A Conversation with Cynthia MacAdams

“I Was Born a Feminist.”

Videographer, Tag Christof, September 2019

I was born a feminist. I was born at war with the world. I was born at war with men that abuse women or anyone who abuses a woman. Women can abuse women, too. Kate Millett taught me that, and Sylvia Likens. So here it is. I was born in South Dakota. My best friends were my palomino horse Babe and my black scotch collie, Bruce. The rest of the people and I disagreed most of the time about everything because they were very parochial, very narrow. I grew up with a lot of death. I was born September 5th, 1939 in Webster, South Dakota, a little farm town of 2000 people. I wasn’t born in Sisseton because we didn’t have a hospital. And in those days, it was just gravel roads and it gets very, very cold. South Dakota gets to minus 30, minus 40 degrees.

I was born in September and my sister was twenty-one years older than me. She went in the hospital. She was a very bright, kind woman, valedictorian and writer, a journalist. She had cancer, leukemia. My parents were very poor, had no money. They had a house in Sisseton, and they mortgaged it. My sister died nine months later, exactly.  I have these strong, sensual, effective memories of crawling on her bed to make her happy, to make her heal, but she couldn’t heal. She was missing a valve in her heart, and she withered away to 70 pounds and she’d had a rare blood type. They had to spend all their money to find blood for her. It’s a vicious cycle. And so that was my beginning.

Then my father died three years later. He was an alcoholic and a womanizer, so I hear. I really didn’t know the man except he was a Sagittarian. My sister was a Virgo. He traveled the state. He was a politician, and even ran for governor. Probably would consider him a bull-hard, probably a bit like Trump. He died. Not good, not bad, but that was the end of that.

I had to deal with the loss of my sister.  In the hospitals in those days in South Dakota there were no doctors. Maybe they had one nurse, but I had the sadness of loss. Basically, my best friends were my horse and my dog. My mother was a good woman. She worked very hard. She had to support me. Why she had a child at 43, I don’t know. I guess she wanted me. So, I came along.

I incarnated in South Dakota. I never could figure that one out, but obviously I had to learn lessons about the land and about being a woman. So, I’m a woman this lifetime. But I’ve always felt strange. I’ve always felt queer. I’ve always felt disconnected, particularly in the parochial churches. I studied the religion. I love Jesus. I even taught Sunday School until they said I was too radical. I was too strange. I taught them Jesus was like a hippie wandering around the countryside preaching love. Oh, they hated that. But he was a hippie, he was a Jew, hippie who practiced great forgiveness. 

I stayed in South Dakota because I had no place else to go with my mother. We lived in the Courier, a newspaper office. We ran a weekly newspaper called The Sisseton Courier. It came out once a week. I had a brother. He had a lot of ego and he was in Annapolis becoming an admiral. But when my father died, he had to come back and help run the family newspaper. I think he was glad to get out of the war, but he still carried on like he was an admiral the rest of his life.

I think he was glad because we were at war when I was born, with Germany and Japan. He went to Hawaii after they bombed Pearl Harbor and he went over on a tugboat. He loved water. He did stay and he ran the newspaper and he started a radio station. He too was kind of involved in politics. And then my mother got involved in politics. She even ran for state senator. I think, though, from her heart, it was to help the Indians. I grew up in an Indian reservation.

Half the people in this county, in this town are Sioux Indian. And there was great hatred, fear of the Indians because they were going to take the land back?! They would if they could. They don’t love the whites. I don’t blame them. The whites stole their land and killed them. It was a massacre. But, you know, survival of the fittest. So that was South Dakota. Beautiful land, cold, snowy.

I went to Sisseton public school and I loved school. I loved to study. I loved to read. And then I just kept my own thoughts and I just remember basically every time I expressed myself, I’d hear don’t say that, because it was very different from what other people were trained – propaganda – to be like. Once said at a Thanksgiving dinner to my Uncle Huni – he was a dumb man, and he fired someone – I said, “Because the guy was smarter than you were, Uncle Huni.” And they said, “Shut up.” In high school, I was in theater and I was in athletics and I played a saxophone. But I always kept my thoughts to myself because I always got in trouble when I spoke out because they were radical. I never really want to get married because I found that a death trap.

I went to school at South Dakota State and I did a play called The Crucible and I was living in a dormitory filled with these farm girls. They decided I was a witch because in the play I am a witch, Abigail Williams. I got called in to the Dean’s office. They really thought I was a witch. I decided I’d better get out of that school because I am a witch, a good witch, a person who thinks thoughts.

From there I went to Northwestern and I majored in communication because at South Dakota State it was an engineering school where I was doing chemistry and algebra and physics. Oh, my God. And biology. I was in with all these engineers. I said, this is not the right place for me and I’m not an engineer. And at that point, I really was not that good with numbers. It wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in theater. I wanted to study human behavior.

So, I went to Northwestern. It was a very good school. I did conventional things. I fell in love with this Jewish boy. Then I joined a sorority and then I got out of all that and I ran to New York. And that’s what I love, New York, the stimulation, the minds. My first few years in New York were with Robert Frank and Allen Ginsberg and Diane di Prima. Oh, my God. The beatniks.

And then I just kept exploring realities and reading books. And then my big moment of feminism was meeting Kate Millett at Mallory Millett-Jones loft. I took photographs of Kate on the fire escape. Mallory said, “You’ll love Kate. You and Kate are one.” I said, OK. Kate Millett was outspoken, a radical, and everybody hated her and feared her. Her family tried to give her shock treatment to shut her up. And she fought them, and she won her case. Her mother tried to lock her up because she’s outspoken.

My 60s were dedicated to Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio. I love the Actors Studio and Shelley Winters and Lee Strasberg. I spent all my time going to class. I also worked with Sandy Meisner. I went to class constantly with Lee because I just loved listening to him. He was one of the wisest men I’ve ever known. He could see through people. He knew what they were thinking. He was a master behavioral scientist and created amazing actors. Brando, De Niro, Pacino, Kim Stanley. I studied with Lee for 13 years and was madly in love with him and hypnotized by his mind.

I did spend a year in Europe going mostly to museums and studying art. Van Gogh, Monet. I loved Paris and I loved Amsterdam. And then I spent some time just hanging out in Greece. So that was the 60s. And then I’d made this film with Robert Frank, Me and My Brother. And it was a great movie. I played a nun, an actress, and baseball player. We improvised almost everything in the movie. Then in 1967, Shelley Winters said to me, “Come on, Cynthia, you should come to Hollywood. You’ll get work in the movies”. There really wasn’t that much work in plays anymore. It was Edward Albee; Tennessee Williams was sort of dead and I didn’t really find a female writer. Most of my work was then studying behavior. 

Now we’re kind of at the end of the 60s. I was a hippie. I did a lot of LSD and I took a lot. Lake Harriman was where I hung out a lot. I went to Peggy Hitchcock’s mansion, now called Millbrook Estates. I really enjoyed the consciousness of LSD and Peyote and Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert and Kumar. He taught Vedanta at Columbia. I hung out a lot with intellectuals and that’s where I got my incredible mind.

I said, “Shelley, I’ll come to L.A.”. And she said, “I’ll get you a part in a movie, Wild in the Streets, which is all about young people taking LSD and putting anyone over 16 in a concentration camp. They just took a lot of acid. Shelley was the star of that movie and she was put in the concentration camp because they had to get rid of old people so the young people could take over the country, the 16-year old’s. I got to California and I did Wild in the Streets and I did some plays at the Actors Studio. I did Love Nest.

I did a lot of work at the Studio in those days because that’s all I had was acting and that’s how I made my life and my movies. Then I did Angels from Hell and it was a B-movie. I really am not interested in B movies. My last movie was with Johanna Demetrakas – Feminists, What Were They Thinking? It stars my work. The truth is I would act again, but I’d have to be on something like The Irishman. Something really deep and with good actors and a great director.

They tried to shut me up since the time I was born. I’m sure my mother would have given me shock treatment, too, if she could have thought of it. That’s why I never liked Kate Millett’s mother, Helen, because I thought she was a suppressive. Kate lived and really loved me, called me “Rosie Dakota” and wrote a lot of poems about me. We used to do drawings where she’d draw me and my naked body.

She had two floors. She had about 5,000 square feet on the Bowery. It really was nice. I had my darkroom on the third floor, and she helped me do “The Bowery”. She kicked me out of her loft all the time because she had to work. And boy, she did. She got up in the morning and a cup of coffee with three spoons of sugar. I don’t know how she did it, but she’d start writing. She’d take a blank page and she’d sit there until it happened. 

I would go out in the Bowery and photograph it. That’s my next book and my show is coming up in 2022, is “The Bowery”. I always felt the street is about losers and people who end up on the Bowery lost everything. I found that that was a good place to recreate myself. I was deconstructed, and now I’m reconstructing.

This is my third Dharma dog. This is maybe the last one, I don’t know. He’s 13 and he loves me. And he’s a Tibetan Lhasa Apso. Kate loved Dharma Kaya, the greatest, the only Dharma Kaya in the world.

Shelley Winters got me involved in Hollywood and I met everyone, Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, the great stars. And Warren Beatty. I did this movie, Lilith, and the star of that was Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg. I was doing extra work or stand in, as they call it, or walk-on parts. I played an insane person in Lilith. She was in an asylum and I was in the asylum with Ben Crothers and Olympia Dukakis for three months. That allowed me to save so much money that I could go to Europe for a year and study Van Gogh. I always saved money for a project. I’m used to living frugally, but always it’s a project. I’m always doing a project.

My final mission was to create a safe space for women to grow consciously. It’s been a long struggle, but it’s helped me grow, too, to develop my independence and my spine, my basic strength. Today I was very disturbed. For some reason in the Sonora desert of Mexico they assassinated three white women, Mormons, with their children. Mexico is not a safe place. It’s a bloody warfare. To survive they sell drugs.

You’ve got to quiet your mind and go within. There’s no other way. And drugs don’t do it. They just destroy your heart and your guts and your brain. Kate’s drug was gin. But at the end, she didn’t do gin, I don’t know what she did. She smoked a lot of cigarettes. I never smoked. I hate cigarettes. It’s toxic, it destroys your brain and your lungs.

I think Equal Rights Amendment is the big one, that women get equal pay for equal work, and that’s still not been decided, but it will be. The men still want to keep control of the money like when you die. My mother left everything to my brother. I had to process that. My mother thought like a little farm woman, that the man should have everything, and the man should take care of the women. The lie is they don’t take care of the women. Not when you’re strong and outrageous like Rachel [Maddow]. You think any man is going to take care of her? I don’t think so. You’ve got to find a way to survive and that’s what I’m doing now.

Let’s go to the 70s. After the last movie, I met Dennis Hopper after the drugs and the tequila and the LSD and the cocaine. And then he got the money. He did Easy Rider, the movie about, hippies on motorbikes, he and Peter Fonda. He got money from Universal to do the last movie, which he did. Anyway, I saved my money from that. I was in Peru for three months living with Indians celebrating the Indian lifestyle because I’m a little Indian. I’m short, a little chubby, just like the Indians. The difference in those days, I had very long blond hair and I wasn’t this fat. I was quite beautiful and Aloma Ichinose would always say to me, “I don’t know why you didn’t do better movies.”  Because I got a big mouth and I told people what I thought, and they don’t like to hear that.

Aloma was my very close friend, photographer. She’s sort of the star of my book Emergence. She had three children and three abortions, and she was married twice, and she was a radical. She lived a very painful sort of subdued life. She spent most of her later years going to AA. I don’t think Aloma did the work she should have done. But who am I to say, sweet dreams are made of this, some people like to be abused, others just like to abuse. Aloma was my very dearest friend.

I loved her madly and she’s beautiful. She and I did a couple shows together, but she always was my best friend. I could call her and moan and groan and cry at night. Nobody loves me. Everybody hates me. And she’d always say, “Cynthia, you’re a great photographer. You’re a great photographer”. Those flowers out there, I’ve planned for Aloma. She was a very sweet, kind woman. I love her. And so was Michelle Phillips, I love both these women very much. Michelle still with us. Aloma died last year and that was a big loss. She had cancer.

My involvement was with Kate and living with Kate and getting up every morning with her and having a cup of coffee discussing issues. She taught me. I was her muse. I did a lot of nudes of her, too. I began to see that through flesh, its spirit, spirit animating matter. Kate taught me to love more deeply and to question.

Of course, I always questioned authority. She taught me that that was the correct thing to do. Always just question authority and nobody likes that. That’s what we have to do. We have to constantly say, who am I? What am I doing? Am I breathing? Do I want to be here? What’s happening? People don’t like that. The men don’t like it in power. The Protestant Corporation of America. What else do we have to say.

I became photographer in 1973. I never did any photographs before then. I was an actress, an Actor’s Studio actress. Then with Kate I began doing the book on feminism, which is Emergence, and that’s an insightful book that Kate helped mold with me. We went over it night after night after night by the fire. And she taught me. It takes a long time to do a good book because you have to pause. You have to feel. The next thing I did is “The Bowery”. I’m working on that since 1973. The Bowery is a street of lost souls.

There is a photograph I did at the Bowery I really love. It’s just this table with a glass of beer bubbling on it, but it’s kind of contemplative. I love that picture. It’s just contemplation of having a drink and thinking things over. There are no more bars in the Bowery. That was the Half Moon bar. We should put that in there. I should dig up that photograph. I love it. 

I never thought about “The Bowery” as a show. I just did it and it kept materializing. And I just kept going, I just kept photographing until now, “The Bowery”. They’re destroying all my buildings, my beautiful Stuyvesant buildings and the brick buildings and the walk ups.

This is where it began. It’s Wall Street. It’s real estate. And the northeast corner, Feng Shui, that’s where all the great schools are and the great minds. L.A. is so God damned dumb and silly. It’s a bunch of silly, freaky people kind of like drag queens in reverse.

That’s a reality. To be a drag queen or transgender, whatever you want to be. I prefer being in a highly aesthetic atmosphere called New York City. I love New York and I miss it. I had a rent-controlled loft and I traveled a lot. I did work in Tibet. I did a book on the Mayan Indians, which is my forgiveness of the Mayan Indian, the forgiveness of Indians, period. The Indians have been massacred. I felt I’ve been Indian and maybe I am Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse. They’re entitled to this land and it was their land.

God damn pilgrims and General Custer, they were stronger, and General Sherman. This country is all based on war. I think that maybe they take over and destroy and redistribute. And that’s it. I don’t know. I don’t hear a word from them. Indians don’t talk much. They never have, they’re silent.

I think that more and more women will come in to Congress and the Senate and that will change the order. If people don’t stop having all these helpless motherless children and start really focusing on their education and their welfare, the planet is going to hell with global warming. I personally feel we have reached a point where we cannot go back. I think Al Gore agrees with me. It’s an inconvenient truth.