In Loving Memory of Claire Ol’ Bean

Claire, North Hollywood High, 1957

Claire and I met at age 15 at North Hollywood High School and – bang – we became instantaneous best friends. I’m sure that happened because we had – and have – a deep, abiding karmic connection. Both Claire and I had quite a few other friends, but we were so secure about our bond that we never felt jealous. My therapist once said, “Liz, I’m not sure you realize what an unusually close, extraordinary friendship you and Claire share . It doesn’t happen that often!”

Claire’s father died suddenly when we were still fifteen, right on the first night of Hanukkah, with her gifts and her brother Chuck’s gifts not yet opened. My mother told me, “Lizzie, pack a bag and go right over to Claire’s and stay as long as they need you to help.” I stayed five days, sleeping on the floor next to Claire’s bed. I remember hearing her wake up crying many times during the night. I bonded with everyone, and they welcomed me from then on as family. At some point we somehow began the, “ol’ bean thing,” addressing each other as, “Claire ol’ bean,” “Chuck ol’ bean,” “Fran ol’ bean,” “Aunt Ethyl bean,” and “Liz ol’ bean.”

Claire’s best friend Liz, 1957

I wasn’t at all interested in the mainstream high school activities, but Claire participated fully, joining in the Forensic League and doing more hours of service than anyone else, things like opening soda bottles at the dances, all in hopes of earning enough points to become one of the princesses in a school ceremony. I hadn’t yet learned to control my temper, so when I heard that she was out of the running because she was overweight, I flew into a rage, running down the halls as her advocate, screaming, I’m embarrassed to say. It worked though: Claire Muchnick became a North Hollywood High School princess.

Claire loved music, dancing, children – all people really – and animals. She loved writing and reading poetry which she shared with my mother, who was also a poet. It was very clear that in many ways Claire and I were polar opposites: Liz, wacky, intense, unconventional, extroverted; Claire, anything but. She was sweet, kind, patient, sensitive and sympathetic. Often when other people would laugh at something or someone, Claire would find the pathos and feel sorry and empathetic. She was always supportive and encouraging, a sort of walking lay therapist in her own loving way.

We supported each other, in part, because we both had complexes, only they were just the opposite of each other! I was told again and again that I was neither pretty nor beautiful, but that my body was close to perfect. Claire, on the other hand, had a movie star gorgeous face but always suffered greatly in her battles with her weight. We used to say that if we could arrange to put her beautiful face on my body, we’d have one bitchin’ looking chick! That was of course impossible, so after high school, Claire went to a grape ranch in Mexico, known for helping people to lose weight. Her mother Francis, Francis’ boyfriend, Claire’s brother Chuck and I went to retrieve her afterwards. We found her reduced to a size twelve and took her directly to Tijuana to celebrate her victory.

Claire and I dressed up in gorgeous sparkling sheathed dresses and high heels. It was the first time that I saw Claire able to dress up like that. And I wasn’t the only one to notice. We attracted men at every corner. Hordes of men, over three hours, invited us to have sex with them, many insuring that their sheets would be clean. Fran and I found that hilarious, but Claire was annoyed, especially when they wouldn’t let us alone. Fran and I came up with the idea of making dates with each of them, telling them that we would meet them at the hotel at five o’clock the next day, only to pull out of town at four. This was just one of the antics that her mother and I orchestrated over years and years, adventures with which Claire always went along, in spite of the fact that they were alien to her sensible, balanced nature.
I was 23 when my mother took her own life, an event that contributed to my first marriage falling apart. Claire was there for me through all of it, offering her abiding love, devotion and support. Later we would take note of the fact that we had each lost a parent when we were young.

I started reading palms when I was 25. With my palmistry, numerology, graphology, and all of the -ologies I’m into, most people would roll their eyes. “There goes Liz again.” But not Claire. She loved my readings, enthusiastically volunteering my services to people in restaurants to read their palm or do their numerology, becoming more outgoing in the process. And whenever I would apologize to her for having to put up with my OCD, she would respond, “It’s ok, Liz ol’ bean, you are so worth it.”

When I told Claire about Peoples Temple, we agreed that we’d better consult the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, on the issue of moving to Redwood Valley. You cannot ask yes or no questions with that ancient divination text, so we asked instead, “Please comment on the advisability of all of us moving up to Redwood Valley to be part of the Peoples Temple community.” We received the answer, “Follow the Great Man to the North: Those Who Come Late Will Pay the Price.” Several months after the tragic mass murder in Guyana, we decided to revisit the I Ching. We were stunned and shocked to discover, after spending quite a bit of time searching, that the hexagram about following the great man to the north was nowhere to be found. Two of my friends, experts on the subject, likewise insisted that they had never heard of such a message within the I Ching.

My proselytizing was responsible for bringing 13 people into the Temple, ten of whom died at Jonestown, and among them were Claire’s beloved children, Mauri and Daren. Making it even more heartbreaking, Claire was the best mother I have ever known in my entire life. I told her so often. She was not over-protective, nor domineering, neither overbearing nor too permissive. She was loving and devoted, striking a remarkable balance that I have rarely seen. Not only with her own children, she was the quintessential mother to so many, at the Ranch and elsewhere. And though my guilt persists, Claire never blamed me or held it against me.

(L. to R.) Claire Janaro, Herbert Newell, Jordan Vilchez, Liz Forman Schwartz, 2014

After a long telephone conversation once, my husband Ely said, “You were just talking to Claire, weren’t you?” “How did you know?” I asked. He smiled. “Because you sounded one hundred percent comfortable.” Few people were as beloved as Claire. She never had an enemy and was entirely nonthreatening; her love for people made everyone feel comfortable. And when Ely died, Claire insisted on hosting the gathering after the funeral at her apartment.

I was with Claire during her appointment with a psychologist at Kaiser when she was diagnosed with dementia. Her husband Richard had declined from Alzheimer’s disease, so she and I were stunned and devastated. It seemed to matter little that her particular case was not Alzheimer’s, but a vascular dementia caused by mini-strokes. It was during this period of her life that she told me, at least three times, that she really didn’t want to live that much longer, and that she was so looking forward to being reunited with her children, Mauri and Daren.

As her dementia grew more serious, an evening ritual developed. I would bring her a selection of her favorite foods and desserts. We would sing together, along with one of her wonderful caregivers. After the caregiver put Claire into bed, I would lie down beside my dear friend, and I would pray, which she loved. It always brought forth her beautiful smile. And then, as we were about to say goodnight, I would say, “Claire ol’ bean, my Claire ol’ bean, always remember we’re best friends forever. We’re joined at the hip and joined at the heart, right, honey?” And she always answered, “Right.”

The last time I saw her, she looked right into my eyes and told me twice that she loved me.

Claire is one of the greatest losses of my life. Almost every day I find myself going to the phone automatically, to call her about this or that, the way we used to do. And then I speak aloud to her spirit, saying something like, “Miss you and your loving kindness every day of my life. My inner knowingness is telling me that we will be together again in a future incarnation. I love you forever. Thank you for your love, my sweetheart.”

(Liz Schwartz, who was known as Liz Forman during her years in Peoples Temple, has lived in Southern California since she defected in August 1976. She was reunited with Claire and Richard Janaro when they returned there from Guyana in 1979.)