The Boston Phoenix, Section Two, July 16, 1985
by Michael Matza

We still are family

The Lymans of Fort Hill then and now


Jim Kweskin (left) at a Fort Hill jam session: music brought them together
The scene — an elegantly funky bash, complete with attentive barman, live down-home music, eccentric guests, and a massive marble table heaped with salmon, bluefish, herring, and mussels freshly caught and cooked to perfection by our hosts — was reminiscent of the great, hip, [---]iclib parties of the '60s. Gathered in one room was a circle of friends who might have been at home at one of those psychedelically souped-up soirees so energetically chronicled by Tom Wolfe, the tripped-out Boswell of the Aquarian Age. In the sunken living room, the celebrity musician just in from the Coast, hat rakishly cocked over one eye, jammed joyously with friends. At the bar, the cool black lawyer nicknamed Flash, splendidly attired in a navy-striped suit, happily traded quips with a soft-spoken woman in a peasant dress. At a table in the room next door, the earnest young writer from the Los Angeles Times hunkered down with his notebook, surrounded by a widening circle of interviewees.

This vintage '60s crowd seemed more nostalgic than radically chic. There was a lot of wistful talk about the way things were, about the callowness of youth and the camaraderie born of a shared folk history. There was some self-effacing cynicism, too. But there was more to this bash than old memories. The occasion for the gathering of these mostly fortyish, graying hipsters was a lavish cocktail party to introduce Boston media to U and I, the new, glossy, eclectic, spirited, and decidedly spiritual quarterly magazine launched last month by the communards of Roxbury's Fort Hill. Since the early 1960s, the men and women of the so-called Fort Hill Community — also sometimes called "the Lyman Family," after its charismatic central figure, Melvin Lyman — have shared a communal life that some outsiders have viewed with skepticism, suspicion, and even outright hostility. For a group that claims to have come together with no specific intention of forming a community, the animosity of the outside world has long been a source of pain, confusion, and bitterness. Even members who were present at the family's inception are still a little surprised by society's reaction. They wonder why their retreat from the culture at large was so widely perceived as a threatening offensive. Equally surprising are the family's longevity and durability — surprising, explains 39-year-old veteran family member George Pepper, because "one of the things that sets us apart from other communities is that we never set out to become one."

Around the time that America was being torn apart by political assassinations, the civil-rights movement, the divisive war in Southeast Asia, and the cultural upheaval brought on by the growing number of young people who simply refused to tread water in the cultural mainstream, a group of close friends living in Cambridge — who were initially drawn together through their love of folk music — started to purchase and refurbish dilapidated properties in Roxbury. They bought up abandoned houses abutting a hilltop park and a needlelike Revolutionary War monument that marks the spot where George Washington erected defenses for the Siege of Boston. A few founding family members were children of affluence, such as Pepper, the tennis-star son of a well-to-do Connecticut family, and Jessie Benton, the daughter of prominent American Scene painter Thomas Hart Benton, who would inherit her father's unsold paintings and the Bentons' Martha's Vineyard retreat after his death, in 1975. Others came from middle-class backgrounds. The extended family, which was predominantly white, threw its doors open to pilgrims of every description. The nucleus eventually came to include 100 people from different parts of the country and evolved into a cohesive, self-sufficient, mysterious, and almost always controversial subculture.


The Lyman Family neighborhood: a gold mine of real estate

The family became controversial in the Nixon '70s, when the country grew deeply distrustful of communal lifestyles. The Fort Hill group's reputation was damaged after Rolling Stone published a powerful two-part series that blasted them with charges of mind control and acid fascism. But today, more than two decades later, many of the founders of Boston's oldest and longest-running commune are still together — still devoted to one another and still dedicated to a lifestyle that is the antithesis of the traditional nuclear family's. In its own way, the Fort Hill community has adopted the American dream and radically reshaped it, vastly enlarging the family unit along the way. In the grand American tradition, its members started with little and built much. Today, loving children, family support, and the trappings of the good life are all theirs. They own homes on Martha's Vineyard and in the Hollywood Hills, a loft in New York City, a farm in Marysville, Kansas, and a dozen properties on Fort Hill valued collectively in the middle six figures. In many ways they have reaped the rewards of the very society they dropped out of. And through it all they have had the satisfaction that comes from achieving success on your own terms. With more than 20 roller-coaster-like years behind them, they may not recommend their way of life, but, as one ethereal communard put it recently, "It works."

* * *

"We were not hippies or political radicals, and we were not interested in creating a 'communal experiment,' " the creators of U and I wrote in an authorized family history that was distributed to reporters at last month's press reception. "After several of us had made a record together, our dream was to have a place where we might build our own recording studio, have all the musicians live together, and work toward a way of life that would reflect the music we made."

Music, it seems, plays an important role in almost every story about the family. And stories about the music inevitably lead back to stories about the man known simply as Mel. As a vagabond banjoist and harmonica player, the story goes, Mel Lyman traveled around the country for gigs that brought him into contact with such musical heavy weights as Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry, Obray Ramsey, and the Reverend Gary Davis. Lyman was born in Oregon in 1938. He was raised in California and ended up in Cambridge, where he became part of the burgeoning folk-music scene that was centered at the celebrated Club 47. By 1963, he had joined the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, a washtub, kazoo, stovepipe, and washboard combo that produced successful LPs, was featured in Time magazine, and drew crowds of folk-music fans to shows in and around Boston. In 1965, having outgrown affordable quarters in Cambridge, the musicians and their friends took up residence on Fort Hill.

In the beginning, things were tight. They bartered manpower for renovation materials and scavenged the refuse at a nearby furniture factory for fuel. And they fed themselves on discounted and discarded vegetables collected each week from the venders at Haymarket's open-air stalls. For communards who found themselves establishing a new order, however inadvertently, it certainly made philosophical sense to survive on the scraps of a wealthy nation and to keep warm by burning what they found in the piles of the country's junk. Moreover, for young people who were long on resourcefulness and short on cash, scavenging was the only practical thing to do. Eventually, they made things work. By December 1967, reported the Boston Globe in a series entitled "The Hippies of Boston," some 50 men, women and children were living communally in four "outwardly shabby" buildings on the hill.

Later that same year came Avatar, the irreverent, satirical, underground newspaper that was the family's first foray into journalism. Published on a weekly basis, Avatar ran regular columns on sex, drugs, and astrology. It made frequent use of those four-letter expletives that made the mainstream media blush, and mercilessly lampooned the Establishment. From the outset, Avatar spoke in a unique voice (which was frequently Mel's). "I am the truth and I speak the truth. My understanding is tinged by no prejudice, no unconscious motivation, no confusion," Lyman wrote in an essay entitled "To All Who Would Know." At the height of the paper's popularity, street venders were selling some 30,000 copies a week. From the beginning, outrageousness was the basis of its appeal. With issue number 11 came the first arrests of street venders on charges of distributing obscene materials to adults and minors, and distributing newspapers without a license. By that time, Lyman was listed on the masthead as "Warlock in Residence," and he fought back ruthlessly.

"There are a bunch of dirty cocksuckers down in Cambridge who are giving us a hard time about our goddamn paper," Lyman wrote in the next issue. "Well fuck 'em. If they don't like it they can shove it up their fucking asses.... Imagine the nerve of those guys, I'll bet they eat pussy.... I'm warning you guys, if you don't lay off I'm gonna smear your filthy sex starved faces all over the Boston area.. I'm gonna draw pictures of you all fucking each other in the ass and sucking each other's cocks and I'll have you doing things so terrible you'll wish you never heard of the Avatar.... I'll rent a goddamn airplane and drop them all over the goddamn motherfucking state. This is just a polite warning, you're playing with dynamite, don't fuck with me...." In case Lyman's subtle message had been missed, the next issue of Avatar devoted its entire centerfold to four ornately hand-drawn words, each three inches high: FUCK, SHIT, PISS, CUNT. That issue quickly became a collector's item.

In all, some 60 Avatar hawkers were busted on-various charges. The resulting obscenity litigation brought national attention to the paper and its motley staff of Fort Hill people and assorted hangers-on. Lawyer Harvey Silverglate, then a young associate in a firm headed by Joseph Oteri, defended the group. According to Silverglate, Avatar hawkers won several cases in the district courts, a few dozen more in the superior courts, and the remaining five in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

The battle in the courts was followed by an internal struggle at the paper. The staff was divided between the so-called "Hill people," led by Lyman, and the "non-Hill people," who were attracted to the free-press bent of the paper but not necessarily to the trappings of communal life. The onset of prosperity — in the form of larger issues, more advertising, more subscriptions, and better typesetting equipment — only drove the factions farther apart. Non-Hill people objected to issues of the paper that seemed devoted almost entirely to photos of Lyman and his family doing mundane things around the Hill and to satirical screeds by Lyman and his friends that likened Mel to a godlike figure. Eventually, the tension proved too much. In 1969, about two years after the first issue appeared on the streets, Avatar ceased publication. In the view of some Fort Hill critics, the satire had lost its edge; a growing number of adherents, they charged, had actually come to believe that Mel was God.

* * *

By 1970, the American cultural revolution was in full swing. And life on the Hill reflected the helter-skelter quality of the times. One Hill resident, Mark Frechette, who was discovered by talent scouts on a Boston street corner, starred in Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point. He was photographed for the cover of Life, and later became one of the family's most notorious members. He was, it seemed, the quintessential angry young man, and his celebrity brought the family an awkward kind of prominence. ("He's 20 and he hates," the talent scouts reportedly effused.)

After completing Zabriskie Point, Frechette returned to Fort Hill — bringing with him the $60,000 he earned for his role in the film and his girlfriend, co-star Daria Halprin (who later left to marry Dennis Hopper). Two years later, while the Senate Watergate hearings were making headlines, Frechette and two family members attempted to rob a bank near Brigham Circle. The motive for their crime is still unclear. But the aborted robbery was deeply distressing to a controversial family already besieged with criticism. Police shot and killed one of the bandits; Frechette and the other man were sentenced to state prison. Two years later, in the fall of 1975, Frechette was found dead in a prison recreation room with a 150-pound barbell lying across his throat. Although his death was officially ruled an accident, not everyone is convinced it wasn't intentional. Rumors of what really happened persist even today.

Through all the trauma, the family still managed to branch out, establishing homes in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Kansas. "Their timing has always been perfect," explained a family friend recently. "They bought the LA property before the explosion of [West Coast] real-estate values." Despite the obvious material gains of the communards — or perhaps because of them — they came under increasing attack. Only a couple of years earlier, the nation had been horrified by the ritual murders committed on the West Coast by communal disciples of Charles Manson. By 1971, a grim skepticism about alternative lifestyles had permeated America. Critics of Fort Hill life began to suggest that Lyman was the Manson-like center of a dangerous personality cult.


The walled gate to the Fort Hill commune: a counterculture enters the mainstream

The winter of '71 brought those devastating back-to-back issues of Rolling Stone, in which copy editor David Felton presented a scathing, exhaustively unflattering picture of Lyman family life. His damning bill of particulars drew on the comments of ex-family members who told him they had had to sneak away from the group to get free of its awful grip, and on his own observations during visits to family homes on both coasts. Among other pointed allegations, the Rolling Stone articles suggested that Lyman had become something of a deranged master to a bunch of stoned-out zombies — the malleable lost souls of a lost generation, who gravitated to the family and were easily exploited in its name. The articles strongly suggested that there was no freedom of thought on the Hill and that Lyman kept his flock under control through strategic administrations of hallucinogens and through manipulative psychological games.

The Rolling Stone pieces were later reprinted in a book entitled Mindfucker [sic]. Deservedly or not, they spread the negative image of the family far and wide. Thereafter, most of what was written or said about the Lyman family was unflattering. Indeed, for anyone familiar with the Rolling Stone charges it's impossible to meet the Fort Hill communards for the first time — even as their guest at a lavish party in their meticulously restored and opulently appointed home — without wondering about the veracity of everything that came to be written and said about them over the years. It's impossible not to wonder about the authenticity of stories concerning the brutal "Karma Squad," which is said to have roughed up members of the underground press. Or stories of gun-toting bodyguards who protected Lyman's privacy and did his bidding. Or stories about a windowless, cinderblock basement vault, in which nonconforming members were allegedly chained in order to encourage "self-awareness." Or all those stories about ruthless self-government by LSD and intimidation. It's impossible to meet the gentle, slightly spaced-out souls of the Fort Hill Community today and not doubt the stories of yesteryear. Yet it's possible, of course, that the family has changed dramatically over the years and bears no resemblance to the group that is said to have indulged in so many manipulative practices. In any case, a couple of years ago, George Pepper had dinner with David Felton at Pallson's, a Continental restaurant on New York's West Side. At that meeting, says Pepper, Felton admitted that his articles had been misguided and that he was on assignment to do a hatchet job. But Felton remembers the meeting differently. "I stand by the articles," he told the Phoenix recently. "I wasn't under assignment to approach them in any way. When I had dinner with George, he was trying to get me to repudiate [them]. . . . . I did say that I was sorry if people got their feelings hurt."

The family had invited Felton into its homes — and ended up feeling badly burned by what he wrote. Thereafter, they guarded their privacy fiercely, opening up to one another but rarely to the outside world. The public hostility and internal traumas of the '70s had exacted a heavy toll, driving the family into near-monastic seclusion.

For those few outsiders who associated with the Fort Hill people despite their negative public image, the family's decision to start publishing U and I, and thus risk another wave of negative publicity, came as quite a surprise. "We discussed the price they would pay for going public; they knew the issues that would come up when they made a re-entry into the greater society," says a non-family friend. He advised the family that getting media attention for U and I would necessarily involve answering reporters' probing questions about the accuracy of reports about them that had appeared in the past.

One of the questions that the communards are most sensitive about concerns the disappearance of Mel. For the record, they say that he died around '77 or '78 after a long illness. Sources outside the family say they knew Lyman had been very ill in the middle to late '70s — and had assumed he was dead when they stopped hearing anything about him. But the details of Lyman's death remain shrouded in mystery. Family members decline to say precisely where or when he died or what was done with his remains. People who remember the charismatic role that Lyman played in the family find it strange that he should be so anonymous in death. It seems likely that the funeral arrangements were handled privately, without the involvement of municipal authorities required by law, and maybe that's the reason for keeping the details vague.

Not surprisingly, people who have been skeptical of the family over the years are skeptical about reports of Lyman's death. "I believe that it's possible that Mel left for private life. It's kind of a burden being a savior," says David Felton, now a screenwriter in New York. "How does a person who formed a society [of individuals] dedicated to the belief that he is more than human shed his responsibilities without sending them into psychic shock — without having all these people become beached? ... The thing I find hardest to believe is that Mel isn't such a big deal to them anymore. If they don't have that, how do they hold together?"


Mel Lyman shortly before his death: from folk musician to god-like leader

* * *

The family's latest publishing venture seems to be one of the things that holds it together. The premiere issue of U and I — which is available for $5 through street venders in Harvard Square and at selected newsstands — is intentionally unconventional by publishing standards. It reflects part of the family's publishing philosophy of bringing out a truly novel publication. And given the history of their bad press, perhaps U and I simply had to be anonymous at the start. The first issue has no masthead, no table of contents, no page numbers, and no advertisements — no guideposts of any kind. The only direction for reading it appears in a brief, unsigned statement on the inside cover: "This publication is offered to you with no explanations, no bylines or credentials. It does not set about to sell anything, prove anything, or change anything. It is a series of open and unusual conversations about the things that concern us all. Think of it as a journey we are taking together. Pretend that we are strangers on a train, you and I.... Let's not introduce ourselves, or ask all the usual questions, like 'Who are you?' and 'What do you do?' It is so much more fun to discover these things along the way. Let's begin with no preconceived ideas about each other, no judgments, no categories."

In interviews, the founders of U and I say the magazine is a diary of the family's daily life, "a living book." One article is a transcription of a tape-recorded conversation in which family members re-examine the forces that hold them together and speculate about what lies ahead. Also included in the first issue are illustrations, color photos, a copy of a personal letter about efforts to save the striped bass from extinction, poems, excerpts from Yeats, and an essay entitled "Everyday I Wake Up Wanting to Start a New Country."

Between bites of smoked bluefish at the U and I press reception, one family member explained that the community decided to bring out the magazine "to keep us interesting to one another. And to reach out. We'd been talking to one another for too long." Family members hope that the magazine will be a vehicle for dialogue with society at large. Readers are encouraged to comment on articles, and to submit material of their own for publication. Whether U and I will connect with a regular readership is still an open question — indeed, a very open question at $5 a copy. But at least some of the mail the magazine has received so far has been whimsically complimentary. "Life is beautiful without hope, without expectations and beliefs. Don't start believing in this beautiful magazine, please," wrote a woman from LA. "Are you really just disillusioned war protesters?' wrote a woman from Belmont "Or are you really what I hope you to be — 20th-century transcendental metaphysicists?"

Despite initial misgivings about exposing themselves to another wave of media scrutiny, family members say they decided to identify themselves as the publishers of U and I when they realized that doing so would be likely to stimulate interest and increase sales. "We did not want to be a distraction," said George Pepper. "But we quickly realized that we were what would bring people in. So we opened ourselves up."

* * *


George Pepper: "We never set out to become a community."

Mel's third wife, Eve: following their own prescription for marriage

Today, sitting in a Fort Hill living room, discussing how the family is organized, one is hard put to imagine that it was once considered such a sinister force. Present for the discussion are Eve Chayes Lyman, Mel's third wife (and the daughter of Harvard law professor Abraham Chayes and of Antonia Chayes, who was an undersecretary of the Army in the Carter administration); George Pepper; and Dick Russell, a Kansas-born writer who says he was inspired by the Rolling Stone pieces to use the power of the press to drive the Lyman family out of his home state, but ended up joining it instead. The family is still decidedly quirky, yet their idiosyncrasies seem harmless enough. For no apparent reason, they reject daylight-saving time, which means that for half the year, "Hill" time is always one hour behind "straight" time — a peculiarity that wrought havoc with dentist and doctor appointments until the family clued their practitioners in. For reasons that seem vaguely connected to the apocalyptic feeling in the land after Watergate or to the onset of Lyman's illness (both reasons were cited in one interview), in 1975 family members restarted the calendar at the year 00, which makes this year the year 10.


Writer Dick Russell: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

They also subscribe to their own definition of marriage. On the Hill, a visitor learns, marriages don't involve religious or civil ceremonies, just pledges of commitment that can be dissolved as informally as they are instated. Although their numbers have gone up and down over the years, Hill folk estimate that their extended family currently consists of 72 adults and 39 children. Until recently, when they began sending all the older kids to public schools in LA, their children were educated at home. Some family members hold jobs as restaurant or office workers contributing their incomes to a communal fund. Others work for a house-cleaning service they founded called Dust Busters. The biggest part of the family's income, however, apparently derives from Fort Hill Construction Inc., a carpentry business whose employees are self-taught. In the beginning, the construction company practiced its building skills on family-owned properties. Eventually, through word of mouth, it began attracting outside jobs. Although they don't like to reveal the identities of their clients, Fort Hill Construction has reportedly done work on the West Coast for such show-business celebrities as Barbra Streisand, Richard Chamberlain, and Steven Spielberg. For the record, they do say that they turned down a job for Bob Dylan.

Aside from an almost Calvinistic belief in hard work, the distinguishing characteristics of Hill philosophy have never been easy to define. "Everything that is true of the Fort Hill Community is true of the entire Family of Man," Lyman wrote in one of the last issues of Avatar. "We contain all the virtues and all of the weaknesses of mankind, we are humanity in microcosm. Everyone who resides within this community has lived and experienced widely in the greater community, we are not strangers to the world. We have not gathered here to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world but rather to establish a greater order within that order, an order born of willing cooperation and necessary discipline, an order that adapts to the needs of the moment."

Today, in any discussion of Fort Hill Community values, the words "devotion" and "vulnerability" come up time and again. In the outside world, in the nuclear-family sense, devotion generally involves a primal bond between man and woman, which eventually expands to include their kids. Despite modern concepts of fault-free divorce and joint custody of children, when that primal bond is broken, conventional-family members frequently drift apart. On the Hill and in its satellite communities, according to the people who live there, the organizing principles of communal life demand that ex-lovers remain friends. After all, the logic goes, even when their love for one another ends, ex-lovers are also brothers and sisters in the context of the larger family. Moreover, although parents on the Hill are personally quite attentive to their natural children, they are also very much aware that the offspring they bring into the world are progeny of the family as a whole. As a result, they suggest, devotional attachments are much more complex than those common to society at large. Further, they say, the feelings of vulnerability that stem from trying to make this ambitious life work should be encouraged, not suppressed. Vulnerability is good, they say, because the effort most people put into making themselves less vulnerable simply saps creative energy. Sure, you can press your vulnerable underbelly to the ground all the time, explains George Pepper, but then you're only able to crawl.

"This is one of the most extraordinary things about the way we live," says Eve Lyman. "We're like everyone else. We go through agony, torture, jealousy — the whole gamut of terrible human emotions when relationships break up. Yet, through it all, you find that you have to sit down at the dinner table. Through it all, you have to find the love that brought you together in the first place. You are forced to a deeper place. And it's not necessarily easy to find."

At least one measure of the success of any community is the degree to which its children grow up well adjusted. The kids of Fort Hill — the adolescents and smaller kids who were present at the press reception, the young adults in their 20s who participated in some of the interviews for this story — appear to be a bright and articulate bunch, whether schooled at home or in traditional classrooms. They are gentle, friendly, polite kids, and well aware that their family is organized a bit differently from most. Outwardly, at least, they seem none the worse for it. In fact, they believe that their way of life may even have some advantages. "Most kids have to leave their families to rebel. We can rebel right here," explains 22-year-old Anthony Gude, Jessie Benton's curly-haired son who last year was a painting student at the Museum of Fine Arts. "And at this point," he says, "a nuclear family would just seem too small, too lonely."


Anthony Gude:
"A nuclear family would just seem too small."

From the Age of Aquarius to the Age of Reagan — like the rest of us, the Lyman Family has gone down that long and winding road. Perhaps it's a measure of how far we have all traveled to note that their way of living and loving seems much less threatening today than it did in the '70s. Communal life, once seen as half a step from revolution, today looks nothing so much as quaint. The people of Fort Hill were always decidedly different, and that, at least, they continue to be. By and large, however, they have resurfaced as idealistic men and women with money, loving attachments, charming children, a beautiful home in the city, and a summer place on an island off the Cape. In some. circles, that's called the American dream.


Mel Lyman