Deadheadland would like to honor a dear friend to all deadheads, and together mourn the loss of Elisabeth van der Mei, better known as “Calico,” and “Ruby” to the Grateful Dead community. Sadly, Calico passed on early Wednesday morning March 18th in Fairfield, California after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia at the age of 79. She is survived by three sons; Joey, JB and Casper.
An outpouring of love and appreciation has been expressed all over the social media world as hundreds have posted sweet sentiments & are recalling remembrances of one of the kindest souls we have been blessed to know. There are endless endearing comments on Facebook and various Grateful Dead fan sites like The Phil Zone, where many Deadheads have shared their experiences interacting with Calico from her days at the Grateful Dead Ticket Sales Office, better known as GDTS and later GDTSTOO.
Elisabeth was born in Holland and survived a brutal adolescence during the onset of World War II. Nearly starving to death as a child and at times on the run, living in hiding during the war, she learned both survival and what it was like to truly live in community. Her son JB recounts, “my Mom had to eat things to survive that no one would want to eat and she taught me to do the best with what you have, and lived out that message, sharing all she had with others.” As a teenager, Elisabeth was a championship swimmer who was even on a national team participating in trials for the 1952 Olympics. She had a deep appreciation for the Free-Jazz approach to Jazz music and when coming to the U.S. became a disc jockey in the mid-sixties and hosted her own radio show. She spent time in recording studios with John Coltrane & Miles Davis, became friends with Ornette Coleman and even lived with Eric Dolphy at one time.
In 1967, she saw her first Grateful Dead concert and soon got to know Jerry Garcia. One of Calico’s radio shows in 1968 featured her sharing an unreleased recording of the Grateful Dead’s rehearsals as they were cutting tracks for their album Aoxomoxoa. The cassette was provided by Garcia himself, after Calico talked him into it. Later she met Wavy Gravy and became an early member of the Hog Farm and often referred to herself as “the first female hippie.”
When Robert Hunter penned the Grateful Dead song entitled “Cosmic Charley,” some surmised that the lyric, “Kalico Kahlia, come tell me the news,” was a reference to Calico who took a keen interest in current events & news stories. According to longtime friend Lanny Rutkin, Calico “refused to speak out politically because she was from Holland and was old country at heart. She never became a U.S. citizen and we were truly afraid that if she went online telling her mind, she could be busted and kicked out of the country. She loved to talk with friends about world issues, but never talk to her or interrupt her during the evening news!” She spent hours upon hours throughout her life reading and studying The World Atlas, very much in tune with the struggles and victories of people groups around the world. She also became a master of reading multiple languages.
In the spring of 1983, another element of the “do it yourself” mantra of the Grateful Dead began as the band began selling their own concert tickets; a concept they arguably invented. With the likes of pioneer Dead staffers Danny Rifkin, Rock Scully and Alan Trist, came the birth of Grateful Dead Ticket Sales or GDTS. Headed up by Steven Marcus and then enlisting the aid of Frankie Accardi, and Calico – a new way of procuring tickets by mail order was conceived. Many of the women that ran the Grateful Dead offices would use different names and Calico became known as “Ruby.” Ruby eventually became an integral part of GDTS with her servant’s heart, helping to serve tens of thousands with a personal touch that countless people still talk about. As fans mailed in requests for concert tickets, she often responded with handwritten notes, faithfully answering phone calls, emails, etc. There were times when fans made errors on their requests, had terrible penmanship or failed to send in the proper amount of postage and there are many stories of her contacting people personally to help them correct their mistakes so they could get tickets. She often even honored requests fans made like “please sit me on Phil’s side.”
Along with many others, she helped to collect the decorated envelopes that ticket requests came in, whereby some 15,000 of these envelopes now live in the Grateful Dead Archive housed at the University of Santa Cruz. Ruby had a unique connection between the band and their legions of fans. She would often be seen at concerts coming to the aid of people who were “not feeling well,” and she became somewhat of a peacekeeper in parking lots and campgrounds; reminding people that we are a community and to work together and share what we have. She retired in the fall of 2008 and moved up to Laytonville, California to spend more time with family and friends.
With her true love for all people, Calico was a delight to all who knew her. For decades, she beautifully wore her long braided hair and encouraged everyone to care for one another. A private funeral service will be held soon in Laytonville, but expect some big public celebrations of her life to be forthcoming. For now Calico, may the four winds blow you safely home.
Written for Deadheadland by Rob Scalcione