Backroads With Betsy: Live Fast, Die Young, Stay Pretty

The woman who taught Betsy to ride

By Betsy Huelskamp

“Live fast, die young, stay pretty.” That was the motto of my lifelong best friend, Mary Tomczak. It was a line in a Blondie song. Mary loved Blondie back in the 80s. We were even backstage at one of Blondies concerts, and as strung out as she was, onstage Blondie was larger than life. And larger than life is the best way I can remember Mary, who one week ago today, decided to take her own life. When I was able to look at her for the last time, I ran my hands over her porcelain perfect, still slightly freckled high cheek bones. I held her cold hands in mine. Her husband was standing next to me and said, “Shes so cold. She hates to be cold.” I replied, “I know. I do too.”

This is my favorite of hundreds of photographs I shot of Mary over the years.
I shot this picture in New Orleans at the above ground graveyards. She always held a certain fascination with death that confused me.

For two girls who grew up in the blizzards of Minnesota, neither of us could stand being cold. Yet we both chose to go to college in the coldest place in the country, University of Minnesota in Duluth on the edge of Lake Superior, where the wind gusts can freeze your eye balls right in their sockets. That is where, in the art department, two unlikely pals the punk rocker and the hippie chick became roommates, and lifelong best friends.

Please forgive us these bad styles!

Both of us born and raised slightly dysfunctional Catholics, the last thing I did before walking away from her casket was take two antique black rosaries that belonged to each of my grandmothers, and place them gently in her stiff hand. Her husband, Damon, quickly grabbed them out of her hand saying to me, “She didnt believe in that stuff.” He then tucked them into the side of the coffin and walked away.

Both Mary and I have always had a fascination with the image of Christ, and Mary Magdalene. Both of our homes are filled with rosaries, statues, and pictures portraying religion. Being that neither of us has had a life free of sin, I suppose to some that would seem sacrilegious. But to anyone so self righteous who would think that they are closer to God because they sin less, I would say only that I dont feel the need to answer to any man. We are all sinners, and we are all on our own journeys. From start to finish, we all go through a process of good and evil. We dont all start out at the same place spiritually so perhaps we dont all have the same finish line to cross. Recognizing sin in other people is so much easier than seeing it in ourselves, isnt it? But we all struggle with it until the day we leave here. The best we can do is to try to be a better person each day that we are given. Whats “better” for me or better for anyone is really only between that person and God. And if you dont believe in God, or anything, then perhaps trying to be “better” would have no relevance.

I know that Mary was trying to be a better woman every day of her life. I know she struggled, but I have come to believe that those who struggle the most care the most. She was an energy force of love and fire and compassion and class. She was wickedly funny and blatantly honest. And for as much as she was judged by the world around her, she never judged them back. She was one person who, if I needed anything, anywhere, anytime, I knew I could count on her to be at my side, no questions asked. She was as solid as a rock and as level and consistent as the waves on the shore. The tide comes in and goes out, but it never goes away. Its hard for me to accept that she would choose to go away. The void she leaves in my life knows no bounds. I was the last person standing over her body at the viewing, before she would be cremated. I put the rosaries back in her hands. None of us really knows what someone else believes, and none of us really knows what lies ahead.

Mary and I always walked through the unusual graveyards in New Orleans when we went to Mardi Gras years ago.

We all find ways to justify our own behavior. I believe that God sees it all, and that he is the King of seeing through our behavior and into our hearts. He sees our good deeds, our mistakes, our weaknesses, our failures, our intentions good, bad, and unrealized. In my mind, I have to believe that God saw into this incredible womans heart and that Mary is happily flying around the kingdom. And for some reason every time I imagine her there she is not just flying, but she is traveling very fast and furiously, dancing, and smiling.

Oh, how we loved to dance! This is how I will always remember her.

Yet here I sit with tears still streaming down my face because I know I will miss her strength and humor in each and every day of my remaining existence. Id like to believe that the friends we lose on lifes path become our guardian angels, and that they watch over us, and help us on our mission to become better people, and that they will be waiting when our number is called to be reunited with us. Yet even with the faith that I will see her again one day, it is hard to accept that here on earth, I will never again hear her laugh, see her smile, know her ideas, feel her insane energy, or get to ride BEHIND her on a long and winding road!

Our first “women rider” interview.

Mary Tomczak known to her friends as Edith Speed known to her clients as the Mistress Sabrina Belladonna had a colorful life, to say the least. She endured a childhood of endless torture and abuse, and somehow found refuge in passing that pain onto people who not only enjoyed it, but paid handsomely for it. She became one of the most notorious dominatrixs in the city of Los Angeles, and was even featured on Phil Donahue and Sally Jesse Raphael. She was the real deal in a world so foreign to me that I suppose I still dont know the half of it. But the true glory of our friendship was that our respect for one another transcended whatever we did in our daily lives. Edith and I started out very different people and ended up very different people, but always managed to find a most perfect common ground together.

I shot so many beautiful pictures of Edith over the years. I preferred her soft side, Mary, as that was the girl I knew. Pictured here as “The Mistress Sabrina Belladonna.”

Mary came to live with me when we were just 19 years old. I didnt know it when she moved in, but she was looking for recluse from an abusive husband, who one day came to my door angrily demanding to be let in to see his wife. I could see Mary out of the corner of my eye peeking at us through the bedroom door with panic on her face. I escorted his nelly ass down to the end of the driveway and told him never to return. I became Marys hero that day, and she spent the next 30 years being mine.

Over the years I moved her out of four bad households, three were with husbands. And she always did the same for me. Although I didnt have four husbands, we both picked some doozies. We always let each other make our mistakes, and were just there for each other to clean up the messes, and move the same darn boxes back and forth each and every time. We saw each other through dozens of broken hearts, but every time, I felt like it somehow made us stronger, wiser women, and even closer friends.

Sitting in the sand in Santa Barbara.

The day we graduated from college, we each took out one last student loan of $2,500, and decided to hit the road. We had no game plan really, but the object was to stay away from Minnesota as long as we could. Much like Thelma and Louise, we begged, borrowed, and stole our way across the west in my maroon Mercury Zephyr, with my Samoyed Husky “Ryan” riding shotgun the whole way. For two years we zigzagged through every state west of the Mississippi eating fresh produce as we walked through markets; we snuck into orchards to steal boxes of fruit, and bought a lot of Diet Cokes at happy hours if they offered a free buffet. It was an adventure so naughty and ludicrous that we made a pact never to discuss the details with anyone else. But the two of us never tired of reminiscing about those days, and it bonded us like sisters for a lifetime.

Halloween in San Francisco at the “Exotic, Erotic Ball.”
Me, Mary and Ryan on my uncle#39;s ranch in Colorado.

Throughout the past 30 years, Mary and I never lived more than an hour away from one another. After our two-year road trip, this hippie chick moved west to Santa Cruz, and the punk rocker went to San Francisco. It was there on the hilly streets of San Francisco that Mary Tomczak bought that first little Honda 400, which gave way to the birth of the wild child Edith Speed. She flew up and down those crowded steep streets with me on the back, and we hung out on Haight Street at the art galleries and thrift stores. She was a terror on wheels, and she would laugh her wicked laugh as she darted in and out of traffic. 

Mary Tomczak becomes Edith Speed.
Edith and our first Honda 400.

It would be years later in Los Angeles when Edith was leaving one of her gone wrong relationships that she had a garage sale to raise enough money to get herself going again. I went to that garage sale needing nothing, but with money in hand to donate to her cause. Five hundred dollars later, I owned that little green Honda 400. She told me, “It’s easy. One down. Three up. Here’s your clutch, here’s your brake.” I drove right out of the parking lot, down the block, and to the Malibu Hills, and eventually to Sturgis. That moment changed my life. She changed my life.

It wasn’t long before she bought another motorcycle — a bigger bike — and together we would fly through the Malibu Hills. To this day I have never seen another person ride like she could ride. The girl had no athletic abilities whatsoever, but for some reason, put her on a motorcycle, and the girlfriend tore it up! She rode in excess of 100 mph every opportunity she had. The girl had no fear. The idea of death either never occurred to Edith, or it didn’t matter. She rode Hell’s bells in the moment, and could lean a bike until she was perpendicular to the pavement. She was the best mentor I could have known. I loved watching the image of her dot on the horizon as I tried to keep up. I am who I am because of her. I ride like I ride as a result of her madness. Ultimately she would buy my second motorcycle, a Honda Shadow 1100, the bike she had up until the end.  

Edith Speed.
Edith and her dog, Sofia.

Edith finally found what she would call her “true love” in a gourmet chef named Damon. It wasn’t long after their wedding that Edith found out she had breast cancer. She had already lost her Aunt Izzie, and younger sister Beverly to the disease. For the first time in my life, I saw Edith scared. I was scared. We were all scared. First she had a lumpectomy, and then we discovered the botanical pharmaceutical world of Dr. Richard Schulze. Edith decided to try and live a clean and healthy existence and began dieting and abstaining from all unhealthy influences on her life. She retired from working, and she and Damon, and his daughter, Leny, seemed to really pull together as a family unit.

When she found out that the cancer had returned, and that she needed to have a double radical mastectomy, her panic escalated. Edith had friends from every walk of life. People came out of the woodwork to unite and contribute and help her through this time, which she seemed to get through with flying colors. She had reconstructive surgery, and then tattooed her fresh scars adding to her already tattooed torso. She was happy with the outcome. During this period, we cried together many times. I told her over and over how much I loved her, and how I couldn’t begin to imagine my life without her in it. I asked her if she still wanted to live fast, die young, and stay pretty. She said no, she did not. She had found true love with Damon, and wanted to grow old with him. 

Edith with Damon's daughter, Leny.
Edith when Sofia was a puppy.

But the cancer came back, and on top of that, Damon had just changed jobs, and they had no current health insurance. And she now had this huge, pre-existing condition. Add to that, Damon, who was trying to support Edith during these trying times, was struggling himself with ongoing substance abuse problems. His inability to stop using cocaine was a constant sore spot in their relationship. It was especially hard for Edith to try to be healthy in a home surrounded by smoking, drinking, drug abuse, and ultra delicious fattening food. Try as she might, it was hard for Edith not to indulge herself when she was surrounded by temptation. 

Edith and I loved hanging out in Rosarito Beach, Mexico. Here we are with our then boyfriends Carlos and Kiro.
In Mexico at Papas & Beer, the crowd had to run for cover as a blindfolded Edith swung at the pinata. This girl made me laugh.

In the end, she was fearful to die a slow death of cancer. She was nervous about the insurance dilemma and worried about money. But in her goodbye letter she says she was ultimately dying that day of a broken heart because the love of her life continued to choose his cocaine addiction instead of helping her to live in the addiction free environment that would be necessary for her to have a chance to break free from the grips of her cancer. She took nearly 100 pills of all different types, and went to sleep in her office chair, after pushing “send” on her goodbye email. She had just lost 15 pounds, was as beautiful as Meryl Streep in “Sofie’s Choice,” and had nearly 100 people coming to her 48th birthday party in two weeks. She also had her annual trip to Magic Mountain theme park planned on her birthday weekend, which is something we did together every year. 

Satisfying our need for speed at Magic Mountain.
Me and Edith Speed riding our Hondas to the Love Ride in southern California.

As it turns out Edith and Damon had fought about drugs the night before, and she had made the difficult choice to leave him to try and save herself. Realizing he was out of control, Damon got up the next morning, and went to an NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meeting for help. It was during the meeting while Damon’s phone was off, that her final message was sent to him via a text. By the time he got that message and sped home, it was too late. He tried in vain to revive her, but she was gone. So in the end a best friend died of a suicide due to the complications of a broken heart. And ultimately she did what she always said she wanted to do. She did live fast. She did die young. And she will stay, forever pretty, both inside and out. Vaya con Dios Mary. Your absence is forever felt. Save me a seat. I will see you again one day. 

My forever pretty best friend Mary.

September 12 – 13, 2009, is the Los Angeles portion of the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. As a tribute to Mary, my mother, and friends who have battled this disease, and I will be walking. Anyone who wants to join me is invited.

To read more about Betsy, visit her Web site,

43 thoughts on Backroads With Betsy: Live Fast, Die Young, Stay Pretty

  1. God Bless Mistress Sabrina Belladonna/Edith Speed; I think of her often. She was best friend to my dearly departed lover and Dom Sherri Phillips. I miss them both, their absence has left a mark not easily removed. No not ever. The mansion, the people, the friends, the fetish parties, the good conversations and more will always have my heart and deep respect.Prior to Edith’s passing she so graciously accepted a contract to babysit our dogs Avalon and Perry. We had a late arrival back to LA and asked Edith if she could watch them one more day and of course she said yes. The next day fully rested, we visited Edith to pick up the furbabies and that was the last day we saw Edith, only a few days later we got a call from her husband that Edith passed away. It still breaks my heart. I will always remember her standing beside her husband waving goodbye to us from her front door, her smile beaming, the sun shining, the blue sky above LA and the hope in our hearts to be in their company again. Rest in peace dear Mistress Belladonna and my sweet love Sherri. Thank you for welcoming me into your life.

  2. I just now found the breadcrumbs you left me to this article — and I thank you. It brought literal tears to my eyes. I met her as Sabrina, a hero and inspiration to so many of us in Los Angeles and, later had the great good fortune to get to know her as Edith, who was arguably even more heroic and inspirational. Her loss left a deep scar on this city, which will never go away. Thank you for this tribute to her and your friendship.

  3. Betsy,

    Thank you for this beautiful sharing. Much of this I did not know and I only recently heard of her passing. I knew Mary as Edith Speed. I was her private spiritual teacher for three years in the early '90s. Edith confided much to me which will always be private. However please know she spoke of you fondly and loved you dearly.

    Edith was a fearless soul with a guarded but tender heart. She is a very “old soul” and took to my teachings with much gusto and more discipline than any of my other students.

    When I first met Edith I knew I had a unique student. She showed up at my door dressed all in black with a leopard pattern umbrella overhead, long blue black hair, spiked heel boots, blood red lipstick, and a motorcycle helmet tucked under her arm. When she didn't ride her bike she drove a big black Cadillac where she once took me for a ride with her black dog Sofia. One Christmas she even showed up as Sado Claus.

    Edith was very curious about the afterlife and authentic spirituality. Through meditation and higher teachings she learned how to have direct experiences. Edith was courageous in life as she will be in the afterlife. Much love and blessings to Edith and to all those hearts she touched while living.

  4. I am sorry for your pain. No words spoken by any of us will heal those wounds. Only time itself heals a broken heart. Speedy healing to those who are hurting.

  5. This is my story, your story, so many women I know's story. I am awed by her complete recklessness about her life but also some how bonded in spirit of commonality.

    What an amazing woman she is and you are. It takes a true warrior woman to make it through the stuff life dishes out and still have laughter, ya know what I mean? Of course you do. I consider her a warrior woman and her mission is now complete. Stand down sister. Be free to be.

  6. Betsy,
    This amazing story about an amazing friendship is the last thing I thought I'd find tonight while surfing through motorcycle-related articles on the internet.

    The last thing I thought I'd find, and the best thing I could find. Words can't describe how sorry I am for your horrible loss. Friends like Mary are so hard to find these days, and what a divine friendship it was, my dear.

    True also, was Mary's fortune in having you, Betsy. You are one in a million, and I can only imagine what a comfort you always were to your dear friend.

    I proudly ride a 1992 Honda Shadow Spirit 1100 and will forever think of Mary and you, during my many rides that I take in the some places the two of you rode. Blessings to you, and God's speed to Mary. Thank you for sharing your story.

  7. Betsy,
    Tears flow.
    A totally beautiful tribute.
    Thank you for providing insight into Mary's interesting life. Hearing about her suicide was haunting although not totally unexpected from knowing her very briefly where “wind gusts can freeze your eyeballs right in their sockets.”
    In my little rural Minnesota brain the memory of going with her to the top of the World Trade Center will hold a special place in my heart.

  8. I knew Mary from UMD. She stayed at our home. I am deeply saddened to hear of her loss.

    Mary, you were loved in this world.
    Remember that.

  9. Dear Betsy,
    Thank you for sharing your friendship with a remarkable woman with us. I'm sorry for your loss.

  10. What a moving tribute to a wonderful friend and a lifelong friendship. When you find someone like that who comes into your life, you have to cherish every moment that transpires. Your life and Edith's were made a richer tapestry of light, growth and love. I know you will always remember her. Reading your story has touched our hearts deeply.

  11. Dear Betsy,

    I am so sorry you lost your dear friend and my heart goes out to Edith for her battle with cancer and the challenge of living a healthy life amidst those who are unable to do so.

    Thank you for this powerful story.

  12. Betsy,

    I'm so sorry for your loss. I have lost friends to suicide as well. It always seems like such an empty and pointless event.

    I can only hope that time and the good Lord can heal your wounds. My love and prayers go out to you.

  13. Wow, what a life. What a friendship. Your writing is bold, honest and brave. I am very sorry for your loss. I don't think there can be another Edith on the planet. I've lost an uncle and an aunt to suicide. It's hard to understand. My heart goes out to you. It couldn't have been easy to write, thank you.

  14. Betsy,
    You are such an inspiration to me. I am so sorry for your loss of such a great friend and “soul mate.” May your heart always hold the memories close! You are in my thoughts and prayers as is Damon.

  15. Thank you for the poignant reminder of what it means to be a true friend. I am sorry for your loss, Betsy. I am grateful for your ability to share memories and feelings so eloquently at such a tender time. If we could all have the blessing of a friend like you — one who sees the beauty in what is unique about us and loves unconditionally. My heart goes out to you and those who loved Mary too.

  16. Janice said it best I think, when she said,
    I hope you will continue to celebrate her life along with mourning her death. I'm sure she would want you to think of her often and just laugh!

    I truly believe she is your guardian angel and is watching out for you. And when you join her in Heaven I bet we'll all hear the bells ringing.
    The friendship you two had is a very rare thing.
    And I'm so glad that you shared it with us.
    God bless you girl. My prayers are with you.

  17. Rejoice and celebrate what you and Mary shared. It was truly a blessing. How wonderful to have had such a special person in your life. I loved reading what you wrote and looking at the photos. Perhaps, when your heart is on the mend, you might consider writing a book. I would surely love to read more about you guys. It might be a way to support breast cancer research and it would be a fine tribute to Mary.

  18. Dear sweet Calamity,
    So sorry for your loss
    Thank you for your testimony of faith.
    You are an inspiration with your writings.
    In 27 years of sobriety these sad stories repeat
    God bless you and Speed Edith's spirit.

  19. You are very fortunate to have had such a friend. I am very sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing.

  20. Wow….what a story! Touched my heart.

    My husband committed suicide (he had a cocaine addiction) the night before he committed suicide I told him it was me or the drugs, this is the choice he made, I felt guilt for years. Suicide leaves broken hearts behind. Our path in life is the only one we are in charge of, so in the end suicide is a selfish act but one we have no control over. He couldn't be here for me on Earth but he is my guardian angel now. Mary is now your guardian angel please feel comfort in that! Bless you! Thank you for sharing this story with the world, she would have loved this I'm sure, you two will ride together again someday! I'm sorry for your loss.

  21. Thank you Betsy for sharing this story. I'm so sorry in the loss of what sounded like such a beautiful friend, Mary, and I'm believing she is your most fab guardian angel.

  22. Betsy,
    Please accept my deepest condolences on the loss of your friend, Mary. You wrote a beautiful and moving tribute. I feel like I got to know her a little. I hope you will continue to celebrate her life along with mourning her death. I'm sure she would want you to think of her often and just laugh!

  23. Your story was good. You showed the depth of person your friend was and how in this case, suicide was a sane choice. Sad, but sane. It also made me think of the ludicrous situation we have without national health care. I'm sorry for you that she is gone. You will always have her in you.

  24. What a beautiful spirit. Thank you for sharing this story.

  25. That was such a beautiful story about your
    “forever friend.”
    I'm sorry…
    Godspeed, Edith Speed.

  26. Betsy,
    You have been blessed to have such a wonderful friend, who will remain with you in your heart and mind…forever. Focus on those great memories and ride with the wind, knowing that she is riding right next to you. Godspeed Edith, and God bless you Betsy.

  27. I am very sorry for your loss of such a beautiful person. Your story is an amazing story that took a lot of courage and love to be done. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  28. Betz,
    I know how you have struggled with the loss of your wonderful life friend. I am so sorry for it. My heart goes out for your loss. I can only hope that others who read this story who are struggling with the demons of drug abuse, or abuse of any kind, will have their eyes opened on how it affects others who love them. Peace to you my friend

  29. I too have lost family to this disease. My heart goes out to those who are fighting this illness. Ventura Harley Davidson had a benefit ride called Heels and Wheels for breast cancer. There were 185 of biker women who rode for the cause. It was a great turn out! Be strong my friend.

  30. Dear Betsy,
    I have always enjoyed your writing but this piece speaks from the heart in addition to being very well written and is the best writing of yours I have ever read. It moved me very much. I, too, have lost someone very close to me to suicide — my best friend from high school took her life at age 40 and my wonderful nephew took his at age 30. Both suicides were a total shock and out of the blue and very painful to all who were close to them, but they must have reached a private, personal point where they felt they couldn't go on. Being very good people, they surely are at peace now in heaven. Maybe someday those of left behind will be heal.

  31. Please know that you have friends you have never met that love and admire you and are grateful for your story as it reminds us that life is short, and to make good with our time. Love & Peace

  32. Beautiful, truly beautiful – the story, the tribute, the woman, the friend.

  33. Can't quite find the right words to say,
    how your words have touched so deep.
    The place in my heart where I too,
    have precious memories to keep.

    Of sisters, loves and friends, passed on.
    To where I too will someday go.
    Each of their souls still connected to mine, some more than I would admit to know.

    I know I am the woman I am,
    due their lives being ‘twined with mine.
    I too have enjoyed the influence,
    of the demonic and the divine.

    I feel for you, at this time of loss.
    As many others will too.
    Your prose shows Mary lived well following, “To thine own self be true.”

  34. As I sit here with tears streaming, I think of a friend who also chose to die by suicide because of a broken heart. My thought and prayers are with you. We ride for the ones who can no longer ride with us. Ride on sister!

  35. Mary may not be here in the flesh, but I am certain she will remain with you in spirit. She will live on through you and the awesome memories you will always have of her. Your friendship with Mary is something so few experience. Total unconditional love, acceptance and a friendship that would make anyone envious.

    I'm so sorry for your loss. I know what a great loss feels like, (1 1/2 yrs ago) but unlike you, I sought to ride because of my loss and would have given anything to been able to ride with my soul mate/friend as you did. God bless and take care, and most of all ride safe!

  36. Hi Betsy,
    Long time. I'm really impressed with all the things you're doing. I always had a good feeling about you. Mary's cool and will always be.
    Your old friend,

  37. So very heart wrenching Betsy. My love and prayers go out to you. Know that she is your guardian angel!

  38. I was very touched to read the article about your beautiful friend Mary. I have lost two very close friends this past year, one was like the sister I never had. I know how your heart is aching, but know that we will once again see our girls when it's our time.

  39. This brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing.

  40. You are very very fortunate to have had such a wonderful and close relationship with Mary. You have memories that will stir your emotions for the rest of your life. Those emotions will be both sorrow and joy. But that is what life and love is all about. You have lived and loved. You are a very blessed person.

  41. Awesome tribute. Everyone should have someone like you as a friend. God bless you.

  42. You had a great friendship. They are hard to find at times. Sorry for your loss.

  43. I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your friend. My thoughts are with you.

Scroll to Top