Nepenthe is a mystical place, or so people say, and it is easy to believe when you visit this beautiful location perched on a cliff rising 800 feet above the glistening Pacific Ocean. It certainly has something special that has attracted artists, poets, writers, and movie stars over its nearly 50 year history.
Nepenthe (pronounced "nuh-pen-thee") is a restaurant on a 12-acre lot in magnificent Big Sur California, and it is a landmark in the area. The restaurant has been owned and operated by members of the Fassett family since 1949. In 1947, Madeleine (or "Lolly" as she was known) Fassett and her husband Bill purchased a cabin and the surrounding land from Orson Welles and his wife Rita Hayworth. Several years earlier, Welles had purchased what was known as the Trails Club cabin (the headquarters for the organization that would later become the Sierra Club) as a hideway place for him and his new bride. The Fassetts, in turn, purchased the cabin and land as a home for their five children. Two years later, they contracted with architect Rowan Maiden, a pupil of Franklin Lloyd Wright, to design a two story restaurant attached to the cabin. Upon completion, a friend christened the restaurant Nepenthe -- the "isle of no care". According to Wikipedia, Nepenthe is a Greek term meaning "the one that chases away sorrow", its origin taken from a mythical opiate, and when the sun is shining on Nepenthe, the sheer beauty of the location can easily chase away one's sadness. There is so much beauty to take in that one forgets their troubles, at least for a time.
For nearly 40 years, Lolly Fassett ran the restaurant. Her husband Bill tended bar and the kids helped out as well. Artists such as Henry Miller, Man Ray, and Anais Nin hung out there; Dylan Thomas visited and did some drawings on site; young and struggling actors on the brink of fame such as Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, and Kim Novak stopped by on their journeys to Hollywood -- each drawn to the scenic location and the restaurant's welcoming hosts. Nepenthe became a mecca of sorts for artists far and wide, and in 1963, Hollywood descended on Nepenthe to shoot some folk dancing footage for an upcoming motion picture called The Sandpiper starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Some interior dining and dancing shots were filmed inside the restaurant, while others were recreated later in France to complete the filming of the movie.
Over the years, the site of Nepenthe grew to include The Phoenix Gift Shop and the Cafe Kevah. In 1964, Lolly Fassett added The Phoenix Gift Shop to sell items of interest to her that were made locally and abroad. Ever watchful above the shop stands the "dark angel", a redwood sculpture created by Cyril M. Brown (known locally as Buzz Brown).
"The Phoenix Gift Shop occupied a lower level, its low roof crowned by an arresting statue carved of wood. Kelsey stopped to look up at the tall figure that might be part angel, part devil. Its wings hung folded at its sides, and a metal halo with strands of fine wire raying out from it crowned the strange head. The eyes dominated a crudely carved face, seeming to stare down at Kelsey. She wasn't sure if the eyes were kind or malevolent. As she and Tyler started up the mountainside, following a railed path, Kelsey looked back, and saw that the statue's eyes still searched her own eerily. She had a feeling that the creature--whatever it was--promised no good for them here at Nepenthe." - Flaming Tree
According to "Explore! Big Sur Country: A Guide to Exploring the Coastline, Byways, Mountains, Trails, and Lore" written by Barry Parr, the story of the dark angel sculpture goes that a fellow Big Sur resident named Ray Ramsy won the sculpture from Buzz Brown in a card game and gifted it to the Fassetts. The carving is meant to represent the gentle death angel from Greek mythology responsible for escorting a deceased person's soul to Hades to await judgment. While Kelsey in Flaming Tree feels that the angel may be a portent of bad things to come, I saw nothing but kindness when I gazed upon its timeworn face inlaid with turquoise and yellow tiles, and eyes that followed me around. It is a beautiful piece of artistry.
In 1992, the Fassett family added the Cafe Kevah which, according to the Nepenthe website, "takes its name from founder Bill Fassett's mother, a one-time suffragette, numerologist, and astrologer to the stars". This small cafe offers gourmet coffee, baked goods, and also has a terrace overlooking the ocean.
Once you ascend the stairs to Nepenthe itself, you are greeted by a dramatic wooden sculpture of a phoenix, appearing frozen in flight as it is landing on the terrace.
"The bird's legs were of bronze, anchored into the oak stump, and the carving itself gave an effect of flashing, jeweled color as light poured over it." - Flaming Tree
This dramatic figurative of the bird was carved out of oak in 1963 by Big Sur artist Edmund Kara (1925-2001). On the DVD version of The Sandpiper, one of the special features is a rare documentary on Edmund Kara's work called The Statue of the Sandpiper, in which you learn about the making of a wooden bust of Elizabeth Taylor commissioned for the movie. the film also contains footage of Mr. Kara creating the phoenix sculpture residing at Nepenthe. You can read more about the life and artistry of Edmund Kara at the Edmund Kara web site.
Nepenthe is still owned and operated by members of the Fassett family. You can take in the tremendous views of the California coastline surrounding Nepenthe by dining outside on the terrace or within the restaurant itself. Little appears to have changed in the decor since Phyllis visited in 1983.
"They found a table on the far side of the room, near a great, metal-hooded fireplace that stood out in the center, its flames radiating a welcome warmth. Kelsey and Olga sat on a bench along the wall, with bright cushions piled behind them, while Tyler took the chair opposite. The beamed ceiling of the room slanted toward the outer edge to meet huge panes of glass that made the room an observatory." - Flaming Tree
My sister and I dined at one of the tables in the corner. Colorful cushions still grace the benches. Since it was lunchtime and a warm day, the fireplace was not in use. For lunch, I enjoyed the restaurant's famous Ambrosia Burger consisting of ground beef, cheddar cheese, and a sumptuous sauce made up of mayonnaise, tomato sauce and chili salsa.
Phyllis A. Whitney's visit to Nepenthe influenced her writing in a profound way. In an interview with Body, Mind, Spirit Magazine in 1989, she stated that her visit to the restaurant led her to realize that she was interested in metaphysical subject matter. Although she had woven new age aspects into some of her earlier books such as Vermilion, it was her sense of the "mystical environment" of Nepenthe that brought her interest in the metaphysical to consciousness. On visiting Nepenthe, she said:
"The people there were interested in psychic matters and metaphysics. Somehow the place affected me; I could feel it and I wanted to use it in my book."
Phyllis went on to talk about meeting a psychic at Nepenthe with pink, green, and yellow hair.
"I went right over to her and asked 'What is your part in this?' She obviously belonged there and was not one of the customers. She said 'I read tarot cards'. It was wonderful! I had never had my cards read before so I asked her to read mine. She went to get her cards and I remember my sister-in-law asking, 'Do you believe in this stuff?' I said, 'I neither believe nor disbelieve. I just want to find out. So I sat down with this woman and I can't remember now what she told me but somehow, the beginnings of conscious awareness began. When I got home to write, I felt there should be a psychic in Flaming Tree."
In Flaming Tree, a psychic named Olga provides the key to understanding past transgressions and a means to begin healing old wounds. After writing Flaming Tree, Phyllis continued exploring the metaphysical, weaving the subject matter into the storylines of future books such as Rainbow in the Mist and Amethyst Dreams.
You can read stories about the history of Nepenthe, the Fassetts, and the artists who visited the establishment at the Nepenthe web site. If you choose to visit Nepenthe, please let the folks at the restaurant know that you learned about Nepenthe from The Official PHYLLIS A. WHITNEY Web site and Flaming Tree.
View more photographs from my visit to Nepenthe.
Check back later to read about the next stop on our Flaming Tree trip!
-- Philip Tyo, Founder and Webmaster of The Official PHYLLIS A. WHITNEY Web site