Miriam 'Mimi' West, 81; Raised Millions for the L.A. Free Clinic

Times Staff Writer

Miriam "Mimi" West, a driving force behind the Los Angeles Free Clinic for three decades, has died. She was 81.

West died Monday in her Beverly Hills home of breast cancer, said her daughter, Ellen Harris, of Madison, N.J.

A tireless volunteer, West also served on the Los Angeles County commission on narcotics and dangerous drugs, and founded the clinic's fundraising arm, the Friends of the Los Angeles Free Clinic.

Over the years, she raised more than $10 million, including $2.3 million in the late 1980s for a new building for what was once described as "the hippie clinic where all the flower children gathered."

The clinic now consists of three centers on Beverly and Hollywood boulevards and Melrose Avenue.

West did not create the clinic, which originated in 1967. She discovered the ramshackle facility in 1971 when she drove her husband, Bernie West, to his first long-term job -- writing for "All in the Family" at CBS Studios across Fairfax Avenue.

"I walked into the clinic and I never came out," West told The Times in 1993.

Bernie West, who at clinic fundraising events described himself merely as "part of the package deal" and his wife as "the real dynamo," went on to write and produce for such other hit series as "Three's Company" and "The Jeffersons." He contributed slices of his salary to the clinic where his wife worked full time without pay, and in 1997 the couple donated $500,000 in a lump sum to provide more dental care for clinic patients.

When Mimi West signed on, the clinic's staff consisted of five people, including Executive Director Lenny Somberg. A line of the sick, the elderly, strung-out street youths and the working poor waiting for free medical care stretched around the block.

"I was so taken with what was happening there, how poor they were. There was never any money for rent. The Smothers Brothers paid the rent for a number of months. And Lenny only got $100 a week, if he got paid at all," she told The Times in 1997 when the clinic celebrated its 30th anniversary.

"I began to nose around to find out why there was no money and no plan. And when I approached leaders in the community, I found out that most of them knew about the clinic and knew it did good work, but no one had asked them to help."

By 1973, West had organized the fundraising division and methodically began tapping what would become the clinic's key support base -- the Hollywood entertainment industry.

West also organized volunteers to work at the clinic and lobbied for assistance at City Hall and in Sacramento.

She helped turn the "hippie clinic" into a medical institution so respected that medical schools assign residents there, mainstream health agencies solicit advice and county, state and government funds pay one-third of the bills. West also worked particularly hard for the 9% of the clinic budget that comes from United Way -- after two rejections for funding because the clinic had provided draft counseling during the Vietnam War.

West devoted herself to maintaining the theme of what is one of the nation's oldest free clinics, "Quality healthcare is a right and not a privilege."

"We were tempted many times to charge for this or that. But I'm glad we didn't do that," she said in 1997. "We didn't have to do that because, instead, we built up a lot of community support."

West earned her bachelor's degree from American University and a master's from Columbia University School of Social Work. She worked in community organizations in the New York area before her husband's career transplanted her to Los Angeles.

In addition to her husband and daughter Ellen Harris, she is survived by another daughter, Isabel Davis of New York City; one sister, Betty Bagliebter, of Miami Beach; and two grandchildren.

Services are planned for 2 p.m. Friday at Hillside Memorial Chapel. The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the Los Angeles Free Clinic.

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