AUTHOR AT LA FONDA
Other Articles by Richard
plaudits and the accolades have been registered now, and the homage
of a fortunate community has been paid. On Sunday, Oct. 8, 2000,
Sam and Ethel Ballen, who own and run the landmark hotel La Fonda,
were declared Santa Fe Living Treasures.
With that honor out
of the way, let me now say something different. Most people in
Santa Fethousands, anywayalready
know about the Ballens' remarkable generosity, graciousness, humility
and humanity. These were all lauded at the crowded ceremony at
the Folk Art Museum when they officially became Treasures.
But far fewer are acquainted
with Sam Ballen, the author.
In 1997, in his 75th
year, Ballen pulled together his memoirs in a privately published
book cleverly titled Without Reservations. It traces his
life's journey from his birth as the son of Jewish immigrants
who ran a small grocery store in Harlem, through his tour as a
combat soldier in World War II, then a stint as a Wall Street
analyst, then a Texas oilmanduring
which time he became wealthyand
on to his current place at La Fonda. It's the kind of life we
all wish we had.
The book is a fascinating
read for all of its 281 pages. Yet for any Santa Fean, the most
gripping part has to be the final 100, which focus upon this communityand
focus on it with astonishing boldness and candor.
A plain-spoken man
and a keen observer of human foibles, Ballen apparently decided
to be blunt and honest in this summing up of his life. As a result,
his book overflows with riveting vignettes, some flattering and
some anything but.
The names in the book
comprise a Who's Who of the movers and shakers of Santa Fe in
the years since Ballen's arrival in 1968: Fred and Bill Harvey,
Harold Bibo, Ed Tatum, Milo McGonagle, Gene Gallegos, Dave Olmsted,
Dr. Ralph Lopez, Bud Kelly, Dave Sierra, Ralph Petty, Nathan Greer,
Gene Petchesky, Mel Eaves, George Dapples, Bill Mauldin, Stan
Ulam, Sergio Viscoli, Joe Valdes, Eddie Smithson, Ned Wood, Tom
Catron, Manuel Rodriguez, C. B. Ogas, Fred Stanley, judges Louis
Sutin, Tom Donnelly and Edwin Felter, Tom Moore, Sam Pick, Harold
Gans and many more.
A flaw of the book
is that it provides scant identification for this colorful cast
of characters. To appreciate the stories about them, readers must
already know who they are. And for reasons of space, I am repeating
the same flaw here.
Yet for readers in
the know, Ballen's reminiscenses pack a wallop. They tell tales
of suicide, embezzlement, financial blackmail, betrayal, double
dealing, alcoholism, infidelity, incompetence, bribery, egotism
and a host of other dramas.
Some of his best stories
are, naturally, about La Fonda itself. A failing, ramshackle inn
with rooms renting for $8 when Ballen learned of it in 1968, La
Fonda had been rejected by "every experienced hotel operator in
the United States," he writes. Rashly, he and a small group of
investors bought it, and soon were facing bankruptcy. Until Ballen
threatened to sue, a local bank president was ready to call in
La Fonda's loan.
Yet 20 years later,
the story was different. Now a great success, La Fonda became
the target of a takeover plot by Santa Fe land baron Gerald Peters.
When Ballen resisted, Peters sued him for $40 million. Somewhat
excessively the book details the battle, which Peters ultimately
abandoned. Disappointingly, Ballen declines to reveal Peters'
net worth, which he learned during the course of the lawsuit.
But very little about
this book disappoints any seasoned Santa Fean. Crammed with facts
and gossip, infused with outspokenness and modesty, it provides
an amazing view of this city, from the vantage point of La Fonda's
fifth-floor Bell Tower.
Like its author, the
book is a local treasure. It is currently out of print, but pressure
for a second edition is building. To add to it, you can write
Ballen at P. O. Box 2263, Santa Fe, N.M. 87504.
Articles by Richard McCord