For 60 years at Big Sur’s famed Nepenthe restaurant, cameras have been clicking away on the obvious – the cliffside view of the dramatic Pacific coastline, the iconic, mid-century restaurant of glass and wood, the grand terrace where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton filmed the 1965 classic, “The Sandpiper.”
But just above the terrace is a humble, but intriguing dwelling hiding in plain sight from guests awed by the captivating view.
Behind a brick facade is a structure of logs and adobe cement that Hollywood legend Orson Welles and his wife Rita Hayworth bought on a romantic whim in 1944.
This weekend, as Nepenthe celebrates the 60th anniversary of the restaurant’s opening, we turn our lens toward this tiny and surprisingly vibrant place that is still home to members of the same fascinating family that founded Nepenthe and run it today.
The Bohemian aura of Nepenthe, the beatniks, the belly dancing, the poetry, the parties began in this cabin. In those days, the cabin was the first stop for guests.
“The log cabin was the hub of everything that went on,” says Romney “Nani” Steele, who grew up in the cabin with her grandparents and cousins in the 1960s. “The restaurant was built in such a way, it was somewhat added to the cabin,’’ she says. “My grandmother created a whole life behind the restaurant.”
Her grandparents, Bill and Lolly Fassett, moved into the three-room cabin in 1947 with their five children and within two years had built Nepenthe, naming it for the Greek word meaning “no sorrow.”
The cabin and 12 acres had cost them $12,000 after Welles and Hayworth divorced and sold them the property. The Hollywood couple had planned the 1925 cabin as a getaway when they purchased it from a hiking group. The stars even measured for curtains, but never returned.
Renting the cabin at the time was author Henry Miller, who had already written the scandalous “Tropic of Cancer.” He moved out when the Fassetts bought the cabin, but became lifelong friends with Bill Fassett, a gregarious storyteller who ran a magazine in Carmel. Lolly Fassett was a cultured, artistic woman in her own right, having lived her teen years in Europe as the traveling companion of her grandmother, artist Jane Gallatin Powers, who was part of the original Carmel art scene.
The Fassetts were great entertainers and envisioned Nepenthe even though Highway One had been open only a decade and traffic through the area was light. Lolly, influenced by the great piazzas of Capri, insisted that architect Rowan Maiden – a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright – design a great terrace for dancing and a restaurant that opened to the air. It was Lolly who made the adobe bricks and laid them for the giant round fireplace on the terrace. When Nepenthe opened April 24, 1949, about 500 people attended the grand opening. Photographs were shot for architectural magazines.
The guests had traveled 30 miles of winding road from Carmel and beyond. Life in Big Sur, then, as now, was dictated by the ebb and flow of nature. In the winters, the roads washed out and in summers, wildfires whipped through.
“It created tension and upheaval and a dynamic quality of people,” says Kirk Gafill, a Fassett grandson, who grew up in the cabin and runs Nepenthe with his mother, Holly Fassett.
From artists to hippies, his grandmother welcomed them into her living room.
“When we were growing up, nightly 10, 15, 20 people were in the living room visiting with her,” says Steele, whose book “My Nepenthe” will be published this fall (www.mynepenthebook.com). “People came in and napped there.” Some of those wayfarers fell in love with the Fassett daughters, married them, had children, then continued on their journeys. Four of those children spent part of their childhood living in the cabin.
“Our absolutely favorite thing to do was to lie on my grandmother’s long row of beds and look out the window with our hands perched under our chins,” says Steele, 43. “People would get up and dance. Someone would be in the corner reading poetry or playing music. I can remember the sun coming through the window and watching for hours what was going on.”
Every once in a while, her grandmother would say, “Go dance!” “She would wrap scarves around my waist and we’d whirl around,” Steele says. “We’d do that for guests and we would come back up the stairs. She always had plenty of costumes, petticoats, Flamenco costumes, just amazing stuff.”
Erin Gafill, 45, Steele’s cousin who is an artist, says that “the line between fantasy and reality was totally blurred. There was so much magic and glamour around here.” She has a foggy memory of lying on her back as a toddler on the terrace, looking up at the sky between the branches of the old oak tree.
“This man appeared and scooped me up. I couldn’t stop crying,” Gafill recalls. “Years later my mom told me this was Richard Burton, and that Liz Taylor took me from his arms and handed me to my mom, who was sitting on the bleachers in shock at the whole thing.”
It was 1964 and the movie stars were filming “The Sandpiper” on the terrace. Its theme song, “The Shadow of Your Smile” became a classic. When the movie about an artist’s illicit affair with a schoolmaster premiered in 1965, Nepenthe was transformed. The Fassetts opened Nepenthe from seasonally to year-round.
After Lolly died in 1986, Gafill returned to the cabin, raised two children, and still lives there her husband.
“It seemed like an impossible place to live,” she says, recalling her decision to make the move. The cabin “was so psychologically important to us. I had to make sure the change was OK with everybody.”
She’s done her best to preserve the spirit of the cabin. It still has three main rooms, including the kitchen and big stone fireplace. An extra bedroom was added along the way. Behind the door of the log cabin’s kitchen is the industrial prep kitchen for the restaurant. When the adobe cement began to chip away on the side of the cabin facing the terrace, a brick facade was overlaid to protect it from the wind and fog. Inside, she covered the cabin’s redwood walls with her great-great grandmother’s paintings. Family and restaurant crew took them to safety when the wildfires came dangerously close to Nepenthe last summer, closing the restaurant for three weeks.
As the extended family gathers this weekend for the anniversary, the cabin will beckon them in. And as they planned all along, there will be dancing on the terrace.
(Top black and white photograph of Nepenthe taken in1950 by Morley Baer, ©2009 by the Morley Baer Photography Trust, Santa Fe; Lee Harbick Collection, California History Room, Monterey Public Library. Color photo in cabin with Erin Gafill on right and her mother, Holly, by Tom Birmingham.)
Here’s the complete slideshow: