A Full Dose of the ‘Complete Half-Aspenite’
December 8, 2005
It’s one of the coldest days in memory in Aspen. But in Bruce Berger’s quasi-Main Street house, on that tiny strip of Main that extends west past the S-curves, it is toasting hot ” and without the heat turned on. Berger’s cabin, designed by Fritz Benedict, sports not only the finest views anywhere in Aspen ” and this not from atop Red Mountain, but down in the valley ” but, apparently, a brilliant natural heating system as well. “It’s not passive solar. It’s active,” says Berger. “Aggressive.”
That Berger’s house induces sweat while the rest of the town shivers with the numbing cold is only one of the ways the 67-year-old is out of step with modern Aspen life. He hasn’t gone skiing in 15 or 20 years, due partly to a bad back and partly to the fact that all his old skiing buddies have either moved away or stopped downhilling. In truth, he detests the cold, and has made it a habit to escape to hotter spots when December hits ” for years it was Phoenix; of late, it is La Paz, in Mexico’s Baja California. Berger’s routine of escaping winter led to the title of his 1987 collection of essays, “Notes of a Half-Aspenite.” A note in a new, updated version of the book, “The Complete Half-Aspenite,” affirms Berger’s station as not completely of Aspen: He’s among that group of ski-town residents who prays for it not to snow.
“Like the Eskimo I have forty words for snow, though none of them are suitable for a family publication,” Berger writes in the introduction to “Notes of a Half-Aspenite III,” a group of brief, humorous jottings included in “The Complete Half-Aspenite.”
Berger’s aversion to the cold, however, is not the characteristic that makes him stand out. He is probably in decent-sized company in favoring Aspen’s summers to its winters, and in having retired from skiing. But how many would agree with Berger’s view that the one thing that distinguishes Aspen is the Aspen Center for Physics? Who else found the most attractive thing about Aspen was that the residents tended to live in tiny homes, that forced them into spending much of their time in communal spaces? (This was, of course, a long time ago: In 1958, Berger became fascinated with the town when an older half sister wrote back to describe her living conditions.) “What fired my imagination was that Ellie was spending the winter in ‘a converted broom closet behind a boiler,’ a hotel room I couldn’t quite picture,” writes Berger in “The Otherness of Aspen,” the essay which opens “The Complete Half-Aspenite.”
“I always look for an angle,” said Berger, who began visiting Aspen in 1962, and became increasingly closer to full-Aspenite status, finally buying his house in 1968. “As Emily Dickinson said, ‘Tell the truth, but tell it slant.’ I try to go in sideways, to get a fresh perspective.”
Berger is referring here to his style. He has a habit of bringing readers into his essays on uncertain ground, an effective technique which broadens the scope, humor and surprise of his writing. “Windmill of My Mind,” about the faux Dutch windmill building at Holland Hills, opens with observations on writer Ted Conover, most notable for his Aspen expose, “Whiteout.”
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But Berger needs no stylistic techniques to provide a fresh perspective on Aspen. His fresh take is entirely unforced, because the life Berger leads and writes about is one that has, unfortunately, become eclipsed. While most of the writing about Aspen ” even the more serious ventures, like Conover’s “Whiteout” ” focus on the wealth and celebrities and parties. Berger, bless him, doesn’t dwell on these changes he has witnessed over four decades (as most of the rest of the writing on Aspen does). But his essays and observations do serve as a reminder that there is, indeed, another Aspen, of the mind and community and the arts.
“Maybe those are the things that attracted earlier people to Aspen,” said Berger, whose look (small, glasses, soft blue eyes) and home (books meticulously shelved everywhere, and a typewriter on the table) seem perfectly to reflect his nature. “I came from the boring suburbs of Chicago. I met all these fascinating people from Europe. And they were talking about the most interesting things, about music and books. And believe it or not, I liked that everybody lived in small spaces, that faced outward. Even though they lived in this nowhere, they seemed interested in the external world.
“It was a very conformist period in American history, and the interesting people were looking for someplace nonconformist. And that was Aspen.”
Berger found his place in that Bohemian society. He embraced the Aspen Music Festival, the Center for Physics, the Aspen Writers’ Foundation and various other, shorter-lived writing programs, and he observed the architecture of the town. Those organizations provide the subject ” or at least, the leaping-off point ” for most of his essays.
“One Perfect Reader” is about the late Kurt Oppens, who wrote the program notes for the Aspen Music Festival, and became Berger’s confidante in music and letters. “Perils of the Visiting Writer” is about adventures and toilet-related accidents revolving around the literary magazine Aspen Anthology. There are profiles of The New Yorker founder Harold Ross, who “managed to get born in a miner’s cabin at 601 E. Bleeker on November 6, 1892,” and of the composer Darius Milhaud, a star of the early Aspen Music Festival. Almost always, Berger’s essays evolve into something more than the purported subject. “The Day Fritz Died,” about Fritz Benedict, weaves together attacking cats, flooding rivers, and unexpected encounters in foreign houses. An invitation to steak night at the Elks Club turns into an evening poking around the swankiest slopeside house in Aspen in “Local Tourism.”
Among the best pieces is “Hartburn.” (A mere two pages, it is the ideal example of how Berger’s essays leave an impression far out of proportion to their length.) In it, Berger takes issue with the new home, built by the Hart family, around the corner from his own. Berger attacks not only the absurdist architecture, but that the house’s lights were on a timer to illuminate the insides ” full of furniture covered in sheets. “It must take courage … to advertise such capacious emptiness,” observes Berger. “Here was Aspen’s own contribution to the eighties: Conspicuous Nonconsumption.”
Berger began writing essays about Aspen in 1976, at the invitation of Aspen magazine founder Ernie Ashley. Berger was promised that whatever he wrote he would be published, intact, an arrangement that came to a halt when the magazine changed ownership in the late ’80s. It was probably for the best that Berger’s contributions to Aspen magazine stopped then; his essays would hardly fit in with the current issue ” the “Young*Hip*Next Style Issue,” with “33 Pages of Fashion” and a cover that promises stories on “Buddha Chic” and “The Return of the Ladies Who Lunch.”
“After the first book, I didn’t plan to write anymore about Aspen. I thought, that was the first stage, and there are other things I want to write about,” said Berger, who has since written books about the Aspen Music Festival (“Music in the Mountains”) and Baja, California (“Almost an Island”). “But interesting things kept happening here. And they demanded words. There were things I couldn’t help writing about.”
Berger bemoans that, for all of the great or famous writers who have lived in Aspen, including Saul Bellow, James Salter, Leon Uris, Clifford Irving and Ted Conover, there has been a paucity of notable writing about Aspen. The one Berger would have liked to see take a shot at it was novelist John P. Marquand, who lived, unhappily, in Aspen in the late 1940s and early ’50s.
“I was always sorry that he never wrote a parody of Aspen,” said Berger. “He hated Aspen, thought Walter Paepcke was pretentious. If he had turned his caustic wit on Aspen, then we’d have the great Aspen novel.”
As a most acceptable consolation, we have “The Complete Half-Aspenite.” So when people years from now do a Google book search, they will be able to read about more than parties and Prada and tips on how not to stalk the famous. Unfortunately, Berger’s writing about Aspen may be at an end; he tends to write more about Baja California these days.
“I don’t have plans to write about Aspen anymore,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean I won’t.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org