Paul Nitze: Remembering Merrill Ford’s Aspen
October 29, 2010
Taking the long view is not the American way, and in that respect I’m as American as anyone. Deaths are among the few events that jolt us out of our myopia, and Merrill Ford’s death last Monday provided me that jolt.
For the Nitzes and the Paepckes, Merrill was a sister in spirit. She was at our dinner table every Christmas Eve since Gen. Taylor died, and on many other nights over the years. We kept an eye out for her, but usually she announced her presence by rapping her cane on the door. By that time she had already pulled herself up the steps using the railing and her good leg. Only in the last two years did we carry her up in her wheelchair.
Since Pussy’s death in 1994, Merrill was the family’s best link to the old days and to the people who made Aspen in the ’50s and ’60s. She was that link for many people. “Merrill for a lot of us was the epitome of what the old Aspen was all about,” says her neighbor John Sarpa.
Merrill loved the night life – woe to those who left her off an invitation. She called us in September to make sure we didn’t forget her this Christmas. When she first got to town, in 1951, she was the Grosse Pointe blonde who modeled for Obermeyer and married Stein Eriksen.
Over the years, many made the mistake of thinking it was only her looks that she had to trade. In a letter from 1969, Hunter S. Thompson dismissed her as “that creature Merrill Ford.” When a New York Times reporter called in 1994 soliciting comments for Pussy’s obituary, Merrill stopped him in his tracks. He wanted to talk about my great aunt’s “cobalt blue eyes,” but Merrill insisted that Pussy found such talk “shallow.” She could have been referring to herself.
More likely than not you could find Merrill having lunch in her later years on the Little Nell terrace with friends – Bill Evans or Lita Heller or Mary Ann Hyde. She’d usually start with gossip, but then she’d steer the conversation into deeper waters. Merrill displayed the surest sign of a fine mind – she always wanted to play on her companions’ intellectual turf.
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I had barely put in my lunch order last July when Merrill asked me about a complex Foreign Corrupt Practices Act case that had been reported that morning in the Wall Street Journal. She wanted to know whether Fred Bourke had gotten a raw deal in a case involving the privatization of Azerbaijan’s state oil company. As a prosecutor, what did I think of the current state of the securities laws? What did Bourke know and when did he know it? So much for small talk.
In a town that had no shortage of connoisseurs, Merrill saw more than others. As a kid I used to roll down the earth mounds in Anderson Park, between the Institute and Meadows. I convinced myself that no one else knew just how sublime a spot it was on an August evening. Turns out Merrill owned Herbet Bayer’s original maquette for the Park. Without her hand on their elbows, R.O. Anderson and his successors at the Institute would not have commissioned half the public art they did.
After her accident, Merrill lived with pain, but she didn’t let you know it. She grew increasingly spiritual in the later decades of her life, and was proof that Aspen isn’t godless quite yet. Paula Zurcher remembers that she spotted Merrill at the Benedicts’ house in the 1970s, and went over to talk to her because she had a cross around her neck. For many years Merrill hosted Bible study at her house.
While Merrill was a keeper of the Aspen flame to her younger friends, she welcomed change. It was her support for many of the major development projects of the ’70s and ’80s, says Sarpa, that allowed those projects to move forward. She knew as well as anyone that the Aspen Idea was fueled by money – lots of it – and so she resisted efforts to put the town in a time capsule.
But of course she knew that some things had been lost. “Everybody takes themselves way too seriously,” says her friend Harry Teague, reflecting on Merrill’s death. Back in the day, Fabi Benedict planted a dozen pink flamingoes on Merrill’s lawn before one of her dinner parties. Pink flamingoes are scarce on Red Mountain these days.
Mary Ann Hyde recalls a dinner party with Merrill not long before she died. Klaus Obermeyer surprised her with a framed photo from her days modeling his ski wear. Merrill looked at the photo with a twinkle in her eye and said, “Who’s that?”
Merrill had little time for backward glances, but for her friends, it’s tough to move ahead without her.
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