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kevin cullen

Still inspiring others


Watching the news out of Washington the last few days has been like watching “Saturday Night Live.”

Except “Saturday Night Live” is funny. This is just depressing.

It is more than disheartening to watch the federal government shut down in an ideological putsch engineered by people who think evolution is a dodgy theory but arming schoolteachers with AK-47s isn’t.

And it is at times like this, when we are forced to pay a ridiculous amount of attention to ridiculous politicians, that we should be thankful for people like Becca Rosenthal.

None of the clowns in Washington have ever heard of Becca Rosenthal. The people she cared about knew who she was. She pursued her art — her music and writing and street performance — not to get rich or famous but because it made her feel alive.


She grew up in Newton, and even as a toddler, when she heard music, she stopped what she was doing and danced. She was reading books by the time she was 4. At 5, she was watching classic films with her grandfather. She was especially fond of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals.

When she had gone through everything in the children’s section of the library, she moved into the adult offerings, a babe in toyland. She took up French in fourth grade and was an instant Francophile. By the time she was 10, she had taught herself the Cyrillic alphabet. By the time she graduated from high school, she was fluent in French and knew everything about 1960s French pop music.

She went to Smith College and, given her artistic leanings, Northampton fit her like a frilly glove. She fell hard for the poetry of Sylvia Plath, and Plath’s words, in her own handwriting, were right there in the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Neilson Library where she worked. Plath’s handwriting resembled a hurried pharmacist’s script, but Becca could decipher it, and she wrote guides for Plath’s collection.


When she walked downtown, she knew she was walking in the same footsteps as Plath — on Gothic Street, on King Street — and she got serious about poetry.

“When she finally plucked up the courage to send me her poems, I was blown away by how good they were,” said Neil Gaiman, the author who befriended Becca through the woman who became his wife, musician Amanda Palmer.

Palmer, then one half of the cabaret-punk duo the Dresden Dolls, remembers meeting Becca at Smith, from which Becca graduated in 2007. At first Becca was just a fan, but she became a collaborator, sending an endless loop of music samples.

“She used the Internet the way people before had used tapes,” Palmer said. “She would find, and share, the most obscure music, and she could tell you why it mattered. She was an art ingestor.”

In the end, she was also a matchmaker.

“Becca,” Palmer said backstage one night, just moments before a show, “should I marry Neil Gaiman?”

“Yes,” Becca replied.

And so she did.

Becca Rosenthal enrolled in a graduate program at Simmons College and was a student there a year ago when she died inexplicably and far too young. She was 27. Her friends struggled for months to come to terms with her death and what to do to commemorate her life. And then, as the months passed, it became patently obvious.


On Monday night, the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square will be packed with all the poets and musicians and artists who knew and loved her. They will sing, dance, and remember a young life cut short. The Dresden Dolls, Palmer and the Violent Femmes’ Brian Viglione, will reunite for the evening, and the plan is to take the proceeds and create a scholarship for somebody who wants to be a librarian.

Because that is what Becca Rosenthal wanted to be, a librarian, helping people to do something that makes them think.

Becca Rosenthal is the antithesis of the Philistines in Washington.

She’s dead and buried a year, and she still makes more sense than they ever will.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.