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The Wild Swings of Elizabeth Swados’ Life

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Twenty-five years ago in my freshman English college class, my teacher asked us “Why do you think people end up homeless?”

The choruses of answers were pretty typical: they were vagrants. Lazy. Drug addicts. She then passed out an essay from an issue of the New York Times Magazine that was titled “The Story of a Street Person” and it told the story of Lincoln Swados, a gifted young man who loved to tease his sister Liz. But she knew something wrong with him: his expulsion from private school, running naked through the chapel, and constantly challenging authority. He couldn’t make it through college.

Finally a diagnosis came: schizophrenia. But by then it was too late. Soon he became one of those people who sat on cold New York streets, asking for change. Liz tried to help him, but he was too far gone. He died in 1989. The essay was part of her memoir, The Four of Us: The Story of a Family.

The name “Swados” had sounded familiar. It was before Google was at everyone’s fingertips, so I wrote it down in my notebook. When I came home I remembered who she was. Elizabeth Swados! Oh yeah! She was the one who wrote the songs for the Doonesbury musical!

In 1983, Garry Trudeau took a year off doing his popular strip Doonesbury. He decided he wanted to do a musical about the characters. They were going to graduate, and he was going to drag them into the eighties. But he needed help. Enter Elizabeth Swados, who had a hit with the musical Runaways. The musical ran for 104 performances and starred Mark Linn Baker and Kate Burton. I was lucky to get a book that had the book/lyrics, where there were songs where Honey (Lauren Tom) and Boopsie (Laura Dean) singing “My Complicated Man” about the men in their lives; “It’s The Right Time to Be Rich” an anthem to the 80’s, and “Graduation” which addressed the unknown.

Trudeau and Swados teamed up again for Rap Master Ronnie, a musical where Ronald Reagan raps.

Yeah, you read that right: Ronnie raps!

All that was missing was his bling and sunglasses! The premise found Reagan trying to connect with young people and minorities.

Here’s a sample of his rhyme:

Okay people, gotta get down,

Brother Ron Reagan has hit the ground…

Ronnie can communicate,

The cat can rap.

I even let Nancy sit on Mr. T’s lap,

Loves the needy,

Loves ’em dearly,

Love to read graffiti

If they’d only print it clearly.

Rap Master Ronnie did better than Doonesbury; it was made into an HBO movie starring Jim Morris as the president and included in the cast Carol Kane and Jon Cryer. I’m hoping someday it will stream or end up on DVD.

Swados wrote music for movies and television. In 1986, she wrote the music for the miniseries for A Year in the Life. Listening to the theme music now I remembered why I loved it even at age fourteen. It’s nothing fancy, just a piano playing as we see the stars of the miniseries, then scenes of a family football game. What’s striking about it is the fact it’s just the piano playing. No synthesizers, no electric guitars. This was a definite rarity in 1986, when the power ballad was king.  The melody still brings tears to my eyes.

Swados was haunted by depression. While Lincoln had his struggles, their mother Sylvia Maisel was an alcoholic and killed herself in 1974. Swados wrote about her melancholia in a picture book called My Depression, which was made into an animated film for HBO. She knew in order to recover from depression herself, she had to transform it into art. It was the only way out.

Swados wrote several novels and memoirs, plus numerous musicals: Alice at the Palace (which starred Meryl Streep) Dispatches, and The Haggadah. No doubt she was working on other projects, but was slowed down by esophageal cancer that was diagnosed in April 2015. She left behind a wife, Roz Lichter. In the New York Times obituary, they found a quote she gave in 1978:

“I’m not an unhappy person… I live in wild swings of mood, but I sure live!”

She sure did.