. When we got settled in I literally breathed a sigh of relief. I glanced over at my father, who was still getting situated in the seat beside me. His knee-length skirt was hiked up to his thighs, exposing two shriveled wads of nylon lying limp between his legs. I knew they were some sort of stockings, but I wasn’t sure what the extra hanging bits were. On closer inspection, I realized he was wearing two sets of pantyhose, one pair on each leg. I attempted to make sense of the strangeness, and at the same time tried not to stare as he awkwardly tugged and pulled his short skirt back over his knees. I started the car, and just as I was about to make a clean getaway, he leaned over.

“I want to show you something.”

He fumbled with the brass buttons of his blazer, then proudly exposed his bare breast implants right in my face. I’d never seen an actual boob job in the flesh, but it looked like the chest of a seventeen-year-old girl joined to the head of a sixty-three-year-old blade, an original Dr. Frankenstein creation. At that moment I was officially in shock, and just about speechless. I felt like I was being assaulted but unable to defend myself. I summoned up my last shred of false enthusiasm.

“Looks like they did a great job, Dad.”

Really, I was thinking, “I’d like to sue the maniac that did this to my father.”

I started the car, put it in reverse, and proceeded to back straight into a solid-steel joist. I thought I had merely dented the fender, and didn’t really care. I just wanted to get back to the simple solace of my own home. I put the VW in gear, but the engine just raced, and the car wouldn’t budge forward or back. I climbed out and found to my horror that the bumper had somehow hooked onto the steel girder. The only way to extricate it was to lift the car or bend the chrome fender back, neither of which I could do on my own. I looked over at my dad, who was sitting demurely in the passenger’s seat, and realized he had no intention of getting out to help. I’d forgotten, he was now the little lady. I glanced over at the Latin attendant who was sitting in his cash booth observing the fiasco. Fortunately, he came to my aid with a crowbar. We pushed, pried, and prodded ourselves into a sweat until the car was finally freed. I yelled a hasty thank you, gave him another fresh five, and drove off with the twisted bumper bouncing around in the backseat.

I’d just pulverized my perfect little bug, and next to me sat a completely hammered, man-sized Theda Bara. I’d been in a protective state of icy numbness most of the afternoon, but now I was beginning to thaw. My head was spinning, I needed to pee, and I felt like I was going to throw up.

I followed my dad’s directions to the Hollywoodland motel, a desolate-looking shabby dive overlooking the freeway in Studio City. As we pulled into the drive, knowing he could afford better, I asked, “What made you choose this place?”

He mumbled something about not wanting to be recognized. Whatever that meant. I decided not to delve any further. We said our good-byes, and once more he asked, “Do you really think I look pretty?”

“Very nice,” I reassured him, and waited as he limped off on his unsteady high heels, back to the safety of his motel room.

On the way home, for some unknown reason, my teeth started to ache, and my eyes welled up with tears. It had never occurred to me that I had a genuine emotional attachment to my father. He had always been the absent mystery man, my imaginary savior. My parents divorced when I was still a baby, and he had never really shown any sincere interest in me. Now all of a sudden he wanted to be close. I guess he needed a confidant, a girlfriend. Whatever the reason, it was all too twisted.

When I arrived home I felt like I’d been struck by a speeding locomotive. I fell into my bed and wept big salty tears till my head felt like a saturated sponge. There’s nothing like a good cry to put things into perspective. I got up, put an ice pack on my puffy eyes, and went out to Bloomingdale’s to purchase my dad a new pair of sturdy high heels, size eleven.

Copyright © 2007 by Catherine James. All rights reserved.

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