Ildy Lee: Vivacious and energetic

Greetings from Ildy Lee. Photograph by Patrick Smyth

A woman of many hats, a woman of many voices

And when Ildy Lee discovered why she was born

by Bondo Wyszpolski

I’d like to start off by saying that Ildy Lee is crazy. You know, nuts. What I really mean is that she’s all over the place, a vibrant woman in her early 80s whose bountiful ideas range from the fully-baked to the half-baked to the perhaps not-baked at all, but who’s smart, creative, and a whole lot of fun. I’ll begin by revealing two different sides of her effusive personality — as the president of a local writers organization and, ahem, as a female Elvis Presely impersonator. You’re going to have a hard time beating that, I assure you.

Where writers can meet

We’re in the upstairs sitting room of her Lunada Bay oceanfront home which she shares with her husband George. They’ve lived in this house for over two decades, and on the Peninsula for maybe 35 years.

Ildy Lee with her faithful knight in shining armor. Photo by Patrick Smyth

Ildy recently began her second term as the president of the Southwest Manuscripters. This is the organization (founded in 1949) that invited Ray Bradbury as a speaker during a time when he was virtually unknown. To show his gratitude, Bradbury headed over to the South Bay nearly every year after that, and later, when he became a household, name hundreds of people would show up at his talks and have him sign their copies of “Fahrenheit 451,” “The Martian Chronicles,” and other books.

Bradbury died in 2012 and therefore hasn’t returned, and the group itself seemed to vanish.

So what happened to the Southwest Manuscripters during COVID?

“It fizzled out,” Ildy replies. “We could not meet in person, and we didn’t know what to do with Zoom; that was brand new for us, so it just died.”

But earlier this year, in her effort to resuscitate the organization, Ildy hosted a get-acquainted gathering at her home, which this writer attended as an observer. It was like a reunion of old drinking buddies.

Since then, the Southwest Manuscripters has gotten back on its feet. They meet each month, alternating between live gatherings at the Peninsula Library and discussions on Zoom, having now mastered that once-fearsome beast.

It’s still struggling, but Ildy is optimistic about the organization’s revival.

However, most people in the group tend to be older, and many of them have been writing, and even publishing, for many years. So how does Ildy intend to attract younger members?

“That’s a very good question,” she replies, “and this is actually one of my main problems. I think we should probably involve some high schools, maybe go there and talk to the youngsters about our organization.” Perhaps, she wonders, their teachers might give their students extra credit for joining this outside group.

It might help if she could lure an established author or two to come and speak.

“Absolutely. That’s exactly what we plan to do. We will have outside speakers, as famous as we can get them.” But why wait? Join now, for free, by contacting Jeri Fonté:

Readers may recall another local organization called Surfwriters. They didn’t really disappear, but instead joined forces with and were integrated into the Southwest Manuscripters.

“It happened during my first presidency,” Ildy explains. “There were two different groups here, and there was kind of a rivalry. And I said, ‘Hey, a rivalry is not good. We have the same goal, so let’s all get together.”

Ildy Lee, president of the Southwest Manuscripters. Photo by Patrick Smyth

It didn’t happen right off the bat, she continues, “but I cooperated with Mary Lynn, who was the president of Surfwriters, and we became very good friends. So we started to work together rather than against each other.”

Most writers aren’t rolling in riches, and that can also be said for any writing group they may belong to. That was the case with the pre-COVID Southwest Manuscripters.

“When I was president, we did not have a budget,” Ildy says. “In order to survive and to cover expenses I had the idea to put together an anthology. Everybody who wanted to be in this anthology had to pay a certain amount.” The anthology was a success, and put coins in the coffer. “Now I have the same problem — we have no budget, none whatsoever.” She does, however, have another idea, which would be a sequence of videotaped speeches, presumably by each member of the group. “And if they want, they can buy it,” she says. “And that money would go to our budget.

“So this is my new baby. I don’t know if it will work, but maybe. If not, we’re going to find something else.”

That’s Ildy Lee, the team leader. Now get ready for Ildy Lee, the entertainer.

Elvis, the queen of rock ‘n’ roll?

Why would a woman in her 80s want to get up before an audience, dressed as Elvis Presley, and sing Elvis Presley songs? Well, let’s find out.

“The reason I want to highlight Elvis,” Ildy says, “is not only because I love him and feel compassion for his life, but also because — as an actress — I think the biggest challenge is to be able to portray somebody who is absolutely not you. Like, I am a woman, a natural, real woman, but by playing Elvis I’m getting into the spirit of the man. It’s a tremendous challenge as an actress, and so I really wanted to do something that nobody else does — and that’s what drove me to Elvis.”

Of course this didn’t just come out of the blue one morning.

“Let’s go back to France when I was still a teenager,” Ildy replies. “The first time I heard and knew it was Elvis there was something that happened in me. I can’t describe it in words; this is a feeling that was just inside me, and that feeling started to grow and grow and grow throughout the years.

“When I was a toastmaster, my son wrote a very funny sketch for me, a speech about Elvis and based on Elvis’s songs. It was funny, and I won an award with it.” She pauses. “And that brought Elvis back to my mind and to my feelings.”

Ildy then clarifies what she means: “When I am on stage, I am Elvis. I feel, I think like him. I feel the pain, I feel the joy, and I think people can sense this; and that’s what I want to send out.”

Yes, here she is: Ildy Lee dressed to rock and roll as Elvis.

When you perform as Elvis, do you focus on just one era or do you cover the whole range of his life?

“Actually,” Ildy explains, “this is the love story of Elvis and Priscilla, based on Elvis’s hit songs. It’s from the moment they met to the moment they parted, and it’s very heartbreaking.” Of course the show is not without humor, “and so it makes people laugh and it makes people cry.”

And now, dear reader, for the question you’ve been waiting for me to ask:

What does your family think of your interpretations of Elvis?

She laughs. “They think I’m crazy, and they don’t want to have anything to do with this woman!”

When you do your Elvis show in front of an audience, what kind of response do you get or do you hope for?

“Well, so far,” Ildy replies, “what I’ve seen is that they sing with me, and I make them very comfortable so they feel that they’re part of the show, and that’s really important to me. Somebody said, ‘I don’t see a woman up there, I see a character,’ and I think that was a very nice compliment.”

You have people who like the show, but I’m sure you have some who must think, Man, this is awfully strange.

“Ahh, definitely!” She laughs. “But they like the strange.”

Rags to riches, sort of

Not surprisingly, Ildy Lee’s early years are worthy of a novel or a blockbuster film.

Her family — which included her mother, father and brother — fled Hungary after the 1956 Revolution. “We had to leave everything behind,” Ildy says. They arrived in Austria, penniless, essentially, because their Hungarian money wasn’t accepted once they’d crossed the border. “So there we were, hungry and homeless, but full of hope. Sleeping on benches, those first nights, in the station.”

Their journey ended in France, in Paris, her father’s ancestral land, and where he’d earned a degree in law. Ildy was about 14 at the time. But only a couple of years later she was discovered as a singer, signed a recording contract, and released a few songs on the Barclay label.

“That’s correct,” Ildy says, as I prove that I’ve done some homework for this interview and am not just winging it. “I was a very sad teenager because I’d lost my country and I’d lost my friends. The only time I was happy was when I made music: music was really my lifesaver. And so I played the piano for hours.

“My father bought me my first guitar; it was very difficult for him because he didn’t have money.” However, “That changed my life. He said, ‘My daughter, you have talent, the world is waiting for you. Go out there and make a difference,’ and that’s what I’m trying to do, make a difference.”

One of Ildy Lee’s early recordings on the Barclay label, France

But how did you get discovered?

“I went to law school, following in my father’s footsteps,” Ildy replies, “and I also entered a television contest and won. Eddy Barclay (the owner of the label) watched the contest and he signed me up right away, and I had my first record. That was when I met Salvador Dalí, had my first kiss from Salvador Dalí, and met people like Bridget Bardot and Albert Camus. Suddenly, for the poor little refugee girl who was dressed by the Salvation Army, a whole new world opened to me and I became a rising star — invited to the opera by General de Gaulle. I still have that invitation…”

It should be noted that Ildy wrote the songs on her records, having been musically inclined since childhood.

“You’ve told me that you’ve written 500 songs.

“In three languages,” Ildy says.

In three languages; and you sing in 12 languages.

Ildy laughs. “You got it!”

Do you still compose?

“Absolutely. And (the songs) come to me in moments when I don’t expect it so I have to stop everything and write them down.”

You write them down and record them?

“Right. And I hear the whole orchestration. I hear everything in my head.”

Ildy Lee, in her palace. Photo by Patrick Smyth

New priorities

Ildy’s life changed when she met her husband, George, a lawyer from the States, but in Europe on a work assignment. Actually, they met in Munich, not in Paris. “I was doing a television show, and he was there to save an airline from bankruptcy. We got engaged and then we fell in love, so I came to live here.”

The wedding took place in Las Vegas. This astute interviewer points out that Elvis was probably performing nearby on the same day.

“Exactly. Good point! I never thought of that. Yeah, he was there!”

If you’d stayed in Paris, would you have continued recording, or was that kind of behind you at this point?

“It was behind me at that point because when I was on a tour with an important star my understudy poisoned me to get my role… and that’s a whole different story.” Ildy doesn’t go into it except to say that it involved hospitalization and received major press coverage. The upshot, though, was this:

“I realized that this tinsel life was really not what I wanted; I wanted a family, I wanted children. I wanted to be like everybody else, and that’s when I met George. I was ready to give up everything, and I did give up everything — except that when the children (a son and daughter) started to grow I came back to it.”

Coming back to it meant, when the children were still young, going to UCLA, taking music lessons, and honing her craft as a songwriter. “So I was developing myself; I was getting ready.”

On a mission

“According to Mark Twain,” Ildy says, “the two most important events in your life are when you were born, and when you found out why you were born. As the result of some deep soul searching I discovered the exact time, the place, and why I was born. And when I found out why I was born my whole life changed.

“I’ve had a fantastic life,” she continues, “very successful in many ways; very interesting, healthy, and I am blessed to be here at 82, and I would like to help people achieve the same. I want people to be happy. I am the little Saint Bernard who is bringing the cask (traditionally filled with brandy). So if you need it, I have it. But I don’t want to force you…”

Wait a second. Earlier when you mentioned the Saint Bernard Rescue Mission, the Saint Bernard is actually you?

“Me! Yeah.” Ildy laughs. “Whenever I see some problem I go and help. My writing, my songs, my speeches, my television shows — everything that I do has always had a goal to help people, to make this planet a better place to be, to make people be more open to each other. This is what life is, and so I feel I have a mission.”

But Ildy, says the jaded reporter, you look at the news and the situations in the world and it probably doesn’t make you happy.

“Not at all, no. But that gives me the strength to do something, because we can’t just settle back and hate each other. Look what’s happened in this country.” Indeed, once upon a time when our two major political parties were at odds at least they respected one another and were open to mature discussion (I’m looking at you, Marjorie Taylor Greene). “Right now, people hate each other. And that’s not correct, that’s not right.” She pauses. “So I’m on that, too!”

Achieving the improbable

Years ago, Ildy had a vision, the result of which came about after she spearheaded a drive to raise money for building a home for blind children. That was the materialization of Mark Twain’s second of the two important events that shape our lives, that is, where we discover why (or for what) we were born.

Ildy Lee at home, forever youthful. Photo by Patrick Smyth

Although the vision occurred to Ildy in the early 1990s, when she was inside the Old Mission of San Juan Capistrano, it related back ever further, to when Ildy was along the shoreline of Lake Lugano in Switzerland and listening to a young man strumming his guitar on a park bench under a tree. One thing stood out, the young man was blind.

As Ildy recounts it today, “He was so happy, yet he had no money. He was very poor. I talked to him later. He had nothing. And I saw the people around him, arrogant people. They had everything and yet they were still angry and unhappy; and I was thinking, Oh my God… Then the blind person told me, ‘You know, you guys judge each other by what you see. I don’t have that handicap. I judge people by who they are, what they are.’

“His wisdom and humility touched my heart so much that I wrote a song about this inspiring young blind guitarist. I wrote it in three different languages — in Hungarian and in English and in French.” And so this song, “The Blind Guitarist,” became the catalyst for the fundraiser that collected enough money to build the home.

“For me,” Ildy says, “that was the exact moment when I discovered my purpose in life and the reason why I was born — to spread joy through my songs and shed a sliver of light into the heavy darkness of this world.”

Ildy’s next endeavor — and one may picture her as that Saint Bernard with its cask of brandy, but perhaps it’s also a cask of hope and encouragement — is to revitalize the American Institute of Fine Arts. “The organization is historically associated with prominent figures such as Mary Pickford and Colonel Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor’s father. You may view us,” she adds, “on the website.”

Many people become cynical and jaded when more of their life is behind them instead of in front, but that’s not how Ildy comes across. In fact, maybe just the opposite: optimistic, against all odds. For example:

“If you know that you want to achieve something, and there are a million and a half other people who want to do the same thing, would you go up against the million and a half? Probably not, right? But that’s what I did. I won over a million and a half contestants to be on America’s Got Talent. But you really have to want it. That’s why my motto is ‘Never Give Up Your Dreams.’ Go for it. When you really concentrate and focus on something, and you believe in it, chances are you’re going to get it.”

“Ildy Lee California Vlog” on YouTube or check out PEN


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