Kim and I (see previous post A Very Mini Artist’s Colony in New Mexico) have started going to the LaFonda Hotel in Santa Fe fairly regularly for breakfast these days. It’s a wonderful place because of its history alone. In fact historical records suggest it sits on the oldest hotel corner in America. When the Spaniards founded Santa Fe in 1607, records show an inn, or fonda was among the first businesses established at this location.
And we don’t even have to be on vacation to enjoy it. We get to drive down the mountain whenever we want to pay it a visit.
But, truthfully, the real reason we go is because they make the very best brioche French toast you could ever hope to have.
In fact it’s pretty addictive, to the degree that our once-a-month splurge has stretched into… well, I don’t want to get too specific about that. So the historical part is just a great bonus.
And, as it turns out, Kim also has familial ties to the hotel.
Let me tell you a small story about Kim’s grandfather and the La Fonda Hotel. You should know that I have only bits of this story to go on and am taking some probable flights of fancy with the rest.
Anyway, his grandfather, Ezra Winter, was a well-known mural painter from the early 1920s through the 1940s. He did massive projects during his career including Radio City Music Hall, the Library of Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Chamber of Congress, and Cornell University, to name a few.
He worked from a studio on the upper floor of Grand Central Station for much of his career where he also taught art classes. His papers are kept in the Archives of American Art in the Smithsonian Museum.
In 1926 Ezra came to Santa Fe. Kim knows this because he found a list of notable arrivals to the La Fonda Hotel posted in the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper dated January 4, 1926.
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine Santa Fe back then—Canyon Road was probably still a little dirt wagon trail leading, literally, into the canyon. There were packed dirt roads instead of today’s blacktopped highways.
Low-density population, traditional ways, pinon smoke in the air… My heart aches with longing to have been there then. I can only imagine that, compared to the bustling New York City of the time, Santa Fe truly was the Wild West.
Anyway, Ezra came and the reason Kim knew to search for him in Santa Fe in 1926 is because of some letters that were found tied up with string in among Ezra’s belongings many years ago, after he was gone. There were several from an artist named Margaret (Peggy) Ruse who, it turns out, had been an assistant to Ezra in New York for three years. She came to New Mexico in 1925 but I don’t know what month. It could have been as late as December of 1925 and then Ezra arrived the next month, on January 4, 1926, seemingly following her. Peggy was 26 at the time and Ezra was just a couple months shy of forty. It seems fairly certain that he came to see Peggy.
We often don’t recognize small but important moments in our lives when we are living them. Significant events can pass us by with barely a notice and it’s not until we look back on them that we know. I’ve often said the greatest gift of aging is perspective. There comes a time in most of our lives when the sheer number of years we’ve lived, along with our varied experiences, have taught us some important truths. We come to know, for instance, that time really does mend broken hearts; that we don’t get to take back the things we do so we’d better take care in doing them; and that we should act when something draws us—a town, a way of life, a job, an opportunity to love.
I’ve done some Google searches looking into Peggy Ruse. There isn’t a lot since there were no computers back then and not much has been digitized, but I did find a paragraph about her in a book titled, Women of the West, A Series of Biographical Sketches of Living Eminent Women in the Eleven Western States of the United States of America, Copyright 1928, Publisher’s Press, Los Angeles, Ca. She lived at 630 Canyon Road and eventually opened a restaurant/tea house/evening spot called the Apache Club at 117 Palace Avenue.
I have no idea what made Peggy leave New York for the west. Had she been having an affair with Ezra that had come to an end? Did she need to get away because of that? Or had she come west, as so many others did, to try her artistic luck in Santa Fe? Or both?
There is some evidence that they worked together on a project of watercolor designs from ancient and Indian patterns that are now housed in The Mary Ann Beinecke Collection of Decorative Arts at the Clark Art Museum Library in Williamstown, Massachusetts, one of the major art history reference libraries in the country. Some of the paintings are signed by Ezra and some by Peggy. Did they make these watercolors when Ezra came to visit do you think? I can find no record of that having been the case.
One has to wonder, with his extremely busy social and business life, what was it about Peggy Ruse that touched Ezra enough for him to keep her letters? And, since I’ve located a trail indicating Peggy moved back to New York City where she became an illustrator (but I haven’t found a date yet), I wonder, did they ever meet again? Did they ever work together again?
I was never able to learn anything about their relationship. But I like to think of the two of them spending a late winter week or two, perhaps as much as a month, together within the spirit, light and magic of New Mexico. For a man harried by important and huge commissions, along with their deadlines, and a passel of assistants to manage, I like to think that this remarkable land, and Peggy, gave him some deep rest and, perhaps, a sense of peace. And maybe, just maybe, that’s the reason his family still has her letters these 88 years later.
Some of us leave grand murals behind as witness to our having lived, or children, and then their children, ongoing throughout the span of time presumably. Others, like Peggy who never married and had no children, leave just a whisper: illustrations in a rare, collectible, children’s book called, The Little Old Woman Who Used Her Head, or her letters to Ezra, held together by a bit of string, and unearthed by his family, telling a small part of a story that once was.
There’s little that is certain in this life except for birth and death. We know we’re born and we know we’ll die. But what we do in between is entirely and wholly up to us. Do we wait wishing for a love that will never be, as it seems possible Peggy did, taking her own life in 1938? Or drive ourselves too hard as, perhaps, Ezra did, taking his own life in 1949? Did Peggy and Ezra live a love story that ended too soon? Were their lives forever colored by that? We’ll never know.
But when I look at the words, pen on paper, written by this vibrant, talented woman in Santa Fe back in 1926, it is hard to believe she no longer exists. And Ezra, for all of his majestic murals, gone also—both of them just ghosts of memory.
Then it comes so clear to me: life is not what we leave behind. That’s history. Life is the living of it. Whether we’re remembered by history or family or no one at all, we are here to live it now, in these moments when our hearts are beating in our chests, when our eyes gaze across the great beauties…
So it is for us to breathe in all of this life, to laugh as much as possible, to soothe our wounds and the wounds of others, to find a truth and live it as much as we can bear, to love as truly as we can, to take what this life has to offer and turn it into what we need, what has meaning for us… to recognize the small but important moments in our lives when we’re living them.
And the point is to live them now. As Rilke says in his Letters to a Young Poet, “Live everything… Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
A movie was made in 1949, a little more than 20 years after Ezra visited Santa Fe, starring and directed by Robert Montgomery, called Ride the Pink Horse. It features the hotel rather prominently. There are these little tables just outside the enclosed patio where Montgomery sits with another actor who’s having breakfast. Kim and I always choose that table.
And we think of Ezra in 1926, perhaps sitting exactly there, along with his lovely artist companion, Margaret (Peggy) Ruse.
Love to you all,