High on a hill in Roxbury, there is wall which hides many mysteries. Behind that wall is a room girded in magnificent woodwork.
A long marble table embedded in oak and held up by a tangled sculpture of metal rods fills half the room. Thomas Hart Benton's oil paintings hang on the walls.
On a recent winter night a fire crackled in the fireplace. Hors d'oeuvres garnished with parsley and truffles were spread out on a delicately hand-crafted coffee table. On the side board, vintage wine and crystal glasses rested on a silver tray.
Ten years ago, the house that holds this room was considered the very heart of Boston's "Hippie" movement. It never really was.
What was known as the Fort Hill Commune was born in an era of furious rebellion and flower children. Its members sang the songs of revolution and published their own underground newspaper.
But they were never in tune with the temper of the times. As the [...] sixties turned into the somnolent seventies, the occupants of the hill congealed into a single family of about 150 members. At its head was a charismatic banjo player and former vagabond named Mel Lyman. Like other families, it grew up and spread, establishing new homes across the country.
Then, as the world watched the saga of Watergate unfold, the family withdrew from public view.
Today its members include writers, carpenters, stockbrokers and pharmacists. But the family is still together and their fundamentally conservative philosophies remain unchanged.
The late sixties were years of love-ins, smoke-ins and discovery. As an early member of the Fort Hill community put it. "It was a time of candles stuck in wine bottles."
It was clear that the mood of the times needed an outlet for expression. "I was editing Broadside, (a coffee house folk music magazine) in 1967," says David Wilson, who now teaches in Cambridge. "Some people came to me and said "It's a shame Boston has no underground newspaper." I had resisted, but in the course of a month several other people came to me and said they wanted to start an underground paper. Seven of us met here in Cambridge and decided to start the Avatar."
The Avatar was Boston's first "underground" publication. It was also the first to adopt obscenity, streethhawkers and innovative graphics as part of the operation.
The name Avatar comes from a Hindu word for the incarnation of a deity in earthly form, and was somewhat prophetic in light of later developments.
While Wilson and company were getting the Avatar off the ground, Mel Lyman was laying the foundation for his new community.
The community had its roots in the Boston area college scene. "I knew Lyman when I was at Brandeis," says Charles Giuliano, now editor of Nightfall magazine. "We were all living in a house in Waltham for a time."
It was not only the schools that attracted the counter culture. It was the music as well. In the late sixties Harvard Square could boast a guitarist on every corner and folk music in every bar.
Kweskin's Jug Band was one of the groups making the rounds of Cambridge. Jim Kweskin is now one of the leaders of Lyman's community. At the time, his band needed a banjo player. Mel Lyman got the job.
Soon Mel and his friends were looking for larger quarters and purchased six decaying structures on Fort Hill in Roxbury. The view was nice but the site had little to offer. The Lyman family was an almost all-white island surrounded by the black ghetto. And the houses weren't always as elegant as they are now.
"There wasn't a lick of heat," says Michael Freedberg, one of the early occupants. "There were places where if you stepped on the floor boards they'd break. I slept on a broken bed without a mattress. I'd go off to work during the day and at night I came back and helped build the house."
It was the choice of that site and the communal living arrangements which first spawned the public notion that the group on Fort Hill was a "hippy commune."
The Hill, like the Avatar, appealed to both rebels and lost souls. It attracted an extraordinary amount of talent and some wealth to its primarily white middle class ranks. Almost everyone had part or all of a college education. They came because they were trying to find themselves, or someone to follow. What many found was Mel Lyman, a born leader.
Giuliano was up on the Hill frequently in those days. While he views Lyman as a "menace" he admits that the family's leader had a tremendous ability to charm people. "He is an extremely charismatic guy," Giuliano says.
Lyman, through lieutenants like Kweskin and photographer George Peper, ran a very efficient operation.
"The one thing I did notice when I went up there was a very strong work ethic," says Tom McCann, an advertising executive for whom several members of the community worked.
"There is an energy that comes out of this place," says Peper, "But we don't sit back and meditate about it. We work for it."
Kweskin echoes those thoughts. "We never approved of a hippy life-style," he says. "I always considered that a lazy approach. We always worked our asses off."
The work ethic was, and still is, backed up by Mel Lyman's rules of order — or as Peper puts it "necessities of discipline." Our lives are a thousand times more disciplined (than the rest of the world) but that discipline doesn't have to be put in the form of rules," he says.
The term "commune" conjures up images of drugs and free love. That was seldom the case at Fort Hill. While there were reports of heavy marijuana and LSD usage in the early days on the hill, present family members deny any use of drugs.
Relationships were strictly governed by the community as a whole. They remain that way today.
"We believe that marriage is an absolutely sacred responsibility," says Peper, "but personal relationships can create or they can destroy."
The community even then had definite conceptions of the role and place of the sexes. "There are laws between men and women. Their roles are very different," says Peper. "Neither one is more important. There is a definite balance."
Mel Lyman, who speaks in carefully worded, if occasionally ambiguous maxims, explains the family's philosophy on women's liberation: "If women will not be women, how can men be men?"
It's not only toward women's liberation that the Family takes a conservative stance. Many of their philosophies are not only conservative but patriotic. "America is the very essence of human rights," says Peper. Lyman views the creation of the United States as a concrete step toward the planet's salvation.
That the planet needs salvaging goes unquestioned. Lyman's family deplores the decadence and amorality of today's society.
"The tragedy of the times is that nothing affects us any more," says Peper. "In the 30s the art produced in Germany was not necessarily good, but it was as it should be. It was a perfect reflection of man's creation — it accurately reflected what Hitler was doing."
It was inevitable that the philosophies of the Fort Hill commune would eventually conflict with the aims of the freer spirits on the Avatar.
Mel Lyman was not one of the seven original founders of the paper but he did have three representatives on the board. "Those three voices for Lyman caused a lot of conflict," said Wilson, the Avatar's first editor. "You couldn't argue with them because they were speaking for Mel, who was never there. Eventually we pulled a power play and they were kicked off the board."
That was not the end of Lyman's involvement, however. The spirit of the times looked down on power as something associated with "the Establishment." Lyman, never really a follower of that "spirit," did know how to use power.
"The new consciousness," says Wilson, "was a valid exploration into sharing and openness. In those days power was very suspect. Anyone who assumed power felt guilty. The Lyman people came back penitent and in an attempt to assuage our guilt we took them back. Then we added new people to the board who later became subverted by the Hill philosophy and the balance of power swung to the Hill."
Conflicts continued with Mel Lyman playing an ever-increasing role in the magazine. Eventually the magazine splintered — the Lyman faction published the American Avatar and the Wilson group put out the Avatar.
"By that time I was exhausted," said Wilson. "It was the summer of 1968. I went to New Hampshire, took some acid and had a revelation — I didn't have to do this. So, I resigned."
Within a year after Wilson resigned both Avatars folded. But what was an end for the Avatar was only the beginning for Lyman.
It was quickly established that what started out as a center of the counter-culture was not that at all. It was the center of Mel Lyman's culture.
"A community needs a leader, someone who best knows the potential of that particular group of people and how to bring it into reality. I am that leader and guide, the father at the head of this family," Lyman said in one of the last issues of the American Avatar.
"The people who live within this community have come to know me, respect me, and trust me; I am all things to all men. Inwardly I am at one with God's will."
Many of the original community members who had been attracted by Avatar soon left — repulsed by the idea of Mel Lyman as a deity.
"There were two groups. One was drawn by the creation, the Avatar; and those drawn by the creator, Mel Lyman. Those that are left are drawn by the creator," explained George Peper.
One former member who left before the deification of Lyman really took hold explains what happened. "We were trying to set up a model community. The whole ethic was one of self-improvement, sort of a precursor of est. What Lyman did was to use himself as a model."
"I realized that the hill wasn't for me," said another former occupant. "Things became very rigid and formalized. In the beginning it had been very open and spontaneous. Now people did things because they were told to. The new personalities weren't any different from any others in a totalitarian society. One day Kweskin said to me 'You know, Michael, you're just someone we can't tell what to do.' So, I left."
Those that did stay banded together against the outside world. All attempt at proselytization ceased.
Relationships with their black neighbors, never very good, began to deteriorate. "We had wars up here in those days," said Peper.
It was a time when the country was being shocked by the trial of Charles Manson, and as word of their armed guards and worship of Lyman spread, one word became more and more frequently linked with the commune. Violence.
In retrospect it was probably more myth than fact. "I have no real knowledge of any violence," said David Wilson. "Certainly commune members found that they terrified people, simply be implying retribution,"
David Felton, who wrote a two-part series on the family for Rolling Stone said that "the violence was an act, they probably never really beat any one up but it was very effective, particularly to outsiders."
After the Rolling Stone article appeared at the end of 1971 the Family retreated still further from the public eye.
"Around 1970, the torrent of immigrants up the Hill halted," said Freedberg. "Up to that point you had people coming in, up to two or three a week. After the Rolling Stone article, there were no more new faces."
The Family denies there was ever any attempt to recruit new members. "We don't want anybody to join. It's too late. There was a time when you could, but after ten years of this kind of living it would be very difficult. There are too many experiences that we've shared that we just couldn't teach," said Jessie Benton, daughter of the artist Thomas Hart Benton, and a leading figure in Lyman's community.
In 1973 Fort Hill had one last moment in the spotlight before the center of operations (and the publicity that went with it) moved out of Boston.
Mark Frechette, star of the movie "Zabriskie Point," was an early member of Lyman's community. After his fling with Hollywood, Frechette returned to Fort Hill as a disgruntled revolutionary.
"We had been watching the Watergate hearings on television and we felt an intense rage," Frechette told Oui magazine three years ago. That rage was expressed in a badly bungled robbery of the neighborhood bank.
One of the two Hill members who accompanied Frechette in the robbery was killed. The other served time and is now out on parole in California. Frechette died in prison in 1975 in a weight lifting accident.
Today the family remains much as it was ten years ago — a family. Never really a commune. They still work hard, live by the same "necessity of discipline" and remain unshaken in their faith in Mel Lyman.
Few remain in Boston — Fort Hill is now considered a sort of training ground. "Boston is the roots" is the way George Peper explained it. Headquarters is in Los Angeles, with branch offices in New York and San Francisco. A farm in Kansas, a summer house in Martha's Vineyard, a small villa on the southern coast of France and an island in Maine are also Lyman family retreats.
Their beliefs are something they carry with them quietly. Many of their jobs are such that they would rather not publicize their affiliation with a "commune."
Many members were initially attracted by the Family's music. That, too, continues. Jim Kweskin has just released a new album called "Jim Kweskin lives again." Currently performing in California, Kweskin has tentative plans to play once again in Cambridge.
"A long time ago we stopped trying to affect the world," explained Peper. "I can remember going into an office and trying to explain the way we were to people. Now I just don't bother. The essence of our lives hasn't changed. The world just gets further away.
Mel Lyman also gets further away. There are reports that his health is failing. Like many messiahs who start out as prophets and assume a god role, he is, according to Peper, "no longer on this planet." He communicates through other beings. A recent interview took place via a medium and a ouija board.
Unlike other religious leaders, Mel Lyman remains "in the flesh." Of his method of communicating, he explained through a medium, "It's just easier this way. I hate telephones."
Also unlike other messiahs, Lyman does not think he has founded a religion. Instead he calls his family a race, feeling that he has discovered rather than created.
"It's a race beyond this world," he said. "It cuts across the ethnic lines of the present. If people are of my race they would recognize it. If not it would never occur to them."
Where exactly Lyman may be is not easy to determine. Members of the community hint at an involvement with the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." In the ouija board interview Lyman said that he is currently on a space ship.
When asked about the movie Lyman replied, "I had a great deal to do with it, but not in name. The purpose was to prepare the world and to see the world's reaction."
Whatever Lyman's involvement, "Close Encounters" had the kind of effect that the Lyman family has always hoped for. "Mel never wanted anything as small as a commune," said Peper. "Mel came to this planet to communicate, but the world is not about to understand."