Heavy Metal Genealogy: Tawny Kitaen — From Uzbekistan to Stardom

Tawny Kitaen and David Coverdale | George Rose/Getty Images

If there’s one thing that all kinds of metal fans can agree with it’s that Tawny Kitaen was a the supreme metal babe. And actually, she was more than that, she was an equal of David Coverdale in terms of hair and sex presence. (Is that a term? If it is, it definitely applies to them.) Tawny nailed an interpretive dance accompaniment to a glam rock song, with her acrobatic and balletic moves on the hood of a Jaguar in “Here I Go Again,” illustrating the freedom that her then-beau Coverdale sang about in lyrics such as, “Like a drifter I was born to walk alone.” I also loved her in two other Whitesnake videos, “Is This Love?” and “Still of the Night,” where she gets arrested by the Sex Police. A brilliant stroke for a band whose albums include the subtly-titled “Slide It In.”

Perhaps it’s my own shallowness surfacing when I say it was hard for me to believe that someone who looked like Tawny Kitaen — and didn’t she really look like a “Tawny Kitaen”? — could ever have had a bad day, but apparently, she had quite a few, as scrapes with the law over drugs and booze and domestic violence have proven. Tawny did marry her hirsute equal in David Coverdale, a match that seemed as perfect as Heather and Tommy or Pamela and Tommy, and also ended the same way, except even quicker. A subsequent marriage to former Angels pitcher Chuck Finley produced two daughters, Wynter and Raine, and a second divorce that was worse than the first. As of this writing there’s been no official word as to the cause of Tawny’s death, but since it was at age 59, and because her father just died last month, it does lead people to presuppose that if substances weren’t involved, a hard lifestyle was.

So who was Tawny Kitaen? I’d guess a lot of people think they know but very few do. I was certainly way off the mark making assumptions about a woman whose heyday was about 35 years ago. I can only find out where she came from, and even then, much of that is just documents rather than stories.

What’s interesting is that such a random group of people eventually converged on San Diego, California at the right time for Linda Lee Taylor and Terry Kitaen to meet, marry, and have Tawny (born Julie) and her brother, Jordan. And when I say random, I mean Tawny’s roots extend to Uzebkistan, Russia, Austria, Romania, South Dakota, Vermont, and Queens.

I don’t know the provenance of the name “Kitaen” but it wasn’t a name changed at Ellis Island because 1) names didn’t get changed at Ellis Island, and 2) in 1923, the Kitaens traveled from Namangan, Russia (now part of Uzbekistan) to Yokohama, Japan, where they boarded a boat that took them to Seattle, Washington. On board were Tawny’s great-grandparents, David and Goldie Levine Kitaen, and Tawny’s grandfather, Joe Kitaen, who was 10 years old. By the 1930 census the Kitaens were living on Ardmore Street in Los Angeles, where David was a tailor and Goldie a building manager. In 1940, the Kitaens were living in San Diego and Joe was married to Eleanor Ellis, who’d come to San Diego from New York City. Their son Terry, Tawny’s dad, was two years old.

Tawny Kitaen’s Great-Great Grandparents, Sarah and Solomon Schneider | Ancestry.com

Eleanor was the daughter of David Ellis and Ida Schneider. Like the Kitaens, the Ellises (whose name was also not changed at Ellis Island) were Russian Jews, though I don’t know from what part of Russia. Both Eleanor and her mother, Ida, died young — Ida from breast cancer at age 41, and Eleanor at age 37. They were tough women, though — at least, in Ida’s case, as there’s an article in a NY newspaper from 1914 with the headline “Three Try To Drug Woman” where it was reported she fought off three would-be robbers who tried to chloroform her and steal her earrings. They got nothing.

Article About Ida Ellis | Newspapers.com

I don’t know why the Ellis family moved from New York to Los Angeles, but I’m guessing it was for work. The weather probably didn’t hurt, either. They appear to have left shortly after Ida’s parents, Solomon and Sarah, passed away in 1920. Eleanor was 13 when her mother, Ida died; 17, when her father, David, died; about 20 when she married Joe Kitaen in San Diego; and 21 when she gave birth to her son, Terry Kitaen.

Tawny’s mother, Linda Lee Taylor, was born in San Diego in 1939 to Guy Taylor and Pearl Strakon. Guy’s father, Fred Taylor, was from Sioux Falls, SD but moved to San Diego by the 1930 census — I’m guessing for work, though the weather probably didn’t hurt, either. His wife, Wishona “Nona” Lackey came from Mason City, Iowa, a place that sounds like it had a lot of saloons and spittoons. This is the branch that I could spend days, weeks, months, years finding ancestors, as there’s an extensive paper trail. While the Kitaens quickly went east from Uzbekistan to Seattle, this branch traveled west over generations as land became available. Going back there’s family who started in the Northeast in towns like Westmoreland, PA; Hempstead, NY; Voluntown, CT; and even Prince Edward Island in Canada, before going as far as Iowa, South Dakota, and eventually, California.

Tawny Kitaen’s 3rd Great-Grandmother, Eunice Robbins Morehead, Woonsocket, SD | Ancestry.com

Tawny’s maternal grandmother, Pearl Strakon, was the daughter of Lawrence Strakon from Rohrbach, Austria, and Bessie Tannenbaum of Bukovina, Romania. They appear to have had a shotgun wedding in Washington State, as their wedding day was October 8, 1914, and Pearl was born April 13, 1915 in Bellingham, WA. By the 1930 census they were all living in … you guessed it, San Diego. Perhaps it was the weather. Guy worked as a glass bender for neon signs, which is similar to the line of work his son-in-law, Terry Kitaen, would go into. The trail sadly goes cold quickly in this branch of the family, and Linda passed away in 2006. I hope more will be revealed over time. Maybe more about Tawny will as well.

So rest in peace, Tawny — you will live long in the hearts and minds of many a headbanger.

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I write about making movies, watching movies, heavy metal family trees, cemeteries, death, books, and whatever else I can fit on this fongool bio.

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Heather Quinlan

Heather Quinlan

I write about making movies, watching movies, heavy metal family trees, cemeteries, death, books, and whatever else I can fit on this fongool bio.

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