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Come on Down to the Mermaid Cafe Print-ready version

Uncovered: the amazing story of Joni’s sidekick on Crete, Penelope Anne Schafer

by Grayson Haver Currin
July 2021
Original article: PDF

IN THE LORE around Blue, "Penelope" seems like some fictionalised goddess - the Ottawa poetess, as Joni Mitchell called her, who whisked the heartsick songwriter away to a transformation period on Crete, her mononym bestowed by Greek mythology. To wit, in previous essays about Blue, Penelope has never been given a last name.

But she is actually Penelope Ann Schafer, a best-selling Canadian Poet, award-winning actress, Buddhist explorer, beloved impresario and mother of two, who had a decades-long and sometimes-contentious relationship with Mitchell. Her fascinating life can seem at times like a tall tale.

Born in 1939 in Victoria, British Columbia, she was raised by a Second World War hero, then started in The Tragic Diary Of Zero The Fool, an acid trip of a film that inspired Werner Herzog. She worked for a drug cartel exchanging money in South America until she developed dysentery and returned to Canada, where she became the crux of the creative counterculture. And in the late '60s, she had a short-lived tryst with Leonard Cohen (possibly while he dated Mitchell) before convincing Mitchell, in 1970, to follow her to Crete, where Cohen had purchased a home a decade earlier.

"Penelope loved travelling, but she was also interested in philosophy, history and architecture, so it was a spiritual pilgrimage," says Willow Verkerk, Penelope's eldest daughter and a philosophy professor and author in Canada. "My mom also admired Leonard as a Canadian songwriter and poet, so she would have been curious to see where he had gone.

Indeed, Penelope penned a poem about her time with Mitchell on Matala, called Letter To Crete For Joni. She wrote of "growing wild with the mystics" and "a simple day/spend learning to pray/in the sun." Mitchell, in turn, wrote a playful and lascivious poem about Penelope's lust for life in Crete: "Penelope wants to fuck the sea...She wrinkles up her nose and screams." In November 1970, after Mitchell had returned to the United States, she recited the poem on-stage with Frank Zappa. Verkerk still owns the 58th handmade copy of Mitchell's Morning Glory On The Vine book, a photo of her mother and Mitchell affixed beneath the poem titled Penelope.

After Penelope's second husband died in an accident in 1982, Mitchell was around more, even teaching Verkerk a little piano. But they were both opinionated, obdurate people, unafraid of telling their version of the truth. As Mitchell's star rose, Penelope worried that money was warping her. After Penelope died in 2011, a mutual friend said she would tell Mitchell, but Verkerk never asked how Joni responded.

"I remember asking my mom if Joni was coming to visit us, because I had a really beautiful experience with her, a nice feeling," she says. "But mom said Joni was too materialistic, that her fame was getting to her."

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Added to Library on August 2, 2021. (920)


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