People: Miriam Patchen: peace and love
Publication Date: Wednesday May 3, 1995

People: Miriam Patchen: peace and love

"I can't do anything. I just feed squirrels and I give cookies to children." Despite what she says, cookies and squirrels are hardly the sum of Miriam Patchen's life. Patchen has contended with poverty, multiple sclerosis, clashes with the government and two great loves--including one that thrust her into the heady world of beat poets and the New York art avant-garde.

Even so, Patchen feels more like one who was borne along by circumstance than one who set her own destiny. "Maybe if I hadn't married, I would have become important and straightened out the world. I always wanted to straighten out the world.

"I'm not smart," she continued. "I've just been with two remarkable men."

She certainly seems smart--and cantankerous, unsentimental and unconcerned about public opinion. From her black house to her straggly long gray hair, she suggests a woman used to, and fond of, her freedom. "I should be wearing my hair braided," she said. "That's the only appropriate way for an old woman to wear long hair."

But, she added, "I find it awfully hard to be a totally appropriate old woman."

For 37 years, Patchen, now 80, was married to poet-painter Kenneth Patchen. The celebrated artist, whose work is now on display at the Palo Alto Cultural Center, died in the couple's Palo Alto cottage in 1972.

The rumpled cottage is a testimony to their time together. Patchen's paintings hang at crooked angles on the orange walls while photographs of him, a few with broken glass, dot the tables. It's as if the mementos are too sacred to be touched, moved or cleaned. "I think he is always going to be with me and around me. I knew that was why I was supposed to be with him. I knew he needed me to carry his work into the world."

Patchen has her own niche now: peace work and her love of recent decades, a man she calls only by his first name, Laurent. Every Tuesday, Patchen, Laurent and a small band of people spend two hours outside Town & Country Village holding signs that read, "Honk for peace." It's an activity she has been doing for 20 years.

Miriam and Kenneth Patchen met when they were university students in Massachusetts. They were an unlikely couple. He was artistic, a pacifist, a leftist. She was pragmatic, insecure and wanted her independence. Still, she was drawn to him. "I knew the first time I met him, he was a master poet. I knew I had to help him."

His parents opposed the match. "I was Catholic and a foreigner, which is to say, from Massachusetts."

The two married in 1934. They started out poor and stayed poor. "Even the Guggenheim (award) he gave away," she said. For a while, they got by on relief. Later, when Patchen was bedridden with back pain, Miriam worked at the jewelry counter in San Francisco's posh City of Paris department store. "Here was I, in this dress I made from a 74-cent bolt of cloth, in this glamorous, glamorous spot."

The Patchens moved to Palo Alto in 1958 for medical care--she for treatment of multiple sclerosis, he for treatment of his back. They bought a house with a $2,000 down payment from Miriam's mother, but only after being assured payments would be no more than $50 per month.

Although she always hoped for a more rural house, or at least a house made of wood, her "cement block" contains too many memories to leave. "I still feel him," she said. "I just belong to him."

--Diane Sussman
The exhibition "Kenneth Patchen: The Painted Poem" will be on display at the Palo Alto Cultural Center through June 4. 

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