I drove with my wife Sandra up to Solvang in May to see Betty. Some things have changed since I first made the trip to Buttonwood Farm in the late seventies. Malibu for example is no longer a village, and further up in Oxnard the farm workers are picking next to the mega malls. But when the 101 finally breaks free of Ventura, and suddenly you see that heart-stopping panorama of Pacific coastline framed by the mountains above Santa Barbara, the rush is still the same. We stopped off at Super Rica for chiles rellenos – and to pay tribute to Julia Child – and made our way up over the pass and down the steep descent into Santa Ynez.
I knocked and we entered the front sitting room. Betty was sitting in her chair with her back to the door, expecting us. I walked around in front of her. A blanket covered her lap, and her dog was stretched out at her side. Books in varying stages of examination lay as always in piles on the wooden bench. One new addition – an oxygen machine and its thin breathing tube – was placed against the wall. Her wrists were smaller and more fragile than before and her blouse hung loosely at her shoulders. Yet the spark was still in those intelligent, deep-set eyes, and she remained more or less in command of her dwindling universe. She looked up and smiled. Never one for effusive welcomes, she seemed to be telling me not to belabor it all.
I was introduced to Betty by her niece Anne Marsak, who with her husband Len was living with their children in Santa Barbara in the late 1970s. Len was an avid reader of The Nation — the venerable American weekly known both for its liberal values and its failure to turn a profit at any time in its otherwise glorious history. I was the magazine’s publisher at the time, and at Len’s urging Anne arranged a meeting with her aunt Elizabeth, matriarch of the Williams family, a cypress lumber, oil, and gas clan from Louisiana.
What little I learned of Betty’s life before Solvang derived in part from photographs around the house and the stray anecdotes that accompanied them. It occurs to me looking back that we first met when she was right around the age that I am now — and that she had of course already led a full life. She didn’t speak much about New Orleans, but perhaps I didn’t take it in because I didn’t go there myself until after Katrina – in any event it was not a topic between us. Her children’s family name was Zorthian, a name that conjured the exotic and occult but not one that fit easily with my sense of the courtly and reserved ranch woman who was my friend for 30 years. There were hints of chapters in Pasadena. Betty would go down there from time to time, and every now and then a name would come up that triggered a Los Angeles memory.
I came to know her daughters – Seyburn, a Santa Barbara County artist whose calligraphic illustrations have made the Buttonwood label recognizable all over the world; and Barry, a sharply intelligent and socially committed physician living in the Bay area; and though I don’t think I ever met him, she spoke often of her son Toby, who lived with Cree Indians in Canada.
Betty, like many Americans who live outside cosmopolitan areas, was devoted to public radio and television and stayed current. She was sensitive to injustice and readily understood that corporate-owned media was unreliable as a news source. She soon became an important ally and at varying times over the years she helped us strengthen the magazine. The robust Nation of today is the child of many parents, but the largest and oldest political weekly in the country owes a great debt to Betty Williams for her indispensable role during those rebuilding years.