by Alan Bleiman, MA, JD
Carol B. Simmons of Santa Barbara; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; and Dharamsala, India, made her transition on September 12 from Cottage Hospital. She had maintained a home in Santa Barbara beginning in 1993, when she moved here to be closer to our younger sister Joyce and mother Elle Bleiman.
Carol was my younger sister by 54 weeks. In our way, we were quite close — although I did try to kill her twice as a toddler and once again in a fight over car keys when I was 17; the latter effort was aborted when I slipped on a banana peel in a household hallway. Despite our closeness, I always judged her harshly. I went through NYU while she quit college to pursue romance with a guy I disliked; after graduation I discontinued using the drugs to which I’d introduced her. I became a drug rehab counselor to returning Vietnam vets while Carol dried bales of pot on the floor of her New York City apartment. I was intense, intellectual, and “socially conscious,” while Carol trotted — fancy-free — around the U.S. and Europe, savoring all types of experiences. How I loathed her irresponsibility while secretly envying her fearlessness!
While Joyce and I pursued conventional, suburban business and professional lives, Carol went on to break bones on the luge run of the St. Moritz Bobsled Club, establish herself as a ranking western rodeo competitor and certified South African bush guide, manage a co-op Zulu and Endobele village craft industries in apartheid South Africa and Zimbabwe, travel horseback among the Reindeer People of northern Mongolia and the Tibetan Plateau, and build a small home among Tibetan refugees in the Indian Himalayas. It was a far cry from her suburban New York roots.
Born and raised in New Rochelle, New York, Carol attended local schools and the University of Cincinnati pre-med program, which she did not complete. Strongly encouraged by our parents to make something of her life through suitable employment, she distinguished herself early by getting expelled from the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School for refusing to wear white gloves and seamed silk stockings. She briefly worked in the Stock Exchange before managing to get hired as an assistant to producer and Bee Gees manager Robert Stigwood during the making of Saturday Night Fever. Two years later, she moved to Basel, Switzerland, her base as she traveled Europe for three years before returning to the States to marry a New York real estate man — Steven Leibler — and purchase the Painted Apple Ranch outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She remained married for 13 years.
From Jackson Hole, Carol traveled extensively and became entranced by Africa and its peoples. Through her association with the large, efficacious relief organization Operation Hunger, Carol helped Zulu and Endobele villagers market their basketry, rugs, and beadwork. She expanded her concern for and involvement in the plight of Africa’s dwindling cheetah population. During her time in Africa, she began an education in photography that she pursued professionally until her death.
During the past 15 years, Carol traveled throughout Asia, particularly devoting her attention to northern India, where she established strong relationships among the Tibetan refugee families. It seemed she was constantly coming or going, usually alone. With Carol, it was always some version of show and tell: “Come look at this (or that)!” She continually begged us to join her adventures: “Come meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala!” “Come ride the Tibetan Plateau with me!”
“One of these days,” I’d promise, postponing another adventure.
In the meantime, my irresponsible, globe-trotting little sister went on to leave her indelible mark on countless lives. Sleeping in jeeps, trains, tents, yurts, and flea-ridden inns, she had countless friends among indigenous Africans, Wyoming cowboys, and homeless Tibetan refugees. Always there when needed, she was selflessly generous with her siblings. She also paid for the food, rents, medical care, and college tuitions of countless people. Since Carol suffered from clinical depression the majority of her life, her devotion to constant movement and her love for the culturally wrought faces of the Third World seemed essential to her survival.
At the end of her life, we came to know Carol in a new and crystallized way, piercing the veil that had prevented us from seeing her as the exceptional woman she was. Her life was a model of Jesus’ admonition regarding charity: “When you give, don’t let the right hand know what the left hand is doing.” We will miss her terribly, as will her friends at home and around the world. Her path was a great example to us all.
Carol’s photographic work can be accessed at cbsimmons.com. Donations may be made in Carol’s name to Oprah’s Angel Network at oprahsangelnetwork.org.