It got worse," Lois Walden announces. Grinning, the singer, actress, and author of One More Stop (Arcadia, 2010) and Afterworld (Arcadia, 2014) ushers me inside her gabled Victorian home in Milan. She bustles around the flower-filled kitchen in stocking feet, offering tea (a fragrant home blend of vervain and silver-needle white) while unspooling the latest installment of a five-day saga to get the propane heating fixed. She's combating the chill with a crackling fire on the hearth, but it barely seems necessary: Walden radiates warmth. With her wide-set blue eyes, ready smile, and flying wedge of Harpo Marx curls, she's a cheerful host with a bottomless treasure of stories.
There's the one about landing a role in Martin Scorcese's Mean Streets. The affair with a member of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. The incapacitating car accidents in Tahoe and Red Hook. Oh, and the time her gospel group sang for the pope. More tea? Maybe a headstand or two?
The whirling dervish of creative energy that manifests as Lois Walden has lived here for 28 years with Margot Harley, producer and co-founder of The Acting Company, who's based in Manhattan during the week. Painted in calming pastels, with hand-painted tiles by Martine Vermeulen and a felicitous jumble of books, artwork, musical instruments, unfinished knitting, crystals, and plants, it's a cozy retreat. "I never go out," says Walden, who nevertheless studies yoga at Sacred Space and raves about Red Hook's Get Juiced. "It's not that I'm a hermit, but I really love beauty. I like comfort. I like feeling that I belong somewhere."
Maybe so, but a glance at her website bio (nicknamed The Saga) attests to a lifetime of packed suitcases. Walden dropped out of Boston University to tour the segregated South as the singer and only white member of trombonist Snub Mosley's jazz band. She opened for Rodney Dangerfield and Red Skelton in Borscht Belt hotels and Atlantic City, acted in New York, and moved to LA for what she now calls "my lost years. I did more drugs, had more sex. I don't know what else you do in California, except drive your car."
In the 1990s, Walden helmed the SongmastersInsideOut series at the Algonquin's famed Oak Room, appearing with Laura Nyro, Brian Wilson, Roberta Flack, Al Jarreau, and other legends. With gospel supergroup Sisters of Glory (whose members included Thelma Houston, Mavis Staples, Chaka Khan, and Phoebe Snow, among others), she performed at Woodstock '94 and at the Vatican. And for nearly two decades, she's crisscrossed the country as a teaching artist with The Acting Company. It's no accident that her first solo album is called Traveller and her first novel One More Stop.
If there's a downside to following so many different creative paths, Walden doesn't see it. "I'm a triple Aquarian—I like things to be electric, to move quickly," she says. "Every seven years we grow a new body. Our cells morph. We're constantly transforming, so why as artists can't we tap into that?"
"I guess I'm all about expression," she says, adding, "I'm a chameleon." This flexible self-definition extends to her personal life. For Walden, "Gender issues are nonissues. I've lived with a woman for 26 years, who I adore, so I guess I'm gay." But there've been significant men too, including a long relationship with actor Lenny Baker (Next Stop, Greenwich Village), who died in 1982. Walden says, "Physically I love men, emotionally women, and I'll take the emotional. The physical you can get anywhere."
She excels at libidinous characters, from the pansexual Loli in One Last Stop (a Lambda Award finalist) to Afterworld's rapacious Duvalier clan, who steam up the Louisiana swamps with a Pandora's box of forbidden lusts. How did she start writing novels? Walden tucks her legs onto the couch, yoga-flexible. Seven years ago, when she was feeling at sea, a friend sent her to a psychic. "I said, 'I don't do psychics. I lived in California. I am psychic.'" But her friend insisted, saying, "He'll change your life." Walden recalls, "So I walk into this really strange apartment in Manhattan Plaza, and he greets me with, 'The book. There's a book in a drawer. You wrote it many, many years ago, but you didn't know what it was about. It's your life's work.'" She was astonished.
"I never wanted to be a writer," she says. "I don't have the patience." But she dug through the drawers in her office, and found something she'd written in the '80s while her father was dying. "Just vomit," she says. "Page after page about how much I couldn't stand him." Still, she followed the psychic's instructions, picking a passage at random. It was about her mother, who'd taken her own life when Walden was 27. "I said, 'Oh no. No, no, no. I can't deal with it.' But then I sat down and started to write."