The Columbus musician approached life like an improv skit, filling her days with outrageous humor, beautiful music and an addiction that proved deadly
In September of 2016, for the first time in years, Jenny Mae took the stage.
Anyway Records, the local label with a national following that released Jenny Mae's only two albums in the '90s, was celebrating its 25th anniversary with three shows. But even though Jenny Mae was slated to play the Thursday bill at Old North music venue Spacebar, her ability to perform was not a sure thing.
Even in her heyday, the quality of a Jenny Mae performance was dependent on how early in the day she'd begun drinking. Sometimes her bandmates had to take over and sing the songs. Other times her bleary-eyed dream-pop held the room spellbound.
But here she was, seated in her wheelchair behind a keyboard, the dim glow of dangling Edison bulbs barely illuminating her pink, spaghetti-strap top, white skirt and fancy shoes. Before and after the set, she seemed a little lost in the dark club. But onstage, backed by former bandmates and longtime friends, she looked comfortable.
Though her biting humor remained intact, illness and more than two decades of substance abuse made her 48-year-old visage and voice nearly unrecognizable from the singer who dressed in thrift-store evening gowns and feather boas and garnered rave reviews in Spin, Entertainment Weekly and CMJ. But despite her limited range, Jenny Mae still commanded attention.
The most stirring moments of the night came during her performance of “Ho Bitch” — a dark, dusky, ridiculously titled piano ballad from 1998 album Don't Wait Up For Me. “What's wrong with me? Why am I so moody? … How did I get unhappy?” she sang, adding some “la la la”s before scrunching her face and shaking her first in the air as crunchy guitars introduced the chorus.
“I'm dyin' here!” she sang, her rasps turning to screams. “Hey look at me I'm dyin' here!”
It was her final performance. A year later she was gone.
South Vienna sits along Rt. 40, about 35 miles west of Columbus, but to Jennifer Mae Leffel, the insular village of a few hundred people felt thousands of miles removed from the city. Residents who grew up there never seemed to leave.
Born in 1968 and the second-oldest of five kids, Jennifer was the ringleader. She'd regale her siblings with enthralling make-believe stories and sing them songs at bedtime. During the day, she'd lead the kids through a cornfield to a sandy water hole where they'd play with sticks and look for crawdads.
“Her imagination was just crazy. You never knew what to expect,” said Jenny Mae's mother, Ginger Shatto. Unlike her older sister, who rarely got in trouble, Jennifer's imagination sometimes got the best of her. Like the time she convinced her younger sister Rachel (Leffel) Orzechowski they should climb to the top of a pine tree, get inside a burlap sack with pillows and then “float” along the trees.
“Of course we didn't float. We crashed straight through the pine tree and landed on the ground. I don't know how we didn't break anything,” Orzechowski said. “She had these crazy ideas, but she thought they would work.”
Leffel raised prize-winning lambs, and in late elementary school she took up the trumpet and showed an impressive ability to play by ear. “At that point she announced she was gonna be in the Ohio State Marching Band, and she was gonna have hooters the size of Dolly Parton,” Shatto said.
At Springfield Northeastern High School, Leffel played in the marching band, ran cross-country and was in the National Honor Society. “She was the most popular girl in school,” said Bela Koe-Krompecher, who met Leffel in his early teens and began dating her in high school. “She was voted funniest girl in our class. You could hear her laugh down the hall — it's like a cackle. All the teachers loved her. Everyone loved her. She wasn't a girly girl, but she was pretty. And the bandleader said she was the best musician he's ever met.”
Leffel and Koe-Krompecher formed an intense bond. “We took care of each other,” he said. The two lost their virginity to each other, and when Leffel got accepted to Ohio State University, Koe-Krompecher followed her to Columbus after they graduated in 1986.
Despite her high school successes, Leffel wanted out. “Jennifer hated South Vienna,” Orzechowski said. “She couldn't wait to go to Ohio State.”
Once she left home, Leffel never went back. In Columbus, she and Koe-Krompecher immersed themselves in the music scene, taking in local shows and becoming regulars at campus-area bars. Leffel also fulfilled her goal of playing trumpet in the Ohio State Marching Band, and she got a job as a server at the OSU Faculty Club, where she met Sean Woosley, a musician who grew up a few exits away from her on Rt. 40. The two bonded over music and drinking.
“The first week I met her she was like, ‘You play in bands? Got a place to play? Care if I come over Friday?' And I'm like, ‘OK, yeah, that's fine.' I had no idea what to expect,” Woosley said. “Three hours after she's there we've drank so much beer and Boone's Farm that I'm playing drums and she's playing keyboards, and she's pretending we're married and we're on a cruise. It was like a skit. Everything we did seemed like a live skit.”
“One time,” Woosley said, “she got all the tea kettles in the whole building [at the Faculty Club]. We only used like three, but there's hundreds in the building. She takes this big tray and stacks them up as high as she can, and she walks down the stairs and gets down to about the fourth or fifth step and just throws herself down, and it's so loud that a couple of the guys thought it was thunder. It was exactly what she was looking for. She's getting up off the ground, and these professors are going, ‘Hey, are you OK?' No one's thinking, ‘What the hell? Who needs 45 metal tea kettles right now?'”
“Every situation was a reason to laugh and to make a show,” Koe-Krompecher said. “She would push everything over the edge and then laugh as it all fell apart. It's like she needed everything on the verge of utter chaos to make her feel comfortable.”
Leffel also gave her friends nicknames, and often they stuck. She called Koe-Krompecher “Laszlo” or “Nerdla,” a mashup of “nerd” and “Bela.” Woosley somehow became “Robin,” and Woosley, in turn, dubbed Leffel “Mama” following a thrift store outing.
“She was great at thrifting,” Woosley said. “She got this giant pair of jeans — the waist was huge. We grabbed some beer, and as soon as we got home, the next thing we know she put a huge couch pillow in the ass, and she's walking around going, ‘Call me Mama! Mama Big Buns!' It was just ‘Mama' after that.”
Leffel decorated her living spaces with bohemian opulence, and she'd scour thrift stores for prom dresses and bridal gowns, buying them for $3 or $4 apiece and then wearing them as everyday outfits. “You'd go to Wal-Mart and she'd have this gown on,” Orzechowski said.
When Leffel began performing, she'd wear the gowns onstage. Her first couple of bands, the Rahvers and Hot Rod, were relatively short-lived, but people took notice of her next band, Vibralux. “She had Craig Dunson and Mark Deane from Pica Huss backing her up, and they just did it because they loved her music. It was so different from Pica Huss,” Koe-Krompecher said.
Where Pica Huss was loud and aggressive, Vibralux was gauzy and delicate, with a melodic sensibility that allowed Leffel to embrace her true musical loves — the Beach Boys and the Beatles. Her pop-indebted sound was out of step with much of the Columbus rock scene at the time. “The central Ohio music scene is overrun with noisy, raucous bands honor-bound to perform every second of every concert with the volume on 10,” Bill Eichenberger wrote in the Columbus Dispatch in 1993. “Vibralux is a refreshing breath of, er, dark, haunting, soft air.”
Koe-Krompecher had launched Anyway Records in 1992 with Jerry Wick of Gaunt, joining other local labels like Dan Dow's OKra Records and Craig Regala's Datapanik Records, which helped launch New Bomb Turks and Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments — bands that, along with Anyway's growing roster, increasingly brought national attention to Columbus.
Leffel broke up Vibralux in '93, and Koe-Krompecher released her song “Red Chair” on an Anyway Records split single with Guided by Voices that same year. Koe-Krompecher and Leffel had ended their romantic relationship around 1990, but they remained close friends and began hatching plans for her first solo album.
Leffel opted to play music, party and travel rather than finish college. In letters to Woosley from Europe in 1992, she describes drinking her way through Germany and France. “This is possibly the happiest I've ever been,” she wrote from Paris, but added that she was completely out of money. (“She was so intelligent but had no common sense,” Shatto said.)
After the Faculty Club, Leffel took a job at the Capital Club Downtown, where she fell in love with co-worker David Olds. A Florida native, Olds didn't run in the same circle of artists and musicians as Leffel.
“Everybody hated me,” Olds said. “I was this pretty-boy kid coming into that indie scene and taking attention away from everybody. I think my favorite thing is Bela saying, ‘I don't hate you. I just wish you would go away.' That was pretty much the sentiment.”
Over time, most of Leffel's friends and bandmates warmed to Olds, and when the two married in 1994, they didn't have much of a choice. He was there to stay.
Olds fell in love with his wife's music, too. Early on in the relationship he went to see Vibralux play at Bernie's Bagels & Distillery. “I was just thinking, please don't let it suck,” Olds said. “I was blown away.”
The couple briefly moved to New Orleans, where Jenny Mae would play her horn on street corners. But it didn't take, so they returned to Columbus, where Koe-Krompecher and Jenny Mae began making her first solo record, There's a Bar Around the Corner… Assholes.
The album got its moniker from an afternoon when David and Jenny drank some shots of bourbon at a bar in the Short North after getting off work. “There was a coffee shop on the corner,” Olds said, “and she staggered out of the bar, saw all these people sitting outside at the coffee shop and yells, ‘There's a bar around the corner, you assholes!'”
Lacking an actual band, a cavalcade of Columbus indie-rockers stepped in to contribute to Bar Around the Corner: Ted Hattemer (Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, Moviola), Chris Biester (Appalachian Death Ride), Mark Deane (Monster Truck Five, Pica Huss), Craig Dunson (TJSA, Pica Huss), Jerry Wick (Gaunt), Matt Reber (New Bomb Turks, Belreve), Woosley (the Hangboxers)and more. Engineer Steve Evans recorded much of the album out of his home.
After seeing release on Anyway in 1995, the album garnered positive reviews in then-influential outlets. Entertainment Weekly gave it an A-, calling the album a “beautiful, delicate mix of just about everything but punk” that “showcases the former Vibralux [singer's] astounding knack for ethereal pop.” Magnet complimented her “dreamy pop nuggets.”
The liner notes on the back of the LP were darkly comic at the time; in hindsight, the comedy has dissipated. “I have a bad drinking problem,” Jenny Mae wrote. “If someone played on this record and was not properly credited, it's because, well, I was drunk. I was drunk when we recorded, drunk when I did the credits, and drunk right now.”
In her everyday life, Jenny Mae was upbeat. She didn't dwell on traumatic experiences with men from her past. “She never wanted to talk about her problems,” Koe-Krompecher said. “She'd say, ‘I'm just gonna drink and forget about it.'” Only in her music would Jenny Mae's melancholy and pain surface. “There's something so vulnerable in her music,” Woosley said. “There's someone inside this song who's hurting.”
After Bar Around the Corner, Jenny Mae played some shows with bigger names like Palace Brothers, Neko Case and Cat Power. EMI expressed interest in her next album, which she began working on with drummer/producer Jeff Graham, guitarist Dan Spurgeon (Greenhorn, Bush League All-Stars) and bassist Woosley at Graham's Diamond Mine Studios.
Graham pushed everyone in the band — Jenny Mae in particular — to get the best possible performance, and Spurgeon brought his own work ethic to the group. “Jeff and I made sure shit got done,” Spurgeon said.
“I was kind of fearful because sometimes musicians are resistant to production, but they weren't,” Graham said. “With Jenny, we'd do multiple takes, lots of layering. If it wasn't great I'd have her come back when she was a little less drunk — whatever it took to get the right performance.”
The patience and perseverance paid off. Jenny Mae's 1998 sophomore album, Don't Wait Up For Me, holds up as one of the great rock/pop albums to come out of Columbus in the last 30 years. Spin described the new material as “haunting songs from the Dewar's-hazy, day-job margins of bohemia.”
But Graham saw trouble brewing. “I always thought Jenny glamorized the rock 'n' roll drinking thing a little too much,” he said. “You can glamorize it until the years tick by, but it wins. Every time alcohol will win. So I was concerned. I thought, ‘My God, if she keeps it up at that pace it's gonna take its toll.'”
Koe-Krompecher, once Jenny Mae's reliable drinking partner but now sober for 15 years, had similar concerns. So did Woosley. “Jenny and I shared some of the same demons. We both drank like fiends and loved being drunk in public,” Woosley said. “But I would take breaks, and she didn't understand. I remember her telling me one time, ‘You're an alcoholic, why even bother?' And I remember telling her, ‘You know what eventually happens with that attitude. We're young, I get it, but hell no, you don't sell out to being an alcoholic that young.' She kind of had this hopeless attitude.”
Jenny Mae also approached her music career the same way she treated her paintings, which she'd give away, and the journals she filled with her writing, which she'd toss in the trash. “In order to succeed in music, you gotta be able to network,” Koe-Krompecher said. “She just didn't care what people thought of her. She could be very charming, but she had no filter. She would say something and it would be like, ‘Oh, that is just not what you say right there. You should not say that.' … She didn't know how to schmooze. It wasn't in her DNA.”
Despite all that, things were looking up for Jenny Mae and her band. More tour dates were in the works, and a third album was on the horizon. Then she and David announced they were moving to Miami.
The plan was this: David and Jenny Olds would move to Miami to take over one of David's parents' restaurants and spend part of the year in Florida and part of the year in Columbus.
“I was feeling like I wasn't doing anything in Ohio,” said Olds, who's still in Florida. “I think Jenny wanted to see me do something. And she could still go up there and tour. It wasn't meant to be a permanent move. But it turned into that. ... Everybody was furious with me when we came down.”
“It was a total surprise,” Spurgeon said. “To say that we were disappointed is an understatement.”
“I was shocked when she left, with all the momentum and things we had going for us,” Graham said. “I'd really invested myself. I genuinely loved the music, loved the band and I believed in those songs wholeheartedly.”
Woosley and Koe-Krompecher worried about the lack of community in Florida. In Columbus, people in the music scene looked out for each other. “I told her, ‘You'll resent you made the sacrifice at some point, and you'll probably cheat on him or just be like, ‘I'm bored as hell. What am I doing in Florida?'” Woosley said.
The couple first moved into an apartment in south Miami and later bought a 1964 Chris-Craft boat, dropped an anchor just outside Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove and lived on the boat rent-free for more than a year. “It was very cool, but hard work,” Olds said. “You're self-sufficient: solar panels for power, wind generator, getting your own water, taking a dinghy in every day. If the weather is lousy it sucks, but it's wonderful when the weather is nice.”
While David embraced the freedom of houseboat living, Jenny Mae's Columbus friends saw it as a floating trailer park. “My son was recently born, and we went to a wedding in Miami, so while we were there I went to see her,” Spurgeon said. “I've got this child in my arms, and she's like, ‘Come out to my boat!' So we get in this little crappy jon boat, and it's super choppy, and she had a dog with her, and I've got the kid in my arms, and this dog is super excited. I'm about ready to throw up, and Jenny's laughing. I feel like I'm gonna die, and she's laughing her head off.”
The initial excitement of Miami didn't last. The couple worked at various restaurants for a time, but eventually Jenny didn't work at all. Olds also said cocaine usage became a problem.
“It was every day. My [cocaine use] was a little heavy for a while, too, but I was able to pull back from it. She never was,” Olds said. “Her mental illness started showing up a lot more, too. There were points when she was having major hallucinations, and not just drug induced, although there was definitely some cocaine psychosis. At one point she went with some friends on the back of a pink Harley down to the Keys. Turns out she was doing ecstasy nonstop for three days. Her brain never really came back from that. After that she was never really right.”
Jenny Mae's mental health is a contentious issue among her friends and family. While Olds, Koe-Krompecher and others say she struggled with panic attacks and bipolar disorder, Orzechowski and Shatto say all her problems stemmed from alcohol abuse, not mental illness.
Regardless, her marriage could not survive Miami. “We actually had a trip planned to Europe, and she never made it on the plane,” Olds said. “I was sitting on the plane thinking, ‘She can still make it. She can still make it.' I thought we'd have some time to get away from Miami and travel around. But she never made it on the plane. That's when we got divorced. When I got back, she was getting really bad. She would show up at the playhouse where I worked, and she was running in barefoot and screaming and hysterical saying that the ninjas were coming to get her and they were behind the refrigerator.”
Jenny Mae began seeing a wealthy man she met at the Coconut Grove Sailing Club, Jim Williams (whom she referred to as “Lord Jim” and “Nandy,” short for Neanderthal). Friends and family say the relationship only steepened her downward trajectory. The two followed Paul McCartney in concert around the country for a time and then lived on a houseboat.
“She started hallucinating,” Woosley said. “There were little green men under the bed whispering, and she was convinced that she was being filmed on the boat.”
In May of 2002, Williams and Jenny Mae were charged with felony cocaine possession. (Both were found guilty, but court records show the sentence was suspended.) Williams died suddenly in 2006, and Jenny Mae found herself back in Columbus.
Columbus, part II
At first, Jenny Mae stayed with friends, but her drinking made each situation untenable. Soon she was homeless, living in a camp near Arcadia Avenue and High Street in south Clintonville.
“She was homeless for about two years. The system just failed her,” said Koe-Krompecher, now the clinical director at the Downtown YMCA. “I did a lot of stuff from my end as a social worker, trying to get her in the right place. … But she never really realized she was homeless. You would go take her food, and she would give it to everybody else and say, ‘Bela, you really gotta help these guys. Nobody is out here helping them.' And it's like, ‘You are here.'”
Over the years, Koe-Krompecher was able to help get her housing in various locations. “I remember her pleading to me, one time when she got kicked out of somewhere, ‘Bela, you've got to change this system. This should not be happening, that I'm back out on the street,'” he said. “I think about that. It goes through my head nearly every day.”
A ComFest performance in 2010 proved to be disastrous, and soon afterward she began to lose the use of her legs, owing to a previously undiagnosed heart condition compounded by alcohol abuse, according to Koe-Krompecher. Jenny Mae required the use of a wheelchair to get around, but for a time she lived in a house with steps and no ramp, so when her boyfriend, Johnny Penn Jr., wasn't around, she was trapped. Then in July of 2013, Penn was charged with domestic violence for physically assaulting Jenny. He spent time in jail, but when he was released, they moved back in together. The two were married in May of 2014.
Shatto tried to get her daughter into treatment centers, but it never stuck. “She wasn't willing to make that change,” she said. “She just looked at it like she was doomed.”
Jenny Mae went in and out of nursing homes and hospitals, and in March of last year, doctors told her she had three to six months to live. “They said her liver was gone completely, and they said, ‘If you drink you will die,'” Orzechowski said. “She continued to drink.”
“When I was there in March, she was in the hospital and I had to leave,” said Shatto, who now lives in Florida. “I told her, ‘Jennifer, you need to fight this thing.' And she said, ‘Oh, Mom. Don't start.' The last time I talked to her she said, ‘Mom, I am so tired.' I said, ‘I know you are.' She was beaten and she knew it.”
She died on Aug. 25, 2017.
Even in the last years of her life, Jenny Mae maintained her sense of humor. “One time in an ambulance she told the paramedic, ‘If I wasn't on the way to the hospital I'd make you feel real good,' then did a little purr thing. Even that close to death she was cracking jokes,” Koe-Krompecher said.
Others told similar stories at a memorial concert held at Ace of Cups after her death. “Doing the memorial show was amazingly cathartic for me. I was bawling my eyes out,” Spurgeon said. “I couldn't hold it together but I didn't care. Playing the songs was like releasing demons.”
Some of Jenny Mae's unreleased recordings may see the light of day in the coming years, and perhaps a best-of compilation, plus a forthcoming memoir from Koe-Krompecher, who finds himself frustrated with a system that allowed his bright, creative, hilarious friend to fall through the cracks.
Shatto, on the other hand, wishes her daughter had used her stubbornness to fight harder against addiction rather than surrender to it. She tells the story of the time Jennifer kept reaching for a piece of candy when she was a toddler in South Vienna. Shatto told her no and gently swatted her hand, but Jenny reached for it again. And again. And again. Pretty soon the top of her hand was red and tears streamed down her face, but she still reached for the piece of candy.
In the immediate aftermath of her daughter's death, Shatto dealt with anger. Her grief has moved to a different stage now, but she's still processing the loss and looking for peace. She can't bring herself to sift through a box of Jenny Mae's belongings.
“I keep waiting for it to get better. And it will,” she said. “But I'm not there yet.”