From the webmaster: The following was written by Jane Birnbaum and appeared in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner a few weeks after the fire which took his life. (October 1985?)
In September I wrote a column about Dr. Pietro Rotondi, a 93 year-old Hollywood chiropractor of Sicilian birth and a man of unusual opinions. He was a strict vegetarian, eating no animal products — not even eggs, milk, or butter — and he urged others to follow suit for their health’s sake. Rotondi also lectured against sex. Sex used up the “oil of life,” he said, but without sex, the oil returned to the brain and “abolished death.”
Rotondi said that “pure women” gave birth without having sex. (His one and only wife, sick with influenza, died in childbirth in 1916 in New Haven.) I didn’t agree with Rotondi’s views, but I didn’t argue — I liked him too much.
We’d met one day in 1979 when I’d been in a car accident and badly shaken up, could think of no one to turn to except this kindly looking, nut brown old man I’d often seen lazing on his sun porch wearing only baggy pants and suspenders. Signs on the porch advertised his “nature cure.” I learned that Rotondi lived alone and had many friends. His house was always open to people with illness, no matter their ability to pay. I returned to his house often, not as a patient but just to have fun.
The day after New Year’s Day we had great fun. I’d returned from a vacation, hopped into the car, and found myself heading to Dr. Rotondi’s house. I rang the gong on his front door and heard only the “hellos” squawked by his three aged green parrots. I entered the house through the open back door and found Rotondi looking for me out front.
Perhaps I looked hungry, or maybe Rotondi just wanted to make sure I’d be a vegetarian for the rest of the day because he me led into the kitchen and stuffed me with food. First he made huge bowls of popcorn urging me to keep eating it and take home a bagful for my girlfriends. As I munched an apple, he squeezed orange juice — he had crates and crates of oranges — and told me to find a “fancy” glass, which turned out to be an ordinary and dusty goblet he casually wiped before filling and refilling with juice. I told him about anti-Semitism I’d recently encountered. What does one do, I asked. “When I am among Christians, I am a Christian — when among Jews, I am a Jew,” he said. “What are you?” Rotondi challenged me. I was speechless. “A human being,” he said. “Give it a name.”
Rotondi told me to follow him into a treatment room. In it there was a chiropractic table covered with yellowed cloth, assorted bric-a-brac and an old refrigerator. He opened the door slowly, glancing slyly at me, and revealed a refrigerator chock full of red and green chili peppers. I cracked up laughing and Rotondi stood there grinning.
Then Ben [Swets] and a friend arrived. Ben is a young man who’d made a video about Rotondi and turned into one of the many helpers who did things like buy chilis and oranges in quantity downtown. We were all put to work peeling cooked chilis. Rotondi set the table and the four of us ate chilis, popcorn, cauliflower and raisins and tomatoes that Ben provided.
I sat next to Rotondi and noticed his hair. He seemed to have more than before. I felt the curls, white and soft, luxuriously covering the back of his head. There was even hair on the top of his head that had always seemed totally bald. Rotondi laughed, said new hair was coming in. As Ben, his friend and I were leaving, Rose, Rotondi’s closed and longtime helper, was coming in the door.
Then on Wednesday I got what seemed at first an annoying message — lots of mumbling and pauses — on the answering machine. Then I heard voices; it was Rotondi, confounded by the machine, and Rose in the background. I called Rotondi. He wanted to take out an ad in the Herald to promote his chiropractic services. It would, he said, include the phrase “free services for the blind.” That was amusing because Rotondi would treat just about anyone for free. I agreed to talk to the advertising department.
Thursday evening I reminded myself to take care of the ad. But sadly, that wasn’t necessary. Late that night one of Dr. Rotondi’s many friends called to say that someone had set fire to the Hollywood bungalow in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday morning. Firefighters had found Rotondi’s charred body in the bedroom. The poor parrots were dead in their cages. Fire department officials say it was arson.
There are so many people who loved Dr. Rotondi. His friends are sad, angry and confused about the way he died. Such a good man should have died easily in his sleep. I’m hoping that’s the way it was. But there is cause for just a bit of a smile in all of this. We will never find out if Rotondi could live forever, as surely he planned.