THE AUTHOR AT LA FONDA

By Richard McCord


La Fonda Lobby


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The plaudits and the accolades have been registered now, and the homage of a fortunate community has been paid. On Sunday, Oct. 8, 2000, Sam and Ethel Ballen, who own and run the landmark hotel La Fonda, were declared Santa Fe Living Treasures.

With that honor out of the way, let me now say something different. Most people in Santa Fethousands, anywayalready know about the Ballens' remarkable generosity, graciousness, humility and humanity. These were all lauded at the crowded ceremony at the Folk Art Museum when they officially became Treasures.

But far fewer are acquainted with Sam Ballen, the author.

In 1997, in his 75th year, Ballen pulled together his memoirs in a privately published book cleverly titled Without Reservations. It traces his life's journey from his birth as the son of Jewish immigrants who ran a small grocery store in Harlem, through his tour as a combat soldier in World War II, then a stint as a Wall Street analyst, then a Texas oilmanduring which time he became wealthyand on to his current place at La Fonda. It's the kind of life we all wish we had.

The book is a fascinating read for all of its 281 pages. Yet for any Santa Fean, the most gripping part has to be the final 100, which focus upon this communityand focus on it with astonishing boldness and candor.

A plain-spoken man and a keen observer of human foibles, Ballen apparently decided to be blunt and honest in this summing up of his life. As a result, his book overflows with riveting vignettes, some flattering and some anything but.

The names in the book comprise a Who's Who of the movers and shakers of Santa Fe in the years since Ballen's arrival in 1968: Fred and Bill Harvey, Harold Bibo, Ed Tatum, Milo McGonagle, Gene Gallegos, Dave Olmsted, Dr. Ralph Lopez, Bud Kelly, Dave Sierra, Ralph Petty, Nathan Greer, Gene Petchesky, Mel Eaves, George Dapples, Bill Mauldin, Stan Ulam, Sergio Viscoli, Joe Valdes, Eddie Smithson, Ned Wood, Tom Catron, Manuel Rodriguez, C. B. Ogas, Fred Stanley, judges Louis Sutin, Tom Donnelly and Edwin Felter, Tom Moore, Sam Pick, Harold Gans and many more.

A flaw of the book is that it provides scant identification for this colorful cast of characters. To appreciate the stories about them, readers must already know who they are. And for reasons of space, I am repeating the same flaw here.

Yet for readers in the know, Ballen's reminiscenses pack a wallop. They tell tales of suicide, embezzlement, financial blackmail, betrayal, double dealing, alcoholism, infidelity, incompetence, bribery, egotism and a host of other dramas.

Some of his best stories are, naturally, about La Fonda itself. A failing, ramshackle inn with rooms renting for $8 when Ballen learned of it in 1968, La Fonda had been rejected by "every experienced hotel operator in the United States," he writes. Rashly, he and a small group of investors bought it, and soon were facing bankruptcy. Until Ballen threatened to sue, a local bank president was ready to call in La Fonda's loan.

Yet 20 years later, the story was different. Now a great success, La Fonda became the target of a takeover plot by Santa Fe land baron Gerald Peters. When Ballen resisted, Peters sued him for $40 million. Somewhat excessively the book details the battle, which Peters ultimately abandoned. Disappointingly, Ballen declines to reveal Peters' net worth, which he learned during the course of the lawsuit.

But very little about this book disappoints any seasoned Santa Fean. Crammed with facts and gossip, infused with outspokenness and modesty, it provides an amazing view of this city, from the vantage point of La Fonda's fifth-floor Bell Tower.

Like its author, the book is a local treasure. It is currently out of print, but pressure for a second edition is building. To add to it, you can write Ballen at P. O. Box 2263, Santa Fe, N.M. 87504.

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