After Two Oft-Troubled Decades, the Lyman Family Commune Scores a Sweet Song of Success at Last
09/22/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT
At the moment, tonight's guest of honor at the Lyman family commune is resting before dinner. Resting on a platter, which is where a smoked blue-fish properly ought to be. Shipped earlier today by commune members on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, the fish was booked aboard a westbound plane in time for tonight's meal at the family's Hollywood Hills mansion. Judging by the hungry looks the entrée is getting, it is a welcome guest. And why not? "We enjoy good food and wine," says Jessie Benton Lyman, 42-year-old daughter of the late painter Thomas Hart Benton. "We're happy we no longer have to eat radish soup."
It's been quite a while, of course, since the family's 78 adults and 39 children have had to resort to meager fare. In its 20th year the Lyman clan now stands as perhaps the most durable—and financially successful—of any commune to come out of the Aquarian '60s. With income from the family-owned construction business expected to reach $3.5 million this year, the group is now less a commune than a conglomerate whose holdings include a 280-acre farm in Kansas, a downtown Manhattan loft, an eight-house compound in Boston and three homes on Martha's Vineyard.
Headquarters for their Fort Hill Construction Company—named for the Boston neighborhood where the tribe's founders banded together two decades ago—is on this manicured three acres where the transcontinental blue-fish has come to its end. Besides the centerpiece mansion, a two-story, nine-bedroom home built in the 1920s for Kodak founder George Eastman, the grounds include a Spanish-style six-bedroom house, an underground garage, a swimming pool, a two-room schoolhouse, aviaries and, on an adjoining plot, offices for the construction business. The latter neither advertises nor bothers with contracts ("We work mostly for people we trust, so a kiss on the cheek or a handshake will do," says its foreman), but it counts Steven Spielberg, Dustin Hoffman and Richard Chamberlain among its clients.
Encircling the grounds is a vine-covered fence reaching to the trees, and from beyond it there is no view of the property or its inhabitants. The fence is a reminder of troubled times, when allegations of drug use, violence and cultism drove the clan into a seclusion from which it just recently, and warily, emerged. At the heart of it all stood the young musician who was the commune's founder.
Mel Lyman had grown up in Grant's Pass, Ore., and traveled the country as a folk musician before landing in Cambridge, Mass. in the mid-'60s. It was the age of the counterculture, and Lyman, 27, playing banjo and harmonica in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, had little trouble persuading a handful of friends to seek cheaper housing and closer companionship by moving to the slums of nearby Roxbury. "We weren't flower children," says Kweskin, now 45. "We just gravitated towards living together. It was the natural thing to do."
The clan grew quickly, and by 1968 it numbered more than 200. They expanded, first in Roxbury and then beyond. Thomas Hart Benton, whose daughter Jessie had given birth to a child by Lyman, contributed a painting toward the purchase of a Kansas farm. Their own remodeling work, learned bit by bit, turned into a business that helped buy property in California.
Guiding the hurly-burly growth was Lyman, the group's charismatic leader. "People always gravitated toward him. He was full of life and music, and people just loved to be around him," says Dick Russell, 39, a journalist who joined the family in the '70s. "This wasn't the Baghwan or the Moonies, free love and dope. These were strong people dedicated to each other and to building a new way of life."
Their dedication would soon be tested. In late 1971 Rolling Stone published a two-part series that haunts the commune to this day. Likening the family to Charles Manson's, the magazine described Lyman's near-total control over his followers and cited his "expertise as an acid therapist." Some family members were armed, the articles said, and there had been violence against both outsiders and those within the commune. To maintain allegiance, the magazine claimed, there was a Gestapo-like Karma Squad and a solitary confinement room. Although the Lymans denied everything and still do, "people went berserk with ideas of what was going on," says Kweskin.
More troubles followed in August 1973, when three members of the commune tried to rob a Roxbury bank. One was killed and the other two, including Zabriskie Point star Mark Frechette, were sent to prison. Frechette insisted that the robbery was a Watergate protest. "We just wanted to hold up Nixon," he said. "The bank was the nearest thing that was federally insured."
All but buried in bad publicity, the Lymans went into deep retreat and for the next 12 years avoided all contact with the press. Frechette would die mysteriously in 1975, allegedly a victim of a weight-lifting accident in the prison gym. Lyman, at 39, would follow three years later, his passing as enigmatic as his life. Even now, family members won't disclose details of his death, insisting that their leader had pleaded for privacy and that his demise is "still too painful to talk about."
Eight years later his presence is still evident in Hollywood Hills. In the dining room a gold fork used by Lyman sits in a dark wooden box. A photo of the founder hangs on the dining room wall, a second in the music room, another sits atop the library TV, a fourth hangs in the Fort Hill offices nearby.
Wall space in the kitchen, however, is devoted to an autographed picture of the Gunsmoke TV cast. Family members prepare a daily guide listing the rerun time for the old horse opera as well as those for the long-gone World War II Combat series. "Those men had to work together. They all helped each other," explains Carol Franck, 40, a family member. "They had a quality of life we respect. We watch it religiously."
That same mix of old-fashioned values with an offbeat life-style colors the family's philosophy. Although Lyman fathered at least five children with four different commune mates, "We are not sexually promiscuous," insists Jessie Benton Lyman. Explains Kweskin, "We don't believe in short-term relationships. That would be adulterous." Despite their property holdings, they spurn fire insurance, since "we couldn't replace what we have, nor could an insurance company." And though they celebrate early American heroes like Washington and Jefferson, they largely avoid national politics in favor of strictly local issues.
Perhaps the group's most eccentric feature is its style of child rearing. For years the commune rejected public schooling in favor of home tutoring; now many of the Lyman teenagers live together kibbutz-style, apart from their parents, on the farm in Marysville, Kans., where they attend public school. Despite the surrogate parenthood, "we are all responsible to the children, and we all love them," says Jessie Benton Lyman, a mother of three. "Granted, some of us aren't as interested as others. But some are real geniuses with the kids."
Those children have been the only source of growth in the Lyman family numbers in quite some time: New volunteers for the now thriving commune need not apply. "If strangers knocked at your back door and asked if they could move in, would you let them?" asks George Peper, 40, an original commune member. "I doubt it. Well, we feel like that now." There are, however, new windows through which outsiders can peek. Kweskin has been touring college campuses with a family folk band, and the family has begun publishing a magazine titled U and I. A thick, rambling collection of essays, poems, reflections and photos, it is a magazine "about the way we live," says Jessie Benton Lyman.
How the Lymans live has changed, of course, since those first days in Fort Hill's ghetto. There are accountants now, and lawyers, and talk of installing a family health plan soon. The times they are a-changin'. Back in the '60s, admits Kweskin, "we were more optimistic about the world than now. We thought we could change it. Now we realize we can only affect what we can." His tone implies that, after 20 communal years, it is an acceptable adjustment for an Aquarian to have made.