ABIGAIL ADLER: Welcome to The Last Word: Conversations with Writers

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25-05-2016 KSFR RADIO Click Here
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Audio transcript from radio interview with Forrest Fenn - The last word, conversations with writers ABIGAIL ADLER: Welcome to The Last Word: Conversations with Writers. I’m Producer and Host Abigail Adler. We’re broadcasting from the studios of KSFR Radio in Santa Fe. We’re here every Wednesday at four o’clock and I’m glad that you are here too. My guest today is Forrest Fenn - a well-known gallery owner and author. He is the author of ten books: a memoir, art and archeology. A lot of people may not know that before he opened his gallery in Santa Fe in 1972 he had a whole different career of twenty years as a fighter pilot in the Air Force and we’ll find out about all kinds of things we didn’t know about Forrest. One of the most interviewed man - men in town and we’ll see if I can come up with something a little different for his books his memoir, Forrest mined the depths of his adventurous life. Most of us think of our lives as not particularly extraordinary, but Fenn shows us that there is drama and passion and surprise in our lives if we look and just write down some details and follow the narrative. Here is some of his raw material. He is from a real Texas upbringing with family steeped in Texas and family life. He bypassed college and signed up for the Air Force during the Korean War. During that 20 year career he was shot down twice over Vietnam. After retiring from the Air Force, Fenn and his wife Peg, and two daughters looked around Lubbock. It was flat. It was windy. It was dusty. And apparently it was Peg who said it was time to get out and move to the mountains in New Mexico. And that’s when they started the now famous Fenn Gallery. Welcome Forrest.

FORREST FENN: Why thank you.

ADLER: I think you said to me once that you wrote your memoirs actually for your children. For your two daughters.

FENN: Well, that’s true. I was shocked about maybe 15 years ago. My daughters are now 55 and 54, and I learned that they didn’t know who Clark Gable was. And it shocked me, and I told myself, you know, I want them to know who their family was. So I started - I decided I was going to - I wasn’t thinking about a memoir, just the history of my family. So I got a yellow pad and pencil and I started writing and I did this for a few years. I didn’t have a computer but, I talked about my grandmother telling me when I was a little kid about the Indians running through her barnyard in Fort Worth trying to catch chickens - Kiowas and Comanches and you know, I talked about my parents making soap out in the backyard. My father made his own lye. Most people don’t know how you make lye, but my father made his own lye. He killed his own pigs and we made soap, and we poured it out in a big flat container. All the neighbors came over with a knife and cut up a couple of bars of soap. That’s the way we were doing things in the 1930’s and the early 1940’s before World War 2.

ADLER: And in your book, which is called The Thrill of the Chase: A Memoir, is really quite colorful in the layout and the wonderful old photographs and they are family photographs and we do get to see Forrest Fenn as a very young man. But it really gives a sense of place and a sense of the time.

FENN: Well I remember what I wanted to teach my daughters was everything that I could remember that I’m sure that they didn’t know about. And I remember my first recollection. I think was when I must have been about 2 years old. I couldn’t get up on a little stool that was about six or eight inches high, my father lifted me up. Put me on that stool. And I think that is my earliest recollection, but I wanted - I wanted… It took me, uh, I think my memoir has 28,000 words in it, and every one of them is something I wanted my kids and grandkids to know about my side of their family.

ADLER: Well, and some of it is pretty adventurous. I mean I love the chapter you have about when you were 16 and you went on a big adventure with your friend, Donny. You went on two horses and took off.

FENN: We were in Gallatin National Forest out in West Yellowstone, Montana. We were - our excuse was we were gonna go look for Lewis and Clark, because we were going up the mountains almost exactly where they were. And we got up there, and we got lost. We spent, I don’t know, 4, 5, 6 days up in there. It was a wonderful adventure. When we decided to go out, to go home, we didn’t know where home was. It took us a couple of days to solve that problem. But it was a great adventure.

ADLER: And in your book, actually in that chapter, has some advice for would-be adventurers. You learned on that trip, and just a couple of things here, “hunger is not a good thing”, that was one thing, “you can’t hide from thunderstorms”, “porcupine meat tastes like kerosene”, “coffee made by boiling pine needles can bring on cardiac arrest” there’s a whole list here of amusing things you learned at the tender age of 16.

FENN: Experience is the best teacher.

ADLER: Yeah. How did you, how did you get from writing on a yellow pad to actually deciding to do a book and accomplishing that?

FENN: I started writing on a yellow pad with a pencil and I’d make a mistake, I would erase it. And try to fill in a didn’t know enough about writing to just mark it out and keep going. And I wrote my first book “The Beat of the Drum and the Hoop of the Dance” I drafted 85,000 words and I think 10 or 12 re-writes later I had 65,000 words and it was a hard book for me. But after that I got a computer and, you know, things got a lot easier.

ADLER: Well what was that book you just mentioned?

FENN: It was the biography of Joseph Henry Sharp. It was one of the first artists to live in Taos.

ADLER: And you wrote quite a few books about art in the southwest. Why did you decide to write art books and art history books?

FENN: Well I had an art gallery and, uh, called Fenn Gallery in Santa Fe just a couple of blocks east of the state capitol. I learned early on that if you write a book about something, people think you’re an expert on that subject. And I needed to be an expert because I wasn’t making any money in the art business, and I wanted people to come buy some paintings from me. That’s why I wrote my first couple of books. I wrote a little book about William R. Leigh and the drawings that he had made for the dioramas in the Natural History Museum in New York.

ADLER: Really?

FENN: Yeah, and that was really my first book.

ADLER: Why did you think to do that? The dioramas are amazing I grew up going to them.

FENN: Well, I’m sorry you asked me that question, but I’ll answer it. I wrote the book because I had all the drawings. The originals. And so, you know, you could almost call it a catalogue. But it was to promote those drawings and I sold all of them and I sold some of them to the Natural History Museum in New York. That told me that, you know, I didn’t have any education. I made terrible grades in high school, but I was successful with my first book and I said you know, if that’s all there is to it, I can do that!

ADLER: So you do a lot of research? You write a book, and you become an expert.

FENN: Well, there are people that say I’m not an expert, but I like that persona (laughing).

ADLER: And you have a second memoir also. So…

FENN: I wrote a second memoir that’s called “Too Far To Walk.” It’s kind of a sequel to “The Thrill of The Chase.”

ADLER: And where does that pick up in your life?

FENN: It’s more of - It’s a series of short stories. I talk about, uh, some of my, you know I’ve always said that I’ve always thought that I’m the world’s greatest shmoozer. When people came in my gallery, I wanted to take them to lunch. I wanted to learn everything. How did they get where they are? And I met wonderful people from Michael Douglas to Jackie Kennedy to Robin Olds to lots of politicians, President Ford and, you know it’s fun to sit down with people that really made a mark with their lives. When I was stationed in Germany, I went - I was on my way from Bitburg, Germany to Munich and I looked on a map and I recognized a little town just off the autobahn. The town where Field Marshal Rommel lived. You know, he was the Desert Fox that fought with Patton in the tank battles in North Africa. And so I stopped my car and knocked on her door and she invited me in.

ADLER: Who invited you in?

FENN: Mrs. Rommel.


FENN: And her son Winfred was there. He spoke a little English and we drank tea and I stayed there for an hour and she was afraid that her husband would be forgotten. You know he’s the one that tried to kill Hitler. Hitler made a deal with him, “If you’ll commit suicide, we’ll take care of your family. But if you don’t we’re going to kill you and your family.” So Field Marshal Rommel killed himself to save his family. I don’t think he was a Nazi. He was a soldier.

ADLER: He was in North Africa.

FENN: Yeah.

ADLER: Yeah. So it sounds like when opening your gallery, going from, I think, um, I can’t remember if you told me this…. You go from when you first came to Santa Fe, you got your little - your gallery, and you were sleeping on mattresses on the floor. It was a pretty rudimentary operation. How do you - and then you went from that to being the biggest gallery in town for quite a while - your gallery is where the Nedra Matteucci Gallery is right now.

FENN: I sold to Nedra. She was a good client of mine and a good friend. She had a little gallery on Canyon Road. I made a deal with her to - one of my old rules that I started when I was fairly young was that I don’t want to do anything for more than 15 years. My reason was there’s too many great things to do and there are not very many 15’s. And I’ll use an example. I walk down the street and I see attorneys, lawyers, walking to work - 90 year old attorneys. I mean they’re going to die at their desk. And they love that and, you know, but I’ve always said if you don’t like your job or your marriage, you should slam the door and go someplace else. But that’s my philosophy about that.

ADLER: But you kept at it with the gallery. And what happened? How did you get from sleeping on the floor to quite a lovely establishment?

FENN: Well because I had no education. And I had no experience in art. I didn’t own a painting when I opened my gallery, but I learned that if I’m going to compete with the big guys, then I’ve got to have an appearance. And I told myself if I advertise full page color in the prominent magazines of the day, they’ll think that I’m an expert. And they did. And then because I wasn’t an expert, because they thought I was, then I had to go to school and research and bring myself up to speed and so after 17 years, why I became knowledgeable - I don’t think I’m an expert or anything, but I’m knowledgeable about a few things.

ADLER: I want to take a moment here, um, a little break to tell our listeners, that you’re listening to The Last Word: Conversations With Writers. I am the host and produce, Abigail Adler and today we are speaking with gallery owner, and um, writer, Forrest Fenn. Um, Forrest, what kind of people walked into your gallery?

FENN: You know, that was a very fortunate byproduct of owning a gallery that I did not anticipate when I got in the business, but we had all kinds of politicians: John Connelly, three times governor of Texas and Secretary of the Navy. He and I were partners in a bunch of paintings. And of course, Jackie Kennedy stayed in my guest house for a week. President Ford stayed in my guest house. All kinds of movie stars from Robert Redford to Chere and everybody in between. It was a wonderful experience. Like I said, I’m a great schmoozer and I - if you’ve done something, then I want to talk to you. I’d like to take you to lunch and find out what you’re doing. I’d like to spend an hour with Charles Manson. You know - try to find out what’s ticking with that guy, if anything.

ADLER: Did any of the celebrities buy some artwork? At least a book?

FENN: Jonathan Winters bought an expensive painting from me. Steve Martin bought paintings from me. Suzanne Somers bought a number of paintings from me. Robert Redford bought excellent paintings. Sure a lot of them did.

ADLER: And I do remember, uh, years ago that your gallery was the scene of a couple of movies that were shot in town.

FENN: There was one movie, it was called, uh, “And God Created Woman.” Yeah. They shot that in my guest house.

ADLER: And Roger Vadim was in town I remember for that.

FENN: That’s right.

ADLER: You had quite a collection - they had a tent right there on Paseo de Peralta for all the actors.

FENN: That’s right.

ADLER: So why, um, I think all of your books are self-published. Why self publish?

FENN: Well I hate to say that I couldn’t find a real publisher, because I never did try but, I had some experience with publishers. A publisher wants to save money. And they can rearrange your book. They like to put all the color photographs in one signature. And I just wanted my books to be the way I wanted them to be. If I’m talking about a painting I want to talk about it on the same page where I pictured the painting. So you don’t get that when you go to a commercial publisher.

ADLER: So you, it was important to you to have control over how the book looked.

FENN: Yeah, and you know, when I write a book, uh, I’m not but 20% there because I hire a designer, a layout artist, and we fight back and forth about the design, and the layout. Then I take the book to a printer, and I approve the signatures before they start the press runs and when the book is printed, then I go to the binder in Phoenix, Roswell Bookbinding, and I get in line and help glue the covers on. I mean, I’m part of the entire process.

ADLER: So now you’re an expert on something else. An expert on putting a book together.

FENN: I’m knowledgeable about it, yes.

ADLER: You know, I’m not sure where I got this, but, um, someone wrote that the urge for you - that you told them the urge to collect started at the age of nine. When you found an arrowhead in a plowed field in central Texas? And you still claim it’s your most treasured object. You said it was a thrill and that started me on a long journey of adventure.

FENN: It’s true. I was nine years old. I wrote a book about that called, “The Secrets of San Lazaro Pueblo.” I talk about finding that first arrowhead. I was with my father and when I picked it up, I told myself, “This little projectile has been laying on the ground for 2,000 years waiting for me to come along.” Is that not exciting? And I picked it up and I looked at my father and the expression on his face when he saw the expression on my face was something that’s burned into my memory. It’ll stay there forever, I mean, I wish more fathers would take their sons and daughters out into the countryside. Not necessarily looking for arrowheads, but looking for - I mean, roll a log over and see what’s under it? You’re gonna find ants and worms and grubs and beetles and make notes. There’s so much to be learned in the mountains and in the desert. We are too sedentary today.

ADLER: Yes, you walk outside and there is adventure waiting.

FENN: That’s right.

ADLER: Pretty much in any direction you go. And, I think you said to me, and I don’t know if it’s a famous quote by you, but you did say to me when I was talking to you earlier, “I don’t do anything, I just make things happen.” Things just happen in your presence it seems.

FENN: You know, I don’t know what that is. It’s an idiosyncrasy of my biology I think. But in Vietnam I flew 328 combat missions and a lot of them - most missions in Vietnam were not very exciting, but it seemed like every time I pulled my gear up, things started happening. And, sure, there’s exciting things happening everywhere in the mountains and in the desert and I love to… I’m an avid fly fisherman. I was a professional fishing guide when I was 13 years old in Yellowstone. But you know there’s a famous quote in a new book on Duveen. It says, “They never knew that it was the chase that they sought, and not the quarry.” I can’t tell you how many times I could hardly wait to get out on the river to fish and when I get out there, I’d go sit under a tree and watch the Osprey catch fish - you know it’s not catching the fish that counted, it’s being there was hat was important to me. And I would urge parents to take their kids out, particularly in the mountains. Summer’s here now, the snow’s pretty much gone. It’s a good time to experience some of those things. It’s memories that your kids will never forget.

ADLER: That comes through in your books. The experience of growing up in the west, and growing up outside. But we only have about 5 minutes and I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up your treasure hunt.

FENN: Okay.

ADLER: I think most people know that, um, Forrest has buried a treasure somewhere out here.

FENN: Now I never said I buried it. I hid it.

ADLER: Hid it. Okay, hidden the treasure. Maybe there’s a clue. Maybe not. That’s worth at least a million dollars and what, what’s in there?

FENN: Well there are 268 gold coins, there are hundreds of gold nuggets. Two of them are the size of hen’s eggs. And there’s lots of pre-Columbian gold jewelry and Tairona necklace and wonderful quartz fetishes and two little carved - ancient Chinese carved jade figures. I mean it’s wonderful.

ADLER: When did you actually hide this treasure.

FENN: Well I’m 85 years old now, I hid it when I was either 79 or 80. My wife didn’t know within 18 months of when I hid that thing. She knew I had it. But she didn’t know that I had gone out and hidden it.

ADLER: So it was a secret that you had hidden it. The time that you hid it.

FENN: Yeah, nobody knows that I hid it, or where I hid it. I’m the only one in the world that will know that.

ADLER: So far. And you invite anyone who wants to to find it.

FENN: Sure. I invite parents to - I’ve said that it’s hidden in the Rocky Mountains north of Santa Fe, and below the Canadian border. So I’m inviting people to get the kids and go out looking for it. If you can find it, I guarantee it’s worth your while.

ADLER: So, a million dollars. Why did you decide to do that?

FENN: Well, I talked about that in my “Thrill of the Chase” book. In 1988 I was diagnosed with what everybody said was terminal cancer. You know it takes a while for that to soak in, but after a couple of weeks I said, you know, “If I’m gonna go, who says I can’t take it with me? Who says I can’t impact the future?” And so I decided, you know, I’ve had so much fun doing this over the last seventy some years, why not let somebody else have the same opportunity and the same thrill of the chase that I’ve had. And so I started - I bought this wonderful little metal cast bronze box, paid $25,000 for this beautiful little chest that’s - I don’t know how old it is. It’s romanesque. I started buying things just to put in it. Gold nuggets and gold coins and gold jewelry. There’s, I think, 270 rubies in there. There’s diamonds, there’s two Ceylon sapphires. There’s eight emeralds, and there’s all kinds of gold bracelets and wa’kas and pre-Columbian gold figures.

ADLER: We have a few more minutes, but, um, do you have any advice or hints for people that might want to look for the treasure?

FENN: Sure. In my book, there’s a poem. And there are nine clues in that poem. I would suggest if you want to find my treasure, read that poem over and over. And then try to find out - try to follow the clues to the treasure.

ADLER: And where is that poem? Is that the one on the first page here?

FENN: No it’s toward the back of the book.

ADLER: Toward the back. Okay, so, you have to get your hands on a copy of “The Thrill of The Chase” and look for the clues in that poem. I’m sorry, we only have one minute, but I’d like to say that, um, well, maybe tell us how people can find out more about the treasure. Is there a website?

FENN: There’s a blog called dalneitzel.com d-a-l-n-e-i-t-z-e-l dot com. And he gets about 40,000 hits a day on that blog. The blog is dedicated to the treasure story and my books.

ADLER: And you can buy your book in town here?

FENN: Yes, Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe.

ADLER: And, very quick, I do want to mention that you are hard at work at some other books and one particularly about Taos.

FENN: Well, I’ve got a book in my computer called, “Closet Stories of Taos.” It’s not an art book, but it’s about the artists and the characters like Long John Dunne and Dovelli Price and Mace McHorst and Mabel and Frieda Lawrence and it’s a gossip book, but it’s very interesting. I bought the estate of Leon Gaspard, and the home, and everything that was in the home and there were wonderful diaries and ledgers and… Anyway, this book is coming out of that purchase.

ADLER: So, when this comes out, we’ll have a different look at that whole Taos community.

FENN: That’s right.

ADLER: Well, Forrest, thank you so much for being with us today. It’s lovely to see you.

FENN: It’s my pleasure Abigail, thank you.

ADLER: And thank you for tuning into The Last Word - Weekly Conversations With Writers about writing and life. We broadcast from the studios of KSFR radio in Santa Fe streaming live on the web at KSFR.org. We thank Nick Appalucci for engineering this show. We thank you for being with us. I’m Abigail Adler.