Dressed in a longsleeved button-down and dark jeans, Sam Shepard, seated in the north room of the Santa Fe Institute library, dropped his hands from a handsome, clean-shaven jawline onto a portable Olympia typewriter. He rejected an office and preferred to work among the books, alone at his adopted desk, set below a window offering views of the Jemez Mountains. He worked here for the solitude, transforming Oedipus into what would become his final play, A Particle of Dread.
Shepard's plays about troubled families—fathers and sons, alcoholics and drifters in the American West—influenced a generation of writers.
And Santa Fe influenced him.
The Pulitzer Prize-winner first moved here in 1983 after leaving his first wife, O-Lan Jones, and their son in California to eventually live with actress Jessica Lange and her daughter. In Santa Fe, Shepard hoped to escape the "star bullshit," find a place to rent, and reinstate the "Garcia y Vega Club," composed of himself, his son and his former father-in-law Johnny Dark.
In one of the 1,000 letters between the men who considered themselves brothers, excerpts of which SFR is sharing with permission, Dark described Shepard's move to Santa Fe as "the further adventures of Huck Finn as written to his friend Tom, in which Huck goes to the American Southwest and begins to get along with himself." Dark was right—and he wasn't.
Shepard built a family here, hit the bars, rode horses, fired guns, read avidly, studied the spiritual teachings of philosopher George Gurdjieff, wrote plays, bounced around movie sets and landed a Miller Distinguished Scholarship at the institute in 2010.
He lived with his family in Santa Fe between 1983 and 1986, then alone from 2010 to 2015, before moving to his home in Kentucky, where he died on July 27 of this year. He was 73. The cause was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.
In a recent New Yorker piece, friend and onetime lover Patti Smith wrote that Shepard—who was raised on an avocado farm in California by an Air Force bomber pilot and a teacher, only to write plays in the booming off-off Broadway scene during the 1960s in Manhattan—"liked to be on the move."
Shepard wrote about a corrupted Midwestern heritage in Buried Child, which won him the Pulitzer in 1979. He received an Academy Award nomination in 1984 for his portrayal of an Air Force pilot in The Right Stuff. He traveled with a fishing rod, an acoustic guitar and a dog. He wrote more than 55 plays, acted in 60 movies, and always brought a notebook, pen and books for the road.
The greatest American playwright of his generation listened to coyotes howling in the desert and dreamed of riding horses without a saddle.
In New Mexico, friends of Shepard now describe him as a family man, an affectionate father of three who had a 30-year relationship with Lange. They say he was a playful, generous friend who encouraged them in their own writing. He was reserved yet available for conversation and could be charming when meeting scientists for lunch at the institute, or when he sat beside the late Rosalea Murphy for Silver Coin margaritas at the Pink Adobe Dragon Room, which she founded.
There was shadow, too, friends say. He was the son of an alcoholic, a cagey loner who could think himself a phony, a rootless man who abandoned his first wife and son for Smith, then lived with Lange to start anew in the New Mexican desert.
In Deming, Dark, now a deli clerk at Peppers Supermarket, reminisces on living with his then-wife, along with his daughter (Jones), Shepard and his grandson in the 1970s near San Francisco.
Dark and Shepard exchanged letters over 45 years. In 2009, after Shepard separated from Lange, he decided to sell the letters to the University of Texas Press. The friends edited the collection together, sometimes at the Santa Fe Institute, where Dark met with physicist David Pines, who recalls "the two of them being as close as brothers and Sam being proud of that correspondence."
But the competitive relationship suffered through the editing process, and Chad Hammett was brought on to help mediate through publication in 2013. "These guys went as deep as you can go," Hammett says. "There was a part of Sam that wanted to connect with people. I think he was able to connect with people through his writing, whether his plays or his letters."
For Shepard, who never wanted to write a memoir, the letters got damn close to revealing who he was. "You could tell how deeply some of them cut him," Hammett says. "The letters about his leaving his wife and son. It still pained him." Early examples show how Shepard viewed his work and reveal his efforts to define what it means to be a man. "And as he got older, the conversations that he had with Johnny became, 'What does it mean to be a good man?'" Hammett says.
Those who knew Shepard say he carried himself like a laconic cowboy: He knew how to breed and ride horses, cut cattle out of a herd. His strong but almost shy mannerisms mirrored the roles played by Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood. He was a man plucked out of yesterday. He never used computers or email. He certainly did not tweet.
Acting appeared part hobby and part thrill. He enjoyed playing characters that took him to strange depths, even if that meant isolation. "Lonely fodder for future work," Smith wrote. But writing motivated him. Early on, he fed off emotion and drug-fueled bursts of energy, scrapping attempts at novels 200 pages in, only to resurrect them in later works. He became a more measured, complicated writer as he aged.
In Santa Fe, Jeremy Sabloff, president of SFI from 2009 to 2015, says Shepard was a perfect fit as a Miller Scholar, a position created to welcome creative types onto Cowan Campus for "both their complementary and orthogonal perspectives." Shepard shared the independent thinker role with longtime institute-based writer Cormac McCarthy between 2010 and 2011, and stayed on after his fellowship ended.
At the institute, Shepard talked to his colleagues about writing and acting. "He was so low-key," Sabloff says. "Given the common perception of famous actors and writers, Sam was not full of himself."
Shepard attended institute events, but he was more interested in how both scientists and artists occupy a creative space.
Further considering Shepard's personality, Sabloff recalls watching Blackthorn in 2011, in which Shepard played a renamed version of American train robber Butch Cassidy. "He's on this horse and he doesn't say a lot, but you get this great force of determination," Sabloff says. "It captured the essence of Sam."
Shepard appeared in several New Mexico-made films, including 2000's All The Pretty Horses, an adaption of the National Book Award-winning novel by McCarthy. Felon, released in 2008, was another. He wrote and directed the Western Silent Tongue, a reimagining of the old West down in Roswell, released in 1993. And his play Fool for Love was recreated for the screen and directed by Robert Altman in Eldorado and Las Vegas, New Mexico, in 1985.
The local press, along with local bartenders and waiters, shared past sightings of Shepard walking with his children near the Plaza, reading at Garcia Street Books, eating at Harry's Roadhouse and drinking with Lange at Coyote Café.
Shepard was known in many quarters of Santa Fe. But, aside from the fond memories of a man about town, he was admittedly both enamored with and haunted by the City Different. Here, he was awash in desires for isolation and community.
"He was terrible at his relationships, but he had his writing," Dark tells SFR. "He lived in Santa Fe, but he also lived in hotels and on the road. He was almost like a man without a home. … He might have been running away or he might have been running toward something."
Shepard's father worked as a custodian at the La Fonda Hotel and died after a vehicle hit him outside a bar here in the mid-1980s. The drink preyed on Shepard as well. After separating with Lange, he drank hard and was arrested and charged with speeding and drunken driving in Illinois in 2009; he was arrested again on suspicion of aggravated DWI in Santa Fe in 2015.
Shepard began feeling the dire effects of ALS, which wreaks havoc on the nervous system, several years ago. He remained private, telling few of his disease. Many friends say they did not know he was sick until he left Santa Fe for Kentucky. "He couldn't breathe in the high altitude," Dark says. "He really loved the institute up there, but he thought, 'Maybe it's just the air. I'm having trouble breathing.'"
It is impossible for friends to fully explain Shepard.
"When you talk about Sam, are you talking about the 23-year-old or the 30-year-old or the 60-year old?" Dark says. "The theater Sam or the movie Sam? The guy at home or the guy at the bar? The funny, generous Sam? Sometimes they were different people."
Shepard To Dark
April 2, 1983
I talked with Mathew tonite since we're only about 4 hours north of Santa Fe & he's arranged us hotel reservations & is working on getting us a place to rent. He switched right into high businessman gear & talking with him is like talking to a travel agent or something. He's great though & working his ass off to find us a place without letting anyone know "who" it's for. We've only run into the "star" bullshit once—in Denver—but it was a real drag with all the waitresses and customers coming over to get her autograph. I hope it's not going to be a big deal that way in Santa Fe but who knows. We arrive tomorrow at Mathew's and he's going to fill us in on the possible houses we can rent. As soon as I know where we'll be I'll let you know so you & Jesse can make plans to come down. I'm really looking forward to seeing you both. We'll have a great time down there re-instating the "Garcia y Vega" Club. I gotta get some sleep now. More later.
Shepard To Dark
March 30, 1985
It's very quiet here right now. Shura & Jessie are taking naps. The birds are chirping & a light snow is falling past the windows. … I'm struggling along with my play, which is very difficult to write because, finally, I'm beginning to see the absolute hopelessness of all forms of negativity—but hopefully, this will be some kind of final definitive piece on my ageold themes of father & son, sister, brother, mother, family, etc. Who knows? If nothing else, I feel as though, after twenty one years of writing I'm finally able to get down to the real essence of what's behind it. So many masks. Also doing some painting & re-kindled that old interest which has now manifested as yet another obsession for Western Art from the late 1800's to the turn of the century. Luckily, now—and I don't know whether this has to do with age or not, but these whirlwinds of obsession are much more shortlived, even though they have all the same characteristic intensity & blind lust behind them. Me, Jessie & Shura have come into some brand new territory of togetherness now. There's a real sense of family & belonging to each other. It's a whole different ball park raising a little girl but it's quite incredible to see how it demands a different side of me & how positively she responds to it when I allow it in myself.
Dark To Shepard
October 11, 1989
I too—always hoped, (after you left) that each time we met (here, Santa Fe, Virginia) we'd fall back into those great states—ie: that incredible horse ride we took—stoned—on the desert in N.M. or—stoned—sitting in the bedroom in Santa Fe contemplating shooting up the new wall with shotgun or—stoned—at the gun show and later in the upstairs room of the house in Iowa that time I came with Sharon. So at first of course I kept pushing for us to get loaded and (therefore crazy) when I first came to Santa Fe—which must have been unsettling for Jessica and maybe the reason she didn't want me to visit.
Shepard To Dark
January 12, 2001
Back home and still reeling from the amazing avalanche of experiences over the past year. I think you and Scarlett may have the absolute right approach: never leave your cozy little home and your warm baths and your big fuzzy dog because life will just bash you over the head out there. I remember leaving Deming and feeling very lonely and driving out into that long stretch of highway with nothing around ... Right afterward I called you and then I headed on to Santa Fe where I thought I might spend a leisurely day and do some writing but, instead, I went out that night to an old restaurant me and Jessie used to go to called the Pink Adobe and asked if the owner was around—a great old Louisiana woman named Rosalie but it turns out she had died last summer, which kind of shocked me … and then I went staggering out of the place and the moon was full and everything was so reminiscent and nostalgic of the time me and Jess had lived there and the air was full of that wonderful smell of burning pine—so I decided I would get good and drunk. I hadn't had that thought in over three and a half years—totally dry—not one single drip of liquor and now, suddenly, I know without a doubt that I am going off with the full intention of getting absolutely smashed. … The bar is completely on the other side of town, way up on Canyon Road and it's a Sunday night and no one is on the streets at all and I'm walking and there's that great New Mexican mountain chill in the air. It's only about forty degrees and having gotten used to Minnesota winters it feels like nothing and with my new reamed out heart artery I feel almost invincible anyway so I walk the whole distance, find the bar where some fat guy is singing old Dylan songs and I order my big glass of red wine. Sitting there at the bar and looking down the row of slightly pathetic middle-aged ex-hippie types who are obvious regulars the whole aching despair of bar life comes flooding back and I can't believe I'm actually back in this situation—this old familiar situation of drinking alone with strangers. I finish my wine and leave and start walking back down the hill into town again—back toward the plaza. I walk for miles and miles, wondering if maybe I've gotten disoriented and forgotten the way but then I keep checking for landmarks and realize I'm on the same road me and Jessica used to bicycle down every morning with Shura strapped to the back of her mother's bike like some little papoose—she was about three years old then and we would go to this little coffee shop connected to the La Fonda Hotel and have breakfast. Then I go diving further into the past and remember when you and I had met each other in the lobby of the La Fonda after a night of debauchery with two women and no sleep and I keep right on associating into the inevitable memories of my Dad being a custodian at the La Fonda and then, before I know exactly what's going on with myself I'm there inside the La Fonda at the bar ordering another glass of red wine! There's a whole group of English tourists sitting in one corner of the place ordering German beer. They're very organized and even go about getting drunk in an orderly fashion. I finish this second large glass of red wine and go out into the lobby and start wandering around staring at all the great photographs of early Santa Fe days, some dating back to the very early 1800's—views of the plaza with muddy streets and burros and Indians and Mexicans and soldiers and all the great mix of races and the marketplace and traders from all over—none of them with even the slightest clue that the whole place would one day be invaded by Hollywood and millionaires and that the biggest commodity would be art and Indian jewelry. I head out into the street and find yet another bar, another hotel, another big glass of red wine and finally manage to get myself good and sloshed. Now, I got to the plaza or rather, try to walk through the plaza on my way back to the hotel where I'm staying. There's still not a soul on the street. One lowrider car—a silver Chevy which I'm actually surprised to see—I thought all the low-riders had moved up to Española. The plaza is completely decked out in Christmas lights—everything is wrapped and draped in lights: the trees, the band shell, the bank, the Governor's Palace, the iron fences surrounding the snow covered lawn—red, green, blue, white; blinking on and off. I get to the very center of the plaza and start turning in circles for some reason and staring up through the barren trees, very drunk, seeing the big moon overhead—something like one of those early bad foreign films with sub-titles and I start feeling very sorry for myself and conjure up all this stuff about my father and the play I just finished in San Francisco which deals with his death and all that stuff and the whole thing just becomes a god-awful drunken mess of emotional indulgence in the past!! At one point I'm crying out to the moon and the heavens in a drunken wail, thinking there's no one around and all of a sudden I see someone walking straight towards me across the plaza—not a cop, just a person but It's so shocking to see another human being—and this is part of what I was trying to tell you down there in Deming in the coffee shop—how it sometimes feels as though I am absolutely unaware of anyone else existing in this life that I wonder to what extent I am cut off from other people—how far have I removed myself into this totally ridiculous state of isolation??? Having survived those bad Santa Fe blues I make it back up into the cold country.
Dark to Shepard
August 20, 2010
There we were in New York sitting on a stoop in our twenties and then you went off to England and I went off to Yucatan and we both had wives and then there we were in California and now here we are without wives with you in Kentucky and me in New Mexico. how did all that happen? [. . .] I'm looking forward to both yr visits, yours and Jesse and Maura, which is what you'll be experiencing too. You and Jesse and Maura in New Mexico and you and me in New Mexico. Isn't it odd we should be coming together to work on a project which by its nature took 40 years to materialize and just at that moment, Jesse should appear as he did when he was a kid wondering what we were doing in the basement, and we both get to see him but in separate places but both in New Mexico where Mathew and yr Dad died? Well, that's what I'll be experiencing too. And then it'll be over. Never to come again for any of us at this time, at this age, in this place. I find that exhilarating, like brassily trying to grab the merry-go-ring. There's so much material to dig. We in fact have become The Two Prospectors.
Reprinted with permission from Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark. University of Texas Press, 2013.