Two decades ago, the vegetarian ethos existed only way underground, where it quite likely would have remained if not for a San Franciscan who died last month at an undisclosed age — those in the know guess ninety. Born Robert Bootzin, he called himself Gypsy Boots.
Born in the city to Russian immigrants, he was eighteen when one day at Kelly’s Cove on Ocean Beach he met a suntanned young German who told exciting tales about the radical Naturmensch — “nature person” — subculture in Europe. Its adherents lived seminude outdoors, foraging for raw food in the wild while embracing neopagan spirituality and eschewing all things processed and artificial. Inspired, Bootzin adopted his new moniker and moved south to Tahquitz Canyon near Palm Springs, where he joined a group of like-minded men who dubbed themselves the “Nature Boys.” Their long hair and beards flowed; they went shirtless and barefoot, slept in caves and trees, bathed in waterfalls, and ate desert plants. Note that this was the early 1940s — a full two decades before the first hippie ever dropped out of Columbia and even dreamed of letting the freak flag fly.
Boots became a national novelty following the success of Nat King Cole’s 1948 hit “Nature Boy.” Written by Tahquitz Canyon habitué Eden Ahbez, the song about “a very strange enchanted boy” was based on Boots. In 1958, he opened a restaurant in Los Angeles called the Health Hut. Serving organic dishes to a largely celebrity clientele — he counted Kirk Douglas among his close friends — the Health Hut was inspired by an earlier restaurant that opened in 1917, and which Boots visited before it closed in the ’40s. That was John and Vera Richter’s Eutropheon, a downtown Los Angeles raw-foods cafeteria whose menu featured mint cocktail, flaxseed pemmican, laxative bread, fruit-salad soup, raw-potato salad, dried-fruit caramels, and raw-fruit pies whose crusts were made mostly of ground raisins.
In the early and mid-’60s, the vast majority of Americans were still totally square: crewcuts, pageboys, neckties, girdles, briefcases, Sunday roasts. In those years, millions watched Gypsy Boots’ two-dozen guest spots on The Steve Allen Show. After swinging onstage from a rope, the bearded caveman would demonstrate how to make organic juice and would coax straitlaced Allen to join him in performing healthful exercises. And it was there on TV, historians say, that hippiedom was born: not just the surface stuff — the look and the jive which seemed so outrageous at first but became cartoonishly ubiquitous — but also the stuff that lasted, the cultural shift. Call it evolution. Call it revolution. What started as a joke, as a talk-show booker’s wet dream, ended up changing the world. Now, forty years later, thirteen million Americans call themselves vegetarians, and places like Mother Nature face stiff competition.