Tuesday, August 5, 1997
Fifi, beloved street person,
dead at 81


BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Fifi Taft Rockefeller
Fifi Taft Rockefeller, right, and her daughter, Gay Caldwell
| ZOOM |
Word made its way slowly across town, from the soup kitchens to the corner offices. Fifi was gone.

Fifi Taft Rockefeller, the undisputed queen of Over-the-Rhine, died Saturday of cancer after 81 incandescent years. Struggling to put a name to the vivid and noisy display that was Fifi, some have described her as a bag lady. She was never that. And she was never homeless.

She was a street person, a character, with friends in high and low places. She treated them all the same - judges, crooks, CEOs - as though they were in her employ. Or indentured servants.

On a good day, she was funny and generous and charming. On a bad day, she was more charming in the abstract than in person. And she was noisy and opinionated every day.

The would-be lawyer

Her wardrobe was legendary. At her 80th birthday party, she was resplendent in sequins, white silk gloves, a squirrel stole, an orange visor with feathers and white shoes with purple pompons. She favored green wigs and often wore a watch on one ankle.

She used to tell people that she had a child by Ronald Reagan and another by Elvis. She loved men, and flirted with the funeral director while she was making arrangements to cremate Guy Walters, the man she lived with for 28 years.

Just about everybody who knew Fifi has a story, some of them true.

Fifi began life as Fay Darlene Turner, daughter of the chief of police in Marshall, Ill. After graduation from high school, she studied at the University of Illinois. She traveled to England, where she applied to Oxford, but they were fussy about their law students having undergraduate degrees. And although she rented a cap and gown and marched down the aisle at her university's graduation, she was never, technically, eligible.

She ran for president several times, and governor of Kentucky once. ''People loved her,'' says Mary Jane Fleming of Kenwood, who faithfully chauffeured Fifi to her once-a-week bingo games. ''She demanded and she got. There was something special about her.''

Kidnapping and burlesque

In the 1940s, Fifi married Woody Carpenter, who lives in Cold Spring, Ky. Their daughter, Gay Caldwell, was born in 1946. ''She loved me,'' Gay says, ''in her own way.''

Gay was placed in a foster home when her mother was committed to Longview Hospital. Fifi tied some bedsheets together, exited through a window, stole an ambulance and retrieved her daughter. ''When I was really little, she kidnapped me and we hitchhiked to Illinois. She took me to burlesque shows in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and St. Louis.''

Gay, a dental hygienist who lives in Dent and has raised four really nice kids of her own, says quietly that not everybody could handle having a mom like hers. ''Once,'' she says, ''I kind of divorced her.'' But only once. And only for a year.

On Monday, this kind and forgiving woman had her mother cremated. She plans to drive to Illinois to put Fifi's and Guy Walters' remains in the family plot. Next Tuesday, there will be a 1 p.m. memorial service at Fifi's soup kitchen of choice, Our Daily Bread, 1721 Logan St.in Over-the-Rhine.

Everyone there no doubt will be telling Fifi stories. About bailing the drunks out of jail. About her sensational fashion flair. About her practice of mooning construction workers. About her last day, when the hospital chaplain asked what he could do for her. ''How about a kiss, honey?''

Exasperating? You bet.

Indomitable? To the end.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio, and as a regular commentator on NPR's Morning Edition.

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