Until she died, I don’t think I had ever seen a picture of Pegi Young, but I knew something about her: That 41 years ago she gave birth to a son, Ben, who had severe cerebral palsy—and that she had founded an innovative school, The Bridge School, in California to help handicapped children.
But that knowledge of her achievements was intertwined with another identity of hers that was equally strong in my mind: She was the wife of one of America’s great male musical artists, Neil Young. His ex-wife, actually: After a 36-year-long marriage, Neil had, in 2014, begun a relationship with Daryl Hannah. He left Pegi and later married Daryl—he was 73 and she was 58 at the time.
Clearly, the death of such a vital women from cancer was tragic (one wants to say “unjust”). What she must have mustered to insist on a better way of educating those like her son. The school teaches children from ages three to 12, according to the New York Times, to use “augmentative and alternative communication techniques, including speech generators and manual communication boards, to help [the students] articulate their thoughts and prepare to complete their education in their local school districts.”
Tough & Tender: The Making of a Formidable Woman
But my admiration and sorrow was mixed with vague feminist guilt that when I thought of her I remembered hearing that she had been a beautiful, groovy waitress who captivated an in-his-prime Neil Young. For me, “Neil Young’s wife” was as strong an identifier as was all the good she’d done.
I shouldn’t have felt guilty for the famous-husband conflation—and thinking it trivialized her. Pegi Young, it turns out, was far too tough, creative, self-assured—and honest—a woman to be worried that her accomplishments would be rendered secondary to her status as a rock legend’s wife. She used that toughness and strength to write songs admitting that her husband’s leaving her for another woman when she was in her early 60s had deeply depressed and disoriented her.
Prideful honesty is actually the thing that gives us not shame, but power.
So often feminism ties us up in knots. We want to not just live “correctly” but to think “correctly,” too. We have so much pride in our independence and self-esteem that admitting to some feelings that are deemed “retro,” like rejection from a man, feels like a sign of weakness. It takes a special woman to help us see the self-sabotage in this way of thinking, to say: Prideful honesty, even (perhaps especially) about feelings we’re supposedly too “evolved” for, is actually the thing that gives us not shame, but power.
Advocating for a New Model of Education
Pegi Young—real name Mary Margaret Morton—was born to upper-middle-class parents in a comfortable community outside of San Francisco. She played guitar and wrote poetry in high school but never graduated from community college—adventure beckoned. She hitch-hiked across the country and then lived in a teepee with her dog while waitressing at Alex’s Mountain House, a restaurant in northern California, near where her already-famous husband-to-be Neil Young had a ranch. “She used to work in a diner / never saw a woman look finer; I used to order just to watch her float across the floor” were the opening lines of his song “Unknown Legend,” on his 1992 album Harvest Moon.
The school has spawned a worldwide program, thanks to Pegi’s vision.
When they married, they had a risk to evaluate. Neil already had a six-year-old son, Zeke, who had cerebral palsy. What were the odds it would happen again? According to a friend of Pegi’s, a doctor said they were exceedingly rare. Those exceedingly rare odds happened, and Ben was was born with a severe form of cerebral palsy. Their daughter, Amber, 35, a textile artist living in the Bay Area, was also born with health challenges in the form of epilepsy. On top of that, Zeke Young’s mother, Carrie Snodgress, died in 2004, and taking over the raising of another son with cerebral palsy intensified Pegi’s responsibilities.
Pegi opened the Bridge School when Ben was eight—in 1986. She had “a determination to ensure that children like Ben have the opportunity to become active participants in their communities,” the school’s executive director, Vicki R. Casella, says. It was a new breed of special education. Thanks to Pegi’s vision and insistence and years of fundraising performances by the elite of the music world, the school now has a campus in Hillsborough and has spawned a worldwide program, introducing its curriculum in developing countries. More than a few of its students, once thought unteachable, are now college graduates.
“I take a tremendous amount of satisfaction with the knowledge that we’re changing lives for the better,” Pegi Young said a year ago, when she was quietly battling cancer.
Honesty and Artistry: Making Music the Pegi Young Way
Pegi, who had performed with Neil, started making her own albums with her group, which eventually came to be called Pegi and the Survivors, 11 years ago, when she was 55. She had always loved playing music but had put off that passion in her younger days because her children and the school came first. She once said, “I’ve always got to be available for them, the way I always chose to live my life as a mom.”
She hoped people would find comfort in her honesty.
When, five years ago, Neil Young blind-sided her by leaving her for Hannah, she was plunged into a period of shock and depression. She told Rolling Stone’s David Browne, “I had to figure out at 61 years of age: ‘Holy moly! Who am I?’ So much of my life has been dedicated to my family and to Neil. So I was a bit lost for a while.”
Those are supposedly heretical admissions in this feminist age. But they’re all the more important for the fact that they are precisely that. Last February she released the song “Raw.” In it she asked her ex-husband, “Why’d you have to ruin my life? Why’d you have to be so mean?” Her goal, she said, was that people would take “some hope and comfort from its honesty,” that you could get through pain and humiliation with grace.
There was more humiliation after her death. One early obituary, in the Times of London, had as its headline that Pegi Young was the “Discarded Wife” of Neil Young. (It’s to the New York Times’s credit that they did not refer to her as Neil Young’s wife in their obituary headline.) Her candor and strength, I believe, bested the Times of London’s tacky insult: She was bigger than its patronization. She owned her life. Neil Young posted a tribute to his ex-wife, quoting love lyrics from an earlier song and telling her she lived inside him. In looking over her journey, it seems that hist tribute shows that he—the rock god and the writer of lyrics of beauty and truth—is trying hard to equal the formidable character of the woman he was lucky to have partnered with for so many years.
Sheila Weller is the author of seven books (three of them New York Times Bestsellers), the best of which is Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation, which Billboard magazine recently named #19 of the best music books of all time. She has been writer of major features for Vanity Fair, a recent longtime senior contributing editor at Glamour, a has written for the New York Times Opinion, Styles and Book Review and for just about every women’s magazine in existence. She has won 10 major magazine awards.