ARMEN BALIANTZ 1921-2007
Joyful owner of Bali's
restaurant, warm-hearted friend of the great.
She took Rudolf Nureyev under her wing when he defected
from the Soviet Union in 1961. She pulled the strings that
got fellow ballet superstar and defector Mikhail Baryshnikov
his California's driver's license. She befriended filmmakers
and street people, novelists and politicians, and whisked
them all together as if fame and social distinctions were
meaningless. And she made a memorable rack of lamb marinated
in pomegranate juice.
Armen Baliantz, the child of Armenian refugees who endured
four years of internment in China and later turned San Francisco
restaurant ownership into a joyous social art form at the
eponymous Bali's, died of natural causes Thursday night at
St. Mary's Hospital.
Armen Bali, or Madam Bali, as she was widely known, was
86 and had been ill for some time. But as people remembered
her on Friday, it was as if her transformative and magnanimous
spirit couldn't possibly be extinguished.
Her legacy, several of them said, shines on most clearly
in her daughter Jeannette Etheredge, owner and proprietor
of the famed Tosca Cafe in North Beach. There, from one generation
to the next, runs a vein of San Francisco society that marries
glamour and celebrity to the cohesive warmth of village life
grounded in open-hearted hospitality, family and food. Bali's
closed in 1985. But the long nights filled with laughter,
friendship, Russian vodka and that inevitable rack of lamb
"She was a very strong and opinionated woman with a
very soft heart," Baryshnikov said by telephone. "She
was a controlled Bohemian who loved people and was also a
very good businesswoman."
"I can see her holding court in at that corner table," film
director Philip Kaufman said of Baliantz, "reading people's
fortunes in their coffee grounds. She was very bright and
a big reader, always talking about Russian novels. She had
a great sense of humor. I thought she was very sexy. You
could let your hair down with Armen; there was this innate
naturalness about her."
"Everyone fell in love with her," said "Beach
Blanket Babylon" producer Jo Schuman Silver. "Men,
women, everyone wanted to be in her presence."
"She had a great huge heart," said San Francisco
Ballet master Betsy Erickson, who attended parties for dancers
at Bali's in the 1970s and 1980s. "She always had a
hug and a big smile for everyone."
Baliantz's generosity extended to
money, material goods, even the clothes off her back. After
one trip to Russia, Etheredge recalled, her mother was
riding with Nureyev in a Paris taxicab and sweating in
the heat. When Nureyev suggested she take off her coat,
Baliantz refused. "It turns out," Etheredge
said, "that she had given away the last of her underwear
to the maid in the airport bathroom."
Etheredge said her mother "was the kind of person that
everybody she met became friends with her. And she never
lost those friendships." While Russian dancers always
held a special place, friendships could come from almost
anywhere. Her social spiral included labor leader Harry Bridges,
sculptor Benny Bufano, Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, California
Assembly Speaker and later San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown,
and writer William Saroyan. Baliantz introduced the dancer
Natalia Makarova, another Soviet defector, to her future
husband, Edward Karkar.
"I will always be grateful to her for that," Makarova
said in a statement. She praised her friend of 35 years for
her generosity, kindness and joie de vivre.
"She was the most feminine,
charming woman of exceptional beauty. She never looked
Schuman Silver was at a party Baliantz
threw for her own doctors about 10 years ago. "She had a doctor for every
organ," Schuman Silver recalled, "and they were
all there. It was hysterical. They were all discussing her
like she was this specimen. But you know something? It was
a great, great party."
Armen Psakian was born on Jan. 9, 1921, to Armenian parents
who had fled to Russia and then to China after the 1915-1917
massacres by the Turks. She spent her early years in Harbin,
Manchuria; her father was a journalist for a French Armenian-language
newspaper. Growing up, Armen spoke Armenian, Russian and
Mandarin. She married Aram Baliantz, who was in the import-export
business in Tsingtao, in 1939, and their two children, Jeannette
and Arthur, were born in the 1940s.
The family was held in a prison
camp by the Japanese for four years during the war. Baliantz,
English and French during that time, spoke about experiences
in China in Peter
Kaufman's 1994 documentary "China:
The Wild East." She remained friends for life with one of the
paratroopers who liberated the camp.
After the war, the Baliantz family worked in a Tsingtao
confectionary business. The United States had tightened restrictions
on immigration from Communist countries, so the family left
China and spent two years in a refugee camp in the Philippines.
They finally arrived in San Francisco in 1952. At the time,
Baliantz said that although she had an emerald ring on her
hand, the only cash she and her husband had to their names
was a 50-cent piece: She tossed it into the bay as their
ship passed under the Golden Gate Bridge. Armen and Aram
Baliantz divorced in 1959.
Using the emerald ring as collateral for a bank loan, Baliantz
opened the original Bali's on Sansome Street in the early
1950s, and Bufano became her first celebrity customer. The
restaurant moved to Pacific and Battery in the mid-1970s
and was a success from the start.
"There were some up-and-down years," said Etheredge
of her mother's business, "but it always made money.
And she always had friends to help her out when times got
a little tough."
When her son Arthur was killed in
a motorcycle accident in 1983, Baliantz decided to close
the restaurant. Two years later, she did. Devastated as
she was by the loss of her son, Baliantz remained, characteristically,
both tough and warmhearted. Etheredge remembered her mother
saying of a psychiatrist who was supposed to help her with
the grieving, "He's
got problems." Later she taught the psychiatrist how
to cook her signature rack of lamb. She was a fixture at
Tosca's in her retirement years.
"The flip side of Armen was that she didn't suffer
fools," Kaufman said. "She was very opinionated."
As Baryshnikov says of her in a
forthcoming book, "she
was exotic and straightforward and loud and streetsmart."
In addition to her daughter, Baliantz is survived by her
daughter-in-law, Genevieve Baliantz, and grandchildren Peter
Baliantz, Devin Etheredge, Eric Baliantz and Zoe Baliantz,
all of San Francisco. Baliantz, who requested that she have
no funeral, will be remembered in a memorial service at Tosca
on Jan. 9, 2008. That would have been her 87th birthday.
The family requests that donations in her honor be made
to the St. Mary's Foundation at St. Mary's Hospital, 450
Stanyan St., San Francisco, CA 94117.