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Obituaries

Vanessa Ettinger, 56; 'Spider Lady'

April 04, 2002|PHIL WILLON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Vanessa Ettinger, who haunted the streets of Laguna Beach for years as the homeless "Spider Lady" until treatment for schizophrenia led the former model to a dramatic transformation, has died. She was 56.

For 15 years, the woman was a familiar figure roaming the streets of the beach-side community, usually draped in black and wearing a thick mask of mascara that led to her unflattering nickname.

In the early 1990s, Ettinger was one of the first residents of Laguna Beach's Friendship Shelter. With the help of medication and the persistence of a county mental health worker, she slowly emerged from the crippling illness. In 1993, with the help of a brother she hadn't seen in 21 years, Ettinger was able to move into an apartment in Dana Point. She was later reunited with one of her daughters in Vancouver, Canada, thanks in part to Sandy Todd, the mental health counselor who befriended Ettinger and nursed her to health.

"She was beautiful. She had an artistic flair, and she was always sweet to everyone," Todd said Tuesday. "She showed that, if we open up our eyes and our hearts, we can see all people need love no matter who they are."

Ettinger's health had been deteriorating, and a stroke a few years ago left her in a wheelchair and in need of constant care. She was a resident at Laveta Health Care in Orange, and died Sunday night after being hospitalized with pneumonia, Todd said.

Born in Missouri and raised in Toronto, Ettinger was the daughter of Donald "Red Dog" Ettinger, who played for the New York Giants from 1948 to 1950.

Although she was known as Vanessa, her name was Abbey, which she re-adopted in recent years. She was married once and had two daughters, and in the late 1960s worked as a model and receptionist at a Kansas City, Mo., advertising agency.

"She was absolutely gorgeous, I mean knockout gorgeous," recalled the agency's president, Bernie Papin, in a 1994 interview. "She always looked like she stepped out of a Vogue magazine."

In 1970, feeling depressed and restless, Ettinger hitchhiked across America on a journey that eventually led to Orange County.

Life on the streets was trying, even in affluent Laguna Beach, Ettinger had said. Still, she said most people were kind to her, enough to allow her to survive on handouts.

Even during her darkest days on the streets, Ettinger had said she tried to look her best, and keep up a "model living at a resort" appearance.

The painted face made her feel more attractive, she said. And more secure.

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