Berger remembered for role as ‘Half-Aspenite’ and ‘unofficial’ dean of Aspen arts
Famed author whose books covered Aspen characters, Music Fest and desert life dies at 82 after battling lung disease
Bruce Berger, the beloved writer, poet and fixture at Aspen Music Festival & School concerts, died Wednesday morning.
The cause was complications from lung disease, according to his publisher and literary executor, James Anderson. Berger was 82 and died in Denver in hospice care.
“Bruce was the unofficial dean of Aspen arts and letters,” Anderson said in an announcement, “and his Aspen cabin was a legendary gathering place for writers, physicists and musicians for more than 50 years.”
The author of the indispensable Aspen books “Music in the Mountains” and “The Complete Half-Aspenite” and acclaimed works about the Southwest, Berger first came to Aspen as a high schooler in 1952, visiting an older sister who had moved here from their hometown in the Chicago suburbs.
In 1968, he bought the cabin next to hers — a modest Fritz Benedict-designed log structure situated high above Castle Creek off Main Street that would remain his home for the rest of his life.
“It was a very conformist period in American history,” Berger told The Aspen Times in 2005 of his move here, “and the interesting people were looking for someplace nonconformist. And that was Aspen.”
Berger embraced the Music Festival, the Aspen Center for Physics, the Aspen Writers’ Conference (now Aspen Words) and the life of the mind available here. Never a fan of snow and cold, Berger spent winters in the Sonoran Desert and places like Phoenix and La Paz, in Mexico’s Baja California.
His witty, unpredictable and observant writings on Aspen focused on it as a small town and idiosyncratic mountain hamlet, as a magnet for characters, as an intellectual and cultural hub. His collected impressions were first published as “Notes of a Half-Aspenite” in 1987 and then updated in 2005 as “The Complete Half-Aspenite.”
Beyond the roundabout, Berger was known as a bard of the American desert.
His collections of essays “The Telling Distance” (1990), “There Was a River” (1994), and “Almost an Island” (1998) chronicled pre-development Phoenix, Baja and the last river trip through Glen Canyon among other topics. They poetically captured the landscapes, life and lack thereof in the arid stretches of the West. “The Telling Distance” won the Western States Book Award.
In 2019, publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux released a new collection of Berger’s favorite works from those earlier desert books and added new essays.
Titled “A Desert Harvest,” it was his final release and a career-crowning publication with a major publisher decades after his earlier small-press desert books inspired a cult following.
“A Desert Harvest” drew wide attention — a Los Angeles Times review said “The book places (Berger) among the best of past generations to write about the Southwest” — and its launch included a seven-city book tour for the 80-year-old Berger, joined on the road trip by Anderson.
“It’s really exciting,” Berger told the Times in 2019. “It’s a sense of finally having arrived.”
His poetry was published frequently in journals and in a 1995 collection, “Facing the Music.” And his definitive history of the Aspen Music Festival was published in 1999 as “A Tent in a Meadow” and in later editions as “Music in the Mountains.”
Berger also appeared regularly in the letters pages of The Aspen Times, advocating for environmental conservation, weighing in on local controversies, on Music Fest concerts and physics lectures.
He wrote slowly with a thesaurus at his side, meticulously crafting his phrasing and cadence. The result was a contemplative style and lapidary prose to savor, always punctuated by his wry wit.
“A lot of people write quickly because things flash quickly into their heads and they don’t want to lose anything,” Berger told the Times in 2019. “I go bit by bit, forming the sentences the way that I want them. … It’s a slow process, but it works.”
In one of several tributes from prominent authors following Berger’s death, Terry Tempest Williams wrote, “You leave us the wild lands you so heroically fought for and protected. You leave us your words crafted so eloquently from your well-lived and loved life.”
The National Book Award-winning novelist Colum McCann, who began writing his novel “TransAtlantic” under the spruce trees in Berger’s backyard, wrote in the introduction to “A Desert Harvest” that Berger “manages a sense of astonished being. … Berger’s world is not mannered or prescribed in any way. He discovers the gorgeous in the individual. He sees finality as a radiance.”
Of his one-of-a-kind style, Berger told the Times in 2005, “I always look for an angle. As Emily Dickinson said, ‘Tell the truth, but tell it slant.’ I try to go in sideways, to get a fresh perspective.”
Berger retained that outlook through the public health crisis and tumult of the past year.
“I am healthy, appalled by our times, and frustrated on the personal front with normal life in lockdown, though I must say it’s beautiful as I look out the window,” he wrote in an email to a Times reporter in January. “When people ask what I’m doing, I reply that I’m keenly focused on drifting.”
Before settling in Aspen, Berger lived as an expat in southern Spain from 1965 to 1967, playing piano in nightclubs and in a succession of rock bands around provincial Spain in the twilight of the Franco era. He brought a Smith Corona typewriter overseas and chronicled his day-to-day life while he was there. The experience made him a writer, he said.
“I decided that writing was what I wanted to do with my life,” he told the Times upon the publication of his memoir of the Spain years, “The End of the Sherry,” in 2014.
Since the early days of the Aspen Writers’ Conference in the 1970s, Berger hosted a party for visiting and local writers each June as well as an annual “Third of July” party which for 50 years from 1970 to 2020 gathered authors, physicists, musicians and local friends, where the night would frequently wind down with Berger on the piano and guests singing.
Funeral services will not be held because of the pandemic. According to the death announcement, friends plan to organize a celebration of his life July 3 if circumstances allow.
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