Austin icon Leslie Cochran dies at age 60
An Austin icon is dead, and Austin just got a lot less weird.
Leslie Cochran - the city's flesh-flashing, cross-dressing, attention-loving, frequently homeless mascot, unofficial ambassador and sometimes mayoral candidate - died at 1 a.m. at Christopher House, an inpatient hospice, according to his friend and power of attorney Valerie Romness. He was 60.
Cochran had been admitted to St. David's South Austin Medical Center last month after being found unconscious in a South Austin parking lot. The cause of death was believed to be complications from a brain injury, according to Romness.
Cochran died "peacefully and comfortably" in the company of family and friends, Romness said.
Usually dressed in ankle-snapping ladies' heels and a thong, Cochran was a fixture in Austin, particularly downtown, the Sixth St. entertainment district and South Austin. He became known around the world as a key example of the city's populace embracing and celebrating its freaks. Albert Leslie Cochran eventually ascended to the highest rank of celebrity, joining the few known by one name only.
Plans for services should be settled later this morning.
Click here for photos of Leslie throughout the years
Friends describe him as funny, intelligent and charming. They also describe him as an alcoholic, stubborn and unreliable. And since a 2009 head injury, he had been in decline.
Frequently lacking the capacity to charm locals or visitors out of a buck or two anymore, friends say, Cochran was convinced Austin's ardor for him had cooled and he had recently resolved to return to Colorado, where in earlier days he reportedly had tanned the hides of roadkill and worked as a disc jockey.
Friend Debbie Russell said Cochran was convinced he would be greeted as a returning hero, although a 2005 visit resulted in local officials demanding he be returned to Texas, according to friend Elizabeth Purcell, who paid for the man's travel.
Although Cochran relied on the kindness of strangers and friends, he was no freeloader. He did occasional odd jobs for local businesses and appeared in an ad for Pinky's Pagers that aired locally during the 2001 Super Bowl. An artist paid him to model for her. And a local business lent him to pedal around town on a three-wheeler bicycle with advertising. Purcell, with whom Cochran lived off and on for years beginning in the early 2000s, said the man delighted in Dumpster diving for treasure. Then there was one rainy day she left him at her home while she went to work,
"I'd given him this blue denim apron and I got home and he was standing on the porch like Ma Kettle with of course nothing on but the apron and his G-string, holding a broom up, so proud of himself because he'd cleaned my floors," Purcell said.
More recently, Purcell said, Cochran had become erratic, unstable and unwelcome, breaking into her house and sleeping on the couch.
"Every time I saw him in my yard I started calling 911 in the hope they'd dry him out and give him some shelter."
But at the height of his popularity, the bearded, bedraggled, scantily clad Cochran bathed in public adoration and sometimes little else. His presence provided American-Statesman humor columnist John Kelso galvanic job security. It became customary for people who took his picture to slip him some cash in return for the favor, and Cochran at times would politely protest when the custom went thoughtlessly unobserved.
About five years ago, local businesses started selling Leslie Cochran refrigerator magnets and the man himself got a piece of the action. One of those was Little Penguin, a party and costume shop Jen Gold ran on S. Lamar Blvd. He and Gold became friends, and when it came time to shutter the business, Cochran stood outside and did his best to turn a wake into a celebration.
"He stood out on South Lamar in a Pocahontas costume," Gold said. "People were honking at him and taking pictures. I really appreciated him trying to help me close the store. He has such a big heart, which I don't think people realize. People see the thong but they don't know the absolute wonderful person he really is."
Cochran was born and raised in Miami, one of six children. According Romness, he was largely estranged from his family and didn't like to talk about his rough upbringing. In Austin, he found a community that embraced him.
"He speaks to Austin's weirdness, the acceptance that folks like to think they have for different cultures and lifestyles," Romness said. "He was capable of not being homeless but it was sort of a choice in his mind. He wanted consciously to be different."
And so he was.
In the end, friends say,the end of Cochran's tale is a familiar one for the noteworthy or notorious: a famous figure whose end came at least in part for the very reasons they became renowned in the first place.
-- Patrick Beach, Austin American-Statesman
Published in Austin American-Statesman on Mar. 9, 2012.