Lesley Taplin, who was killed in an automobile accident April 13, was a vital presence in so many different worlds that it’s difficult to know how to begin writing about her life. A world that came to have crucial meaning for her over the past decade, however, was the community in downtown Los Angeles. Taplin had a patrician beauty and regal bearing that seemed tailor-made for the pages of Town & Country, but she was much too deep and soulful for that scene. Taplin was drawn to situations where she was needed, where she could contribute and possibly change things for the better, so downtown L.A. became her home away from home.
Russ Brown, president of the Downtown L.A. Neighborhood Council, worked with Taplin for years, and recalls just one of her undertakings. “In 2002, Lesley almost single-handedly started the DLANC Education Committee,” Brown says. “One of her first projects was to create a booth at Project Homeless Connect to do a used-book giveaway. Project Homeless Connect is a one-day program of services and connections offered to those in need, and it serves a few thousand people in a six-hour period. We had no idea how the book giveaway would be received, but Lesley pushed to make it happen because she loved education and books, and wanted to bring those things to the community. Folks said the books would go to waste, be thrown away or sold for drugs, but Lesley just pushed forward. ‘If I’m wrong, then at least we tried,’ she said, ‘but if I’m right, they can read and learn, and we can help things change, even if just a little.’
“Lesley organized donations of 50 cases of books, and spent weeks collecting, moving and sorting them. Because we had a two-book limit at the giveaway, many folks took a long time selecting their books, and in the process, they told us the stories of their lives. They told us what they hoped to change, and they asked for legal books, foundational tools to change their lives, and especially dictionaries. They said that when they applied for jobs, there were often words on the job applications they didn’t know, so English and Spanish dictionaries, for adults and children, became a big part of the giveaways. Lesley also played an important role in the formation of the Skid Row Photography Club, Skid Row Brigade, Skid Row 3 on 3 Basketball and neighborhood cleanups.”
Skid Row was worlds away from the life Taplin was born into. She was the eldest of two daughters, born in Berkeley to Tyrell T. Gilb, a successful inventor and builder, and Dr. Corinne Lathrop Gilb, an academic. Taplin came of age in Northern California when the counterculture was at the height of its powers, and this suited her adventurous streak, which surfaced early in life. By the time she was 18, her circle of friends was composed of artists and political radicals, and she spent her time participating in protests, appearing in experimental films — and running wild.
She had a voracious intellect that compelled her to seek out deeper realities, however, so she pulled up stakes and moved to Los Angeles in the mid-’70s with no particular plan in mind. Taplin was exhilarated by the unknown. She worked a series of odd jobs and then, in the early ’80s, married and had a son, then a daughter. By the late ’80s, her marriage had unraveled and she went back to work, first at the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery, then in jobs at the late Carl Sagan’s Cosmos Studios and as a substitute teacher. Taplin was a restless person, perpetually in motion, and she and her children moved several times to various homes in L.A. and the Bay Area during those years.
After her children left home — her daughter, Blythe Taplin, is a lawyer in New Orleans, and her son, Nicholas Taplin, is a Los Angeles recording engineer — she found herself at a crossroads, wondering what to do next. One afternoon she found herself downtown, and the next chapter of her life began. She explained that the reason she spent so much time downtown was because she liked the people she met there, and enjoyed being with them. Taplin had the ability to celebrate what was unique about everyone she encountered, and never judged anyone, so she had the widest range of friends imaginable. One of her friends, Michael Blaze, tells the following story:
“About a year ago I laid in a hospital bed at USC County Hospital, 40 pounds thinner, having died and come back several times, as I am told. I was in a comatose state for a while, and I regained consciousness to this tall, blonde, angelic form. As time went by I realized I hadn’t died, and that it was my friend Lesley Taplin holding my hand, looking down, and literally willing me back to life. I kept wondering, What was it that brought this worldly, accomplished, dignified woman to the bedside of a man that lives in Skid Row? I couldn’t understand or see what she saw when she looked at me. But, if she could believe my life was valuable, then I could begin to fight back and live.
“Though I had known her well for several years, that was the first time I truly came to know the inner beauty and unconditional love of the late Lesley Taplin. May she rest in peace.”
There will be a memorial for Lesley Taplin on Thursday, April 30, at 6:30 p.m., at Vibiana (formerly St. Vibiana’s), 210 S. Main St., L.A.