FrancEyE dies at 87; prolific Santa Monica poet
Frances Dean Smith, a Santa Monica poet known as FrancEyE who was inspired by Charles Bukowski, lived with him and had a child with him in the 1960s, has died. She was 87.
Smith, who had been living in a nursing home in San Rafael, Calif., died June 2 at Marin General Hospital in nearby Greenbrae of complications from a broken hip, her daughter, Marina Bukowski Zavala, said.
A singular character affectionately called the Bearded Witch of Ocean Park -- or, as Bukowski fondly referred to her in one poem, Old Snaggle-Tooth -- Smith had lived in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica for decades.
Her work under the pen name FrancEyE was published in poetry journals and gathered in the collections “Snaggletooth in Ocean Park” (Sacred Beverage Press, 1996), “Amber Spider” (Pearl, 2004), “Grandma Stories” (Conflux Press, 2008) and “Call” (Rose of Sharon Press, 2008).
John Harris, who co-founded with the late Joseph Hansen the long-running Wednesday night poetry workshop at the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice and ran the Papa Bach bookstore, described Smith’s work as “down to earth and emotional without being at all sentimental.”
“She was a very prolific writer. My God, she wrote a lot!” he said in an interview last week.
Although Smith had been writing poetry in fits and starts nearly all her life, she arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1960s determined to reinvent herself, leaving behind the man she had divorced and the four daughters they had produced during an unhappy marriage.
At 40, living with her mother in Garden Grove, she wrote to Bukowski, the writer who was making a name for himself with rambunctious, gritty works describing life on the urban edge. They met in 1963 and struck up a relationship, and Smith moved in with him. Their daughter was born a year later, and Smith moved out three years after that, seeking what she called “a calmer environment” in which to raise her child.
But Smith acknowledged Bukowski’s influence on her work, saying later that he gave her the courage to devote her life and her energies to poetry.
She attended workshops at First Unitarian Church in Los Angeles and the Bridge bookstore in Hollywood and began churning out poems.
More than 90 of Smith’s poems from the mid-1960s Unitarian workshop -- along with nearly 70 of Bukowski’s -- were discovered in 1994, not long after Bukowski died of leukemia, in a gold-painted metal file box that had been left on a trash heap at a Los Feliz curb.
An evaluator from the auction house Butterfield & Butterfield called Smith’s poems from the box “an intimate look into their sometimes tumultuous relationship.”
Most of them were signed Frances Bukowski or fdb, for Frances Dean Bukowski. Later a friend said the name Frances sounded like a plural, so they toyed with a nickname and Smith latched onto FrancEyE.
By 1970 she had moved to Santa Monica with her youngest daughter. She worked at a string of unsatisfying day jobs, often struggling to make ends meet, but, as she wrote a few years ago, “I was finally getting the feeling that I know who I am.”
Frances Elizabeth Dean was born March 19, 1922, in San Rafael. Her father died when she was a child, and his family took his widow and two daughters into their home in Lexington, Mass. She became interested in poetry and as a teenager had poems published in Scholastic magazine and the influential Saturday Review of Literature. She attended Smith College for two years but left at the onset of World War II to join the Women’s Army Corps, based in the Washington, D.C., area.
While in the Army she met and married Wray Smith. After the war ended she went to George Washington University on the GI Bill and earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. She and her husband had four daughters, but it was a rough union, her daughters told The Times. The couple divorced in 1960 and squabbled over custody of the girls, and Smith fled to start a new life in California.
After settling in Ocean Park, she poured herself into the poetry scene, taking part in workshops and readings, often arriving by bus because she chose not to drive. She was deeply involved with the socially liberal Church in Ocean Park, a United Methodist church that attracts an interfaith congregation. She also served on the city of Santa Monica’s housing commission at one point.
As she aged, she allowed the wispy white hairs that sprouted from her chin to grow, and friends started calling her the Bearded Witch of Ocean Park.
“I think she did that because it was sort of a feminist thing,” her friend S.A. Griffin, who published “Call,” said last week. “It was just her. It’s what her body was doing, and she just let it do it.”
When her health failed, she moved to Northern California to be closer to her daughter Marina’s home in Albany.
Besides Marina, Bukowski’s only child, Smith is survived by three other daughters, Patricia Vahedi of San Francisco, Irene Landsman of Rockville, Md., and Sara Jocham of Silver Spring, Md.; as well as 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
A celebration of her life will be held at 1 p.m. today at the Church in Ocean Park, 235 Hill St., Santa Monica. Instead of flowers, her family suggests donations to the Church in Ocean Park or a charity.
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