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John McDonnell, 60; Antiwar Activist, ‘Spiritual Busybody’

Times Staff Writer

John Brian McDonnell was what one friend called a “spiritual busybody": someone who could not help but intervene in a world that saddened him with its injustices.

A former Jesuit seminarian, he entered history as the young pacifist who fasted for 37 days across the street from the White House to protest the U.S. incursion into Cambodia during the Vietnam War. The fast launched him into an unlikely but long-lasting friendship with then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who wrote of McDonnell in his memoirs and mentioned him again years later at President Nixon’s funeral.

McDonnell went on to become a social worker, whose unusual gift for reaching pained souls led to a lifelong vocation of helping rescue people from drug and alcohol addictions. His clients ranged from dope addicts in the slums of Philadelphia and Los Angeles to some of Hollywood’s most famous stars.

Like the mythical Forrest Gump, he traveled in so many orbits that his circle of friends was audacious in its variety. He rapped easily with hoodlums and invited homeless people to use his shower, but he also talked about foreign policy with Kissinger and world peace with the Dalai Lama, who was once his house guest. Capable of swearing like a guttersnipe and reciting whole passages of William Blake or ancient Arabic poetry, McDonnell was an enchanting amalgam of contradictions.

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That he loved life on the edge was apparent to anyone who knew him. He spent nights on skid row to help drunks, had been jailed many times for civil disobedience, and was nearly beaten to death some years ago in a drug-ridden Los Angeles neighborhood. He periodically drank to excess and was addicted to cigarettes, a habit that ultimately led to his death.

McDonnell died of cardiopulmonary disease and cancer May 29 at the Chalet, a nursing facility at Queen of Angels-Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center. He was 60 and is survived by a brother and a sister.

He did not go the Chalet in November merely to die, however.

“I can’t die -- there’s too much to do!” he told a social worker there.

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Observing the neglected grounds, he became the Chalet’s unofficial gardener, nurturing rosebushes, succulents and other greenery. He recruited garden helpers from among the patients, including a young gunshot victim paralyzed from the waist down who discovered through McDonnell a reason to keep living.

“He is one of a fairly small handful of people who ... has really changed people’s lives through the force of his own personality,” said William R. MacKaye, a former Washington Post religion editor who met McDonnell while covering the fast 33 years ago. “At the most superficial level, Brian McDonnell is like that department in Reader’s Digest, ‘My Most Unforgettable Character.’ But he was a very worthwhile character.”

McDonnell was born in Scranton, Pa., one of five children of a flamboyant criminal attorney whose alcoholism made for a dysfunctional home life. As a child, he seemed to need little sleep and consequently spent most nights reading in the family library. He especially consumed cookbooks and filled the early morning hours in the kitchen baking, a hobby that years later led to his running a restaurant in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and cooking for such celebrities as dancer Fred Astaire and actress Talia Shire.

He finished high school in Scranton, but his higher education was spotty. One of his first jobs was as a probation officer in Philadelphia, where he created a program to help alcoholics and drug addicts kick their habits.

He was teaching a course called “Love and Its Implications on Our Life Styles” at the University of Pennsylvania in 1970 when Nixon announced that U.S. troops were going into Cambodia. McDonnell condemned what he saw as an expansion of the war that would devour resources better spent on social programs at home.

Familiar with Mohandas K. Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent protest, he moved into Lafayette Park, across from the White House, on May 3, 1970, vowing to fast until all U.S. troops left Cambodia. He sat on a blanket and talked to anyone who would listen about what he was trying to accomplish. Two others eventually joined him in the vigil.

“We’re just trying to encourage people to think about a viewpoint called peace, instead of war,” he told a reporter about 30 days into the fast, “nonviolence instead of violence.”

At the end of each day he retired to a Quaker meetinghouse in Georgetown. One night in early June, he received a distinguished visitor, who went to see McDonnell at the suggestion of a mutual friend. It was Kissinger, Nixon’s closest advisor on foreign affairs.

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A few months earlier, Kissinger had begun to meet privately with critics of the war, ranging from senators to students. By the time he visited McDonnell, Kissinger wrote in his 1979 memoir “The White House Years,” the decision to leave Cambodia had already been made. He wanted to tell McDonnell that he was “sacrificing himself for a purpose that was already accomplished” and pledged to try to arrange a meeting for him with the president.

McDonnell soon ended his fast, but Kissinger was never able to bring him face to face with Nixon. The presidential advisor continued to meet with McDonnell on his own, however.

When he gave Nixon’s eulogy in 1994, with President Clinton and three former presidents arrayed before him, Kissinger spoke of McDonnell again, telling of a final message the antiwar protester wanted him to relay.

“I wish that in [Nixon’s] final hours I could have told him about Brian McDonnell, who, during the Cambodian crisis, had been fasting on a bench in Lafayette Park across from the White House until, as he said, President Nixon redeemed his pledge [to withdraw from Cambodia]

“He moved me very much,” Kissinger, recalling his relationship with McDonnell, told The Times last week."I think Brian had a sort of spiritual quality. He served his idea of humanity. He didn’t try to turn these political conflicts into civil wars. I understood him to favor reconciliation.”

Forgiveness, according to McDonnell’s friends, was a major theme of his life.

“You have to find a way to forgive people; he was very adamant about that,” said Tom McGovern, a Los Angeles businessman who knew McDonnell for more than 30 years. “Brian believed that forgiveness was absolutely central to your mental health.”

He lived out his belief in charity toward others to a shocking degree. His wife, Alice, was a brilliant African American woman, several years older than McDonnell, who had risen from poverty to work for the Foreign Service and later became a social worker. One night in the early 1970s, after teaching a class for welfare mothers, she was stabbed to death in an apparently random street crime. McDonnell was devastated, but he testified against giving the death penalty to the two teenage boys found guilty of her murder. “They’re just kids,” he told friends.

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He eventually moved to California, winding up in the late 1970s at Behavioral Health Services, a Gardena-based provider of treatment programs for substance abuse and other problems. He became clinical director overseeing residential and outpatient programs, but took an unusual approach to the job.

He regularly spent nights on skid row to investigate firsthand the quality of the social services available there. “Brian would say [of the agencies there], ‘Those people are no darn good.’ I’d say, how do you know? And he’d say, ‘I was there last night.’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” said Larry Gentile, chief executive of Behavioral Health Services.

McDonnell was not the steadiest employee. According to Gentile, he often disappeared for days and weeks at a time, usually because of health problems. One time, after an absence of four weeks, Gentile tracked him down in England, where he was working for Dire Straits singer-guitarist Mark Knopfler as a cook and personal advisor.

McDonnell stretched the boundaries of every job. When he cooked for Shire, “he would serve the meal and give you a political opinion,” said the actress, who remembers the wonderful soups and other sophisticated dishes he made. “He came into my life as this great cook and became a really close and unique friend ... a kind of bizarre Jiminy Cricket who felt he had to get in there and make sure you were listening to your soul.”

He held other conventional jobs. During the mid- to late 1990s, he was director of the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation for the state of Pennsylvania, where he provided opportunities for drug and alcohol abusers, prostitutes and AIDS patients to lead productive lives.

But his greatest strength was working individually with addicts, breaking through their denial to help them acknowledge their problem and accept help.

“He was brilliant at confrontations,” said a former Hollywood studio chief who was so concerned about drug and alcohol use among his employees and many major stars that he hired McDonnell to get them into treatment.

“It’s hard to confront a big star who is an economic asset to everyone who knows him. No one wants to cut their own throat,” said the man, who did not want to be named. “So I got Brian to do this. There was one star that nobody could talk to. Brian had him on a plane to Arizona [for treatment] the afternoon that he talked to him. That person never took a drink again.”

What made McDonnell so effective was his intimate, intuitive style.

“He could dig in, be very confrontive and very supportive. He knew everything about you in 10 minutes,” Gentile said.

“He did have a magic about him. It was really a gift.”

As for his kicking his own cigarette addiction, McDonnell was an abysmal failure.

Although his health had been declining for years -- after the fast, he lost all his teeth and developed heart and stomach problems -- he kept smoking, even in his last days when he relied on an oxygen tank to breathe.

He also kept “meddling,” as Shire put it.

He took care of the flowering plants on the Chalet’s patios, and soon attracted a devoted core of patients as assistants, teaching them the basics of gardening while talking to them about how to improve their lives.

One of his fellow patients was Pedro Aispuro, a soft-spoken 32-year-old immigrant from Mexico. He had a sixth-grade education and a history of drug use when he was shot in the spine during a carjacking and lost the use of his legs. His future looked bleak, and he shunned most activities at the Chalet, preferring to spend his days in bed.

Then McDonnell arrived. Soon he had Aispuro on the patio tending petunias. He talked to him about art and music. He counseled him on managing his pain. He urged him to go back to school. Aispuro began to call McDonnell “Papa.” He became his roommate and helped care for him until he died.

Now Aispuro misses his friend, but he has dreams. He wants to return to school to study English and computers.

“Brian said, ‘Don’t go on drugs, don’t go on the streets. There are other things you can do,’ ” Aispuro said the other day. “He changed my thoughts. He made me realize that I can do better things with my life.

“I love him a lot.”


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