Sunday, May 13, 2007

Later still ...

From: Betty Reid Soskin
To: Steve Gilford
Subject: Vivian Allen Jernigan
Date: May 12, 2007 9:03 PM

You're an absolute angel, Steve. What a find!

It was rumored that Vivian ran Kaiser's Oakland hospital from first floor Station B. She was incredible -- and my role model throughout our lives. She was the first true internationalist I think I ever knew. She was without a doubt the most honest, compassionate, irreverent, and loving person in my limited experience -- either then or now. These brief lines in the interview with Joe Sender catch her spirit, her playfulness, and her ability to cut through all of the garbage of pomp and status.

She died about five years ago in a nursing home in Vallejo -- of a stroke after a lifetime of excesses and heartbreak, I'm sure. A party girl to the end, and with more adoring followers than most people gather together in a lifetime. Wish you could have known her. She was an active member of the Phyllis Wheatley Club for as far back as I can remember.

Edgar Kaiser was among her closest friends and spent many off hours at her (just ten minutes drive away from the hospital) spacious converted mansion on tree-lined Linden street in West Oakland. The wood-paneled foyer with its three-story sweeping elegant marble staircase gave more than a hint of its glorious hospitable past. The house is etched in my memory still. Her apartment was on the right side of the entry on the ground floor of what had -- long before she acquired it -- been converted into 6-8 studio apartments. This neighborhood -- at that time almost exclusively black-owned in the oldest section of the city. It was the first developed area of the East Bay and surely the most prestigious. But that was before the turn of the 20th Century. That gracious old home fell to the wrecking ball in the Sixties when I-80 wiped out those exquisite old mansions and Oakland's more glamourous past with them. Almost as an afterthought, some were saved and restored to create what is now known as Preservation Park in downtown Oakland. Such a pity that hers wasn't among them.

As I told you yesterday, Dr. Jean Neighbor was also a member of her inner circle. She referred to him fondly as "the Devil!" She was known to possess the most sensitive BS detector on the planet. It was impossible to resist her ability to see deep into your psyche, and all the professionals knew it. Vivian probably heard more confessions than the Pope! I suspect that there were probably multiple sets of keys to her apartment ... .

Thanks, again, for this renewal of memories of one of the most remarkable women in memory -- and not only in mine. I'll gather together the memorabilia that I have strewn around my apartment so that you can scan them into the record. Be sure to raise her name to any old nurses or doctors who may still be around. They will all have known Vivian.


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