By Clara Sturak
Special to the Dispatch
Regular readers of the Santa Monica Dispatch likely have noticed that it’s been “asleep” for the last year-and-a-half, napping along, with its most recent story, “End Burns’ Monopoly” holding the top space since September 2015. The Dispatch was founded in 2007 by Peggy Clifford, who served as its editor and main contributor until age and illness caught up with her and she was no longer able to sit at her desk and write. Peggy Clifford died in February 2017, of congestive heart failure at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. She definitely would not have wanted me to share her age with you, so I won’t. But, I will tell you that Peggy led a most full, adventurous, successful, independent, and, yes – long – life.
Peggy was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, into a certain amount of wealth and power, but those were never her things. She spent much of her youth in Pasadena, CA, getting into trouble and proudly bearing the consequences. According to Peggy, she was outspoken and brave, always looking out for the little guy. I think her family may have thought she was a bit of a pain. She liked to say that she founded her first newspaper at age 9 – and never looked back.
The epigraph, above, comes from the pages of the Chatham College (PA) yearbook, along with a picture of a young Miss Clifford, hair done and lips red, that Peggy surely hated. But the text could not have been more accurate. I met her first as a customer at Dutton’s Brentwood Bookstore; my husband and I worked the evening and weekend shifts, and she was an almost nightly visitor. Peggy smoked, as did my husband then, and he’d take his break out in the courtyard, avidly listening to Peggy’s great stories, as they puffed away.
By the time Peggy came into our lives, she was well into her third act – she could even have been called a “senior citizen,” except that she despised the term. Peggy was every bit the “defiant deb.” The rest – “levis…sneakers…overdue books…casual indifference…sharp humor and ardent editorials” all applied, and she was, always, “…headed for the top.”
As a young woman, Peggy fled west for Aspen, Colorado, and fell deeply in love with it as a physical place, a zeitgeist and a way of being. She became an inexorable part of the mountain town, owner of its bookstore, and columnist for the Aspen Times. She founded her own “micro” paper, there, too, the Aspen Flyer, which she edited from its beginnings in 1954, through to its purchase by the Aspen Times. From the stories she told, it’s clear that one of her proudest accomplishments was hosting what she called a “salon” for the literary crowd of Aspen. Her good buddy Hunter Thompson held court there, along with James Salter and other literary expats holed up in the valley.
As photographed by John M. Smith for the Aspen Historical Society
But Peggy was much more than the sardonically gifted hostess-with-the-mostess. While in Aspen, she wrote her own books – two fanciful and literary children’s titles, The Gnu and The Guru go Behind the Beyond, and Elliot, which recounted the travels and tribulations of a tiny elephant. In 1971, Peggy ran Thompson’s legendary — and failed — candidacy for Sheriff of Pitkin County on the Freak Power platform, and it seems to me that she was much more serious about it than he ever was.
Peggy Clifford left Aspen in 1979, for a brief return east, where she completed To Aspen and Back, a book of political essays about the piece of “God’s Country” that she both loved and hated with a passion all her own. To Aspen and Back is still considered required reading for anyone wanting to know what it must have been like to reside there when it was still a quirky mountain town – catnip to skiers, yes — but nevertheless a hideaway for cowboys, iconoclasts and ne’er-do-wells year ’round.
After a short stint in Philadelphia, Peggy yearned for the sunshine of her youth and moved west to California — Santa Monica, to be precise. In the years to follow, she wrote movie screenplays, doctored scripts for T.V. mini-series, and made several documentaries – two about the history of the Santa Monica Pier, during one of the many periods it found itself in danger of being destroyed by the capitalist good intentions of the City.
The City of Santa Monica – City, with a capital C – became Peggy’s great foil over the last several decades of her life. At first, she did her part to keep City staff in line (and prevent disasters like the demolition of the Pier in order to replace it with a mad-made island) as a filmmaker. And she quickly became the most prolific writer of letters-to-the-editor in the history of the Santa Monica Evening Outlook – the town’s paper of record at the time. Eventually, the Outlook told her to stop writing them letters, so she responded – with a newspaper of her own.
Peggy founded The Santa Monica (CA) Mirror, a weekly print and online publication, in 1999, and acted as its editor until “journalistic differences” with its then-publisher led to her departure from its masthead (and office) in 2006. I was lucky to work under her as Associate Editor and unofficial copy editor, driver, and meal procurer during her tenure. What a woman! I’ve never met a person with higher journalistic standards, or lower sartorial ones — she wore the same uniform of beat-up jeans, plaid button downs and very worn, lace-up boots everyday that I knew her. She cut her own hair, and lived on green bananas, Italian bread, canned tuna, and Evian. She simply couldn’t be bothered with anything other than making sure that the citizens of our little beach town got the news — the news they most urgently needed in order to fight City leaders — over everything from rampant, ugly, development of our downtown to City staff’s incessant need to brand and re-brand Santa Monica as a “world-class tourist destination.”
In her first Mirror editorial, “Our Reason for Being,” Peggy wrote:
Newspapers are founded for all sorts of reasons, but, as a friend of ours pointed out, if you’re going to cause trees to be chopped down, you’d better have a very good reason. Put simply, the Mirror’s primary reason for being is to find out what’s going on here and to report it accurately, to explore this mysterious turf and, in time, map it and, in that way, finally, to name it.
It drove Peggy particularly crazy that every hotel, every shopping center, every “transit mall,” or other cutely-named, unduly expensive project approved by City Hall would be identified as the thing that would make Santa Monica “world-class.” As far as Peggy was concerned, Santa Monica had the ultimate tourist attraction right at its coast: the Pacific Ocean. Adding anything more to our “world-class” home was an insult to all the awesome beauty of that not-so-peaceful sea.
She and the Mirror may have parted ways, but that didn’t stop her. She simply moved online, now truly a one-woman operation; founded and edited the Santa Monica Dispatch. In an echo of her 1999 Mirror introduction, Peggy wrote in “Why We’re Here,” her first post for the Dispatch:
We will fully and faithfully cover Santa Monica and its immediate environs, and will not hesitate to say what we think, but now, more than ever, in order to cover the entire community, we need readers’ views, too. …The “of, for and by the people” principle may be dormant in City Hall, Sacramento and Washington, but it’s not only alive and well at the Dispatch, it’s the primary principle.
From 2007 through 2015, when she penned her last, rather personal, gripe — Enough with the Ken Burns documentaries! — Peggy single-handedly took-on Santa Monica City Hall, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Architectural Review Board, Planning Commission, Traffic Division – you name it – and continued to fight fiercely for her town. At the same time, she comforted, protected — even coddled — local artists, writers, filmmakers and activists. She knew, that, ultimately, it was in our singular culture and (sometimes frantic) voices that Santa Monica really lived.
It’s obvious that Peggy felt the same sort of love for Aspen, it’s places and its people, as well as much of the same rage at the fact that, no matter how beautifully she wrote about her beloved Western towns, the idiots in charge would, inevitably, do them wrong. She may never have returned to Aspen, but she never stopped fighting for it — and all the story-filled, quirky and messy places like it — in a proxy war, here at the beach. Peggy Clifford — Cliff – she of the Levis, sneakers and overdue books, knew why she was here: to be a culture-terrorist and chronic annoyance to Them That Rule. At the end, the very end, she moved a bit farther west, into the Pacific Ocean (and what is Santa Monica, after all, but it’s doorstep?) at the coordinates: N 33° 57.192, W 118° 29.763.
We’re still here, so now it’s up to us to keep loving the right places and people, and giving hell to all the others. It’s up to us to, as Peggy would admonish at the end of every letter, Carry On.
Her sister, Marion Brent Clifford; dear friend and confidant, Gina Minervini, and all of us who worked with and loved Peggy Clifford, encourage Dispatch readers to share their memories, ideas or opinions about her, here in the comment section of this post. She loved getting feedback, no matter good or bad, and I’m sure she still would. -cs
Photos from the Aspen Times – click here to read their obit.