Lisi Russell — widow of British filmmaker Ken Russell (Tommy, Altered States) — will be in Asheville next week to introduce a special Asheville Film Society screening of her husband’s film Mahler on Wed., April 22, at 7:30 p.m. at The Carolina Asheville. Many of you may know that this isn’t her first trip to Asheville, but fewer of you are probably aware that Lisi grew up here. Though born in Charlotte, Lisi came to Asheville at the age of 9 when her father, Hal Tribble, left the Charlotte Observer to become editor of what was then the Asheville Citizen. “In those days,” Lisi explains, “there was the Citizen — a morning paper — and the Times — an evening paper.”
“When I first set foot in Asheville, I thought it was magic — everything about it seemed so different from Charlotte, from anyplace. It immediately became home.” It would remain that for about 12 years. “Of course, it was very different then,” she adds. It was probably even more so for her, since her father was a die-hard progressive liberal whose views on the world — and especially on race — were not embraced by everyone. “I got so used to answering the phone and having people say, ‘Let me talk to the nigger lover,’ that I’d just say, ‘Daddy, it’s for you,’ and think no more about it. It was just a part of life at our house.”
This was the atmosphere in which she spent her formative years — and these were the ideals that were instilled in her. “We were never allowed to even remark on a person’s skin color to describe them. Dad insisted on us being truly color blind,” she explains, adding, “And we were taught to never feel superior to anyone. When I graduated high school I was accepted at Yale, but my father insisted I go to UNC at Chapel Hill, because he didn’t want me to become a snob.” The Asheville experience came to a halt in 1972 while she was at school when her father was “urged” into early retirement. Why? “It was very simple. My father refused to endorse Richard Nixon, so the family returned to Charlotte.”
It was also at Chapel Hill that Lisi discovered the films of Ken Russell. “They had such an enormous impact on us — especially in the drama department. But I differed in one respect from the others. They said they loved those films. I said, ‘I love the man who made those films,'” she reveals. So what did she do? She wrote to Russell — care of the studio where The Music Lovers was shot — on the back of a restaurant place mat, telling him that she’d be studying acting in New York that summer and asking him to stop by if he was in the city.
“Imagine my surprise when one morning at 8:30 the bell rang and there was Ken Russell standing on my doorstep. I remember there were two gay friends of mine asleep on the floor, and Ken just stepped over them as if this was perfectly normal.” So began a friendship and a correspondence that ended when Lisi’s mother nixed the idea of her daughter being in Lisztomania. “My mother knew Ken’s films and loved them,” she explains, “and that was exactly why she said no to the idea — mom was sure I’d have to take my clothes off.”
It’s a story, of course, with a long-delayed happy ending, because Ken and Lisi got back together in 2000 and married in 2001. And as soon as the opportunity presented itself — with the invitation from the Asheville Film Festival in 2005 — she introduced him to Asheville. “He fell in love with it. He said that seeing his name on the marquee at the Fine Arts Theatre was a healing experience, that the place itself reminded him of the Lake District in England — without the lakes. It became his absolute favorite of all the film festivals and retrospectives he ever attended, and it remained so,” she reveals. “And you be sure to add,” she insisted against my objections, “that it was partly due to you. You have no idea how much Ken loved you, and he always said you were the only person who really understood his films. I never saw him have such a good time.”
They always hoped to come back some day, but death intervened on Nov. 27, 2011 — though Ken Russell left this world with a picture of Lisi, himself and me sitting in a window at Diana Wortham in 2005 while waiting for the screening of Tommy. And Lisi will be back “home” — with Ken in spirit — for Mahler on April 22.