Sedona CALLAHAN, Writer
The Monterey County Herald
Nepenthe: The Beat Goes On
By Sedona Callahan
Ask anyone who remembers Nepenthe in Big Sur in the 1960s and the response is often the same: “It was a magical place!”
Previously owned by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, the property and log cabin where Nepenthe now sits was purchased in 1947 by Bill and Lolly Fassett. The Fassetts were overrun by visitors to their new property and Lolly decided to open a restaurant to accommodate the constant flow of Highway One travelers.
“…So many people dropped in on us we were trying to think what to do,” said Bill Fassett, in a 1981 interview with Baron Wolman for the book California From the Air: The Golden Coast. “We could see there would be more distinguished people coming. Also we knew there would be a great tourist trade…it’s a marvelous location, probably one of the greatest places in the world to have a restaurant.”
Rowan Maiden, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and friend of the Fassetts, designed and built the restaurant, which opened in the spring of 1949, overlooking a spectacular 40-mile ocean view. Although Bill had threatened to name the new business Bill’s Café, Lolly decided the name, Nepenthe, which means surcease from sorrow or timelessness.
“There was a continued growing amount of tourists,” said Fassett. “When we went there, cars were rationed and it was not easy. Nobody ever heard of Big Sur to speak of. Now  it’s world famous. We’ve always appealed to sort of the intellectual…in those days people went out of their way that were literary and creative – painters, artists, sculptors, ballet dancers.”
Bill and Lolly have both since died – Bill in 1992 and Lolly in 1986 – but the ownership and responsibility for the restaurant and other Nepenthe properties have remained in the capable hands of the Fassett family, managed by daughter Holly and grandson Kirk Gafill. Lolly had said that the children in the family always played restaurant, running around with pads and writing up what people wanted. Soon they were ready to work in the restaurant business, as Holly and Kirk were.
“Big Sur didn’t really get on the map as a place to visit until after Hearst Castle was opened to the public in 1959,” says Gafill, referring to the Hearst property at San Simeon, about 55 miles south of Nepenthe. Gafill, who was born in 1961, says he has difficulty discerning sometimes between his own memories of Nepenthe lore and stories he’s heard, but he does have a real awareness that they were at the center of something.
“Every evening people would be dancing on the terrace – guests and employees. There was no dress code. Everyone was wearing the bell-bottoms, the tie-dyed shirts and peasant blouses. We lived in a log cabin above the patio of the restaurant. All along the windows that overlooked the [restaurant] patio there were large couches. My grandmother [Lolly] and guests would sit and visit there. There would be two or three to a dozen people visiting on a daily basis. We could look down on the patio and at the spectacle that was unfolding there.”
Holly Fassett adds, “Once some people who had come to the restaurant sent a box of apples after they had returned home. The card said they were for all the little faces in the windows.”
Nepenthe was notorious for its extraordinary level of tolerance for alternative styles of living, Gafill Remembers. “The dominant theme was to express yourself as an individual. In the dining room, it was always a wild, raucous bunch. It was the social center for Big Sur – the only place you could see the ocean, the mountains and dance in the evening.”
The most-recalled celebrations were the annual Halloween parties thrown at the end of the season [Nepenthe used to close during the winter], elaborate fashion shows and astrology parties. “Astrology was a big thing then,” says Gafill. “Once a month we had a big birthday party for everyone born in that month. In the ‘60s, that transformed from ‘people born in December’ to ‘Capricorns’. They became Sign parties. We’d make birthday cakes, have champagne. People came from all over. They still occur today.”
The extraordinary freedom that Gafill remembers brought about less-than-magical problems that the Nepenthe management and staff had to deal with on a daily basis. Fassett recalls, “Mom and Dad encouraged individuality. Being a phony was the worst thing to be. The customers and the staff had access to LSD, grass and alcohol. There was no sense that drinking and driving was a problem. In running the business, sometimes the guests or an employee was so over in their behavior, we had to invite them to leave.”
Gafill vividly recalls a day when his grandmother “invited” the Hells Angels motorcycle club to leave. “We were a stop for them,” says Gafill. “At one time the sheriffs were literally blocking access to the coast, trying to keep them off the highway. They’d start fights, beat up people with pool cues. As a kid, I had a sense of panic when 40 or 50 Hells Angels would come roaring up. Nobody really knew what to do with them. My grandmother stood at the top of the stairs, with her hands on her hips and said, “You don’t need to come up here.’ They left.”
Willy Nelson has been working at Nepenthe since 1962. “It’s a family thing,” she says. “My mom and dad, George and Dottie Lopes, worked here. I’ve been here 35 years, and my son, Gregory, is a bartender. I was raised with Holly. Now she’s my boss.” Nelson recalls the difficulties she had during her teen years because of Nepenthe’s reputation for outrageous behavior. “I was raised really straight down here for the ‘60s, but we still were not well received. When we went to school in town, Carmel wouldn’t take us. We had to go to Monterey High School. We were considered to be weird, Beat people. The ‘60s weren’t really accepted until the ‘70s. In the ‘70s people thought it was cool, but not in the ‘60s.”
Photographer Cole Weston, who lives in Garrapata Canyon, thought Nepenthe was cool. “We used to have wonderful dancing at Nepenthe. It was nothing but a big dance floor. My brother Brett was very famous for his waltzing and I was well-known for my tangos. My first wife, Dorothy, worked there and my second wife, Helen, worked there, too. It was a great place.” Weston shared sailing stories with actor Sterling Hayden and hobnobbed with author Arthur Miller and other local artists, writers and sculptors who came to relax and socialize in “Big Sur’s living room”, as Lolly Fassett described it.
Peter King Monk of Carmel, who was in charge of maintenance at Nepenthe from 1962 to 1987, recalls, “There was always a sense of difference. One of the few places you could go down and be covered from head to foot with housepaint and wallpaper and still be greeted as though you were in elegant clothes. It attracted artists, musicians and poets. Edmund Kara, the sculptor, always went there, and the poet Eric Barker. He would read at Nepenthe, and was good at bawdy stuff, being an Englishman, like myself. Everyone gave something.”
“Everyone” included actors Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who filmed parts of “The Sandpiper” at Nepenthe; Joan Baez, singing in an alcove of the restaurant; Alan Watts and psychologist Fritz Perls. “There were a lot of people from Esalen Institute who would give their talks on the terrace. Watts was one of them, and Rollo Mays. You name it, psychiatrists, psychologists, doctors, scientists, they all came through,” says Monk.
Filming of “The Sandpiper” featured the Nepenthe bar and deck, where local residents, including Holly Fassett, played extras as dancers. “There was a limit to how much time Burton could work in the United States before he had to start paying taxes,” says Gafill. “The time ran out before the film was finished, so they created a two-thirds scale of the restaurant – the bar and everything – in Paris. “My uncle [textile designer Kaffe Fassett] was the choreographer for the folk dancing scenes. He went to this run-down industrial area of Paris, opened these doors and there was Nepenthe. It cost more to build the set than the restaurant in 1949.”
Bill Fassett hired Herb Evans, now owner of the Power Juice Company in The Crossroads in Carmel, from Los Angeles to Nepenthe to manage his property in 1971. Evans bought his own property on Pfeiffer Ridge and stayed on. “Nepenthe is a magical place,” Evans says. “You walk up on that deck and you’re overlooking that southwest view, and the heat of the sun warms the adobe brick. Something just happens to you. It’s an amazing thing that comes over people.”
Astronaut Wally Schirra was heard to say the moon was the most beautiful rising from behind the ridge line at Nepenthe. Clint Eastwood would come at twilight, take a table at the end of the patio and look out over the coast. Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw would come up on motorcycle and stay for dinner. Then-California governor Jerry Brown and Sen. Alan Cranston were regular visitors. Adlai Stevenson’s son chose Nepenthe for his wedding site. Daniel Ellsberg hid out in Big Sur after the Watergate papers were released, and came to sit in Nepenthe’s patio.
All of these, the rich, the famous, the infamous, the beatniks, the Bohemians and the hippies, all came to Nepenthe for the “Moscow Mules”, the Ambrosia Burgers – and the magic.
© 1997 Sedona Callahan