"I speak most appreciatively and fondly of the Duchess of Pecos, Greer Garson."
As summer wanes, one must indulge in the doing of all that is still available outside. Thus, a week before Labor Day, Lisa and I drove a few dozen miles out of town to walk through, under official governmental auspices, the remote rustic abode of one of Santa Fe’s legendary ladies.
Renowned, respected and adored worldwide as an accomplished artist, here locally she was a magnanimous community supporter and über-generous philanthropist. She led an exceedingly colorful life, yet remained gracious and approachable with all economic and social strata. She’d be astonished, and would howl with laughter, flashing her trademark twinkle, to know that her home of many decades is now practically a museum. She absolutely would not believe it.
Perhaps you may think I’m referring to that ever-so-slightly overrated painter who lived in Abiquiu for a while, but nay, I speak most appreciatively and fondly of the Duchess of Pecos, Greer Garson.
For a decade now, the Forked Lightning Ranch that the Best Actress Oscar winner (with six other nominations) enjoyed for many years with husband Col. Elijah E. “Buddy” Fogelson (a Nebraska-born, Texas-based oilman-cum-New Mexico cattleman), has been a destination for the curious and the devoted. Their story is the captivating centerpiece of a 90-minute guided tour offered by the National Park Service.
We were blessed, the under 90-degree day we went, with a good breeze and a sun tolerably short of blazing. Moreover, our NPS guide—like Garson, a colleen by name of Patricia Lenihan—informed our group we’d be riding in a brand-new Chevy Express van. According to her, compared to the vehicle that had been retired only two days before, this baby was heaven with a seat belt.
Not far from the photogenic ruins of a Spanish mission that’s also here at Pecos National Historical Park, Ranger Lenihan first took us to the original Koszlowski Stage Stop. As we relaxed under the portal, she regaled us with tales of this bygone station on the Santa Fe Trail, one eagerly anticipated by stagecoachers hungry for Mrs. K.’s famous piñon pudding. It’s easy to imagine it as a pre-Railroad version of the Harvey House.
Then in 1926, she said, along came Tex Austin, né Clarence von Nostrand, famed in his day as “Father of the Rodeo.” He doubled the size of the stage stop, bought 5,500 acres of the Pecos Pueblo Grant, and built himself a little house on the prairie.
Actually, not so little. He was quite the partier, and always had friends dropping by, like Will Rogers, or, say, Charles Lindbergh, who landed his own plane mere yards from the front door. But Tex came to a sorry ending. The Ranger will tell you the whole story when you take the tour.
Flash-forward to 1941, movie-style, when two big things happen to Col. Elijah E. Fogelson: He buys the Forked Lightning Ranch, where he will come to raise the hardy Santa Gertrudis strain of cattle.
And he sees Mrs. Miniver.
Both change his life.
It takes seven years, but he finally meets the object of his starstruck romantic affection through an association with Garson’s fellow Brit and MGMer, Peter Lawford. The rest is history. I’ll refer you to the Greer Garson biography A Rose for Mrs. Miniver (University Press of Kentucky, 1999) for details. Suffice to say, they marry in Santa Fe and live happily ever after, with every May through October at Forked Lightning.
Oh yes, indeed, we did get to go inside the rambling house, its stucco exterior painted precisely to match the red sandstone of a distant mesa. Most of the Fogelsons’ furnishings are long gone, sanctioned for auction by his adopted son Gayle.
But not everything. The guest rooms, for favorite invitees like Merle Oberon or Gregory Peck, retain their hand-painted headboards and cupboards. Greer’s IBM Executive electric typewriter sits where it has sat since the mid-1950s. Many books and possessions remain, including a big kitchen with the tableware still in the cupboards. Outside, the skeet range where Greer taught Buddy to sublimate his hunting instincts, stands ready, complete with blue targets, just in case.
In 1970, Buddy endowed the College of Santa Fe with a namesake library, where some books are inscribed “To Greer and Buddy…”. He died in 1987. In 1965, she gave us the Greer Garson Theatre, where there’s no such thing as a bad seat, and Northern New Mexico’s first movie studio, the Garson Communications Center, in 1990. She died in 1996.
In the 1980s, I knew Greer from a friendly journalist’s POV, when I freelanced forThe New Mexican. Quite the patron of the arts, her signature whipped strawberry froth of hair made her immediately visible across any room, even the full breadth of the old Sweeney Convention Center. Splitting her time between Dallas and Santa Fe, she gave 100% to everybody, even after she had a pacemaker installed (“I highly recommend it!” she enthusiastically exclaimed to me once.)
Eventually, though, all her super-charged batteries ran out. On that subject, the ranger related a sweet, poignant postmark about Greer Garson’s last days, and what the Forked Lightning Ranch meant to her,and about her dedication to preservation.
Again, though, you should hear it for yourself.
This sojourn is a must. It’s totally affordable: $3 park entrance fee + $2 for the van tour, per person. Do figure in gas money, and maybe a quick run by the DQ on the way out of town, but by all means, kindly leave a suitable donation in the box at the Visitor Center.
Also, you have to make a reservation to go on the “Forked Lightning Ranch House” tour, or any other tour (like “The Civil War in the West” or “The Lost Church”): (505) 757-7241.
After Labor Day, the Pecos NHP (www.nps.gov/peco) runs the Garson tour once a week, on Sundays at 1:30pm.
If nothing else, you may be surprised to find out that locals pronounce Pecos as “Peck-os,” not “Pay-cos.” Who knew? I am such an Anglo.
Also, say “Forked” with two syllables, not one, if you want to emulate Buddy and Greer. Who wouldn’t?