Obituary: Kiki Randolph passes on

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Like a hurricane finally blowing out to sea, Kiki Randolph, 87, departed Ferncliffe over the weekend as an ice-storm in her wake closed the New York State Thruway. Leaving stories enough to fuel a best-seller and heart enough to save an impoverished nation, Kiki’s death also punches a hole in the fast-fraying canvas of old Woodstock which none can fill.

Winner of the 2012 Alf Evers award for extraordinary citizenship, this gutsy, outrageous, all-but-unstoppable woman came by such a life-force honestly as the daughter of one utterly unique: her mother, Clemence Randolph. “Clemmie” arrived at 17, unchaperoned, in New York City in 1907.   Photographed in the American Southwest on horseback in 1912 with the prodigiously talented, eccentric, and wealthy painter Robert Chanler — an epic love story was herewith begun which only ended with the “roaring twenties,” themselves, and Chanler’s death at 58 in 1930. Chanler’s Dionysian lifestyle in Greenwich Village expanded upstate with his purchase of collaborator Hunt Dederick’s place in Woodstock. Bob spread his good cheer, genius and wealth all around the community, particularly amongst the artist-anarchist crowd at Hervey White’s “Maverick” colony. Though Clemmie vowed never to marry, many were convinced Chanler sired Kiki and her brother Donny. (Upon Chanler’s death he left the children a shared trust, interest from which supported Clemmie for life.)

Avoiding the scandal guaranteed in America, Clemmie gave birth to a daughter in the outskirts of Paris in 1927. Local women called the baby “Kiki” — meaning “mischievous imp of a chimp.” Earning this definition, few have ever heard the legal name “Kiki” eclipsed.


Clemmie’s wanderings didn’t seem to slow much even after the death of Bob Chanler. In 1932 United Artists offered her a consultant fee on her adaptation of “Rain,” from a Somerset Maugham short story that Clemmie and a mutual friend of Maugham’s had created and which in 1922 became a four year sensation on Broadway.

United Artists’ offer included transportation. Clemmie took the money but had a better idea. Passing her first driver’s test in Kingston, she procured her license and then bought a car and trailer. After a week of practice she loaded both kids and six pets into the caravan and took off for Hollywood.

Clemmie loathed Joan Crawford in the film but the checks didn’t bounce and Kiki at seven or eight won an audition at the Hal Roach Studios, landing a minor part in several “Our Gang” reels. Miss Randolph’s film career was cut short, however, when she developed a tubercular ankle. Clemmie and her brood promptly returned East for “the best medical attention money could buy,” until the State of New York declared a mandatory amputation. In old interviews Kiki claims to have accepted the diagnosis since peg-leg pirates were enjoying quite a vogue in Hollywood. Her mother was less amenable.

Stealing Kiki out of a sanitarium in the dead of night, the family of three hit the highway until reaching Key West — not yet a part of the U.S. No amputation took place.

Kiki, age 10. Portrait by Norbert Herrmann.

Kiki, age 10. Portrait by Norbert Herrmann.

They were back in Woodstock again when Norbert Herrmann painted Kiki’s portrait, age ten. Pam Marvin remembers her in the fifth or sixth grade (in the schoolhouse where CVS stands today) running the bases with crutches — and fast. An impression which stuck more firmly with many young men from the original farming community of Woodstock, Pam said, was of Kiki wheeling her cast and crutches around knocking down any who challenged her supremacy as “Queen of the Hill.” Bill West remembers her climbing to the top of the bridge span where Tannery Brook Road attaches to Broadview, and recklessly plummeting an easy 35 feet into waters which, he recalls, couldn’t have been more than three or four feet deep. That was Kiki.

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