Columnist Barbara Bladen Sees Her Love Story with a Convict Flower Onscreen in Weeds

UPDATED 12/07/1987 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/07/1987 at 01:00 AM EST

San Francisco has its landmarks: the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, the Transamerica Pyramid and—something else that's bigger than life—Barbara Bladen. Even in a town famous for eccentrics, this 57-year-old showbiz columnist stands out.

For six years, beginning in 1968, she was the wife of convict-playwright Rick Cluchey. He wrote, directed and starred in The Cage, a searing drama about penitentiary life that began in California's San Quentin prison, toured the country and wound up off-Broadway in 1970. Their stormy relationship is recounted in the film Weeds, which stars Nick Nolte as Cluchey and Rita (Straight Time) Taggart as Bladen. Critics have been touting Nolte for an Oscar. Bladen's talk is a good deal more direct. "Nolte is Rick," she enthuses. "Rick was the sexiest, most charismatic man I've ever met. When I was near him I couldn't breathe or speak. It was an out-of-body experience."

Early on in Weeds, when Nolte (called Lee Umstetter in the film) is paroled, he is met at the prison gate by a sexy, auburn-haired newspaperwoman, Lillian Bingington (Bladen's movie name). The two, who barely know each other, step into a Rolls-Royce and are driven across the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco, where, by evening, they're thrashing around in her bed.

Such Hollywood hokum suggests the screenwriters have run amok. Not a bit, says Bladen, "It's true." In 1966 Bladen—who had started reviewing plays for the San Mateo Times more than a decade previously—was invited to San Quentin to see a performance of The Cage in the prison gymnasium. In her next day's column she described it as a gripping experience. Cluchey, who was serving a life sentence for armed robbery, aggravated assault and kidnapping, never forgot that praise. When his parole came through a year later he sent word to Bladen that he'd like her to be there for his coming out. "I went not knowing what to expect," she says. "I'm the kind of woman who's up for anything."

As with Nolte and Taggert, when Cluchey and Bladen's eyes met, violins played and waves crashed. "I fell instantly, irrevocably in love," says Bladen, who's not one for understatement. "He entered my life like an undiscovered comet. The drama of it pulled me along in its fallout." Bladen is a woman of grand gestures who doesn't care what people think. On a recent hike in the Sierra mountains, she climbed up a cliff, took off all her clothes and enacted art deco poses for the passing hikers.

Barbara says her relationship with Rick was even more physical than it is in Weeds. "We made love every day we were together," she says. "In the kitchen, the car, on airplanes. He hadn't been with a woman in 12 years, so I had the best of him." And he her. Although Bladen has put on some weight, she was once, she says, "a slim and foxy chick." Longtime coworker Jack Russell corroborates her claim: "Barbara exuded sexuality. We ran her for Queen of the Newspaper Guild. She was one of those women no man could keep his hands off of."

During the filming of Weeds, Bladen visited the set in Wilmington, N.C., where she met Taggart. Over lunch Bladen gave her a rust-colored sweater she had knitted, which Taggart wears in the film. "I adore Barbara because she makes things happen in her life," says Taggart. "She also knew not to put Rick back in a cage after she married him. She let him live his life as he had to, be it wrong or right."

Weeds director John (Bang the Drum Slowly) Hancock, who co-wrote the script with his wife, Dorothy Tristan, knew Bladen and Cluchey during their years together in San Francisco. As artistic director of the San Francisco Actor's Workshop, Hancock staged the first production of The Cage outside San Quentin. For the rights to his story, Cluchey was paid $20,000. Bladen received $17,500. Since the filmmakers had fictionalized some of the story, Bladen's contract stipulated that her name not be used, or her paper's. In the film, Taggart campaigns to pardon Nolte. "I in no way used my job to get Rick released," she says.

For Bladen, who never attended college, her newspaper job has been an invitation to the ball. "I'm Queen of the junkets," she says proudly. She travels extensively, courtesy of the movie studios, promoting their stars. A wall of her house—reproduced in Weeds—is bedecked with photos of Bladen with such luminaries as Clark Gable, Judy Garland and William Hurt. "Lunch with Pavarotti. Dinner with Paul Newman. All in a day's work," she says.

It was while reviewing the San Francisco Opera that Bladen met her third and current husband of 10 years, William Porter, 61. An attorney and S.F. blue blood, he owns a 3,000-acre dairy ranch in nearby Marin County and helps keep Bladen in a wardrobe that makes Dynasty's pale. "Drag queens love my garage sales," she says. "It's the only time they can find something in a size 18." Porter has the good sense not to put Bladen in a cage. "I am a very patient, reasonable man," he says. "The only time I get angry is when someone says something unkind about my wife." The childless couple lives in a spacious Victorian house overrun with dogs, cats and canaries.

Bladen takes her last name from her first husband, sculptor Ronald Bladen, whom she married in 1949 and divorced in 1967. She refuses to get depressed or think of herself as less than best. Born Barbara Gross in San Francisco's blue-collar Ingleside district, she was the daughter of a painting contractor. Barbara created a glamorous identity for herself by wearing hats and dressing for attention. "I've chosen to live my life like a movie star," she says. Friends cite her generosity and unique, childlike ability to say shocking things without sounding vulgar.

Although Weeds doesn't say what happened to Nolte and Taggart's marriage, it was obviously too hot not to cool down. "I wanted him, but not the life he was giving me," says Bladen. She blames the breakup on Rick's fear of alienating himself from his former prison pals by living with her. "I treated him like a king, only to find my house trashed by him and his friends," she says. "He started hanging out with guys on the street and bringing stoned girls home. He rejected the opportunities I was giving him. Although I loved him, I told him he had to go. It took a year of therapy for me to recover."

Bladen harbors no resentment for the reclusive Cluchey, who declined to be interviewed. But she remains disappointed with Cluchey's artistic record. "He's been given a thousand chances and has backed away from most of them," she says.

Cluchey is now married to a Puerto Rican woman, Teresita Garcia, whom he met in London. They have a son and daughter. A protégé of Samuel Beckett (whose surreal plays Cluchey produced in prison, much to the master's liking), Cluchey has spent the last few years touring the world performing the playwright's works.

Last winter Bladen was reunited with her ex-con ex. While in New York on a movie junket, she saw him in an off-Broadway production of Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, which the playwright directed. Seeing Bladen in the audience, Cluchey had an usher take her backstage after the show. "I didn't hyperventilate and had no trouble speaking," she says. "I felt distanced, as if I were doing another interview."

"Excuse me," says Bladen's current husband, entering the room with news about their plans for a trip to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. "The Mexican consulate has agreed to pay your way if you'll review the local chamber group," he says. "Thank you! Thank you, Billy!" says Bladen, smiling beatifically. "Isn't he a honey?" she asks. "He's given me two houses and a ranch. And he cooks me breakfast and gourmet dinners." Clearly, Rick Cluchey is past history. Whether or not there is ever a Weeds 2, Bladen is living the sequel to her life to the hilt.

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