Celebrities were starstruck by Aspen’s Don “Duke” Dixon
He was one of Aspen’s worst bartenders, a hit with the ladies and celebrities, a lover of animals and a prolific letter writer to the local newspapers.
Over the last few years of his life, Don Dixon wasn’t a regular about town like he once was when individual spirit was the hallmark of Aspen’s identity. He used to fire up his muffler-less Harley Davidson at 2 in the morning and drive the downtown streets as a public service to Aspen’s late-night crowd that the bars were closing.
Known better as the Duke, Dixon, who moved to Aspen in the late 1960s, spent his last two years at Heritage Park Care Center in Carbondale, where he was admitted after his health began to fail.
He died April 28, at age 75, with some of his closest friends by his side, including Kimberly Wilson-Jarrell, who once lived with him in the 1980s.
Celebrities were attracted to Dixon. Among them were Aspen regulars Jack Nicholson, Jimmy Buffett, Ed Bradley and Don Henley. When he learned of Dixon’s passing, Michael Douglas wrote Dixon’s friend Bob Rafelson to send his condolences.
“He was the life of the party, let’s just say,” said Wilson-Jarrell. “He had an appeal for these stars. He was still the Duke. He wasn’t trying to suck up to them.”
Rafelson, a film director and producer and one of Dixon’s closet friends, said celebrities were drawn to Dixon because he was intellectual, devoid of any pretense, and told it like it was.
“That was always kind of strange, when people came to Aspen (in the ’70s and ’80s) they sought out guys who knew their way around, and they sought out people who had incredible personalities, and Duke was one of those people,” Rafelson said. “But he himself was more celebrity than they were.
“He didn’t call attention to his leadership, he didn’t say, ‘Guys, follow me.’ He was a guy who exercised taste and had this sinister sense of humor.”
Dixon’s wit certainly was revealed in his letters to the Aspen newspapers. And in December 2007, he won the Silver Pen Award, which The Aspen Times used to hand out to its favorite letter writers.
A number of letters from Dixon — who used to feed birds outside of his apartment above Clark’s Market — took aim at abusers of animals. He also loathed development in Aspen.
“He was a person who did not want things to change,” Wilson-Jarrell said. “He wanted the old Aspen and he’d get upset when he’d see an old Aspen building go down and be replaced.”
Dixon, whose image can be found at the entranceway at Jimmy’s, slung drinks at various Aspen haunts over the years, including Cooper Street Pier, Kenichi and the Paradise.
His service was purportedly slow, however, chiefly because he was usually drinking with his customers.
“He worked at a lot of places, but that wasn’t because he had some extraordinary ability,” Rafelson said.
But Dixon was good for business because he drew crowds.
“He would make drinks for patrons and take the opportunity to taste them to see if they were good,” Rafelson said.
“I was the first girl he ever lived with,” Wilson-Jarrell said.
Dixon couldn’t be held down for too long, however.
“The reason for the break-up is he knew I wanted the white picket fence,” Wilson-Jarrell said.
Even so, the two remained tight friends, and Dixon was an uncle-type figure in the lives of Wilson-Jarrell’s children, she said.
Dixon led an interesting, if not enviable, life as a bachelor, once even going on a date with Cher.
“I bet he didn’t go on a second date,” Rafelson said. Rafelson and friend Palmer Hood regularly visited Dixon at Heritage Park and were there, with Rafelson’s wife Gaby and Wilson-Jarrell, when he died.
Dixon once dated Anita Thompson, the widow of Dixon’s once good friend Hunter S. Thompson. But the Gonzo writer won over Anita, which took a toll on Dixon.
“Duke called and said, ‘Hunter stole my gal,’” recalled former Sheriff Bob Braudis, also a good friend of Thompson’s.
Thompson killed himself Feb. 20, 2005, and initially Dixon wasn’t invited to the private cannon-blast service held Aug. 20 at Owl Farm.
“The Duke is not invited, and he’s in tears,” Braudis said. “I called Anita and said ‘the Duke is suffering.’”
But Anita said the only way Dixon could attend the service was if he didn’t talk to her or her mother, Braudis said. Dixon didn’t go after all.
On the Fourth of July following the June 1994 police chase involving O.J. Simpson in his infamous white Bronco, Dixon had an idea. Dixon also owned a white Bronco, and he figured it would be good fun to lead a dozen sheriff’s patrol vehicles through town in a slow-motion chase as part of the parade. Braudis, who was sheriff then, pondered the idea. But when Dixon said he wanted to paint his face black, Braudis nixed the proposal.
Dixon, who was raised in Oklahoma and went to the University of Wisconsin, also liked to gamble on everything from sports to poker.
It was a night of strip poker that almost landed him in jail. Dixon was walking home on Cemetery Lane, nearly naked, clad in underwear only. It was cold outside, and an Aspen peace officer was poised to arrest him for lewd behavior.
“The cop said, ‘Why are you walking around naked?’” Rafelson said. “And Dixon said, ‘I’m not walking around naked. I’m walking home naked because I lost everything at a strip-poker party.”
The officer offered Dixon a ride home, but “he didn’t want to be seen riding home in a police car,” Rafelson said. So he walked home naked instead.
“The cop laughed so hard and said, ‘Duke, go home,’” Rafelson said.
For sure, there certainly wasn’t much normal about Dixon’s life.
“He had a multitude of talents and interests,” Rafelson said.
Wilson-Jarrell said she is working to organize a memorial service for Dixon some time in June. She said she expects to see a lot of old, familiar faces.
“He will be missed,” she said. “He really loved Aspen.”
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