Lise Mayer, comedy writer, on her grandmother’s western saddle.
GB Tell me why you chose this?
LM I’ve chosen my grandmother’s western saddle, which was hand made for her in the early 1940s by a saddle maker called Red Myrick, in Nogales, Arizona, which is where my grandparents used to go during the sultry Chicago summers for the dry desert heat. My grandfather – also called Red – had a clothing store in Chicago and Red Myrick, the saddle maker, sold a range of Western clothing which included ornate Cowboy shirts with the mother of pearl buttons and embroidery that you associate with that Western “Rodeo Ben” style. My grandfather bought some for his store in Chicago, M. L. Rothschild, and as a present to thank him for his custom, Red Myrick made these saddles for my grandparents. They’re very ornate and lined with sheepskin. Each one has a tooled leather Thunderbird design on it, which was Red Myrick’s logo, then on the seat of my grandmother’s there’s a fan dancer, and on my grandfather’s there’s an eagle. Each of them has their name on the cantle. They weigh a tonne so you probably couldn’t ride with them nowadays.
GB So you keep the saddle purely because of its beauty?
LM I’ve got two of them in my house, and I don’t really know what to do with them, because they’re very beautiful, but you can’t use them for anything. And they take up quite a lot of space. When I was trying to decide what object to choose, I toyed with a lot of different things, because obviously, you know, nothing manmade can compete with something natural, like, you know, an egg or a daisy. This is a piece of craftsmanship. It’s not as beautiful as a Caravaggio or a tree but it’s evocative to me for various reasons. One, Red Myrick spent a lot of time on it beyond what was necessary for it to fulfil its function, just purely an aesthetic choice. Also, just by looking at it, I can be transported back to my childhood in a flash. in the late 40s when my father was a child, my grandparents bought an old Victorian barn and neighbouring cottage on a mountain above what was then a former silver mining ghost town in Colorado called Aspen. When we were kids my parents and sisters and I used to decamp there for three months every summer. We would hike, ride, go rock hopping on the river and generally run wild on the mountain. Outside the converted barn there was a corral with a couple of horses in it and then the tack shed where all the saddles were kept. The tack shed was our favourite place to go because it had a wonderful smell of horses and leather. We used Navajo blankets as saddle blankets, and those were all hung from the rafters and then all these saddles hung there on saddle racks, and you’d go out of the bright sun into this dark room with all these incredible smells. This saddle still has the smell of leather and saddle soap, and it still makes the same sort of creaking sound when you move it around. And it doesn’t just bring back memories of my own charmed childhood, but of the stories told by my father about his. For a nice Jewish boy from Chicago his summers were full of magical experiences, like driving horses with my Grandpa Red and Grandma Jane from Lamy, New Mexico to Santa Fe for the annual Fiesta, in which they burn the Zozobra – a 50-foot-high effigy representing the gloom and anxiety of the past year.
GB Did your grandparents use these saddles at the time?
LM Yes, they used them all the time and they were made to measure – for the people as well as the horses. My grandfather had a horse called Buck which was a buckskin who he trained to sit down. I’ve got photos of him in his dressing gown outside the house with this horse sitting on its haunches like a dog. Grandma Jane was a small woman so hers is a much smaller saddle. I love the fact that the saddles parts have interesting names, like the concho, the latigo, the gullet, the swell the skirt, the rigging ring. It’s a complicated bit of kit.
GB Is it very different from a saddle you might use now?
LM A Western saddle is very different from an English saddle. It’s designed for endurance and comfort across very long days – so you ride with your stirrups much longer and your legs straighter than you would with an English saddle, and you’ve got the pommel at the front of the saddle where you can hang your lasso or rope if you’re roping cattle or leading a mule. If you went on trail rides overnight, or whole days up in the mountains where you were quite far away, you’d take another horse as a pack horse with food and supplies on it.
GB Do you ever look at the saddles and regret that you left that life so completely behind?
LM I don’t really think that life exists anymore. My grandparents bought the barn by paying the back taxes on that land in the 1940s and that town is now Aspen. Back then it was a place where a lot of Jewish immigrants fleeing Nazi Germany had moved. A lot of Bauhaus artists and writers settled there. And it was a very arty community. Then it got taken over by old Hollywood, and then it became very Texan. Now it’s just full of billionaires who’ve kind of ruined it. But when I was a kid there was one traffic light in the whole town. There was one hotel called the Jerome hotel and Grandpa Red used to sit on a bench outside with Gary Cooper drinking a cocktail called “Aspen Crud” which I believe was a mixture of milk and bourbon served in pint mugs. There was a cowboy called Jack Ray who used to come and camp in our yard and we’d go out at night and sit at the campfire with the cowboys. You weren’t allowed to build above the waterline on the mountains, so where the barn was, there was nothing above it, just wilderness and coyotes. It had an incredible smell of wildflowers- wild gentian, cotton lavender, columbine, mariposa, Indian paintbrush….
GB Could you have imagined that your life would be so different and that you’d be living so far away?
LM Well, my sister’s gone full circle, because she went from being a theatrical agent, and now works with horses again, does dressage and has her own horse, so I think it runs quite deep.
GB You don’t even go back there on holidays, though?
LM When my grandmother died, the family had to sell the house to pay the taxes and it was bought by Leslie Wexner. He said when they sold it to him that he’d preserve the old Victorian barn because it was a listed building, and it was a famous landmark that used to be on all the local calendars. The first thing he did was to pick it up and move it somewhere and build some monstrosity where the barn was. My dad can’t even look at Google Earth now without tears springing to his eyes because it’s so changed.
GB Do you find the saddle objectively beautiful regardless of the nostalgia?
LM I do think it’s a nostalgia. It was a very idyllic childhood, but it was also a time when people would spend a lot of time decorating something, spending much more time and effort on it than was needed simply for it to fulfil its function. I studied archaeology and when you look at ancient pots that people were lugging water in or doing something very menial with, they still took the trouble to make them into beautiful objects. In ancient Greek they don’t distinguish between artist and artisan- it’s the same word.
GB Would you expect other people to find the saddle beautiful?
LM I think it’s on the borderline of kitsch now with Western-themed places that make saddles into bar stools and things like that. So, I don’t think it’s something that everyone would find aesthetically pleasing but I do think that if you looked at this particular saddle you would recognise the labour and craftsmanship that has gone into it. Mainly, it’s that thing of something appealing to different senses. You look at it and think it’s finely made, then you feel it and the leather feels smooth and the sheepskin underneath feels soft and then you can smell it – I think it still smells of horse- but then it has this sort of fifth dimension, which is memory and emotion. For anything to be truly beautiful, it must evoke a feeling. And maybe the feeling that this saddle evokes is particular to me because of my experiences with it and the memory of my grandmother who I really loved. She could be very acerbic but also entertaining both as a person and a writer and that was so inspirational to me.
I think lots of things are objectively more beautiful than the saddle. There are probably things in my house right now that are objectively more beautiful, like an icon of the Archangel Michael or a Minoan conical cup. But I don’t look at those and feel like an eight-year-old again. with all the joy and excitement of being in the mountains in the tack shed, so that’s why the saddle won in the end.
GB What makes something worthy of the word beauty for you?
LM For me beauty is quite a broad church. Like I was saying, it’s got to be something which stirs you in a sort of emotional or spiritual way or even makes you laugh.
GB And how important is it to you to have beauty in your life?
LM I think it’s important to find beauty and be open to it. I think a lot of people in the first lockdown started to realise the value of nature and natural beauty because everyone just slowed down a bit. There’s beauty in language, in a well-constructed sentence, an unusual word, a well-crafted joke. And in minutiae too, in little commonplace things that you that you only notice when you open your mind to it, like at the moment all the motes of dust drifting in the air because I haven’t done any hoovering for two weeks.. That’s what I’m trying to tell myself anyway.