Sally Kempton, who was once a rising star in the New York journalism world and a fierce exponent of radical feminism but later revolved around a life of Eastern asceticism and spiritual practice, died Monday at her home in Carmel, California . turned 80.
Her brother David Kempton said the cause was heart failure, adding that she suffered from chronic lung disease.
Mrs. Kempton’s literary pedigree was impeccable. Her father was Murray Kempton, the erudite and caustic newspaper columnist and a lion of New York journalism, where she joined in the late 1960s as a staff writer for The Village Voice and a contributor to The New York Times. She was a sharp and talented reporter – though she sometimes felt she hadn’t earned her spot as a journalist, largely due to her father’s reputation.
She wrote arc pieces on New Age fads such as astrology: “Men believe in marijuana and Bob Dylan,” she noted in The Times in 1969, and “astrology is part of an atmosphere that includes these and other things; it’s one of the ways we talk to our friends.” She profiled rock stars like Frank Zappa and reviewed books for The Times.
She and a friend, the author Susan Brownmiller, joined a group called the New York Radical Feminists, and in the spring of 1970 they took part in a sit-in in the offices of Ladies’ Home Journal to protest the editorial content, which they said was demeaning to women. That same month, she and Mrs. Brownmiller were invited on “The Dick Cavett Show” to represent what was then called the women’s liberation movement; the two had a set-to with Hugh Hefner, the publisher of Playboy magazine, who was also a guest, as was rock singer Grace Slick (who didn’t seem quite on board with the feminist agenda).
But what made Ms. Kempton famous for a minute in New York was a blistering essay in the July 1970 issue of Esquire called “Cutting Loose,” in which she described her father, her husband, and her own complicity in the regressive gender roles of the time.
The main point of the essay was that she had been prepared to be a certain kind of clever but docile helper, and she spat angrily at herself for passing. Her father, she wrote, viewed women as incapable of serious thought and was skilled in the art of putting women down; their own relationship, she said, was like that of an 18th-century earl and his precocious daughter, “in which she grows up to be the perfect female companion, imitating him with such subtlety that it is impossible to tell her thoughts and feelings, so coincident with his, are not original.”
She described her husband, the film producer Harrison Starr, who was 13 years her senior, as “a Norman Mailer-style male supremacist” who infantilized her and frustrated her to such an extent that she fantasized about hitting him on the head. beat with a frying pan.
“It’s hard to fight an enemy,” she concluded, “who has outposts in your head.”
The piece landed like a cluster bomb. Her marriage did not last. Her relationship with her father suffered. Women devoured it and recognized themselves in her furious prose. For a certain generation it is still a touchstone of feminist discourse. Years later, Susan Cheever in The Times called it “a cry of marital rage.”
Four years after the Esquire piece was published, Ms. Kempton essentially disappeared to follow an Indian mystic named Swami Muktananda, also known as Baba, a proponent of a spiritual practice known as Siddha Yoga. Baba toured America in the 1970s, gathering hundreds and then thousands of devotees from the chattering classes — seemingly including half of Hollywood at one point.
In 1982 Mrs. Kempton took a vow of chastity and poverty to live as a monk in Baba’s ashrams, first in India and then in a former borscht belt hotel in the Catskills. He gave her the name Swami Durgananda and she donned the traditional orange robes of a Hindu monk.
After being ordained, as she told writer Sara Davidson, who profiled Ms. Kempton in 2001, she ran into a classmate of Sarah Lawrence’s, who then wrote in the alumni newsletter, “Saw Sally Kempton, ’64, who is now married to a Indian man and is Mrs. Durgananda.
As The Oakland Tribune reported in 1983, “The Sally Kempton who had written about sexual anger in Esquire was no more.”
Born on January 15, 1943, in Manhattan, Sally Kempton grew up in Princeton, NJ, the eldest of five children. Her mother, Mina (Bluethenthal) Kempton, was a social worker; she and Mr. Kempton divorced when Sally was in college.
She went to Sarah Lawrence instead of Barnard, she wrote in her Esquire essay, because her boyfriend at the time thought it was a more “feminine” setting. There she co-edited a magazine parody called The Establishment. She was hired by The Village Voice right after graduation and began writing pieces, as she put it, about “drugs and hippies” that she said were largely fabricated because she had no idea what she was doing. (Her writing refuted that claim.)
She had her first ecstatic experience, she later recalled, in her West Village apartment, taking psychedelics with a friend and listening to the Grateful Dead song “Ripple.”
“All the complexities and the suffering and the pain and the mental stuff I was dealing with as a journalist in downtown New York dissolved and all I could see was love,” she said in a video on her website. When she described her new insight to her friend, she said, he responded by asking, “Have you never used acid before?”
But Mrs. Kempton had had a transformative experience, and she continued to have them as she began exploring spiritual practices such as yoga and Tibetan Buddhism. She went to Baba out of curiosity – everyone did – and, as she wrote in New York magazine in 1976, if you want a guru, why not a good one?
She was immediately attracted, she wrote, charmed by his down-to-earth personality and something more powerful, albeit hard to define. Before long she had joined his entourage. It felt, she said, like running away from the circus.
Her friends were shocked. “But you were always so ambitious,” one of them said. “I’m still ambitious,” she said. “There’s been just a little shift in direction.”
Mrs. Kempton spent nearly 30 years with Baba’s organization known as the SYDA Foundation, during two decades of which she was a swami. Baba died in 1982, following allegations that he had sexually assaulted young women in his ashrams; since his death, the foundation has been led by his successor, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. In 1994, when Lis Harris, a writer for The New Yorker, researched the foundation and wrote an article noting the allegations against Baba and questions about his succession, she quoted Ms. Kempton as saying the allegations were “ridiculous”. Ms. Kempton never spoke publicly about the matter.
In 2002, she laid down her robes and left the ashram and moved to Carmel to teach meditation and spiritual philosophy. She was the author of a number of books on spiritual practices, including “Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience” (2011), with an introduction by Elizabeth Gilbert of the “Eat, Pray Love” fame.
In addition to her brother David, Mrs. Kempton is survived by two other brothers, Arthur and Christopher. Another brother, James Murray Kempton Jr., known as Mike, was killed in a car accident in 1971 with his wife, Jean Goldschmidt Kempton, a college friend of Sally’s.
Mrs. Kempton’s father supported her new life after his initial shock. He himself was a spiritual man, a practicing Episcopalian, but humble. “I just go for the music,” he liked to tell people.
Murray Kempton, who died in 1997, visited the ashram and met Baba on a number of occasions, David Kempton said, respecting the order’s ethos and history. He told The Oakland Tribune that if his daughter had wanted to become a druid, he might have been worried.
“I suppose she knows something I don’t,” he said. “I respect her choice. In fact, I admire the choice Sally made. After all, her is a swami, isn’t it?”