Lulu Torbet

By Sheridan Sansegundo, photo by Richard Quick

Lulu Torbet, artist, writer, photographer, and nonpareille, died at her home in colonia Guadalupe on April 11. She was 73.

It was a death that was peaceful and painless, but it happened mere weeks after she had been told that her cancer had returned and metastasized. Her friends had barely had time to absorb that bad news before they heard worse—she was gone.

It seemed inconceivable that they would never again see Lulu come into a room and think, “Oh good, Lulu’s here,” knowing that, whatever the occasion, it was now going to be better.

Everyone loved her. She was immensely kind and tolerant, but at the same time her sharp intelligence and subversive wit made her the very best of company.

Lacking a financially secure retirement here, she was still working full time ghost-writing and editing, most recently working with Fernando Botero’s dealer on an extravagantly illustrated book about his work with the artist, for which she recently traveled to Venezuela for the publication party.

But it was as a painter and photographer that Lulu was best known in San Miguel. She made us see the town in a different light—the colored tarpaulins at the Tuesday market, the scuffed and abraded paint of the many ancient cars, the kitsch-laden interiors of taxis. Apart from being beautiful photographs, they made you think, “How wonderful. Why didn’t I ever notice that?” and vow to be more observant in the future. She had a true artist’s eye—whether in the way she dressed, her gifts of the oddest tchotchkes she found in the markets, or in her inventiveness with everything she made, from jewelry to hand-painted furniture, to paintings of leaping hares, to surreal photographic collages of scattered petals.

She was born Laura Robbins in 1942 in Patterson, New Jersey, one of the six children of Ruth and Earl Robbins. She graduated from Glen Ridge High School where, apart from excelling academically, she was a racquetball and table tennis champion and a “twirler,” a drum majorette.

When she was small, and by her own account, a very shy child, her father was serving in the army and the most important influence in her life was her grandmother’s lover, Earl Beaumont. Every weekend they would take the train to New York City, get off in Hoboken, have an ice cream or a soft pretzel, and go back home again. “He didn’t teach deliberately,” Lulu said, “but he took me to the library, brought me art supplies. He was the first of a series of invaluable mentors that I had throughout my life.”

After graduating from Ohio Wesleyan University, she landed the job of managing editor at New Jersey Life Magazine. “I wrote everything, went everywhere, interviewed everyone.” She also worked at Alitalia and as vice president of promotion for the Newark branch of United Way. It was there that she met her first husband, the photographer Bruce Torbet. Before long they were living together on the top floor of a loft building on Christopher Street in the Village. In the studio below many filmmakers were making movies, Brian de Palma and Robert Downey, Sr. among them.

“There were art shows everywhere. It was the ’60s, a magical time,” she said, deciding then to strike out on her own as a freelancer. She established a graphic design studio and started to make macrame jewelry, which before long was selling in Henri Bendel and Bergdorf’s and appearing in Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily. In a 1970 article in New York Magazine about young jewelry designers, the magazine recommended visits to two studios: one was Lulu’s on East 22nd Street, the other was Robert Mapplethorpe’s.

“I had 10 women working for me—it was getting out of hand, and I’d had enough,” she said. “I said to a friend, “Let’s go down to 6th Avenue and get rid of all this stuff.” An editor, Leonora Fleischer, was passing and, impressed by the work, invited Lulu to lunch and convinced her to write a book about macramé. This she did. As Fleischer later wrote, “I read it. I read it over again in shock. The manuscript was perfect. Perfect. Not a comma out of place. I had been out-Perkinsed, cut off at the pass.”

So Lulu was launched on a writing career. Her first client was Dr. George Bach, one of the pioneers of the self-help movement. Among the more than 30 books she ghosted, many were on health and psychology, but she wrote at least a dozen under her own name—on skateboarding, mopeds, flying, helpful hints for hard times, and a three-volume encyclopedia of crafts.

She moved to San Anselmo, California,  in the 1990s but never lost touch with old friends, including her group of like-minded entrepreneurs known as the Boss Ladies, whom she had met in 1978 through American Women’s Economic Development.

In addition to many interesting liaisons, she was married twice more, to Peter Morrison and Salaam Hasam. These marriages also ended in divorce. Here in San Miguel, Lulu had been in a relationship for many years with Bob Fogelnest, a retired New York City attorney. “I’ve been blessed with the ability to attract fabulous women who have very bad taste in men,” he said.

Although she was always working on one book or another, in San Miguel she found endless inspiration for her art. In addition to a number of exhibits in town, she also had a major show at the Museo de la Ciudad in Queretaro. In typical Lulu style, she hired buses to take her friends to the opening, each seat with a Lulu-style gift bag of weird stuff. The tequila flowed like water.

“Beloved Lulu’s quiet passing confirmed a life lived in genuine creative joy and fearless grace,” said Anado McLauchlin, who had known Lulu since she arrived in San Miguel in 2004.

As we get older, some of us lose some of our youthful enthusiasm, our openness to new things, new adventures. Lulu never did. She rarely missed a Mexican celebration, including being up at 3am to go to the Alborada. She loved eating papas with chili at the bullfight and danced at any time and at any place she could. One of the last communications she received before she died was a video from her 14 nephews and nieces in the US. They all danced for her.

Apart from Mr. Fogelnest, Lulu is survived by her sisters, Gail Henningsen and Jane, Barbara, and Lisa Robbins, and her brother, Glenn Robbins, all of whom were with her when she died.

Memorial contributions have been suggested to the assisted living facility being set up by Dr. José de Jesús Valencia Rodríguez. Checks in pesos should be made out in his name and left for Bob Fogelnest at the Aldea branch of La Conexión.

 

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