At summer’s end six decades ago an enormous cast and crew rolled into tiny Marfa, Texas to film Giant. Still the life-defining moment in Marfa’s history, the movie is eclipsed by today’s world view of Marfa with its hipster Austin visitors and wealthy Houston patrons.
Unaware in 1955 of Hollywood’s invasion of West Texas, I lived 200 miles east of Marfa. My mother was a teacher and my father worked for the utility company—a not uncommon family trope for the times. Impulsive and frivolous were not how I’d describe my mother. Fun, yes, but I never imagined Movie Tone and Photoplay in her lap while she sat under one of those big cone-shaped hairdryers at Gladine’s Beauty Shop. I had seen Edna’s Ferber’s novel on our coffee table, with its flame orange cover and all caps title, but gave it no thought.
Before school started that September, always a day of great important to her First Graders, Mother cooked up a plot to check out all the action in Marfa. With untold tricks up her sleeve, Mother set us on the trajectory for fandom, version 1955. Her hometown was Alpine, 27 miles east of Marfa, and we stayed with my grandparents who thought the whole adventure beyond foolish. They were not fans of Hollywood. Nevertheless, we set out on our pilgrimage to “see what we could see”.
Piled in our big Buick were Mother and I, her two friends and their four children. US Highway 67 west to Marfa from the Permian Basin is an example of Texas’s landscape extremes. Leaving pumpjacks behind, we traveled through ghost towns like Texon and Girvin. Texon is remarkable today with an odor of burning natural gas and an absolute lack of vegetation – a result of early 20th century wildcatters dumping briny water on the land.
Relieved to cross the Pecos River after a couple of hours, we watched the vistas change to hills and soon real mountains, and the air cooled slightly. We arrived in Alpine early in the evening. Our brush with the movie stars would wait until the next day.
It’s impossible today to overstate the popularity of the trio of actors who starred in Giant: Rock Hudson, James Dean, and Elizabeth Taylor. They were living in Marfa and filming few more miles west. They seemed so accessible because there simply wasn’t any place to hide in Marfa. We easily found Hudson and Dean. I’m told we ate at the same restaurant, sitting an arm’s length from them, but sadly, I do not remember.
Finding Miss Taylor proved a bit more difficult, an event I remember well and will explore in the next post.