Elizabeth Stroman on Varda: Leading an Ecstatic Life

By Steefenie Wicks Sausalito Historical Society

“The Art and Life of Jean Varda’ is the title of a new book by Sausalito historian Elizabeth (Betsy) Stroman. Her first book “History of the Sausalito Library: A Place of Innocent Recreations,” is the story of how the Library in Sausalito was founded.  This new book explores legendary local artist Jean Varda, traveling beyond his time in Sausalito to the very beginning of his life in the Ottoman Empire.

Stroman was born in Connecticut and educated at Stanford, where she became a litigation lawyer; she came to Sausalito in 1991.

 Her research training proved valuable after she quit working and started her career as a writer.  She has worked for many years as part of the Sausalito Historical Society, has done much research on the many artists who have lived in Sausalito.  It was while working on such a project that she came across some information on Varda that was very different from the knowledge she was aware of, so she decided to look into it. That became the beginning of a 10-year journey following Varda’s walk through history as he carved out his career in art.

Varda moved to Sausalito in 1948, where he took up residence on board the ferryboat  Vallejo. Stroman feels that all anyone in Sausalito knows about Varda is that he was this outrageous artist on the old ferryboat where lots of young women hung out.  Few knew about his background as a teacher, mentor, and philosopher. Varda felt he had to make his world bright, colorful and a place where all facts have been transformed or distilled.

Stroman’s research shows that no one really knew Jean Varda because he was full of myths.  He had this way of creating an alternate reality that she found herself becoming very involved with. “He was considered a European bohemian, which was very different from being a beatnik or a hippie.  As a European bohemian, he transplanted European cultural to wherever he was.  His love of big dinner parties and gatherings was part of this,” states Stroman.   She continues, “He saw beauty in forms, color, light; these were the elements he worked with. Varda painted joy, beauty … this was how he lived his life, who will ever know why his work did not really catch on with the general public?”

Stroman’s book explores the life of Jean Varda as well as the people who gathered around him.  People like English artist Gordon Onslow-Ford and guru, writer, philosopher Alan Watts. Writer Henry Miller along with his friend Anais Nin came to Sausalito to become part of Varda’s world.  He became a mentor to many, while the myths of his lifestyle grew, proving that Varda lived by his wits and his optimism.  Stroman states, “He transferred the ugly into the beautiful because he always saw the possibilities of what you could make out of what others had discarded.  


There were some who thought Varda was a much better teacher than he was an artist. These are the aspects of his life that I wanted to know more about beyond the myths that I had been told.  He taught in San Francisco, North Carolina and New York.  Although he did few museum shows, he did exhibit in galleries in Europe and the United States.”

Stroman feels that Varda’s is a good story because his life tended to be on the cutting edge of what was happening in the history of world events and the world of art.  Today few outside of Sausalito know or remember him, which makes his remaining works of art valuable, displaying his methods.

To Stroman, Varda’s story opens up the question of what is good art and what is important art.  She continues: “Varda painted joy and beauty; this was how he lived his life.  Why his work did not find a place in the world of American art no one will ever know, but his work found a home in Sausalito where he never had any money and where he never seemed to need any. He loved going to the dumpsters and finding things that he could take back, reshape, paint a bright color, give a new life to something that was not wanted by making it wanted again.  This is how Varda saw his world, a place where things and people could once again become useful. This was one of the reasons that people seemed to gather around him.  He became a great example of how one could live as an artist and live well.  In his lifetime, he was always meeting people who would help him if he needed a place to stay or elements for his artwork.  He could travel across the world and always find someone who would offer him a place to stay.  This is one of the myths about him that turns out to be true. In closing, you might say that Varda was a very interesting man who lived a very interesting life during very interesting times.”

Betsy Stroman will read from her book at a launch party at the Bay Model Visitor Center on Sunday, June 14, from 3-5 p.m. The event is free and complimentary drinks, and snacks will be available.

From June 1 to July 13. The Historical Society is proud to sponsor an exhibit of Varda’s works at the Bay Model.