In Memoriam: Susan Phyllis Donoghue, 29 April 1946 - 27 March 2007
Right now I want to speak of Susie.
I remember the first time I met her. We were brand-new freshmen coeds (as female students were then known) at Bonaventure in the fall of 1963, living in this fantastic old Victorian red-brick barracks, St. Elizabeth’s Hall. It was one of my first nights there, and I was walking down the creaky old hallway headed for the shower room. All the rooms on that attic floor opened off the hallway, and as I passed one of them, long, narrow, high-ceilinged, with dormer windows that rose ten feet off the floor, I heard someone playing a guitar and singing a folksong. I wish I could remember which song--it might have been “Four Strong Winds,” which she and I would later love to do in harmony—but I will never forget the picture I saw when I peered through the doorway.
A girl my own age, with short dark hair and huge blue eyes and the merriest vibe I have ever encountered, was sitting on the dormer platform below the window and playing this beautiful dreadnought folk guitar. I thought she was the coolest thing I had ever seen in my life, and shyly stayed to listen and sing along.
We became friends, then really close friends, and we remained so for the next thirty years. We lost touch, sadly, back in the 90’s, and the news of her death was the first news I’d had of her since then.
Anyway, we had a nice little circle, most of them connected to the SBU journalism school—Noreen Shanfelter, Kathy Brady, Tim Reagan, Tim Nesbitt, bunch more—and we stayed close after I transferred to Harpur. I remember one time in my senior year she came to fetch me there in her soooo cool dark-green Mustang, and we drove up to Dansville to visit Meyers. We had an uproarious time, singing and laughing and talking, and she thought my skin-tight jeans and Bob Dylan wool cap were probably the weirdest things Dansville had ever seen. She may well have been right.
When we both graduated in 1967, we moved in together, with another friend, Micheileen Okie, in an apartment on West 15th Street in Manhattan. All sorority sisters together: Theta Lambda Chi! We only lived there for a year or so, but it seemed happily like forever. I remember getting ready to go see Janis Joplin for the first time at the Anderson Theater, dressing up in a long black skirt and white satin shirt and beret, like Bonnie in “Bonnie and Clyde.” Susie braided my hair for me in six long thin braids and looped it in swags at the back of my head, then stood back, looked me over and said that the farther back I went in time the happier I was and the more I seemed to fit in, which was one of the most astute observations anyone has ever made about me.
But that’s how perceptive she was. I remember she and I were at the Fillmore East one night for a Jefferson Airplane concert, and she took one appraising look at Paul Kantner and Grace Slick onstage and said that Paul was in love with Grace. This long before it came out in public. And she was right, as we all soon saw.
When I got the job at Jazz & Pop, naturally I asked Susie to write for me, and she did some beautiful stuff, including one of the earliest interviews with James Taylor and a funny account of a Judy Collins concert in Buffalo. We went to Woodstock together, in that same green ‘Stang, the account of which is preserved for posterity in Strange Days.
She went back to Bonaventure in 1968 to work on her Master’s. I visited her in Olean in this great old reputedly haunted house, where she roomed with Meyers, and brought my then-boyfriend David Walley (the first anniversary of whose death was yesterday) with me, then again in 1969, by myself, having broken up with David (or, as he claimed, dumped him for Jim Morrison), in a different house. She then went on to Kent State, where she was, I believe, a teaching assistant, then she came back to New York and was for a time the editor of Rock magazine, a clever and much wittier Rolling Stone tabloid clone.
She also worked as a publicist for Warner Brothers Records, and thus it was that we met our dear friends Steeleye Span, when they came over in 1972 for their first U.S. tour and Susie did their pr work. Peter Knight, Steeleye violinist, has graciously called us their first friends in America, which appellation also included Susie’s then-roommate, Pamela Hannay.
They had a place in a very strange building on 3rd Avenue and 55th Street, enormous massive masonry staircase that always reminded me of the ones in the Pyramids, leading up to one apartment per floor, and theirs was on the top floor.
Pamela, a tall, gorgeous woman with red hair long enough to sit on (and who redeemed all red-haired women named Pamela for me ever after, save of course one), had hung out with Steeleye and Fairport in England for a while. A dear, wise, funny soul of incredible gentleness, she later got into doing shiatsu, and became a master at the Ohashi Institute, teaching and giving workshops. Then she starting doing shiatsu for horses, especially the U.S. national team, out where she later lived in New Jersey, and wrote a book about it, “Touching Horses.” Pam died of cancer four years ago; knowing her, I’m sure she helped Susie through her passages with love and caring.
In the mid-70s Susie got involved with the Carter presidential campaign, going down to Atlanta to work, and when he won she went to Washington to work at the White House and later the State Department.
Then she worked at the American Film Institute, and moved out to L.A., where she lived for a long time. After AFI, she worked for Arnon Milchan, the producer (an early associate of Oliver Stone, though Susie herself never met Oliver), and I saw her there for the first time in many years when I went out in 1990 to film the Doors movie.
A visit a couple of years later, again in L.A., was the last time I saw her. It was sad and terrible, but as journalist and friend I must speak of it all: she had always been seriously overweight, except for some years in the 70s when she dropped a vast amount, but she had gotten so heavy she could only fit behind the wheel of her car if she sat sideways. She was also severely depressed: the house was a mess, she didn’t go out much, she didn’t even really want to see me, but I insisted. When I left her house, I cried.
I tried to contact her the next time I was out there, but she had moved and no one knew where, and I couldn’t find her again. Until Brady and Noreen and I learned from the SBU alumni directory that she had returned East, and was living near Meyers in upstate New York. But she didn’t seem to want to contact us, and we didn’t pursue it. Obviously we should have, and I shall regret always that I did not.
Meyers has told us that she died in March, after many illnesses and long nursing-home and hospital stays; that they spoke every day. Which makes me glad: they were always best friends, and now they truly are best friends forever.
Susie was perhaps the brightest, clearest spirit I have ever known. She was intellectually brilliant, radiantly witty, spectacularly literate (we used to play Two-Line Poker: every English major in the world knows the first two lines of every English-language poem ever written, so we would challenge each other to quote the next two, or the last two…good times, good times, especially when we were stoned).
But also she had a matching, and more powerful, darkness, which stemmed from many sources and which was what finally, sadly, prevailed. Bright light, dark shadow. Sometimes you just can’t get past it.
I loved her dearly, and always will, and I am proud, humble, flattered and honored that she found me worthy enough to be counted among her close friends. When I think of her, I see her smiling at me over that guitar, back in that dorm room on a chilly September night. She always called me Kennealy, never Patricia. And now the people who still do that are down to two or three. She billed herself as Sue, and sometimes people called her Don (short for Donoghue).
But to us she was always Susie. She didn’t mind; she once told me that only really strong people can give diminutives to other really strong people so that the strong people being diminutized don't resent it and indeed enjoy it, and that we did so made her feel loved.
So she’s gone, and so much of my own past goes with her. Things we shared, that only we knew between us, of which secrets and moments I am now the sole custodian. (I remember driving up to Woodstock with her, both of us stoned, and seeing on a distant hillside giant white letters proclaiming “Christ Is The Answer”. “Well, Kennealy, look at that, Christ is the answer,” she said. To which I, in my stoned haze, promptly riposted, “But what’s the question?” Stealing, though I didn’t know it at the time, from dear Gertrude Stein, apparently. But Susie laughed so hard she almost drove the car off the road. One of my favorite things was making her laugh like that; I felt I really accomplished something when I did. She was a tough room.)
Of course Kathy and Noreen are still very much here, vibrant as ever, for which I am most grateful. We’re survivors. Who could have predicted that?
I will close with our favorite lines from our favorite poem (though Susie was mostly a Browning fan). We employed it on many occasions, often sarcastically, but we also loved it for its beauty and its truth:
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Go well, Susie!