Bloomsbury Comes to Big Sky, and the New Rocky Mountain High Is Art

updated 11/03/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/03/1980 01:00AM

Hollywood-on-the-Yellowstone, some natives have called it, but it is light-years removed from Rodeo Drive. No meetings are taken in Montana's Paradise Valley; there is no Ma Maison for cutting deals over lunch. Yet in one 30-mile stretch among the ruggedly beautiful Absaroka Mountains dwells an array of illustrious artists sufficient to maintain a talent agency or to establish a backwoods Bloomsbury. There are the actors: Peter Fonda, Warren Oates and Jeff Bridges. The writers: Tom (92 in the Shade) McGuane, Richard (Trout Fishing in America) Brautigan and William (Falling Angel) Hjortsberg. The director: Sam Peckinpah. The cinematographer: Michael (Jaws II) Butler. The uniting presence and painter laureate: Russell Chatham.

The first to arrive was McGuane, in 1968. "I had a wife and a baby, and I was looking for cheap housing in a part of the country I liked," he explains simply. "That's about the whole story. No big romance." Hjortsberg followed, and then came the others—all drawn, perhaps, by the spare and tranquil beauty of the valley, only a few miles from Yellowstone Park, and by its promise of privacy and a kind of normality. The nearest town is little Livingston, Mont., (pop. 7,500), where the main street is really called Main Street, and 14 churches struggle against the influence of 21 bars. "Montana is hard country," says the reclusive Brautigan, whose 40-acre spread is reserved for walking and writing. "It keeps me in perspective. Some places I can chickenshit myself to death over insignificant things. But here it ain't little vectors of the imagination dogging you; it's reality."

Whenever reality weighs in too heavily, the settlers take consolation from each other's company in a sort of rustic Algonquin Round Table. Nearly every Monday afternoon there is a ritual gathering in town at Calamity Jane's, where the bar provides beer and a place for conversation. "The talk is always good and it leaves you oxygenated for the next day's work," says McGuane. "Even if other people think you're a phony and don't deserve a living, you have this survival module among your friends."

Intriguingly, the friend among friends, and first among equals, is the man who is so far the least known nationally. Painter, essayist and champion fly-fisherman, Russ Chatham, 41, is a burly man of keen intelligence with one partially blind eye and a nose that was broken in childhood. Until he was ambushed by success just two years ago, his massive, moody canvases hung mainly on his friends' living room walls. Then, discovered by a widening circle of patrons, Chatham stopped bartering his works for a car or a bar tab and began selling them for as much as $20,000 apiece. Among those who paid the price for his mysterious landscapes: Jack Nicholson, Margot (Superman) Kidder, troubadour Jimmy Buffett and New York restaurateur Elaine Kaufman.

For Chatham, financial success is a stranger in whose unaccustomed company he is frankly rejoicing. The son of a San Francisco lumber dealer, he inherited a passion for art from his grandfather, the Swiss-Italian painter Gottardo Piazzoni, and for more than 20 years was the struggling artist incarnate. After a painful divorce in the late '60s, Chatham lived and painted in the back of a truck. "I couldn't face the idea of making expenses," he recalls, "and I wouldn't give up the idea of becoming a painter. I was also a really sloppy and impossible businessman. I didn't believe in myself enough to feel that my work was worth money."

When Chatham first came to Paradise Valley, moving into a rented cabin on Deep Creek nine years ago, he persuaded a dozen friends to donate $10 a month toward his survival in return for a painting each year. With that modest grubstake, and payment for fishing essays for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and Field and Stream, he managed to complete six major works a year, plus a number of smaller, more intimate paintings. "If my friends hadn't helped me," he says, "I'd be dead." Now his annual month-long exhibit in four locations around the Livingston area has been the social event of the fall, attracting well-heeled patrons from all over the U.S. The artist enjoys the attention, but is somewhat bemused. "All this business of celebrities buying my work is okay," he says, "but it was people who didn't have any money who supported me throughout the '60s. On the other hand," he adds, "It wasn't much fun being poor. Anybody who tells you it's romantic and makes you a better person is the world's worst liar."

The seeds of the Montana migration were planted in 1967 in Bolinas, Calif. when McGuane, his old friend Hjortsberg and Brautigan first grew to know Chatham. Each was hungry, unknown and impoverished, and on the lookout for low rent and good fishing. "I looked Russell up because he held the world's record for striped bass," McGuane remembers. "He was more famous as a fisherman then." Two years later, after the publication of his first novel, The Sporting Club, McGuane bought homes in Key West and Paradise Valley. Later he wrote the screenplays for Rancho Deluxe, The Missouri Breaks (both shot in Montana) and Tom Horn, and wrote and directed the movie of 92 in the Shade. Surrounded by an ever-increasing cast of lovers (Kidder, Elizabeth Ashley) and friends (Fonda, Bridges, Oates and Butler), he introduced all of them to the joys of the valley, and many chose to buy homes and stay.

Apart from exercising a modest impact on land values, McGuane brought a touch of unwelcome complexity to the valley's previously elementary social life. Following the break-up of his 12-year marriage to Becky Crockett, during the filming of 92 in the Shade in Key West, he returned to Montana first with Ashley, then with his new lover, Kidder. After four years with McGuane, including one year of marriage, she left and returned to Los Angeles. McGuane finally came to rest with his third wife, Laurie, the sister of his Key West buddy Jimmy Buffett. Meanwhile his first wife, Becky, had married Peter Fonda, and the happy couple had bought the 200-acre alfalfa ranch directly across the road from McGuane's 200-acre horse ranch.

Understandably, their presence at first caused some uneasiness. "Chatham was the first one to come over and meet Peter," Becky recalls. "It was real rough at first, because people wanted to sequester us. But Russell isn't ruthless or a snob, and he made it okay," she continues. "I don't want to glorify it, but he is this group's shepherd." For a while, Fonda's high profile was a problem as well, but one that only time would resolve. "The locals used to double their prices when they saw me coming," he remembers. "A $24 job became $48. And people found it hard to talk to me because they didn't think we had anything in common. Well, I have as much in common as any rancher around here. 'Will it rain, God, or won't it?' "

Unlike his equally famous sister, Fonda, 40, refuses to become involved in extraneous controversy. "Peter and I are very careful," says Becky. "As public people, we feel we should have private politics." Between Fonda's numerous projects, including his forthcoming co-production of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee as a 12-hour TV mini-series, the couple dutifully attend to their ranch chores. An avid gardener, Becky, 40, boasts a kitchenful of country-fair blue ribbons for her pickles, jams and jellies, and is mother to Justin, 14, Peter's son by his previous marriage, and Thomas IV, 13, her own son by McGuane. "If we go off on location, Tom and Laurie take the kids, and if they go away we take theirs. It works out very nicely," reports Becky.

Meanwhile McGuane, whom Fonda calls his husband-in-law, has become a champion cutting horse rider and trainer, with Laurie, 31, as his partner. When he can tear himself away from mucking out stalls, he keeps busy polishing screenplays, finishing a new novel, Nobody's Angel, and preparing to publish this month a collection of sporting essays titled An Outside Chance. His and Laurie's two resident children are Heather, 11, her daughter by a former marriage, and Anne, their little girl of 10 months. (Another McGuane daughter, Maggie, 5, lives in L.A. with Kidder, her mother.) At 40, with two divorces behind him and years of child support still in his future, McGuane feels pressured by the need to make money, yet haunted by the sense that "time is not unlimited. You don't want to be doing things just because they're there." After a memorable binge at the Livingston Rodeo last summer, he reports that he has "more or less quit drinking," and he has shed nearly 40 pounds in only 12 weeks.

A few miles down the valley, McGuane's neighbor, Richard Brautigan, 45, has just published his 19th book, The Tokyo-Montana Express, and is girding himself for a four-month cross-country lecture tour. "I haven't been farther east than Billings since 1974," admits Brautigan, who spends several months each year in Japan. "I know what's going on in Tokyo, Montana and San Francisco, but the rest of America has somehow gone out of focus for me." Brautigan, who doesn't drive, observes that "it will be one of the greatest holidays on the face of this planet when the internal-combustion engine is gone. Can you imagine what the Canterbury Tales would have been like if there had been a freeway?" Twice divorced, he is driven by his daughter Ianthe, 20, on her summer visits, but otherwise sits marooned in Paradise Valley, content to be alone with his writing and fishing. "I'll go for long periods in which I don't work," he says. "If I don't have anything to say, I don't try to say it. I think instead. The source of writing is like a reservoir. I wait for the rains to fill it up again with energy and experience, and then I start writing again."

Still farther down the valley, Jeff (Hearts of the West) Bridges and his wife, Sue—a local girl he met and married during the filming of Rancho Deluxe—are turning their 200 rolling acres into a working hay ranch. They divide their time between Montana and Malibu, where Sue, 26, works as a professional photographer and Jeff, 30, reads scripts and attends to his other career as an actor. Elsewhere in Paradise, Dan Gerber (of the baby food Gerbers) and his wife, Ginny, have sold their house and have returned to Michigan, where Dan is finishing his third novel and fourth volume of poetry. The new owners of the former chez Gerber are Michael Butler, 34, and his German-born wife, Ursula, reunited following Butler's recent liaison with Farrah Fawcett.

Vacant for now is Warren Oates' 900-acre ranch nearby, part of which is co-owned by Sam Peckinpah. Oates bought the property mainly to keep out developers and lets it lie fallow, though he permits neighbors to graze horses and cattle there. "Everybody needs a little piece of Paradise, but they're not going to get close to me," says the actor, now filming in Texas with Jack Nicholson. "I'm sure people kind of resented it when we first moved in here, but I think they accept us now. God knows I'm not going to worry about it."

While nearly all of the newcomers to Paradise Valley think of themselves as outsiders to one degree or another, they know that the easygoing Chatham has won them a kind of acceptance. Their unofficial ambassador to the dubious townsfolk, he is exhibiting his work in two local banks, as well as at various bars he graces as patron. His most recent girlfriend was a Western Bell operator he met during a night of drunken telephoning to friends in Key West, and his spacious studio is a fixture on Main Street, one flight up above the local art gallery. In a way that McGuane and the others cannot, Chatham has become more than a stranger in Paradise. "It works for Russ because he's easy to get along with, avoids disputes intelligently and stays out of harm's way," says McGuane. "At the same time you go to him in a real pinch, if you're really cracking up. He always has a topographical view of your life—of what's wrong and how to fix it." As far as his own once-troubled career is concerned, Chatham was recently paid the ultimate compliment. Just after the opening of his fall showing, thieves forced their way into the exhibit after hours and tried unsuccessfully to escape with one of his paintings.

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