Remembering Myra Friedman, Publicist to Janis Joplin

Myra Friedman, Janis Joplin’s publicist and one of her closest friends, passed away on Saturday, October 16, 2010, forty years to the month after Janis’s death. Myra’s passing creates silence in a world that was once filled with the beat of her humor and the harmony of her intellect and generous spirit.

Over the past few years, Myra shared that generous spirit with many, regaling us all with tales of her life as the publicist for the first queen of rock and roll. When I began work on Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing, I phoned Myra, whose number I had gotten through my editor. I explained that I was writing a young adult biography of the famous rocker and asked if I could interview Myra about her years working for Janis. I expected Myra to give me a few brief anecdotes and that would be it. But she was excited by the idea of sharing her friend’s life and music with a new generation, and willingly gave me hours of her time. What began as a series of formal interviews soon became a friendship. Myra told such vivid stories of Janis, her voice adding italics to moments of drama or hilarity, that I felt I was witnessing these times alongside her. Myra adored Janis, and spoke of her brilliant intellect, her keen business acumen, her wit and, of course, her talent.

Myra was a brilliant woman, too, knowledgeable about history and music, especially classical and jazz. She sometimes wished she’d had a husband and children, but never wanted a do-over in her career as a publicist, or in her friendship with Janis. Still, she always wished she could have prevented the tragedy that ended Janis’s life; she often wondered if there was something she could have done to change that story’s end.

Myra was a true friend to Janis, patient with her excesses but willing to call her on her occasional “phoniness” and constant drug use. It seemed she tried harder than anyone to save Janis. After she died, Myra shared her broken heart with the world in her critically-acclaimed biography, Buried Alive, an insightful portrait of Janis that was unflinchingly honest about the inner demons and bad influences that destroyed her, while also celebrating her as a woman far ahead of her time.

Myra was ahead of her time, too. Working in the male-dominated world of rock when it wasn’t any easier for women to be backstage (unless they were groupies), than it was to be center stage.

Myra’s strength and heart shone through in our unusual telephone/e-mail friendship. Her first bout with cancer had left Myra with nerve damage, so she typed with just two fingers. We talked at length about whether voice recognition software might help – she said she couldn’t be bothered training it to understand her New York accent – which was classic by the way.

This past summer I made plans to visit Myra at the end of October. I imagined proudly handing her a copy of my finished book, inscribed to the friend I’d come to adore. But that visit would never come to pass. By September, Myra grew weaker, and our calls grew shorter. We realized we might never meet face-to-face. When we talked in mid-September, Myra knew she wasn’t going to beat the beast called cancer.

She told me that she really hoped she’d be around when I showed up in October but, she warned, “I might be dead by then.” Then she laughed as if she was kidding. I suspect she feared any talk like this would sound like complaining, and Myra couldn’t abide complaint. Later, she emailed and said she was half-joking; she said she’d look forward to our visit. Unfortunately, the death joke wasn’t even half a joke. The next time I called, Myra’s breathing was so labored we could talk only as long as it took for her to tell me she was returning to the hospital. Late last week was the last time I heard her voice.

She died in the midst of friends with Janis playing in the background, singing Myra out of this life and into the next. I hope Janis was there smiling and laughing that trademark cackle as she waited in the wings for Myra. I imagine the heavens grew raucous with their shared banter.

It seems odd that I never saw Myra’s face except in photos, because I felt I knew her so well. I never held onto her hand or hugged her, but we were friends. I was honored to be her friend. I have no doubt that there are countless others who can say the same, because Myra was so interested in life. She so loved people. And we loved her in return.