When Betty Marvin called me recently to tell me that her son Christopher had succumbed to cancer peacefully in his sleep, I was not surprised as I knew he was sick, but the news devastated me. The emotional effect of his passing took me completely by surprise. No matter what I tried to do for the rest of the day to take my mind off the news, a funk hung over me I couldn’t shake. If my mind wandered briefly, I still felt bad, wondered why, and a millisecond later, I reminded myself why.
It is a known rule in journalism that you should never make personal friends with your sources, as it can effect the work, but in the case of Betty and Christopher Marvin, I crossed the line and became good friends with them both, never thinking the emotional ties would be so strong. It was easy with Betty, as she is one of the warmest and most naturally open and honest people I’ve ever met. Christopher was another story. He only granted me the interview for my book because his mother told him to do it. At a going away party for his mom’s around-the-world trip, Betty told Christopher, “You go in that room over there with the door closed and you talk to him.” Reluctantly, he agreed and although naturally reticent at first, he quickly warmed up to me and I to him. Friendship eventually followed.
That’s how it started, way back in 1995. Over the ensuing years we would maintain contact periodically, whenever I needed his help or feedback. Although I never met his father, I felt as if I had through him. Christopher was, in many ways, the living spirit of his father, just in talking with him: his voice, his gestures, his love of ironic metaphors. That said, make no mistake, he was very much is own man. I doubt (but don’t know for sure) that his father ever made 4:00 in the morning phone calls after coming home from a gig. Christopher would do that on occassion, explaining he was too keyed up to sleep and wanted to shoot the breeze. At first, these calls annoyed, but once I was fully awake, we usually had some pretty intriguing conversations, none of which ever went in the book.
There is one exception to that and it was done of course with his permission. After discovering the Bastard Sons of Lee (BSOL), he asked me for their contact info. Their founder was then called and of course Christopher surprised the hell out of him with a 4 am phone cal (LEE MARVIN POINT BLANK pp. 251-252).
I know through the years Christopher wrestled with his feelings about his father but he never let on. He always spoke of him to me in the warmest and highest regard. When I asked if he’d be willing to write something for the book, he told me he’d think about it first. A week later he came through with a poignant and touching piece that made a natural afterword to the book.
The last time I saw him was after the book came out and he graciously came out for a book signing I did in Santa Barbara. Sadly, there was a rather poor turnout, which is a shame, since any Lee Marvin fans would have been able to meet not only Christopher, but his mother and sister Cynthia, as well. At the end of the evening, I asked the bookstore owner how’d we do sales-wise, fearing the answer. She told me not many sold that night (3 to be precise) but about 15 were sold since the book was delivered. When I then asked were they sold piecemeal or all at once, she responded, “Oh, all at once. They were bought by Christopher. He got them as gifts for his friends up north.”
The last few years of his life he left his beloved Northern California small town of Cotati. He spent them living with his mother and helping her with daily chores, walking his dog, Liberty, scouring the beach for glass, and working on his mosaic artwork. It is an ironic twist that once he got his life to a place of sanity and calm, the cancer diagnosis threw everything back into turmoil.
I never did get to talk him again once his mother told me he was sick but I had to honor his wishes and keep his privacy. That phone call recently from his mother still haunts me.
I don’t know if Christopher left this life satisfied with what he accomplished but I kind of doubt it. I remember asking him once if he was bothered by the fact that his father only left him $12,000 in his will. I’ll always remember his response: “Hey, $12, 000 is still a lot of money. But…it would have been nice if he left me and my sisters a little more. Not for myself, but I always thought it would be cool to open a music school for handicapped children.” It would’ve sounded corny coming from anybody else but from Christopher, for all of his hard-edge and cynicism, it sounded genuine and heartfelt. I believed him.
For that reason, he might have been heartened by the fact that a benefit was held in his honor the weekend he died. His mother said hundreds of people showed up, including all the members of the 14 different bands he had played in as a drummer. They successfully raised enough money to have a park bench installed in his honor that will read, ‘The Mayor of Cotati, Christopher Marvin.’ It’s not a music school for handicapped children but it’s a decent reminder of the legacy he left behind: Comfort for the many who knew and loved him and a view to enjoy on a sunny day. Sometimes, that’s the best legacy of all.