Lee Quarnstrom.
(Courtest Donna Blakemore)
The Here & Now

Goodbye to a legend: Why we’ll never see a character like Lee Quarnstrom again

Lee Quarnstrom, Merry Prankster, former Hustler magazine executive and longtime newspaper columnist who chronicled the beauty and weirdness of Santa Cruz, has died. He was 81.

In the weeks and months following the Loma Prieta earthquake, downtown Santa Cruz felt like an alien planet. The old Pacific Garden Mall was gone, the Cooper House a memory, touchstone businesses like Bookshop Santa Cruz were operating out of tents.

It was a time when downtown desperately needed a symbol of familiarity, a sign that the earthquake had not obliterated everything that Santa Cruz believed itself to be. And Lee Quarnstrom provided it.

As a new downtown began to emerge, the longtime columnist and reporter for the San Jose Mercury News would, nearly every day, saunter down a still-evolving Pacific Avenue, dressed in his signature aloha shirt, chatting up whomever he might encounter. He was as dependable a part of the flora and fauna of Santa Cruz as any street performer or downtown character. He was that tenacious weed of old Santa Cruz poking up out of the sidewalks of the new.

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Lee Quarnstrom died earlier this week at the age of 81 at his home in Orange County, where he had lived the past two decades. To say that we will never see his like again is, in his case, much more than an obituary cliche. As the subtitle of his memoir spells out, Quarnstrom’s life scans like something out of a 1970s-era Tom Robbins novel. That memoir was called “When I Was a Dynamiter: Or, How a Nice Catholic Boy Became a Merry Prankster, a Pornographer and a Bridegroom Seven Times.”

Lee Quarnstrom (right).
(Courtesy Donna Blakemore)

None of those references are a metaphor. Outside a long and fabled career as a local newspaperman, first for the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian before joining the Mercury News, Quarnstrom was indeed a participant in Ken Kesey’s confederacy of psychedelic culture jammers known as the Merry Pranksters in the 1960s. He was indeed an editor at Larry Flynt’s Hustler, the porniest of the porn magazines in the 1970s. And he was indeed married seven times.

Still, despite his colorful bio, ultimately Quarnstrom wanted to be thought of, and should be thought of, as a consummate old-school news reporter. So said Melody Sharp, Quarnstrom bride No. 5, who was married to Lee through most of the 1980s.

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“He was like one of those old-timey newspaper reporters,” said Sharp, who met Quarnstrom when he was at Hustler and she was an editor at Playgirl (how’s that for a setup of a period romantic comedy?). “He was a hard drinker; he always had vodka in the freezer. He smoked, though eventually I talked him out of that. But he was an attractive guy, a real storyteller and he was just incredibly charming.”

Quarnstrom’s superpower, as Melody put it, was “he was somebody who could attach himself to interesting people.” Longtime Santa Cruz Sentinel editor Tom Honig was a buddy and colleague of Quarnstrom for decades. He said that thanks to Quarnstrom’s habit of throwing parties with his friends in the media, “he was as much a Santa Cruz Press Club as anything has ever been.”

Those parties also often featured big players in local politics, as Quarnstrom counted among his friends judges, elected officials and other Santa Cruz heavyweights. Quarnstrom’s former girlfriend Donna Blakemore said his annual birthday party at his home in Midtown was chock full of big names in town.

“I remember someone said, ‘Oh my God, if somebody bombed this party, the entire county government would come to a standstill,’” said Blakemore, “because (former state Sen.) Henry Mello was there and (former County Supervisor) Gary Patton was there and it was like every elected official in town came to his birthday party, so he had these personal relationships and liked to have a good time. People enjoyed his company and he enjoyed theirs.”

“Lee was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known,” said Honig. “And he was also one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. He’s the kind of guy you don’t come across very often, even in retirement. If he hadn’t talked to you in two or three weeks, he would just give a call and say, ‘How are you doing?’ If you were going through anything like a divorce, he was always there to invite you to dinner or lunch or whatever, and spend time with you. I mean his friendship was real, that was the thing: As funny as he was and as enjoyable as he was to be around, you actually felt like he was a good friend.”

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(However unique he was in local politics and journalism, Lee wasn’t the only colorful Quarnstrom in Santa Cruz. His younger brother, Dean Quarnstrom, was a proud ex-hippie and artist. He died in August at 78.)

Lee Quarnstrom began his career as a reporter in Chicago at the age of 19, and spent his years at Hustler living and working in Los Angeles. But he kept returning to Santa Cruz. He brought his new bride Melody Sharp up from L.A. shortly after they were married in ’81, though she didn’t especially want to move.

“He was a big fish in a small pond in Santa Cruz, and he loved it,” said Sharp, who remained close to Quarnstrom long after their divorce. “When we met, we married for love, but he wasn’t an easy man to live with, as many popular guys are not the best husbands. But the marriage, it took a long time for me to leave it because I was leaving a whole social menu, a whole raft of things that surrounded him that made life interesting.”