Merrill Ford, an Aspen ‘force’ for the arts, dies at 84
October 27, 2010
ASPEN – The town’s intellectual and cultural life has lost one of its great champions with the death of Merrill Ford. Described as “a force” whose influence and energy supported most of Aspen’s arts organizations, Ford died Sunday at the age of 84.
“She was such a great, sparkling figure in the history of design and the arts in Aspen,” said Alan Fletcher, president of the Aspen Music Festival and School.
Ford, who studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in her native Michigan, came to Aspen in 1951 to attend the first gathering of what would become the International Design Conference in Aspen. Several years later, she became the first executive director of the Design Conference, and remained involved with the event for two decades. Reflecting her widespread cultural interests, she would go on to become deeply involved with the Aspen Music Festival and School, the Aspen Art Museum, the Aspen Hall of Fame and the Aspen Historical Society. A former student at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, Ford was also active with Christ Episcopal Church.
Ford had an especially tight bond with The Aspen Institute. She was named a lifetime trustee last year, and for the last decade lived on the Institute grounds, in a townhouse that had one wall devoted to the work of her friend, the iconic Aspen artist and designer Herbert Bayer. She was close with Mortimer Adler, the philosopher who created the Institute’s Great Books seminar, and conferred with Adler on several of his works.
The former Merrill McClintock, born in Detroit, married Frederick Ford Jr. in 1949. The couple had two children, Frederick III and Virginia. After a divorce in 1956, she moved to Aspen, where she married Stein Eriksen, the Norwegian-born Olympic gold medal skier. She had subsequent marriages to William Waller, and to her longtime companion, Gen. Robert Taylor, who preceded her in death, in 2003.
Ford survived a serious car accident in 1973, but the incident left her physically impaired, and forced her to stop skiing. For years she walked with a cane, and for the latter part of her life she required a wheelchair. The injuries, however, did not impede her thirst for life.
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“Of all the years she spent in a wheelchair, she never, ever complained,” Aspenite Paula Zurcher, a close friend, said. “She’d travel, go everywhere, see everything, always wanted to be with people, always up for an adventure.”
In 2001, Ford helped create the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s first national council. Over her several years being involved with the organization, she was crucial to the growth of the Writers’ Foundation.
“She was a force,” Lisa Consiglio, executive director of the Writers’ Foundation, said. “She’d pick up the phone, and people would say, Yes. She started a national council at a time when this organization was not doing well, and within days, boom, people were writing checks.”
Ford is remembered as instrumental in keeping alive the oral history of Aspen’s rebirth as a skiing and cultural resort dating to the middle of the 20th century, with stories going back to her close friends the Paepcke family, the patriarchs of modern Aspen.
“She had one of the best collections of stories about Aspen of anyone I’ve met,” Fletcher said. “She knew everybody and had a story about her escapades with everybody – the Paepckes, funny stories about Fritz and Fabi Benedict, Herbert Bayer. She personified the elegance of Aspen.”
“What a loss. But what a life,” Consiglio said. “What a patron, what a saint when it came to the arts. She was the driving force behind so many things in this town.”
A memorial service is planned for Nov. 30 at Christ Episcopal Church. Ford will be buried in the Aspen Grove Cemetery. Memorial contributions may be made in her name to Christ Episcopal Church, the Aspen Music Festival and School, or The Aspen Institute.