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Living, Learning, and Going Long with Gypsy Boots, America’s First Hippie

I met Gypsy Boots in 1970, before I knew he was the nationally famous founder of the hippie movement, and became friends with him in 1995, nine years before America's archetypal holy fool passed away. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about him—what he...


Photos courtesy of Kees Van Voorthuizen

My mother hated hippies. She also wasn’t keen on meeting strangers, long-haired or otherwise. And her mood was especially dark that day in 1970 when the two of us were vacationing at the Hilton in Beverly Hills. She’d been waging a long battle with my father, her ex-husband, over me, their seven-year-old, and worried that she’d either lose custody or I’d “turn hippie” thanks to California’s corrupting influence. So when a hyperactive senior citizen with shoulder-length silver hair, a scraggly beard, and love beads around his neck approached us in the hotel lobby while banging a tambourine, shaking maracas, dancing a Russian cossack jig, and chanting, “I’m-a the Gypsy Boots, I live on nuts and fruits,” I wasn’t surprised when my mother yelled at him to get lost. I wanted him to scram, too. Ordinary hippies—the ones I saw on TV or hitchhiking through our New Jersey suburb—they intrigued me, but this one seemed crazy. Scary crazy. Why was this man who looked older than my grandparents behaving like a kindergarten escapee?

“Make him leave, Ma,” I whispered.

She certainly tried to. But Gypsy Boots was a man on a mission, which was to cheer up the sad-sack divorcee and kid he’d just come across. And, being irresistible, he succeeded. Within minutes, Gypsy had my mother and me smiling at him, then laughing with him, applauding his antics, trying out his musical instruments, and humming along to his inane ditties. Boots wasn’t drunk or on drugs, as I had heard other hippies were. Like the female protagonist of the film Harold And Maude, this guy was just chronically jubilant, the archetypal holy fool. After he was gone, leaving me with a free autographed copy of his self-published memoir, Bare Feet and Good Things to Eat, my mother admitted that she hadn’t felt this happy since before my father left her. It amazed me to hear her say that. And it amazed me to realize I felt the same way.

What I didn’t know then, and wouldn’t know for a long time, was that Gypsy Boots was important, nationally important, an odd figure who had changed the course of American culture. He wasn’t just an old hippie, he was the ur hippie. His journey started in the late 1930s, when Boots, nearing 20, left the working world, grew his hair and beard long, and went “back to nature.” This was way beyond Thoreau at Walden Pond: For years at a time, Boots would sleep in California forests, bathe in mountain streams, feed himself by foraging for nuts and fruits and vegetables, practice yoga, and wear practically nothing in the way of clothing. A dozen other Nature Boys, as they were called, kept him company (including eden ahbez, who wrote “Nature Boy,” the hit song for Nat King Cole, supposedly about Boots), but Gypsy was the most visible of the gang, the one who would eventually become a star.

Long before the Baby Boomers turned on, tuned in, and dropped out, “Hollywood’s ageless athlete,” as Boots was known, created a counterculture for them to inhabit. He did this by performing fitness demonstrations on network television and in movies, opening one of America’s first health-food restaurants, racing around LA in his crazily painted van with organic treats for a network of customers—all to spread his message, which was deadly serious in spite of his constant clowning: “Why cling to sickly, fretful, conformist ways when you can be your healthiest, happiest, most authentic self?”

Gypsy died in 2004, just short of his 90th birthday. With his centennial coming up next year, I’ve been thinking a lot about him—what he meant to history and what he meant to me.

Two and a half decades after our encounter in Beverly Hills, Gypsy reappeared in my life. By this time, my mother was long gone—she’d died of breast cancer at 49—and I was living in New York City, volunteering as a cook at a soup kitchen for the homeless. I didn’t think much about Boots; he was a luminous childhood memory, nothing more. Then, while browsing my shelves, I came across the memoir he’d given me, and I decided to bring it to the soup kitchen. Maybe we could use some of the vegetarian recipes he’d included in his book. As I consulted Bare Feet and Good Things to Eat while cooking, a middle-aged woman I worked with noticed the book and grinned and said, “Wow, Gypsy Boots! When I was a flower child in Hollywood in the 60s, Gypsy was such an inspiration. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s still going—I just ran into him last year!”

“Wait,” I said, “he’s still alive?”

“Sure, and he hasn’t changed one bit since the old days. He came roaring into this ashram I was at, shouting, ‘Don’t panic, go organic,’ and making everybody crack up.”

Until then, I’d never met anyone who’d known of Gypsy. So, he was still around, inhabiting the present as well as the past! That night, I called 411 in Los Angeles County and requested a listing for Gypsy Boots. I was doing this out of curiosity, but also as a sort of tribute to my late mother.

Unfortunately, the operator couldn’t find the listing, so I asked her for Robert Bootzin, since Gypsy mentioned that this was his real name in his book. No luck there, either. “The only Bootzin I have,” the operator said, “is a Daniel.”

My heart sank. Maybe Gypsy had died during the past year. I’d just missed him. Then I remembered a reference in his book to a son of his named “Danny” who was about my age. So I rang the number for Daniel Bootzin, and bingo: Gypsy, the younger Bootzin explained to me over the phone, was in his early 80s and living in Camarillo, 30 minutes north of LA. Dan gave me his father’s digits, finding nothing odd about a stranger calling from across the country to ask about his dad. A minute later, I was speaking with Mr. Gypsy Boots himself.

He didn’t remember me, of course. He didn’t pretend to. When I told him, “My mother’s dead now, but when we met you back in ’70, she’d just gotten divorced and you really cheered us up,” Gypsy didn’t seem to take it in, he was too busy talking to himself. Even with a stranger who rang him out of the blue, Gypsy preferred transmitting to receiving—not that I was miffed by this, since he sounded so excited to hear from an old “fan,” as he referred to me. And what a talker Gypsy was: He was as manically zany as I remembered, telling jokes and singing songs in his cracked, high-pitched voice before suddenly shouting, “Hold the line!” Initially I thought this phrase meant, “Hang on, I’ll be right back,” so I said OK and waited for silence, but he went right on speaking.

“Now you listen to me,” Gypsy said. “Next time you come out west from New York, I want us to meet up at this organic market on Vine Street I like to go to. It’s open every Sunday morning, but you have to get there by ten sharp.”

“I’d love to,” I said, “but ten AM on a Sunday might be a bit early. I’ll be on vacation, after all. Can’t we just—”

“No, don’t argue! This is for your own good. It has to be at ten so I can take you for a healthy breakfast that’ll knock your socks off!”

His words were bossy, but his tone was good natured. Like my equally strong-willed mother, Gypsy simply knew what was best for me. Why bother to argue?

Robert Bootzin was born in 1914 to a Russian-Jewish immigrant family in San Francisco. His father Max was a broom salesman, while his mother Mushka led young Robert and his four siblings on nature hikes in the nearby hills. She also taught them cossack dances, put them on a vegetarian diet, and baked black bread for them to give away to the less fortunate. When Gypsy’s older brother died at 22 of tuberculosis, Gypsy dropped out of high school and became obsessed with health and fitness. He worked odd jobs, slept in Sonoma Valley haystacks, and in time, with World War II looming, fell in with the Nature Boys (and the occasional intrepid Nature Girl). The band lived au natural in the caves and trees of Tahquitz Canyon near Palm Springs, on the beaches of Santa Monica, and the date orchards of Indio. His nickname then was Figaro, owing to both his penchant for eating figs and his spontaneous renditions of the Barber of Seville aria, but after awhile the new moniker, Gypsy, stuck.

As the Nature Boys and Girls were probably aware, their lifestyle had a European pedigree. A social movement in late 19th century Germany and Switzerland called Lebensform, or “Life Reform,” had advocated the same lifestyle practices that Gypsy’s tribe were exploring: nudism, raw foods, alternative medicines, sexual liberation, and abstention from intoxicants. The similarly minded German antiurban Wandervogel (literally “wandering birds”) movement likely served as an influence, too. As the Wandervogel did, the Nature Boys wore unusual costumes, worshipped the sun, made music, and camped. Both the Lebensform and Wandervogel cultures were brought to the US before WWII by German immigrants—including Gypsy’s lifelong friend Maximillian Sikinger—but it took the homegrown Nature Boys, and Gypsy in particular, to spread the gospel in California by example.

When Gypsy made one of his periodic returns to civilization, his jobs were as peculiar as you’d expect: dancer at the Bay Area’s Pago Pago Club, chauffeur at a luxury hotel, singer with a hirsute folk combo called Gypsy Boots and His Hairy Hoots, and and “advance man” for comic musician Spike Jones. This last job included walking on his hands and standing on his head in public, but it only lasted for six weeks. According to Gypsy, his stash of organic food attracted fruit flies on Jones’s tour bus, and the musicians didn’t take much to Gypsy’s teetotaling (he never ever touched drugs or alcohol), so Spike cruelly dumped Gypsy in Oklahoma.

During the 50s, Gypsy fell in love with and married Lois Bloemker of Fort Wayne, Indiana, a beautiful dancer and dance teacher. Like the three children they’d raise—musicians Alexander and Freddie and filmmaker Daniel—Lois was sweet-tempered and bright and surprisingly conventional compared with her husband. Despite how straight they were, though, the Boots family was accustomed to Gypsy’s wild ways and accepted him fondly.

In 1958, having permanently relocated to Los Angeles, Gypsy and Lois opened their famous tiki-themed restaurant, the Health Hut. Located close to where the Beverly Center stands today, the Health Hut, according to its menu, was meant for “firewalkers, fan dancers, phrenologists, philosophers, soothsayers, saints, space people, phony wrestlers, oppressed quiz show contestants, alchemists, bongo and balalaika virtuosos, Venusians, and utopians.” As if that and the organic cuisine weren’t quirky enough, Gypsy treated his customers as a captive audience, prancing and cavorting and doing pratfalls as they ate. The Saturday night luaus, which included Lois’s dancing and other friends’ acts, pulled in big crowds, many celebrities among them.

In fact, many of Gypsy’s early admirers were sports and show-business demimondes. He was a sweetheart with everyone he met, treating hobos and statesmen equally, but Gypsy—like any hustler—understood the power celebrities wielded. Leaf through Bare Feet, or its sequel, The Gypsy In Me, and you’ll find photographs of the author posed with a smorgasbord of stars: Marlon Brando, Gloria Swanson, Paul Newman, Angie Dickinson, Charlton Heston, Sharon Tate, Bing Crosby, Nancy Sinatra, O. J. Simpson, Rita Hayworth, Kirk Douglas—the list goes on. The last was an especially good friend: Gypsy often played tennis with Douglas’s young son Michael, and when Michael grew up to become a star himself, he gave Gypsy an uncredited role in his film The Game.

After the Health Hut ceased operations, Gypsy supported himself by delivering organic foods personally to customers and friends, which led to regular appearances on The Steve Allen Show, one of the most eccentric mainstream shows of the era. There, Gypsy swung around on vines, stretched out on rusty nails, ate flowers, milked a goat, dove into the audience, lectured Allen on health and fitness, and whipped up (some would say invented, or at least gave a name to) fruit smoothies.

His TV appearances brought Gypsy to America’s attention, and he basked in it. Gypsy recorded a rock music album entitled Unpredictable and starred in a documentary that the acclaimed film director Taylor Hackford shot but never released. And when he wasn’t playing himself in B movies, he was making the scene up and down the coast at hippie “be-ins,” food fairs, and summer solstice gatherings. (You can see him in the crowd in 1967’s classic rock documentary Monterey Pop.) While his national fame grew, Gypsy remained a local hero in LA, marching in parades, running marathons, and ringing a cowbell at Lakers, Dodgers, and USC games.

By the 60s, the world—the hip, young edge of it, anyway—had caught up, at least partially, with Gypsy. It had remade itself into something like his image, confirming his extravagant self-confidence, and he rode that Dionysian tiger with characteristic enthusiasm—while, it should be said, never descending into the dark, druggy abysses of that era.

The first time I met him as an adult, that Sunday morning in 1995, a few months after my first phone talk with him, I drove my rented Mustang from my hotel in Hollywood to that organic market on Vine, arriving as requested at ten AM sharp. Hungover as I was from the night before and dazed from a lack of sleep, I didn’t view this outdoor market as an ideal place to be. But Gypsy Boots isn’t the kind of person you want to break a promise to.

Once I spotted the colorful van with his face painted on its side, I shuffled toward it, my vodka-addled head throbbing. A pair of legs—muscular and hairy and old and bare—were sticking out of the wide-open rear door of the van. At the end of the legs were high white socks and beat-up brown sandals.

“Mr. Boots?” I said.

He crawled out and faced me, looking older and smaller but otherwise very much as I remembered him. Here were the same long silver hair and beard, the same love beads, and the same flamboyant clothes, accented now with a pair of gym shorts, a headband, and a football he was holding.

“You New York?” he asked in that high-pitched voice.

“Gary from New York, right.”

“Well, go long!”

“Huh?”

He waved the football in my face. “Come on, run! Go long!

“Er...”

“Catch my pass, New York! You can do it—get going! Run! Go long!

Resisting him was futile. Running awkwardly across the organic market’s asphalt lot in my cowboy boots, my head shrieking at me to stop, I nevertheless “went long,” and the bomb Gypsy fired at me nearly blew my chest apart. (As I soon discovered, Gypsy could dropkick footballs while barefoot and throw 40-yard passes with ease—in his 80s.) We tossed the pigskin back and forth for 15 minutes, me laughing and him singing and exhorting me to “throw harder.” He wore me out. Then Gypsy sprang another surprise.

“OK, what I want you to do now is get in my van. Leave your car here, I’ll drive you back later. I’m taking you for that healthy breakfast I promised you!”

He drove like a maniac, weaving in and out of traffic, taking his hands off the wheel to make silly gestures and looking away from the road to gauge my reactions. “You’ll love this guy we’re visiting,” Gypsy said. “He’s been my friend for 30 years!” When we arrived at a modest house in Silver Lake, I was amazed by the name posted outside the front door. No, I thought, it can’t be. This was in 1995, remember, and the big news in town was the prostitution bust of Heidi Fleiss, the attractive young “Hollywood Madam” whose father, an obstetrician, had been accused of laundering her profits. And here was the physician in question, a tall man with wire-rimmed glasses and curly hair, greeting us. “Breakfast is ready,” Dr. Paul Fleiss said, extending his hand.

As he led us into his home, Gypsy turned to me and whispered, “You read the papers? Fleiss’s daughter Heidi just got in a heap of trouble.”

Serendipity, I was learning, was commonplace with Gypsy Boots. It was just one of the forms of magic he kept in his bag of tricks.

During the nine years of our friendship, Gypsy was a raucous childlike surrogate grandfather for me. Actually—given his raucousness—he was more like my much, much older surrogate big brother. Or—given how childlike he was—like a much, much older kid brother. After that first meeting, he served as a connection to that buoyant childhood day when I first met him.

I used to phone Gypsy every two weeks or so from New York, having grown familiar by now with his exclamations of “Hold the line!” Whenever I visited LA, which I did several times a year, I took him to lunch at one of his favorite restaurants. On other occasions we’d meet up at Dr. Fleiss’s house, or else I made the trek to Gypsy’s apartment in Camarillo, where he’d show me videos of his TV appearances. Choking down my fear, I would ride around with him in his van as he drove recklessly around the city. And every August I tried to make it to LA for Gypsy’s birthday.

The birthday parties, usually held outdoors at the Paramount Studios lot thanks to Michael Douglas, were amazing affairs, drawing hundreds of charming kooks. Everyone there—from former Nature Boys and Girls to madcap ventriloquists to a refugee from the Jonestown mass suicide—had a Gypsy story to share. And just like at the Health Hut, Gypsy treated his guests as an audience ripe for entertaining.

In spite of all the good times, the truth is that Gypsy was fading by the time I reconnected with him. Many of his old comrades had drifted away or passed on. Every year, he insisted more emphatically, and more desperately, “I’m gonna make it in showbiz soon, you’ll see! Just watch—I’ll be bigger than ever!” Yet his glory days were obviously behind him. Old age had forced him to slow down, and losing his driver’s license frustrated him to no end. His middle son Freddie died tragically in 2001. And while the world around Gypsy further embraced his cherished health ideals, the Baby Boomers had, by and large, moved out of their communes and embraced capitalism—the world had become less carnivalesque, hence less welcoming to holy fools. Jolly old men who sang songs to children and divorced moms would, in today’s society, be questioned by the police. Through it all, however, Gypsy’s spirit remained unsinkable.

“Who cares if something’s wrong?” he used to say to me. “You’re still alive, aren’t you? Any day above ground is a good day! Every breath makes you a millionaire!”

“But we all get the blues sometimes,” I’d reply. “How can we fight it?”

Gypsy’s answer was immediate and loud. “Take an enema or take a hike!”

And he meant both options literally, of course.

Not that he was stuck in permanent “up” mode. Every so often, for no reason I could discern, Gypsy would lower his voice and grow mysteriously calm, then ask that you speak softly, too, or not at all. Was this evidence, I wondered, of bipolarity? He mentioned to me once that his mother had died “in the loony bin.” Was there some hereditary mental problem Gypsy was fighting? Perhaps. But he didn’t seem depressed at those rare nonmanic moments, simply at peace. (Deep breathing, meditation, and the like were part of his daily regimen, after all.) And unlike so many of us “straights,” the man was always plainly delighted to be himself and no one else.

Gypsy was hospitalized in early August of 2004 with a congenitally enlarged heart and passed away on August 8. Our last phone conversational was our most emotional. His son Dan called on my 41st birthday to tell me his father had died. Since then I’ve dipped back into his books and watched his appearances on video whenever I’ve needed a Gypsy fix. It’s also been comforting to trade Gypsy stories with friends of mine who knew him, people as diverse as the rockabilly artist Rosie Flores and the political activist Jodie Evans.

My own favorite Gypsy story took place on his 84th birthday. During his party at Paramount, Gypsy seized a microphone to introduce key relatives and friends to the rest of the celebrants. When my turn came, he asked me to stand.

“This guy Gary here, he’s my biggest fan from New York,” Gypsy explained.

Crossing my arms over my chest, I glanced nervously at the more than 100 faces now turned to me.

“And let me tell you something about this guy Gary and his mother…” But here Gypsy paused, frowning. He was trying to recall my story of how we’d met back in ’70—the story I’d told him during our first conversation. But we’d never spoken of that again, so when Gypsy finally resumed his speech, all he said was, “Gary’s mother, she got divorced, and then she died. Let’s hear it for him! Give him a round of applause! Gary from New York!”

I was stunned. That was it? After Gypsy concluded his remarks, dozens of the other guests approached me, saying, “I’m so sorry to hear that about your mother. The poor thing!” At first I replied, “Gypsy didn’t tell the full tale, and anyway,- she’s been gone for 15 years,” but in time I stopped explaining and just thanked them for their condolences. And later, as the sky above us grew dark, I went to say goodbye to Gypsy, who stood alone, clutching a football.

“Hey,” he said quietly to me, “wouldn’t it be great if your mom could see us now? You know, see us back together, pals, after all these years?”

I smiled sadly. I hadn’t grown up to be a hippie, as she’d feared, but I was guilty by association. “If she could,” I said, “do you think she’d like what she saw?”

Gypsy rolled his eyes. How could I doubt it? Didn’t he keep happy endings, like other magic, in his bag of tricks? “Of course,” he said. “Of course!” Then, breaking into a major grin, he waved his football like a wand and motioned to a distant spot and yelled, “Go long!”

"ALS ICH KAN"—FOR GABOU, LULU, VERKA, LOIS AND HER FAMILY

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