Besieged by Sophisticates


Besieged by Sophisticates BY KAREN OLSSEN

y now everyone, or at least everyone who reads The New York Times, has heard of Marfa, West Texas’ little slice of Soho in the high desert. Somehow the alignment of the stars or the cacti determined that this old ranching town would live while so many others have faded away, but survival has had its price, and that has been to suffer multiple incursions. “This bleak and blissful and altogether unworldly little town in the Big Bend region is besieged by sophisticates,” wrote Bill Brammer in 1955, reporting from Marfa for this publication. The sophisticates came to make the movie Giant, and have come again more recently to start art galleries and buy up houses, while last month Marfa was invaded—yet again—on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Giant’s filming. All these invasions have been chronicled, in articles and movies and fiction. The amount of prose and film expended to date on Marfa and its interlopers is large, relative to the size of the town (with a population of less than 3,000 people). To give just one recent example: The April 2005 issue of Outside magazine featured a fashion spread of “GROOVE-READY SPRING STYLE” shot in Marfa—”the perfect place to shake off winter and look good doing it.” Marfa has been discovered, invaded, photographed and filmed, ad nauseam. I say that by way of full disclosure: This is a dispatch from a place already plenty dispatched, and my style may not be quite groove-ready. I first went to Marfa in the fall of 1996, and like so many others before and after me I was delighted by it, by the bewitching geometries of Donald Judd’s boxes and by the odd assortment of pilgrims who came to view them. (Judd was the minimalist artist who came to Marfa to get away from it all—though much of it followed, after his death.) A year and a half later I went back with two friends, one from the east coast and one from the west, and by the end of the trip my east coast friend was talking about moving to Marfa. At the time I thought she was nuts, but I should have recognized her prescience and invested in local real estate. While she never moved there, enough big-city escape artists did descend on the town that it has since been transformed into a hipster getaway, an austerely pretty, half-refurbished hamlet where you can take in some genuine Western vistas in your groove-ready cowboy hat but still find the Times Literary Supplement at a coffee shop called The Brown Recluse.


James Dean, with his Large Latte in Hand

But no doubt you’ve already read about that, so let me get back to the Giant anniversary. The main event was an evening screening of the movie right in the middle of town, on an outdoor screen outside the Paisano Hotel, with proceeds to benefit the local library. Meanwhile, an advance team of publicists had arranged what are sometimes euphemistically called media opportunities earlier in the day. And so I found myself at the hotel’s restaurant at nine on a Saturday morning, with a handful of daily reporters from Dallas and Midland and San Angelo, scarfing down yogurt and mini-muffins as a pair of Texas historians from SMU opined on the significance of the so-called “national movie of Texas.” Giant, they told us, signalled the grafting of a new oil economy onto the old ranching economy, and was pioneering in its portrayal of the fusion of Anglo and Hispanic cultures—a biracial family story shown in segregated movie houses. The historians spoke with the clarity and ease of veteran classroom men, and there was nothing to object to in their observations, but for the fact that we had all been roused out of bed to hear them. Yet if I hadn’t sat through the historians I wouldn’t have been there for the stranger spectacle that followed: the joint appearance of three septuagenarians referred to by one of the SMU publicists as the “stars and crew.” No, not Rock Hudson or James Dean returned from the grave or even Elizabeth Taylor but two character actors from Giant, Jane Withers and Earl Holliman, and a third man, Bob Hinkle, who had taught Hudson and Dean their Texan accents. The three of them filed into the room and sat gamely before us and hardly needed prompting. “I love Marfa!” Jane Withers exclaimed, more than once. In the movie she played Vashti, the homely neighbor of rancher Bick (Rock Hudson), who early on is cast aside by him in favor of Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) but nonetheless remains a regular at ranch parties. Now an apple-cheeked, beaming, heavily made-up woman in a periwinkle pantsuit and curly brown wig, Withers referred to herself as “a horribly sentimental lady.” She named among the highlights of her Giant experience that “it was such a terrific cast of sweet people. I made good friends and there’s nothing better in the world than to have good friends. Whooee I’m thrilled to be here!” Added Holliman, “She’s also drunk.” Withers gasped and slapped his knee. She was bent on getting her story across: “Why did I come back to Marfa? Because I love people! I’ve always loved people since I was itty-bitty and had Dixie’s Dainty Dewdrop radio show from ages three and a half to five and a half, and was in my first movie in 1934 with Shirley Temple.” Hinkle, a long-faced, long-eared former rodeo cowboy, sat quietly until asked what it was like to come back to Marfa after so much time had passed. “When I got in I realized, working with people like Earl…” Then he paused and stared into the middle distance, his eyes wet. “Hard to believe it’s been 50 years.” Withers, though she’d been out-sentimentaled, now patted Hinkle on the knee. “God wouldn’t have invented tears if he didn’t want us to use them.” Hinkle recovered. “Anyway I’m glad I was born in Texas and I’ll be buried down here… Lot of memories.” “And they’re all good,” Withers said, “which is a blessing.” f it seems odd for a person to be confident of the uniform goodness of someone else’s memories, it seems even odder to me now that I’ve had a chance to glance through the half-inch-thick packet of press clippings that Withers had brought to offer to members of the media—complete with a story about her from the February 1967 issue of the Celebrity Doll Club newsletter and an undated Q-and-A from Plate World (a collectors’ magazine, apparently.) She must have known there’s a sucker in every bunch. While I concede that Withers’ biography is somewhat tangential to the subject of Marfa and Giant, it is poignant, and I will sketch its outlines anyway. At a minimum it suggests that some of her own memories are less than good. Withers’ entertainment career began before she was born: Her mother Ruth was determined to have one child, a girl, who would go into show business as Ruth wished she had done. By the age of three Jane was starring in an Atlanta children’s radio program; in 1934 she made her film debut in a Shirley Temple movie; and, according to the Celebrity Doll Club newsletter, signed a 10-year contract with Fox “during which Shirley made only A pictures and Jane only B ones.” Even so she was sufficiently popular to have several celebrity dolls made in her likeness. Withers didn’t graduate from child stardom to work as an adult actress, though—one suspects she wasn’t quite pretty enough, or quite talented enough to make up for not being pretty, or maybe she was just tired of it. At 21 she married a rancher and moved to Odessa, where she spent six years tending to cattle and struggling through a marriage that ended in divorce. So by the time she played the unhappy Texas ranchwoman in Giant, she had herself lived the part; no doubt just playing it was more fun. (Withers: “When I found out George Stevens was the one who was going to direct it, to be a part of it, dear Gussie I was just thrilled beyond words!”) Post-Giant she re-married and re-established an acting career of sorts, this time in the celebrity purgatory of product endorsement, as Josephine the Plumber, pitchwoman for Comet cleanser, a gig that lasted 12 years. (“Her Career Has Gone Down the Drain—and Jane Withers is delighted,” TV Guide, November 1971.) Her second husband died in a plane crash, and she eventually got married again, to an astrologer. She is a devout Christian and a collector of dolls, teddy bears, and plates. What was it about Jane Withers? I couldn’t stop staring at her. Something about her Nathanael West-worthy story and her relentless cheer seemed so quintessentially Californian, or maybe just plain American. Something about her outspoken devotion to Jesus Christ and teddy bears, set against the image of a Georgia stage mom driving her kid out to Hollywood in the middle of the Great Depression, made me want to call out to that mother of 75 years ago and tell her to turn the car around. Obviously it was much, much, much too late for that: After the press conference, Withers sat down for an interview with “CBS This Morning” that lasted more than an hour. This delayed the next event on the media schedule, a trip out to the Evans Ranch to see what remained of the old Giant set. A number of us milled around the lobby while Withers went on talking and talking. If I was feeling uncertain, there in Marfa, about how to retell a story that’s already been told, Withers was either a role model or an object lesson, I’m not sure which. While Withers was giving her extended interview, I had a chance to walk around the new Marfa and take in some of the changes the arty people have wrought. Now that half the buildings in town have been tastefully rehabbed, I found myself repeatedly unsure, strolling and looking, whether the storefront in front of me was an original (but well-maintained) storefront or an architecture firm’s fancified new office. It’s in the details—the new windows, the signage painted on the door—that the difference announces itself, discreetly. A town renovated by arty people is certainly nicer-looking than all those towns at the mercy of ye olde downtowne revitalizers. Marfa’s hipster aesthetic is the farthest thing from the treacle that has infested Granbury or Fredericksburg. My first stop was Squeeze Marfa, a juice and smoothie establishment that also serves sandwiches and sells chocolate by Vollenweider le Confiseur of Switzerland. I had a Crimson Berry iced tea, while my companion (call her Betsey) had an acai smoothie. A little later we hit the Marfa Book Company, where the gallery space was hung with a transplanted local artist’s attractive abstract paintings (priced in the $1,000-3,000 range), and the coffee and wine bar had its share of customers. I didn’t make it to all of Marfa’s new art galleries, but paused at the much-talked-about Ballroom Marfa and viewed its current exhibit, “Treading Water,” which aims to bring attention to water-related environmental issues around the globe. Betsey and I contemplated a conceptual artist’s series of large, clear pyramids filled with different substances, looked at the remnants of what the gallery called “an endurance piece”—in which a Colombian artist washed clothes in a tub—and finally sat before a video of a naked woman bobbing on a watermelon in the Dead Sea. The nude on the watermelon brought out the cynic in me: My consciousness was being raised in all the wrong ways. I was reminded of a woman I interviewed once in Amarillo, a retired nurse amazed by all the new subdivisions full of houses she could never afford. “Where’s all this money coming from?” she asked, in a bewildered tone of voice that seemed to ask for somebody to please explain how the local economy made any sense at all. In Marfa the money is clearly coming from somewhere else, from New York or Houston or the foundations that underwrite Ballroom Marfa, and the end result made me uneasy. Uneasy not because it was strange but because it was so familiar—because it reminded me of life in Austin, where most of my friends came from someplace else and settled down to write or paint or play music, and only one of them is a nurse, and we spend a lot on coffee. If Austin is a cool town, Marfa is the cool town taken to the extreme, where art and frivolity and coffee exist in a kind of peculiar suspension. (Later that evening, at dinner, I met a man of advanced years who’d grown up in Marfa, left as a young man, and spent most of his life in New Jersey. He recalled a time when the town had had grocery stores and car dealerships. Now the closest thing to a car dealership is the Chinati Foundation’s permanent exhibition of John Chamberlain’s steel sculptures, which resemble smashed-up cars, in a building near the railroad tracks.) Back at the hotel, I asked Kirby Warnock, editor of Big Bend Quarterly and one of the Giant anniversary’s organizers, what he thought of the changes in Marfa. “It used to be black coffee and chicken fried steak, and now it’s a vegetarian plate and a latte,” he said. “I kind of like the way things used to be, but what do you do? Artists have got to live somewhere too. The people in real estate are tickled to death. Things change, it’s the new pushing the old aside. That’s the theme of Giant.” ike the recent transplants and Donald Judd before them, George Stevens chose Marfa for its aesthetics, only in his case the place exerted a kind of negative appeal. West Texas was in the middle of a multi-year drought when the movie was filmed, and the movies’ backdrop of flat brown plain serves as a constant image of desolation, which the wealthy characters’ riches participate in more than mitigate against. The main element of the set, the lugubrious Benedict mansion, epitomizes that desolate wealth. When Brammer reported from Marfa 50 years ago, he wrote of it as a “macabre structure,” fabricated in California, sent to Texas in pieces, and constructed on the Evans ranch west of town. The facade, Brammer wrote, “should remain for years a curiosity for West Texas cattle and cowpokes.” It didn’t remain a curiosity for long: Most of it blew away or was pillaged by souvenir-seekers, and now all that remains are a few pilings, a backing of telephone-pole-sized beams that no l
nger support
nything, with wood scraps piled in front of it. Nevertheless on the anniversary Saturday a fleet of SUVs transported Hinkle, Withers, Holliman, a reduced corps of reporters, and the Texas historians out to the site for more interviews and photo opportunities. By now it was 1:30 in the afternoon, and the temperature had risen above 100 degrees, but Withers soldiered on, standing under a large red-and-white umbrella. “Whooee lots of happy memories,” she was saying. “Good gravy. My mind is a montage, there are so many wonderful montage shots of happy memories that run through my mind when I look at this wonderful—oh poo, I’m going to cry again! But oh dear Gussie, whatever’s left means so much to so many people.” Mercifully soon, a handler was yelling to us that it was time to wrap things up, and they wrapped quite quickly. The screening that night was a benefit for the Marfa public library; tickets cost $50 apiece, and that price included a lawn chair. All 500 tickets were sold. To judge from a visual survey of the crowd, there was no obvious special characteristic uniting people willing to drive out to far West Texas and pay 50 bucks to watch an old movie—except that most were white and the average age was probably over 30. The scene before the show reminded me of a regional airport near a vacation destination, i.e. people who’ve paid in advance for their fun waiting in chairs, wandering about, and/or drinking. In the courtyard at the Paisano Hotel, Hinkle, Holliman, and Withers signed autographs for a long line of ticket-holders, and I wondered how many of the autograph seekers would have known they wanted Bob Hinkle’s autograph before the moment in which it became available. I’d been told that there would be Marfan old-timers at the reception, eager to talk about what it had been like when James Dean et al. came to town, and I felt a certain obligation to solicit some of their memories. But these, again, had been plenty solicited by other interviewers, and so I was not sorry when it turned out that the old-timers were not waiting Withers-like to speak with me, or even readily identified. I did find one outside the hotel, who’d just happened to come to town for a family reunion on the same day as the Giant screening, and was strolling down the street with several relatives, all in matching t-shirts. Albert Uranga, who now lives in California, spent one day working as an extra when he was 17. “We all filled out a little paper, like a 3×5 card,” to apply for the job, he recalled. “Back then nobody had a phone, so they had to come find us. When they came, I put on my best pair of jeans and my best Western shirt, but when I got there they brought out these big old pants and a big old shirt, I was so embarrassed. They made me a poor boy.” In his “poor Mexican” outfit, Uranga played a witness to Jett Rink’s (James Dean) efforts to strike oil. “We worked all day,” he said. “At the end of the day George Stevens said ‘Boy, you worked hard.’ Normally the pay was ten dollars but I got twenty bucks. It was a lot, in those days movies cost seventeen cents.” It was a job, in other words. The Uranga family didn’t plan to stay for the movie. The movie itself has little to do specifically with West Texas. Edna Ferber, who wrote the novel the film was based on, seems never to have visited West Texas during her research visits to the state; her conception of Bick Benedict’s enormous ranch probably had the great South Texas ranches as its source. Texas, as the historians had reminded us that morning, hated the novel—no big surprise, when you consider that this was a book written by a Jewish woman from New York City who’d visited Texas but never really lived here, and who was critical of Texan race relations, Texan gender attitudes, and in particular the Texas weather. What’s more interesting is that Texan audiences did embrace the film, though it contains many of the same criticisms—easier to swallow, no doubt, when enacted by beautiful movie stars. As for the screening itself, it was not the Rocky Horror Picture Show. A desert chill set in after sundown, and either the audience hadn’t drunk enough of the Lone Stars at the reception to offset the temperature drop, or it’s just in the nature of $50-ticketholders to sit politely through the film. I confess I’d never seen Giant before I went out to Marfa (and I still have not seen the five or so minutes in the middle of the movie that elapsed during my visit to the ladies’ room—when I returned, Elizabeth Taylor’s hair had gone gray.) I was expecting Texas Epic, and so the movie surprised me, with its attention to the trajectory of a marriage and to race relations—it’s more Douglas Sirk than Gone with the Wind. As in all good Hollywood movies of a certain vintage, only minorities and animals die, though of course in real life James Dean died just after they wrapped up the shooting of the film. The Dean legend and the Texas imprint determined how the movie would be remembered. At least, I had never heard it mentioned as the story of a woman’s struggle to gain equality within her marriage, though it is that as much as it is a story of land and oil. The ending of Giant is about as bad as they come: a white-skinned baby and a brown-skinned baby stand side by side in the crib, as Bick Benedict/Rock Hudson looks on, learning to accept his “wetback” grandson. It might have been the shlocky ending or the late hour or the drop in temperature, but after the movie was over the crowd packed up pretty quickly and headed for their cars. And so one more Marfa invasion came to a close—at least until the next day, when we would all be back for our coffee, maybe a smoothie, maybe a little art. Former Observer editor Karen Olsson is the author of Waterloo, a novel that will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in October.