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Arlo Guthrie's wife, Jackie, dies of cancer

STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ, (Week of October 18, 2012)
Photo of Jackie Guthrie.

Jackie Guthrie, the wife of singer Arlo Guthrie for 43 years and self-appointed documentarian of the singing descendants of one of America’s finest folk singers, Woody Guthrie, died of cancer Sunday at the family’s winter home in Sebastian. She was 68. Her husband, her four children and their spouses, along with several grandchildren were at her side.

Their home was just completed two years ago, though the building, a former crab packing factory, was bought in the 1980s. Arlo became infatuated with the structure on one of the family’s annual trips to West Palm Beach, where Jackie’s father, Jack Hyde, was working as a salesman for WPTV.

The Guthries fought an extended battle with local government over rehabbing the structure.

Somehow, its primitive condition offered comfort to Jackie when she underwent treatment for breast cancer 12 years ago.  Though the derelict factory had yet to be renovated, and with her husband away on tour, Jackie stayed there alone throughout her chemotherapy, living without running water or electricity.

That tale and others like it left her husband, children and grandchildren non-plussed, as they recalled her lifelong streak of busting conventions, while sitting around the kitchen table Monday, the day after Jackie’s death.

Though they sustained themselves with take-out brought by friends, the same kitchen had served as a production line of cancer-fighting food, as Jackie’s three daughters and daughter-in-law worked off a master list of fruits and vegetables posted on the refrigerator.

“It was too late in the process,” said Arlo.

The stunning former model, born into a Mormon family in Utah, kept her thick curls as long as her husband’s well past middle age. She also kept an infectious non-conformity. That lifelong spirit thrived in her friendship with the late Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, the ebullient and eccentric founder of Kashi Ashram, a spiritual center and commune only a few miles west of their home.

The Guthries frequently joined Ma Jaya on her visits to hospitals, AIDS wards and nursing homes. Ma Jaya died of cancer in April.   

For more than a decade, ever since her first run-in with cancer, she has researched and blogged about alternative medicine and nutrition. She leaves a legacy of biting on-line comments to articles on the American health care and pharmaceutical industries.

Once a week, she drove the family station wagon 60 miles to pick up raw milk, grass-fed meats and organic vegetables from a Fort Pierce farm, dividing up the bounty to friends and fellow patients on her return.

She had beaten breast cancer with the help of chemotherapy but used a strict diet to purge any residual toxins from the treatment, family members said. 

This second bout of cancer caught her off-guard, her husband said.  She had left in July to go on tour with the entire extended family celebrating Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday.  It was not long after Arlo performed his father’s most famous song, “This Land is Your Land,” on the Fourth of July for Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show.

Two weeks later, Jackie took off on a tour bus with her four children, their spouses and her seven grandchildren. Daughter Cathy sings with Willie Nelson’s daughter; Abe works with his father as a sound engineer and has been in numerous bands; Sarah Lee performs as a duo with her husband John Irion, and Annie writes and sings: her latest song was just purchased to play on Jet Blue flights.

As usual, Jackie stayed behind the camera, documented every song, sigh and sibling dispute, just has she has for 250 videos posted on YouTube that have drawn 10 million hits, Arlo said.

“When she wasn’t making videos, she was watching them,” said close family friend Cathy Woolsey, a medical technologist  who for years has gone by the nickname “T-shirt Cathy” for her early job selling fan memorabilia at Guthrie concerts. “We’d talk for hours, and her videos would just run on and on.”

Soon, though, she began to feel fatigued, ultimately reaching the point where the crew had to set up her video camera in order for her to shoot the performances.

With much of the family booked to go to Denmark, she had to bow out. Still, she insisted on “mixing” the shows – editing the sound of the videos she shot.

Friends brought her food as she sat at her computer. With her family back home, but Arlo on tour in Ireland, her daughter Annie took her to the emergency room in Massachusetts. Only then did she learn that cancer had struck again.

It was September. This time, she opted against chemotherapy and radiation, which doctors told her could only prolong her life by a matter of months.

“She decided she wanted to fight it on her own,” said Arlo. “So we put her on my tour bus and drove her 22 hours straight through to Sebastian.” The kids followed in a caravan.

“Another family adventure,” said Abe, wryly reflecting his mother’s attitude toward life.

If Arlo was anti-establishment in his youth, he had nothing on Jackie.

Family lore has it that In her early 20s, prior to meeting Arlo, she once spent a year sleeping on the beach in Mexico, alone but for a small dog, who one night brought home a pack of coyotes for company.

“She slept alone on the beach,” Abe said. “She was fearless.”

 Gregarious to those she knew and met, she was more guarded regarding her own celebrity. Even as a girl she was hesitant to acknowledge her own charm. Her father, Jack Hyde, was an actor at the time and had moved the family Malibu. When Jackie at 17 was voted “Miss Malibu,” she refused to claim her title and fled, Arlo says.

She got up her nerve in a hurry, though, when she caught sight of Arlo, booked for a two-week gig at the famous Troubadour Club in West Hollywood. Working as a cashier and waitress, she brazenly approached  Arlo’s stepbrother in the dressing room and said, “You know, I’m going to marry your brother.”

When Neil Young cancelled and Arlo’s gig was extended, Arlo and Jackie fell in love.

“Sometimes when you meet somebody, you know you’re not meeting them for the first time,” said Arlo. “It’s more of recognition. And that’s how it was when I met Jackie.”

It was 1968. Arlo was in his heyday. The next August, he played at Woodstock. In September, he bought the 250-acre family farm in Massachusetts. In October, he and Jackie were married at the house there; coverage extended around the globe.

“Who else gets their wedding photo in National Geographic,”  said Arlo, still annoyed that a reporter incorrectly pointed out that the flowers in their hair were plastic.

“They were real,” said Arlo. “The woman who put them together came up to me at a concert  a couple of years ago and told me, ‘That day was the happiest day of my life.’ ”

As for Arlo, he is very open about the ups and downs of his marriage. “We had our bags packed plenty of times,” he said. “Whenever she’d get mad at me, she’d write a song about it.”

“And she wrote a lot of songs,” joked Abe, their son, as Arlo rolled his eyes.

Nevertheless, Arlo and Jackie were together on their 43rd anniversary Oct. 9. “She put a big fluted glass of champagne to her mouth,” he recalls. “She couldn’t drink it. But we had a great time.”

“It was a really great love, one of those great loves like in the movies. I loved her from the day I met her until the day –,”  Arlo paused for an instant. “I still love her. It’s like we’re going to keep meeting. See you in the next life.”