Hollywood in West Texas

Front entrance to El Paisano Hotel.

I’m sipping on the house red in the courtyard of El Paisano Hotel and I feel like magic. Evening is sitting in and the sky’s shading from bright eclectic blue to a dim sapphire. I’m wearing a simple black wrap dress and donning Cherry Blossom red on my lips.

There’s a four-tiered fountain in the middle of the yard that patters out a soothing waterfall.

Just the sound of it cools me off.

A small breeze blows through the patio and I finally feel some relief from the west Texas heat. Other diners chatter and imbibe around wrought iron tables but I’m alone, starring up at the hotel terrace, imagining Elizabeth Taylor standing at the balcony in a flowing caftan, script in hand, reviewing her lines.

Courtyard.

Courtyard.

El Paisano Hotel was built in 1930 in Marfa, Texas. The hotel is best known as the location headquarters for the cast and filming crew of George Stevens’ 1956 film, Giant, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean. (Notably, Dean’s last picture before dying in an automobile accident in 1955 before the film was released.) The place possesses a haunting glamour in the middle of the tiny desert town that enjoys its own kind of charm and I could feel the ghosts of Hollywood mingling about the yard as I asked the waiter for my second glass of wine.

The lobby of the hotel is very Texan…oversized wood furniture, stucco walls, taxidermy steer and bison heads mounted on the walls, and an old, full service shoe stand to gloss up your dusty boots.

Lobby.

Lobby.

Yet, despite an element of old Lone Star frontier-ism, it still maintains an essence of grandeur—like Texas itself. Although it is fair to assume the hotel’s interior décor was a shade different in 1955 when the cast and crew bunked up in its rooms for six weeks, it is also fair to assume it was probably more or less displaying the same element of rugged Texas stateliness in style. It is not hard to imagine Taylor, Hudson, and Dean traipsing about the quarters kicking back cocktails, listening to hail storms, musing out over the Chianti Mountains, complaining about studio contracts, or contemplating on breezing on down to Mexico—the border just a little over an hour away. Their presence is not only felt by visibly noticeable throughout the lobby with oversized, framed black and white photos. Candid scenes from filming displayed on the walls.

The hotel gift shop, a small white wood paneled room off the lobby, screens the film on a tiny television and sells it on DVD. In addition to tea towels, coffee mugs, totes, and playing cards stamped with the hotel’s name, you can buy replica room key tags for all three of the leading actors for the room in which they stayed. You can book these rooms too. The Taylor suite holds a king-sized bed with a pillow-top mattress, a living and dining area, and French doors that open to the balcony that overlooks the central courtyard. This room will set you back about $160 a night. A definite splurge, yes, but not entirely unattainable.

I am, however, not staying here. I am staying at the campground El Cosmico less than a mile down the road off US-67 past the US Border Patrol Marfa Station. I’m bunking up in my trusty orange Coleman tent on a Wal-Mart air mattress that deflates half way through the night and I wake up on the hard, rocky ground.

I came to Marfa specifically to camp and write but looked into reserving the Elizabeth Taylor suite for a one-night stay. Of course, it was booked up for weeks. I had to settle for a couple glasses of wine and a hearty, Texas-sized dinner of pistachio fried steak with jalapeno gravy and mashed potatoes from the hotel restaurant, named after Dean’s character, Jett Rink, Jett’s Grill. And after several days of only munching down Cliff bars and trail mix, you better believe I ate the whole damn thing. A move that Bick Benedict, the film’s leading man’s man, would have approved.

The film, if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend. The rather lengthy 201-minute saga tells the story of three generations of one family living on a cattle ranch in southwest Texas and, for me, is a particularly fascinating watch. I am not a native Texan but have lived in the state for going on five years and in many ways I am still trying to wrangle down “the Texas state of mind.” Not that this is something I hope to assimilate but because at times I find the state’s ethos perplexing. I came from Georgia, a state with its own troubled history, and I’m often asked by Texans and Georgians alike what the difference is between moving from one “South” to another “South”?

Well, that’s a loaded question and depends how that particular person asking the question defines “the South.” Are we talking states that were part of Confederacy? All states below the Mason-Dixon line? Does this particular person regard Louisiana as the hard regional cut-off and Texas as “the West”? Does this person think, “Yeah, Texas is the West but it is also the South.” And what does that mean? These questions have answers but the answers will vary. Regionalism itseld is a state of blurred lines and that’s what makes it so interesting. When identity, pride, and self-mythologizing are at play, the wind could blow in any direction.

To me, yes, there are differences between the two states, just as Louisiana has its own flair, as does Alabama and Florida and Mississippi. They are all characters in the same book. But as a transplant, an outsider looking in, these are some notes I have drawn about the Texas attitude:

*An element of frontierism machismo.

*A fulsome display of capitalism.

*A States’ Rights “Come and Take It” defiance.

Now, this is not all of what Texas is, I know. No place can be deduced down to three bullet points but among the state’s many endearing and troublesome qualities these are in there. 

Texas sometimes feels like its own world. I have been on many a returning flight where many a flight attendant will crack the joke, “We have now landed in the United States of Texas.”  Passengers, including myself, will chuckle and at the same time all of us knowing deep down that a tinge of truth rings true in the jest—Texas often feels like its own country. It carries that kind of vibrato. If the rest of the world were to fall away, Texas would be just fine.

Giant tackles these topics. For a film released in 1956, in a post-WWII climate when America wanted to get back to status quo, business as usual, everybody and everything in its rightful place (re: white men at the top and everybody else falling in rank below), Giant carried its own tone of cocksure defiance. The film set out to address gender politics, racism against Mexicans and Mexican Americans, the hefty divide between classes, and consequences of capitalism. The film set out to rethink the frontier. To challenge the myth of masculinity. To promote social reform. To highlight the evils of prejudice and discrimination. To give voice to women.

Taylor’s character, Leslie Benedict, was a feminist long before it was part of social conversation. She challenges her role as subservient housewife and stands her ground against the domineering Bick.

She riles Bick up soon after meeting him, when he travels to her family’s estate in Maryland to purchase a horse he hopes to stud. Intrigued by his origins, Leslie stays up all night reading about Texas. At breakfast the next morning she throws him off his guard when she asks, “We really stole Texas, didn’t we? I mean, away from Mexico?”

Bick clams up, gets visually perturbed and says, “You are catching me a bit early to start joking.” Clearly offended.

After some tense talk about history and glory and differences between the regions, Leslie’s father tells her, “You mustn’t talk that way to a Texan. They feel so strongly about their state.”

Every state has their own grim they would like to re-brand or push under the rug, often (re: always) at the expense of the marginalized.

Bick constantly tells Leslie not to forget who she is (re: a rich, white woman) whenever she so much as acknowledges the Mexican Americans in her new Texas home. (Yes, they marry after two days and she leaves Maryland for the Lone State State…for its many advances the film is still made in 1956—and the story begins in the 1920s). He even at one point threatens to leave her if she continues to socialize with the “wetbacks.”

When she first arrives at Benedict estate she asks the immigrants, who are charged with carrying her bags in from the car, their names and then repeatedly says thank-you for what she perceives as their courteousness to a newcomer rather than duty. The following unfolds:

Bick: Leslie...don't behave like that...making a fuss o'er those people. You're a Texan now.

Leslie: Is that a state of mind? I'm still myself.

Bick: You're my wife now honey, you're a Benedict.

Leslie: I still have a mind of my own. Elsewhere being gracious is acceptable.

Bick: Uh, well, but...we're gracious.

Granted, however, scenes of Leslie in her parents’ Maryland mansion where she is served by a black butler, she does not display the same enthusiasm for gratitude, which seems to highlight a regional blindness that is so apparent to her in Texas.

Texas often does feel like it can swallow you up. As I drove west the next day along US-90, leaving the city limits of Marfa, there’s a sign that reads: No Service for 74 Miles. In other words, make sure your tank is full now. And as you begin to head out further into the Chianti Desert, you head off into nothing. The dry, arid farmland stretches as far as you can see and the sky is so big and so, so blue, you can feel the weight of its color crushing your chest. There are pronghorn antelope grazing in the fields, monster-sized black-tailed jackrabbits stoically poised in the shoulder of the road, and dead, bloated, fly-swarmed feral hogs belly-up next to the railroad tracks that run parallel to the highway.

It is something to see, truly stunning and full of natural majesty, but it may be too much for me. A little bit of agoraphobia set in and a tinge of depression in imagining having to live a life out here. I realize, like Elizabeth Taylor, I can only play at being Texan but I will never genuinely be one.

Not that it was ever goal but I tend to absorb the places I live and travel to. And if I chose to settle in Texas, I want feel some kinship with the land in whatever loose way I can.

And the land is romantic despite the harsh wilderness. I like being a visitor in its lot so as long I can crawl back to a den of civilized comfort. The idea of Texas is romantic. When I moved to Denton, Texas in 2012, I immediately began to research places I wanted to visit. The first place that captured my heart was Big Bend National Park and the nearby town of Marfa.

I had first heard of Marfa as a type of artists’ enclave. A small desert town, with a population of right around 2,000 people, that was met with fine art resurgence in the 70s with minimalist, Donald Judd. It has since claimed the attention of artists, musicians, writers, and actors as a locale that inspires and provides musing material or the sometimes-needed seclusion to create. It was my first introduction of how immense the state is—to get from Denton to Marfa and Big Bend is eight to ten hours away. And you are still in the state. To drive that far would almost put me back in Atlanta, across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

I decided after living in the state for almost five years to take my first solo trip to Marfa. I was always curious as to what travelling alone would bring. I have flown and driven long distances solo but always to meet friends and family at my destination. I had never taken a trip in which I was fully alone. I packed up the car with camping equipment and headed south for a little over 500 miles to spend four days writing, reading, contemplating, and being alone. Unlike Leslie, my stay was temporary. When the sun got to be too much, I could leave. When the loneliness was too much to bear, I could drive home. When desolation became too overwhelming, I could retreat. I was only a visitor barrowing the majesty of the land. I did not want to claim it as mine. 

And when the hard desert ground got to be too hard, I could visit the El Paisano Hotel for another drink and wile away in the courtyard while contemplating how glamour exists in the most unlikely of places.