Much publicity has been garnered from the beautiful black and white photos of Katie Lee nude in Glen Canyon in the 1950s that were taken by photographer Martin D, Koehler and printed for a special fine arts edition by master printer Richard Jackson of Flagstaff, AZ.
At no level did I ever see these photos of Katie as being ‘sexy.’ Katie was as natural in the wilderness as any wild animal, completely unselfconscious, in a manner that very few people are when they are naked.
Yes, she was a remarkably beautiful woman when the photos were taken, but when she was in those canyons, she was part of the sandstone that she said she was born with in her veins. It was as though these canyons were part of her body.
In Katie’s comments about the photos, she said, “When I met Glen Canyon it was love at first sight—a place far from the inbred taboos of our society— closer to a dreamland than to reality. I have never posed as a model and am not doing so here…only doing what I always did in Glen Canyon—climbing, dancing, walking, touching, talking to the stone, swimming in the river, lying in the shallows, sliding down the falls, crawling through ruins, inching up crevasses, hanging from tree limbs, covering myself with mud, playing, singing, living with the canyon. I can always tell when a model is photographed in a place she’s never seen or experienced before; it’s in body language that can’t be hidden.”
Hiking and Boating with Katie
Anyone who has ever hiked or boated with Katie in the wilderness knows she will shed her clothes as quickly as she possibly can and not put them on again until she gets close to her car.
Wasn’t she afraid of getting ‘scratched’ someone once asked. I remembered walking naked with Katie and Joey in an absolutely fabulous cactus forest in Southern Baja California. You just had to pay attention, a perfect lesson in ‘being present’ in that silent, but very vibrant world.
In her book Sandstone Seduction: Rivers and Lovers, Canyons and Friends, Katie wrote: “When I suggested to someone that reveling in that nude world was like taking a bath in awareness, they asked, “Of yourself?”
“Oh no,” Katie said. “Awareness of the earth, the elements, that blue roof up there, the old stone dune with its birthmarks, that fitting hollow, the sound that sometimes comes from the tone when I put my ear to it.” For her, it was the canyons that were sexy: “The luscious sandstones of Glen Canyon began their beckoning call to me after my first year in these sequestered erogenous zones—those deep sinuous paths between Mother Earth’s labia, so private, so impermissible, I’d back away. Should we even be allowed to see such things?” (page 162)
The cover of Katie’s book, Ghosts of Dandy Crossing, featured herself nude, =grinning and pointing a Ruger at her friend and lover, the cowboy-miner Buck.
Perhaps more than any other book about Glen Canyon that Katie wrote, this one is about the people that lived and worked there before the canyon was dammed—the miners, cowboys, the ferryman, people who explored and settled the west. She felt at home with them and vice versa, whether or not she was nude. Their lives were upended with the building of Glen Canyon reservoir, a sadness some did not recover from, including Katie, who made her life’s work getting rid of the dam and restoring the flow of the Colorado River.
She had no airs in the company of those folk. She always said that the life she led as a performer was only to make money to get her back to her friends in Glen Canyon, exploring its labyrinths and byways.
And in those days, that meant performing in places like the Gate of Horn in Chicago or the Hungry Eye in New York.
Perhaps one of the more poignant passages in that book is when Jason, one of her river companions, goes to visit a glamorous Katie when she was singing in Chicago, an awkwardness between them that can’t be bridged, both unable to reach the easy communication with each other that was part of their river journeys, where she was always totally naked.
Do Any Famous Artists Live in Jerome?
Katie was comfortable with her nudity throughout her old age, when her body was full of sags and crinkles, freckles and liver spots. She just didn’t care. Sometimes you’d go to her house, and she’d meet you nude at the door.
I was once asked by a tourist visiting Jerome, “Do any famous artists live in Jerome.” I thought about this and answered, “Katie Lee.” “Oh, isn’t she the woman that rode naked through town on her bike?”
Katie told me she’s likely to be more famous in Jerome for her ride than for her books and music. Sadly, she was right. No stores in Jerome carry her books and music. During the last couple of years, a few Katie-come-lately’s (as my friend Richard Martin put it) laid claim to knowing her, but few have read her books or listened to her music.
An exception is the song written by Katie’s friend Kate Wolf called “Old Jerome, which Wolf wrote while staying at Katie’ house. The song was adopted as the official town song by the Jerome Town Council in the 1990s and is often played and sung by Jerome’s Ukilele Orchestra.
And yes, Katie is famous in Jerome for riding her bike through town naked except for a helmet and boots when she was seventy-seven years old. She howled with laughter as she sailed the mile downhill from Main Street to her house. It was her way to shed the glum, sad feelings she had after a close Jerome friend died.
The day she decided to do it was the kind of sticky and hot it gets just before a summer monsoon. “Friends were snapping at each other like loony birds in a tank of toxins and the humidity was a wet, down comforter under a 110-degree heating pad.” (Sandstone Seduction, “The Ride”)
She streaked past bar owner Paul Vojnic as he talked with Ray, the town cop. Paul said, “Well, aren’t you going to arrest her?” “What am I going to arrest her for” Ray said. “Floppy tits?”
Even before Katie reached her house, people who saw her started shaking the phone calls with their laughter. “Do you know what Katie Lee just did?”
Years later, friends put together a memorial to that ride on Katie’s maybe 87th birthday, where they rode their bikes, dressed up in fake big balloon boobs and padded bras over their clothes, before congregating on the steps opposite Paul and Jerry’s Bar. Only Katie and I showed up bare-breasted.
Foul-Mouth, Kick Ass Katie Lee
Maybe more than the nude photos, Katie was known for her foul-mouth. “It took me almost 20 years to get used to her saying the word ‘F. . . .K’, a close friend recently told me. The word would just roll out of her mouth—in conversation, but especially at lectures on the loss of Glen Canyon and the bottled up Colorado River.
Although most of our friends knew that Katie in the nude was her natural self, Katie in front of an audience put clothes and words together for shock and awe, including swear words. She was trained as an actress and used that training when she sang and lectured or was being filmed. Her appearances were not only unforgettable, but often brought audiences to tears. She was a fabulous performer. Then, she was happy to be known as a bad ass or a kick ass. It’s what she was going for. (The phrase ‘Kickass Katie Lee’comes from a short film by the same name that is produced by Beth and George Gage and shown at the 2016 Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vf7eaeY36tE
The only time I saw Katie embarrassed was when she delivered a commencement address at Prescott College to graduating teachers sometime in the 1990’s. It was laced with swear words and rants. Many graduates were Navaho women who were hugely offended. Afterwards Katie said to me, “This is the first time I’ve ever given a speech when absolutely NO ONE came back to tell me how great it was.” “Well, Katie,” I said, “look at your audience, young Navaho women, who had never heard another woman swear like that.“ First time I ever saw her blush.
Katie wouldn’t back off when I suggested she rename her book Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle, A History of the American Cowboy I Song, Story and Verse. She instantly hit red-line anger and screamed at me, “It’s a famous f….king cowboy song, goddammit.” That book might have been a classic hit among ranchers were it not for the title. The famed Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada wouldn’t carry the book; and many cowboy poetry festivals wouldn’t hire Katie either.
I sure hope the University of Arizona Press, current publishers of the book, will continue to reprint it and keep it alive. Some copies are still available at Katie’s website: Katydoodit.com (The odd website name, by the way comes from a conflation of the word Katydid, one of Katie’s favorite insects, and the phrase ‘doo dit.’ She couldn’t call the website by her real name because there was a cookbook author and chef by the same name who had taken the website name for herself.
The word tact was not in Katie’s vocabulary. Whatever she said or felt, she told you. I once chided her: “Katie, sometimes it might pay to be more tactful.” Again, full redline scream: “Tact is a f…..king waste of time.” She said that to me when she was just about the same age as I am now (78) and I try to say exactly what I mean, just not using the swear words.
I was fortunate to know most aspects of Katie— at home sewing, making beads, hiking nude, driving, performing—a giant kaleidoscope. And wherever I landed, what I saw is what I got. Inimitable Kick Ass Katie Lee. I am still immensely sad at her passing on November 1, 2017.
If you want to read more about Katie: My personal tribute: https://homesweetjeromedrapaport.wordpress.com/2017/11/01/katie-lee-death-the-grande-dam-of-dam-busting/
And a great obituary in The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/10/obituaries/katie-lee-folk-singer-who-fought-to-protect-a-canyon-dies-at-98.html?module=WatchingPortal®ion=c-column-middle-span-region&pgType=Homepage&action=click&mediaId=thumb_square&state=standard&contentPlacement=2&version=internal&contentCollection=www.nytimes.com&contentId=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2017%2F11%2F10%2Fobituaries%2Fkatie-lee-folk-singer-who-fought-to-protect-a-canyon-dies-at-98.html&eventName=Watching-article-click
Copyright 2017 Diane Sward Rapaport