Her Inner and Outer Worlds Collide in Big, Colorful Bursts
THE LADY on the mountaintop is a philosopher, a spiritual seeker, a dancer, an artist, an author, and a poet. Carolyn Mary Kleefeld could be the muse for a romantic poet, herself.
Her home, deep in the Big Sur forest, is only steps from a majestic cliff that towers over Pfeiffer Point, with a panoramic view that hardly seems real.
The interior of her house is dark and silent, the epitome of solitude, but every wall is adorned with enormous explosions of color — works of acrylic, ink, gouache and mixed media on canvas or board. Some are 5-by-6 feet. Many were painted in minutes.
“I’m a Taoist, so I love to do things really fast, without thinking about it — no conceptualizing … just being drawn to color,” said Kleefeld, who also has done romantic, figurative work. “I did one yesterday in three minutes … well, maybe five ..and it’s just perfect. I do very well when it’s spontaneous.… and it’s just perfect. I do very well when it’s spontaneous.
Six Pushcart Prize Nominations
“Most of what I’ve done in my life has been instinctive and intuitive,” said Kleefeld, who has authored 25 books of poetry and prose — writings that have been translated into Korean, Romanian, Japanese, Italian, Sicilian, Chinese, Arabic, Bengali, Greek, Persian and Bulgarian. Some became texts in university classrooms. Between 2008 and 2014, she was nominated six times for the Pushcart Prize, which honors “the best in poetry, short fiction, essays, or literary whatnot.”
Her first book, “Climates of the Mind,” published in 1979, was a bestseller (rare for poetry) that was translated into Braille by the Library of Congress.
Another bestseller, “The Divine Kiss: An Exhibit of Paintings and Poems” (2014), was inspired by David Campagna, the love of her life, whom she married on Valentine’s Day 2017. He died 20 days after their wedding, ending his three-year battle with esophageal cancer.
“Marrying David was absolutely the high point of my life, even though we knew he was going to die,” she said of Campagna, who had worked as a Hollywood actor, and also a frequent stand-in and stuntman for Christopher Walken. “We had something so rare, so perfect, and the way he dealt with his illness was one of the most heroic and magnificent gestures imaginable.”
Yet another Kleefeld bestseller, “Immortal Seeds: Bearing Gold From the Abyss,” was published in 2022, but also was written during the final two years of Campagna’s life, during which she commuted weekly from her Big Sur home to live with him in an L.A. hotel while he was enduring chemotherapy.
“David had a hilarious sense of humor and constantly used it to cheer up everyone around him when he was getting those treatments. He dragged himself across the room one day, strapped to all of those chemicals, to meet Leonard Cohen and give him a copy of ‘The Divine Kiss,” Kleefeld said of the celebrated singer-song-writer who died of leukemia in November 2016. “Leonard took the book with him, and later he said, ‘I hope you know how she feels about you and that you inspired this book.'”
Escaping the Nazis
Kleefeld was born in Catford, South London, England, the youngest daughter of Amelia and Mark Taper, who helped smuggle hundreds of Catholic and Jewish children out of Nazi Germany during World War II, then brought their family to America.
Her mother did freelance illustrations for Vogue and her father was a real estate investor, builder, and philanthropist in Southern California.
Kleefeld wrote and illustrated her first book at age 9 after observing a cluster of dust particles dancing in a ray of sunlight coming through her bedroom window.
“I created another universe, with an imaginary family, then drew pictures of all the characters,” she remembered of the book she called “The Nanose.”
“That book turned out to be psychologically revealing,” said Kleefeld, who would study psychology at UCLA. “It showed the disconnection I had with my own family – that my dad wasn’t really there for us on a psychological or emotional level.”
At age 5, she already was taking ballet at Santa Monica’s Toland School of Dance when a visiting instructor from the Bolshoi Ballet tried to convince her mother to send Carolyn, her youngest child, to its elite academy in Russia. “I was the youngest of three children in our family, and, of course, there was no way she was going to allow me to go to Russia by myself,” Kleefeld said.
By the time she was 13, she was enamored with French writer Guy de Maupassant and began writing short stories of her own. At 15, her well-to-do family moved to Beverly Hills, where Carolyn never felt comfortable, but found success as a model and explored acting.
A Hollywood husband
Her first husband, Travis Kleefeld – known professionally as Tony Travis – was an actor whose credits included roles in “77 Sunset Strip” and “Perry Mason,” among others, along with a feature film called “The Beat-niks.” He was a talented singer, discovered by Dinah Shore, who helped him cut several albums.
Their marriage produced two daughters, Carla and Claudia, but ended after 9 1/2 years, and Carolyn Kleefeld moved to Malibu, where she thrived in a meditative environment among a creative community of free thinkers. That’s where she began writing “Climates of the Mind.”
Shortly after completing the book, she made a visit to Esalen Institute, took a workshop on “rebirth,” and fell in love with Big Sur.
“That was in 1980, around Christmastime, and I liked it so much that I decided I had to stay for a while,” she said. “And I never left.”
Over the years, Kleefeld’s circle of friends has included Timothy Leary, who spent time at her house, Rod Steiger (whom she dated in Malibu), Hollywood producer Darryl F. Zanuck (“The Longest Day,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” and many others), self-help guru Wayne Dyer, poet Allen Ginsberg, psychoanalyst John Lilly and musician/author/ psychotherapist/lecturer Laura Huxley. “Laura was my best friend,” she said of Huxley, who died in 2007.
“I’ve known a lot of interesting people,” she said. “I never sought them out – it just happened.”
Since moving to her mountaintop more than four decades ago, creating art has been Kleefeld’s primary focus and passion. Her $10 million endowment resulted in the expansion and renaming of the Carolyn Compagna Kleefeld Contemporary Art Museum at California State University Long Beach.
Living in paradise – and in isolation – can often be a lonely and difficult lifestyle, she said. “It’s like a monastery up here, and a very odd life, she said. “I sometimes feel like a sort of priestess, venturing into the wilderness of the unconscious, constantly discovering things that add to my understanding of life. And that’s what keeps me alive, centered and integrated.
“Making art, for me, is like a transcendent experience,” said Kleefeld. “It’s like a special dimension – another place I can go – and it’s the best place.”