Once-Notorious ‘60s Commune Evolves Into Respectability : After 19 Years the Lyman Family Prospers as Craftsmen and Farmers
Today they are prosperous builders who remodel homes for the stars, the 117 members of a notorious ‘60s commune who a decade ago wrote off the rest of the world as hopelessly corrupt and withdrew so completely that they adopted their own calendar to number the years.
They are the Lyman Family, an eclectic band of musicians, artists, writers, philosophy students and psychic explorers who comprise one of the few ‘60s communes to survive the era.
The 60 adults have stuck together for 19 years, evolving from poverty, drugs and even a bank robbery into an unusual version of familial joy with 49 children, 10 of whom are now adults. There are eight other young adults who have joined the Family in recent years after growing up elsewhere.
They have taken a different, and yet in may ways parallel, path from the rest of America. They believe that their success in raising charming and studious children shows that their unique life style is worthy of examination.
Now they are coming back into the world, publishing an unusual magazine without ads or credit lines, called U and I, to explain themselves. They are hoping for the ultimate in their vision of success, hoping the rest of America will recognize their accomplishments and perhaps even emulate their life style.
Prosperous today because of their industriousness and a small fortune inherited by one of their leaders, the Lymans own two Hollywood Hills mansions worth at least $4 million, with formal gardens, a peaceful stone pond filled with koi, a swimming pool and a classroom for the children. There is a huge underground garage where they keep their old white Lincoln limousine, two sports cars and a luxurious recreational vehicle, and surrounding all of this is a high brick and mortar wall.
They also own a scenic 280-acre Kansas farm, a Manhattan loft, a hilltop compound of eight residences above Boston’s poor Roxbury section and a Martha’s Vineyard retreat, plus three deep-sea pleasure fishing boats.
In all they own 20 homes, each filled with Victorian furniture and dozens of paintings by their benefactor, Thomas Hart Benton, and their own artists. Their Hollywood Hills homes feature a small museum celebrating American history. Another room holds thousands of old recordings dating to 1902, each packed in a protective sleeve in case of an earthquake.
Picture of Rudy Vallee
A framed letter from the late Henry Miller hangs on one wall above an elegant old pool table. A picture of Rudy Vallee, whose singing the Lymans adore, hangs on another wall. A 1955 calendar featuring Marilyn Monroe stretching on an expanse of red satin adorns one room.
They dress casually, even sloppily, the men often in blue-collar work clothes. Some of the men say they do not own even one suit.
Master craftsmen, the Lymans remodel homes for actors Dustin Hoffman and Richard Chamberlain, producers Steven Spielberg and Larry Gelbart and others made rich by Hollywood.
Their own homes reflect extraordinary craftsmanship. In one Kansas farmhouse the wooden banister’s finial is a delicate carving of a nude woman. Lavish rugs that one of the women hooks enhance the Hollywood Hills mansions.
The word commune evokes images of free love or, at least, casual relationships. But the Lyman Family has evolved strong values about marriage and sex, mixing traditionalism with the practical needs of their life style.
Marriages typically last three to seven years, but there is no divorce, in their view, because when a couple breaks up, they only stop sharing the same bed. Former couples are expected to maintain an enduring emotional relationship.
Having many homes in five cities means that if the strain of getting along is too much, though, a couple who break up can live in different cities until time heals their wounds.
Adultery, a serious social offense, is unheard of. The singles among them are celibate. Homosexuals are not welcome, they say.
The Lymans, a strikingly attractive group, believe women should wait on men. The women raise the children communally and, until last year, most of the children were educated at home.
None of them are alcoholics, drugs are rarely used anymore and only two members are in psychotherapy, family leaders say.
All of this, they say, indicates that their life style works better than that followed by most Americans.
Most evenings, after an early supper for the children and main adult dinner at 9 p.m., guitarist Jim Kweskin of the Jug Band, a popular ‘60s folk group whose members included singer Maria Muldaur, and other musicians gather in the parlors of whichever homes they are then living in and play their own music.
Sometimes they talk about their visions of Emerson and Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, Woody Guthrie and other great men they count as heroes, their conversations fading only with the ink in the sky.
Their children are model students all, according to Kansas school authorities. Their teen-agers, except for the few who are married, all say they are virgins.
But as the children come of age some of them are exploring what to them are the outside world’s exotic offerings. Several have moved out on their own for a few months before coming back, one with a husband. So far, only one young man has left for good.
More than anything else, the Lymans say, they believe in caring for one another.
They say America has become so corrupted by greed that spirituality is beyond most people’s understanding, causing millions to flock to TV preachers whose God is Mammon.
Slowly, they contend, greed and lack of spirituality, is destroying democracy and freedom in America. “Selling the soul for money, that’s our President’s way,” said George Peper, 39, the Family photographer and one of its leaders.
“We are our own separate universe,” said Jessie Benton, 42, the daughter of artist Thomas Hart Benton and the Lyman Family’s most influential member. “We are a microcosm of the world. We have everything you have--even criminals.”
Eve Lyman, 33, the Family historian, said the Family has “all the elements you find in the rest of the world, we just put them together in a different way. We have all the same problems, too, but we deal with them differently.”
They also view life differently.
Friend and Admirer
“MASH” co-creator Larry Gelbart and his wife, Pat, are among the many Hollywood people who have hired the Family’s company, Fort Hill Construction Co. The Gelbarts have become friends and admirers of the Lymans.
“These people have values,” Pat Gelbart said. “They work so hard, and in a world full of people who gouge and cheat, they are honest. Their children are delightful and very well educated.
“But I want to protect them, too, because they are kind of, oh, naive . . . sort of supermystical. Once we were talking about what a great man Abraham Lincoln was when one of them looked up at the sky and said, ‘Did you see that fleet of spaceships go by?’ ”
They came from diverse backgrounds. The children of Kennedy men and Brooklyn laborers, they all became ‘60s cultural revolutionaries, witnesses at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. They dropped out of Harvard, Brandeis and Michigan State to seek God in vials of acid; they found him in an odd-looking banjo player named Mel Lyman.
Esquire profiled Lyman in a 1968 piece by screenwriter L. M. Kit Carson titled “God Is Back--He Says So Himself.” The title seemed apt since Lyman called his first book “Autobiography of a World Savior.”
Back then they were so poor they gathered waste fruit and vegetables from the Boston produce mart, cutting off the rotted parts and throwing the rest into a common stew. Their home was open to anyone who dropped in and lots of hippies crashing on drugs did just that, staying until someone put a hammer or a saw in their hand.
The Lymans toyed with Ouija boards as oracles and the language of astrology became almost a second tongue. Even today the Lymans sometimes refer to each other by their first names with astrological signs substituting for surnames.
Trouble in 1966
The Lyman Family first came to public attention in a case that helped redefine the First Amendment. In 1966, the Boston police arrested commune members on 55 felony obscenity charges for publishing four words authorities deemed unacceptable.
Surrounded by psychedelic flourishes, the words filled the center two pages of the Avatar, an underground newspaper that featured as many as five columns per issue by or about Mel Lyman. Avatar is a Hindu word meaning God come down to Earth in bodily form.
Eventually the courts set the accused, and the four words, free.
In 1971, Rolling Stone magazine put the Lyman Family on its cover two issues running, ominously comparing them to the homicidal Charles Manson Family.
Writer David Felton, a pioneer in the impressionistic school of New Journalism, warned that Lyman was forging a new style of drug-and-personality cult that Felton called “acid fascism.”
Deny Worshiping Manson
Today, Family members insist they never worshiped Manson, never put his picture above a vase of flowers that were changed daily, as several outsiders report they saw. Their deeds back then were no more crazy than the times, they say.
“We did a lot of outrageous things just to get people to open their eyes, to see what they were blind to,” said Eve Lyman, one of seven women who bore Lyman’s 12 children.
Then, in 1973, three commune members robbed a federal bank, saying they were protesting Richard Nixon’s involvement in Watergate. Boston police killed one bandit. (Another bandit, actor Mark Frechette, the star of “Zabriskie Point,” director Michelangelo Antonioni’s savage look at American decadence, later died in prison in what authorities said was an accident. The third bandit, Sheldon (Terry) Bernhard, 43, served his term and has rejoined the family.)
After that some of the commune children burglarized houses on Martha’s Vineyard and burned them down to cover their misdeeds.
The Family soon withdrew from the world, believing themselves badly misunderstood.
Today, they call themselves the Fort Hill Community after the place above Boston’s Roxbury section where they first gathered in unheated derelict Victorian buildings in 1966.
“This is not a cult by traditional standards because they don’t have a centralized belief system that will send them off to the South American jungle (as Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple did) and because you can leave,” said Len Grayson-Christi, a psychologist who specializes in cult deprogramming and who has become a Family friend in the past year.
“People stay here because they have been here a long time and this is their life,” Grayson-Christi said.
Grayson-Christi says the Lymans did not fall apart as the ‘60s ended, as many other communal families did, because they withdrew.
‘Blessing in Disguise’
“Once you isolate yourself from the world, as they did after Felton’s articles, all of your problems start to come up and you have to deal with them. In a way the Felton articles were a blessing in disguise because it pulled them right together,” Grayson-Christi said.
“Their pathology, looked at from an outside perspective, is obedience,” Grayson-Christi said. “They want to get along and so there is obedience to the situation. You want to be obedient not because there is any law or rule but because you want the family to do well.”
To stay together as a family they have created social devices that prompt communication with one another. Their style of making coffee is one device that engenders conversation, that helps create community.
A large cafeteria-size coffee maker would be efficient. Instead coffee is made, mostly by women, two or three cups at a time in cheap aluminum drip pots as members drift into the kitchens and ask for it.
When one of the men wants more coffee, he may get up and pour it himself, but more often the men just lift their cups an inch or two from the table and one of the women or girls refills it without being asked.
“Women should take care of men, should serve them so they can be creative,” Jessie Benton said.
“The purpose of making coffee the way they do,” Grayson-Christi explained, “is to have people establish dialogues about anything--fish, the farm, whatever--so they have a sense of community.
“Their unspoken law is that you must struggle with the other person,” Grayson-Christi said.
The Family operates from intense personal relationships in which each member is expected to reveal his doubts and fears and inner self or else face others who prod him to open up.
Boston businessman Wayne Hansen said he left the Family in 1979 after 13 years because “I felt myself drifting further and further apart. The commitment to be there has to be total. . . .
“Their life style forces them to constantly examine and reveal themselves, and it is not easy to live when you are constantly personally exposed. I found it very difficult to live with my insides on the outside after a while, and I found I had parts of myself I didn’t want to expose,” Hansen said, his voice trembling.
He said this exposure comes not from cathartic group discussions, but from living in close proximity with “people who are very sensitive and aware” of when another member withholds feelings and withdraws emotionally even a tiny bit.
‘Real Human Love’
“Their understanding of the essence of what people are is quite advanced compared to the rest of the world because it’s quite simple,” Hansen said. Instead of psychological theories, “it’s real human love,” Hansen said, adding that “I have no bone to pick with them. I think they are wonderful people.”
Intense closeness and flexibility helps people cope with their innermost problems, Eve Lyman said.
“There are no secrets in a family,” she explained while making coffee in the kitchen of the restored old Boston home the Family calls Elder’s after the man who sold it to them.
“We all know each other and our strengths and weaknesses and problems,” she said.
“We have criminals--we’ve had criminals--but we deal with them differently,” Eve Lyman added. “We deal with each of them personally, as a human being, just like we deal with everything on a personal level.
“In society if you break X law you get Y punishment. That is not true with us. One thing we have found is any system has terrible drawbacks because it cannot deal with people’s personal needs.
“We go by what we feel, with what’s right for that person and that’s why we don’t have criminals anymore,” she said.
To illustrate this, Eve Lyman told about an obstreperous sprite who was not a Lyman. A famous playwright recently sent the small boy to the family, hoping the Lymans could make him behave.
The Family had no success until one morning when the boy refused to eat his cereal and threw a tantrum. A family leader, Faith Gude, 42, the daughter of novelist Kay Boyle, got up and dumped the bowl on the boy’s head.
The boy was stunned, Eve Lyman said, that anyone else would act that outrageously. Now, slowly, he is beginning to appreciate how his conduct affects others, she said.
The Lyman Family’s patron followed the winding yellow-brown dirt road deep in the emerald country of Oz, got out the tools of his trade and painted a picture of a broken-down farmhouse, selling the artwork for $42,000, which is the sort of thing Thomas Hart Benton could do. The proceeds from selling the picture paid for the farm.
“At first we didn’t know anything about farming,” said Dick Russell, 37, the Family publicist and a former TV Guide writer. “The crops failed and the animals died.”
But the Family has learned to operate like a living encyclopedia: Each time a skill is needed, someone learns it, almost becomes it, the way the characters in Ray Bradbury’s novel “Fahrenheit 451" became the books they memorized. Each time one of the children takes an interest in any subject from astronomy to zoology, he or she can almost always find an adult in the community who has studied it.
In spring, when rains wet the nearby fields of winter wheat, many people stroll across the hills kicking toadstools. Not the Lymans. They have learned to hunt morels and the mushrooms’ flavor enhances their dinners for months.
Several of the men and women were assigned to learn farming skills, and they started making friends among the locals, like Paul Jones, a third-generation farmer.
“They’ve done a lot of growing since that first year,” Jones said. “They’ve learned how to farm and they don’t waste a thing, but I can’t get ‘em to use any artificial fertilizers, none at all.”
In spring, when the snow melts and the wild plum trees blossom, Lymans from both coasts descend on the farm for a few weeks. Although there is work to be done, Benton Farm operates during these times like a private vacation resort.
Over the years, the men rehabilitated the 50-year-old farmhouse and then built a new house, up the hill, which looks just like the old one.
One summer the men and boys built an innovative barn, designed by member John Kostick, 43, a metal sculptor and one-time Brandeis University physics major, that is a marvel of efficiency in this community, according to Cassie Mather, managing editor of the weekly Blue Rapids Times.
Most local farmers build their barns on flat land, lifting hay to a loft and then dropping it down to feed animals.
The Benton Farm barn sits hard against a hillside, its floors and lower walls made of limestone that the men and boys cut from a nearby creek bed with hand tools.
The barn’s top floor door opens onto the dirt road so trucks can pull up and unload hay without lifting.
The cows and goats live in the lower story, their food dropped from above. Manure falls onto concrete gutters that slope down to a pit on the ground outside. A tractor scoops up the manure and spreads it on the fields.
Mather, the editor who has covered Blue Rapids and environs for 26 years, said: “They’re wonderful people. They live off the land; they’re naturalists.
“They produce their own food, they eat what they grow--a lot of farmers these days buy theirs at the store--and they don’t waste a thing. They live within their means, unlike a lot of the city folk who make some money, buy a farm and then go broke because they try to live like city folk,” Mather said.
The Fort Hill Community also saved some of the old skills of the settlers who came here after the Civil War, when the local population was five times or more what it is today.
A few years back they bought a rusty old sorghum mill from Clarence Smith, an old-timer who, before he died, taught them how to raise old-style sorghum, cut them when the first fall frost strikes, squeeze the stalks for their green juice and boil it down over several days into sweet molasses.
Each fall now the Family invites neighbors from miles around to come and share the experience.
“America was founded on the rights of the individual,” Peper said, “but the essence of America is community. The way in which the individual is supreme is community.”
Richie Guerin, 39, the Family architect, said a sense of community is what the Blue Rapids area has lost with the rise of cash-crop farming and big machines.
Town No Longer Exists
“Bigelow, a town down the road that doesn’t exist anymore, used to have two threshers for the whole area,” Guerin said. “When harvest came, everyone would share them, everyone helping to harvest everyone else’s crop. “But now everybody has their own machines and they work alone,” Guerin added. “There’s a lot of pride and vanity, a lot of ‘I’ve got a bigger and newer tractor than you do.’ ”
David Gude, 45, a sound engineer and son of a famous Manhattan talent agent, sees in that a parallel to other aspects of American life. “Everyone wants to have their own space because it’s easier to go off on your own and not work it through,” he said, observing that growing numbers of adults now live alone.
“Nobody wants to feel any pain so they do everything they can to avoid pain. But people don’t learn except by painful experience,” he said.
‘Lack of Remembering’
Peper believes that “there is such a complete lack of remembering, of teaching,” that many youths are growing up today without an appreciation for democracy and education.
“Once we were talking with some teen-agers--who grew up outside (the family)--about Kennedy’s assassination and Miguel Rivera, our neighbor in Boston, said, ‘You mean George Kennedy? He was president once.’
“And Joel Luna (a black youth from the Dominican Republic who recently married into the community) said he didn’t know who Martin Luther King was,” Peper said, shaking his head.
The Lyman children know about such things, even though most of them have been home schooled. A few went to Kansas schools for a spell, but when the Rolling Stone pieces appeared, the children were jeered and beaten by classmates, Family members and Blue Rapids residents alike say.
Letters of Acceptance
Recently, Corrina Kweskin, 19, wanted to attend college. None would take her because she lacked a transcript. Then she took the Scholastic Aptitude Test and got letters of acceptance from Columbia University and Barnard, Sarah Lawrence and Reed Colleges accepted her and offered aid.
She chose Reed.
“One of the things wrong with this society is that we don’t look up to anyone and it permeates our society,” Eve Lyman said.
“Look at how we teach art in the public schools. They don’t show children pictures by great artists, instead they show children pictures drawn by other children and say to them ‘you can be as good as anybody else.’ But I can’t. I can’t be Leonardi da Vinci. But I can aspire to be like him and I can appreciate what he has done.
“We don’t show children great art to aspire to,” she said, her voice gaining force and speed. “Instead we teach children that to be mediocre is OK--but it’s not OK. It’s not.”
Eve Lyman and her sister, Gale, 31, are the daughters of Abram Chayes, a Harvard Law School professor who went to Washington with the Kennedy Administration to become the State Department’s top legal counsel, and Antonia Chayes, who was the first woman Air Force undersecretary, serving in the Carter Administration.
“My parents are typical liberals,” Eve Lyman said, invoking a political label that most Family members speak of with derision.
Friends brought Eve to Fort Hill 15 years ago, when she was 18. Later Mel got her pregnant. “I wasn’t legally married, and my parents couldn’t deal with it,” she said.
When Eve and Gale joined the commune, “it broke our hearts,” Antonia Chayes said.
“At the time, in the end of the ‘60s, this was a deviant style. It seemed to us to be rooted in magic and in drugs and it had the earmarks of violence. The Rolling Stone articles absolutely terrified me, although my husband didn’t believe it,” she added.
“We wanted the girls to live what we considered a normal life, but as a consequence of their joining there was a lot of hostility in the beginning.
‘Nothing We Could Do’
“We began to recognize there was nothing we could do and the only way to keep in touch was to accept what they had done and to love them,” she added, noting that the Lyman Family encouraged them to visit their grandchildren.
One day the Chayeses hired Fort Hill Construction to build an addition to their house and were delighted with the quality workmanship. And they began listening to stories about how the family, most of them urban residents, learned to work the farm successfully.
“They have educated themselves to do work that takes a lot of skill and a lot of discipline. Really remarkable. That told me their ideals and the discipline of living together has to be somehow parallel,” Antonia Chayes said. “It seemed to me instinctively that they were maturing.
“They have to bear responsibility for their lives and I think they are,” she added. “It seems to me they are really happy. It also seems to me that they are, as my husband said, no different than anyone else of their own age--they are questioning. They are sophisticated and naive.”
The second generation is coming into maturity now. The history of communes in America is that the children leave when they grow up.
“That won’t happen to us,” Eve Lyman said. “Most of our children will stay.”
One night at dinner in Kansas, Bellina Kweskin, 14, explained how she and Deirdre Goldfarb, 17, went to a dance at Valley Heights High School in Waterville, Kan., where hardly anyone danced.
“They didn’t know how to have a party,” said musician Jim Kweskin, Bellina’s father. So the Lymans organized a party at Benton Farm to teach the other youths how to dance and have a good time.
“Getting drunk is the best way a lot of the kids at school know to have fun,” Bellina said. “My favorite ways to have fun are playing music or going to the river and swimming or taking the little kids out to play tag.”
Suddenly dogs barked outside. “Must be Padrick,” George Peper guessed, running outside to meet his son, who was returning, alone, from a regional track meet.
“How’d you do?” someone asked the 6-foot, 2-inch blond youth as he strolled into the old farmhouse dining room.
“Fourth,” Padrick, 16, a broad jumper, said.
The room came alive with praise for Padrick, who beamed as he soaked in the adulation. How did Padrick feel that his parents did not come to see him?
“It’s much better when they don’t come and I can tell them all about it than to have them come and wait hours to watch me make three jumps,” he said, waving his hand about the room.
The next day eight of the family’s teen-agers sat on some rocks and talked about their lives, their futures.
One of the girls, Daria Lyman, 16, named each of the boys who are not half brothers and might, she said, some day become her husband. She counted 14 eligible males, some of whom were present.
“What about Joel?” asked Saskia Given, 19, naming her husband of six months and a recent addition to the community.
“Oh, yeah, well, 15,” Daria said, chuckling.
Saskia, who was named after Rembrandt’s wife, said she was “just being realistic, that someday Joel and I might break up and marry others.”
The eight teen-agers interviewed at length, plus four others, said they could not imagine leaving the Family.
In recent years a few young men, Boston street kids, have joined the family.
“My parents are just glad I’m off the streets,” said one. Another said he no longer has trouble with the police and feels worthwhile learning carpentry.