Palisades’ Carolyn See Captured SoCal Heartbeat

By Libby Motika
Palisades News Contributor

In her 2000 essay “Waters of Tranquility,” Carolyn See observed the quiet, unassuming tranquility enveloping the Self-Realization Fellowship in Pacific Palisades. And there, while circling round and round the lake, the famously secular author painfully accepts the imminent death of her life partner, John Espey. There she can feel the magnificence of life—all life, small and large—poking up in the universe.

“A single human death may be no more than a fall of one flower, one tweaked leaf ” she wrote. “There are so many more! And Life itself may be no more than a play toy, a few Burma-Shave signs in the universe. But blazing, amazing, for all that. You can see it at the Lake Shrine. I know I did.”

Carolyn See in 1995. Photo: Marilyn Sanders/Random House

Carolyn See in 1995.
Photo: Marilyn Sanders/Random House

Carolyn See met the end of her magnificent life after a battle with cancer on July 14 in Santa Monica. She was 82.

A Californian in residence and heart and bone, See wrote of her world, Southern California, capturing the hopefulness of dreamers, seekers and the wild hairs who populate the region.

Born January 13, 1934, in Pasadena, See wrote about what she knew, recounting in her 1995 memoir, Dreaming, Hard Luck and Good Times in America, her parents’ drinking binges and her own wild life. In Rhine Maidens she channeled the fraught relationship with her own mother, lacing the novel with her customary comic touch.

The author of over a dozen books, See was a disciplined writer who filled her days writing fiction, but also book reviews (for both the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post) and teaching.

She committed to writing 1,000 words a day or four double-spaced pages, five days a week; advice she suggested to all would-be writers.

Making A Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers (2002) was, she said, “the hardest thing I ever wrote.” In it, she offers information from practical character and plot development tips to dealing with rejection and planning your first trip to New York.

“Getting published is all courtship,” she said, “and you’re engineering your own failure. Instead of thinking of rejection as a life-blighting event, make it into a dating game.”

After high school and finally extracting herself from her dysfunctional family, See pursued her education, earning her undergraduate degree from Cal State L.A. and later a Ph.D. in English at UCLA.

See was married twice, first to Richard See in 1954. The couple had a daughter, Lisa, who is a best-selling novelist. Her second marriage, to Tom Sturak, lasted for a decade and produced daughter Clara.

Her deepest and most enduring relationship was with John Espey, a UCLA English professor, 21 years her senior. He joined See and Lisa See in co-writing two popular novels using the pseudonym Monica Highland.

After she and Espey moved from Topanga Canyon, they lived in Castellammare until See, fearful of losing her sight, moved to Santa Monica to be able to get around by bus. Before she retired in 2004, See created a $100,000 endowment at UCLA for the study of Southern California literature.

With her passing, the literary world lost a grande dame of Southern California writers but has been left with See’s vivid, insightful dissection of her beloved Los Angeles world.

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