Rae Suzan Strauss, also known as L.A.’s “Lava Lady,” passed away earlier this month in Florida, according to local papers there, of heart disease.
While she moved away well over a decade ago (where she also became a local legend, known as “the Wellington Witch”), she remains one of Los Angeles’ most iconic eccentrics. News of her death a few weeks ago has just hit the internet and it seems everyone in L.A. is recalling and revering her. Blogs and posts have popped up all over honoring her the past few days, but fan videos and artwork she inspired was out there even before her death.
Like many who grew up in L.A., I was fascinated by Strauss too. My friends and I liked to call her “The Unicorn Lady” due to the tight, phallic 'do she wore her long black hair in back in the early '90s (she softened it to a less severe, yet still dramatic bun in later years). This coupled with her jewel-toned '70’s bell-bottom pantsuits, Frankenstein platforms and rouged cheeks made her look like a living cartoon character. And since she didn’t drive and loved to walk and shop around town, she was a common site around Melrose, from La Brea to Fairfax avenues.
Melrose’s mohawked punks and pancaked goths had nothing on her look, and I remember first seeing her slowly striding the avenue when I was a kid shopping at stores like Soap Plant and Retail Slut. Years later, I moved down the street from her famous black-lava-covered house on Detroit Street and started working at a store called Black Market around the corner. I worked at Necromance (still on Melrose) in the back of the retail space, aka the “bones” store. Had she been a real witch, she probably would have come in like many others did, but she preferred to hit up the vintage clothing stalls.
I later met her on the set of an indie film called Citizen of Perpetual Indulgence, directed by Alex Monty Canawati. The film sought to be a modern, L.A.-centric take on Andy Warhol’s Factory lifestyle, and the director gathered quite a formidable cast of superstars (Holly Woodlawn, Udo Kier). Strauss made several appearances in the film, and all eyes were always on her during the party scenes, no matter what legends were present too. The movie was never released, but the trailer, featuring plenty of Strauss, is pure gold. (Watch it here.)
The film not only introduced me to Strauss on a personal level, but helped lay the groundwork of trust that would ultimately allow me to do one of the most fascinating interviews of my then-fledgling writing career: an interview with the Lava Lady inside her Lava House, which to my knowledge, is the only time she ever actually spoke to media.
Sadly, it was the mid-'90s, just before LA Weekly had a functional and or searchable website, and the piece, written for a section that would later inspire the paper’s People Issue, then called Considerable People, is not digitized ... so I’ll have to go by memory.
I was only allowed in her living room and I recall being a little scared stepping foot inside, trying not to act like it wasn’t the weirdest thing I’d ever seen. There was '70’s-era decor as one might expect, with stone walls and bright burnt-orange hues from the drapes to the carpet. There was no furniture in the room but a circular platform covered with orange shag carpeting where one could sit. On a carpeted platform in front of the drapes, roughly seven authentic Rodin sculptures of heads were arranged in a half-circle formation.
Anyway, I tried to ask her everything I ever wondered about her and that I thought the people of L.A. might want to know, but I was very conscious of not prying or insulting her. She was very dignified. She spoke slowly and gently, yet she had a strong disposition too. I mean, how could you not, wearing those get-ups and walking the streets of L.A. every day?
We dispelled many rumors about her that day. She was not the widow of Dr. Seuss. She was not a witch or an “heiress,” though there was some sort of relation to Levi Strauss. She was a poet. She had two kids and grandkids (where the rumor of her using only kiddie furniture probably came about). There was nothing sinister or alien about her lava-covered house as some had implied — she simply loved nature (she had great gardens in both the front and back of the house that I got to take a peek at). The lava was imported from Hawaii, and she got a lot of flack from neighbors who weren't happy when she bought the house next door and started covering it with the black stuff. She loved to walk around the city for exercise and she loved designing her own outfits, which a seamstress then created for her. She knew people said mean things about her, but it didn’t bother her. She was always open to answer questions from the curious. Kids, she said, were always the best about that.
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L.A. is full of freaks and characters a lot of us will never forget, no matter how much time passes. They are forever a part of the cityscape, their uniqueness ingrained in our minds whether we grew up here, spent a number of years here or visited and happened to have caught a glimpse of them. Some might be out of their minds, others craft their kook for fame (Angelyne, "Melrose" Larry Green, Dennis Woodruff). But some, like Strauss and this guy (now also deceased), were simply different. Different, but not crazy.
Strauss understood that other people thought she was strange, but she just didn’t care. She liked what she liked and lived how she wanted to live, even when she left L.A. for a less liberal locale. That made an impact and, I think, inspired a lot of us to embrace our inner oddballs too. L.A. not only lost the lava house (which was painted over) when she left, but a living piece of art in Strauss herself. Now so has this world.