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Stewart Udall

It is cause for celebration when someone lives to be 90 and remains intellectually vibrant and politically alive. Yet it was sad to read that Stewart Udall has died. Shortly after I moved here in the early 1990s, I interviewed him for a piece I was writing for the New York Times about Indians and environmentalism. (This was when Pojoaque Pueblo was threatening to open a nuclear waste dump if it didn’t get its way on tribal gambling.) A few months later, when Fire in the Mind was published, I sent Mr. Udall an invitation to my book party — he lived just up the hill — and was delighted when he appeared at the back door. Here was the former Secretary of Interior under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, a man who had expanded, through sheer force of will, the National Park System and helped push through the Wilderness Act, and he was standing in my kitchen offering a toast before heading home to watch a football game.

Stewart Udall book inscription

Once or twice, on his walks around the neighborhood, he dropped off an envelope addressed “Hon. George Johnson” with information about a story he thought deserved attention. He also gave me an inscribed copy of The Myths of August, his book about the fallout — figuratively and literally — from America’s conduct in the Cold War.

In another epic standoff, he was instrumental in dissuading the actress Shirley Maclaine from building a mansion near the top of Atalaya Mountain. A few years later when an investment banker, Paul Tierney, sued the City of Santa Fe for denying him permission to build on another hilltop (the site of the old Talaya Reservoir above Camino San Acacio), I took my Times colleague James Brooke to meet Mr. Udall. Jim, a national correspondent based in Denver, was writing about the controversy and I figured Stewart would have something interesting to say. As the three of us stood on a ridge behind the Udall compound, off Camino de Cruz Blanca, the former Secretary lamented how ostentatious trophy houses were springing up in defiance of Santa Fe’s modest ways.

“Vail, Aspen, Telluride, Jackson — those are communities with different histories,” he said. As he looked northwest toward the Tierney hill, he noted that it was as prominent as “a prow of a ship — the last hillside site within the inner city. For him to do this right in the middle of the city violates everything that Santa Fe is about.”

It was a losing battle. Mr. Tierney prevailed in his lawsuit and sold the lot to Tom Ford, whose mansion, an even bigger one, is almost complete.

Related Posts:

Part 1. A Stroll Along Shirley Maclaine Boulevard
The Battle for Talaya Hill

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review