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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 front or an architecture firm’s fancified new office. It’s in the detailsthe new windows, the signage painted on the doorthat 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 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 $1,000bar 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 tuband 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 familiarbecause 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 smashedup cars, in a building near the railroad 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.” Like 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 longer support anything, 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 AUGUST 26, 2005 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 29