Author details Livingston’s literary legacy
By Mark A. York, Enterprise Staff Writer
Enterprise photo by Angela Schneider
Author William “Gatz” Hjortsberg, of Livingston, speaks to members of the Park County Historical Society about Livingston writers in the 1960s and ’70s at the Park County Senior Center, Wednesday, Sept. 10. Hjortsberg, a biographer of author Richard Brautigan, is also a novelist.
“This area of Montana became known as the ‘Bloomsbury of the Rockies’ in those days,” local author and longtime Livingston resident William “Gatz” Hjortsberg said, Wednesday at a presentation before the Park County Historical Society. “We were making history, but of course we weren’t aware of it at the time.
“We were just guys without jobs.”
Hjortsberg, a novelist and biographer, was invited by the Historical Society to speak on the history of Livingston writers. The event was held at the Senior Citizens Center of Park County.
The term “Bloomsbury,” Hjortsberg said, referred to a section of London where famous writers Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, David Garnett, Vita Sackville West and E.M. Forster lived during the period between the world wars.
Hjortsberg recalled how Paradise Valley and Livingston became an enclave of writers in the late 1960s and early ’70s. The group included Hjortsberg, Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison, Dan Gerber, Russell Chatham and Richard Brautigan, about whom Hjortsberg just completed a 1,600-page biography that took him 20 years to complete.
“The story centers around Tom McGuane,” he said. “We met in 1962 at a Yale Drama School play writing seminar. We both loved fly-fishing and wanted to write fiction.”
Gatz, as he is known, said he left a master’s program in screenwriting to travel and pursue writing novels, while McGuane remained to complete an master of fine arts. They later met up at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., where they both held Stegner Fellowships.
“We couldn’t afford the housing on a small stipend, so Tom began to look up north for cheaper arrangements,” he said. “We wound up in Bolinas in Marin County. Since the seminar was only one night a week, commuting was no problem.”
It was during this time McGuane sold his first novel, “The Sporting Club,” while Gatz struggled. He couldn’t sell his novel.
“I was sick with envy. I was doomed. Stephen Crane was dead by this age,” he said to audience laughter. “So at 28, I gave up being a published writer and took a job as a stock boy at the Bolinas grocery store.”
Hjortsberg still dabbled at writing fiction for fun.
“Some people discover being a writer is who they are,” he said.
McGuane asked to see his project, which was in a rough draft editing stage, around 40 pages, Gatz said, and his only copy.
McGuane submitted the pages to his editor at Simon & Schuster. They offered Gatz a contract, and his first novel, “Alp,” based on a dead climber hanging from a rope on the Swiss mountain the Eiger — an idea they’d traded back and forth — sold.
“I didn’t even have an ending, or know where it was going,” Gatz said.
He delivered the finished manuscript, and the job as a stock boy was history.
It was the last real job he had.
Coming to ‘a new place’
“Tom picked Livingston off a map in 1968, as a good place for a headquarters,” Gatz said. “He and his wife, Becky, drove out and rented a house at Lewis and H Street. Friends followed from Michigan — Jim Harrison and Dan Gerber, heir to the baby food company, who drove race cars.”
Hjortsberg and his wife followed from Colorado, where they’d been living in a Volkswagen micro bus after McGuane, Harrison and Gerber had moved to a ranch in Pray the following summer.
“We all worked in the barn that summer in 1969,” Gatz said. “We wanted to make literature. Each line had to justify itself. We were just trying to get it right.”
When the owner, rancher Duane Neal, returned in the fall, the group had to find a different place to live. Gatz wound up in Chico Hot Springs. There, he worked on a novel that became “Gray Matters.” He and his wife wintered in Mexico that year.
“It was serialized in Playboy,” Gatz said.
The novel did well and allowed him to buy a house in Pine Creek.
“Tom McGuane had a knack for real estate,” Gatz continued, “and bought a small ranch house and 15 acres in Deep Creek area of the valley, with proceeds from the movie rights to ‘The Sporting Club,’ and wintered in Key West.”
“‘Ninety-two in the Shade’ is Tom McGuane’s best known novel,” he said. “They even allowed him to direct the movie.”
Subsequent projects, such as the 1975 McGuane-penned film “Rancho Deluxe,” drew other writers, directors and actors to the area, including Peter Fonda, who starred in the movie “92 in the Shade.”
The artist Russell Chatham arrived in 1972, Gatz said.
“Russell knew of us from the Bolinas days,” he said. “He’s quite a good writer in his own right, too.”
The Murray Hotel played host to all sorts of artistic types, Gatz said, including director Sam Peckinpaw and Warren Oates.
“The rooms were $11 a night,” Gatz said. “And you could fall into the bed from the shower, which was handy some nights.
“The ‘70s were a golden age.”
“It was a real happy time,” McGuane said Thursday in a phone interview from his McLeod ranch. “Montana was a gentle, open society. It was an Edenic kind of world. There was a wonderful freedom to sit and think and make things up.
“Nobody really wanted to get ahead financially, and we were comfortable living like bums. I never intended to stay, but the people were so nice, I wound up staying 40 years.
“The discovery of this place was electrifying, and showed up in our writing, landing in a place that was new.”
He said Hollywood was more open in 1975, too.
“I wrote ‘Rancho’ in 15 days, made the deal in my son’s bedroom at the house in Deep Creek, and the project was a go.”
He added, “Gatz was great. We all helped each other in those days. Harrison helped me get started.
“Gatz is a fabulist in everything he does,” a writer like Italo Calvino, McGuane said.
At the Senior Center Wednesday, original copies of the group’s books were arranged on the table. After his presentation, Gatz pondered the collection for a moment and said, “It’s hard to say if anyone of these authors will be known 100 years from now. Maybe one.
“Livingston is still a highly literary town.”