1942 – 2021

A passion for art

Elizabeth Gail Willhardt—whose passion for art prompted her to trade her law career for painting—passed away from cancer at home in Venice, CA on, August 18, 2021, surrounded by the love of her partner Max Diamond, cousin Greg Violand, and friend Janet Zarem. She was 79.

A woman of immense perseverance, fearlessness, and creativity, Gail was known for overcoming obstacles, whether it came to her law career, the art world, recovering from a serious auto accident, even dealing with cancer. She accepted any challenge with nobility and grace, inspiring her family, friends, fellow church congregants, meditation group and, most of all, Max.

When Gail discovered that her true calling was art, for example, she walked away from her law practice and started to paint. Three different periods characterize her work: still-life watercolors, photorealistic paintings of rock formations, and abstract art.

A lover of music

Max and Gail at their favorite jazz venue, the Industry Cafe.

Gail was born March 7, 1942, in Leavenworth, Kansas, where she and her older brother, Richard, were raised. Gail, who preferred to use her middle name, began painting as a child. A lover of music from the start, she played the clarinet in the high school marching band and orchestra.

Small in stature, only 5-feet-1, and petite, Gail favored a casual style, mainly slacks and a blouse. She didn’t cater to cool weather, so she always had a jacket or blazer. She often talked of her brother Richard’s protectiveness, how he would walk in front of her in the winter to break the chilly wind. Other than that, she deemed details of her turbulent childhood better left unspoken.

Following Bowling Green University, Gail graduated first in her class from Detroit School of Law, now part of Michigan State University. Among that initial group of women attending law school in the 1960s, Gail persisted at a time when women were not yet welcome in the legal profession.

While working as a prosecutor in Detroit, Gail met her husband, Mike Graham. They moved to Los Angeles, CA, where Gail passed the bar, in 1978, and worked in the D.A.’s office. The couple moved to Malibu in 1992, and later to Santa Monica.

“The beauty of Malibu knocks me out”

But law wasn’t a good fit for Gail, so she turned to her first love: painting. Her teacher, Hiroko Yoshimoto, a noted abstract artist in Ventura, urged Gail to try the unusual, to find her authentic voice. There followed a series of paintings known as “Malibu Rocks.” Gail photographed rock formations in Malibu, enlarged them to the point of abstraction, and then created paintings.

At the time, she said, “The beauty of Malibu just knocks me out… What I try to do with my paintings is get [people] to look at things they don’t usually even see.”

She worked on canvas with acrylics, using multiple, thin layers of paint that retained the image of rocks, yet had a softer and more luminous look. Gail was also known for her exquisite still-life watercolors and vibrant abstracts. She sold her art and won gallery awards.

Unfortunately, Gail’s husband of 37 years, Mike Graham, died in 2015. Miraculously, a lively, vibrant man, Max Diamond, came into her life. Gail continued to live in her Santa Monica apartment until she joined Max in his apartment in Venice, CA.

She understood music’s ability to lift the spirit

Gail and Max loved eating breakfast at Rae’s Restaurant on Pico Blvd., watching the sunset at the beach, and attending jazz performances at the Industry Café in Culver City. For special occasions, dinner out and jazz filled the bill. Gail loved music and understood its ability to lift and sustain the spirit.

She and Max attended the varied musical venues at their Mt. Olive Lutheran Church—jazz concerts, opera and community performances. Gail also loved the choir at her Malibu United Methodist Church.

Unendingly grateful for everything anyone did for her, Gail genuinely valued a cheerful outlook. She frequently mentioned that Max, her partner, was a “good man” and that she was so very appreciative of his standing by her, encouraging her, and—always, always—making her laugh.

Though modest and even unassuming, Gail also had a saucy side that only those closest to her experienced. She could be whimsical and a wee bit wicked. Most of all she exemplified courage.

Fearlessness and grace

At Mt. Olive in 2018.

While Gail was being treated for cancer, for example, she was in a serious automobile accident that could have killed her. She was hospitalized in a trauma unit and subsequently wheelchair-bound for some time. Once she regained her mobility, she could walk up a long flight of stairs that might have winded some of her healthier friends. Gail never gave up. She accepted what she had to do with fearlessness and grace. That included 36 years of sobriety. Of which she was immensely proud.

Gail’s life was devoted to loving and being loved. She never failed, even when she was in hospice care, to ask how others were doing and what they were facing. And she meant it. Others responded by loving her. Her neighbors paid frequent visits and were always available to help, whether it was a ride, a special meal, or just conversation.

Max and Gail with her cousin Greg Violand.

Gail retained her wry sense of humor until the end. When her friends Janet and Gregory came to visit, and it was difficult for her to speak, Gregory and Max got into an enthusiastic, loud exchange about their favorite superhero movies. Gail took Janet’s hand, looked at the men, rolled her eyes and smiled broadly.

Could speak her mind

Although she was straightforward and could speak her mind, Gail could also be indecisive. She could linger over a restaurant menu for ages, leaving others to wonder if she would make up her mind prior to the end of the world.

No one could outdo her when it came to cheering on members of the Dodgers Baseball Team, however. She and

Coco with Gail’s shrine.

Max listened to the games the old-fashioned way, on the radio. Gail especially enjoyed the Bernie Gunther mystery series and Allen Furst novels. When the pandemic confined her, she read Moby Dick. On TV she watched the nightly news, the “Big Bang Theory” and the British series, “Grantchester” and “Vera”.

An animal lover, Gail owned no pets at the time of her passing but reveled in Coco, a neighbor’s black cat that came to visit several times a day.

Gail would have liked to live much longer. Surprised by her cancer diagnosis, she did everything she could to stay as healthy as possible. As her condition continued, though, she graciously accepted that the end was near and died peacefully.

Predeceased by her husband Mike Graham, Gail Willhardt is survived by her partner Max Diamond; her brother Richard Willhardt; cousin Greg Violand (Marianne) and their daughter Claire; cousin Tim Meier, and stepdaughter Laura Beuther.


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