Pat Evans, widow of New Mexico author Max Evans, reflects on a life filled with tales of Dust Bowl New Mexico to the glitz of Hollywood
Pat Evans, 93, widow of New Mexico author Max Evans, at her home in southeast Albuquerque. Pat and Max shared more than 70 years of tough times and good times. (Chancey Bush/)
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“Sagebrush was the biggest thing in Taos,” Pat Evans said. “You had dark gray, lavender sagebrush and a yellow kind. They were gorgeous. Everybody painted them. During the summer, every afternoon, or every other afternoon, we got a shower for about 10 minutes. It would clear everything out. You could count on it. And you never had to worry about snow for Christmas in Taos. We did snow angels by the millions.”
Pat, 93, widow of New Mexico writer Max Evans, author of novels such as “The Rounders” and “The Hi Lo Country,” is sitting in her southeast Albuquerque home a few days before Christmas, reminiscing about a life that has taken her from Dust Bowl-era storms in Nara Visa, New Mexico, to movie-business adventures in Hollywood in the 1960s and beyond.
She lived for 30 years in Taos during a time when the town’s other residents included prominent arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan and such luminary artists as Joseph Henry Sharp, E. Irving Couse, Oscar Berninghaus, Ernest Blumenschein and Dorothy Brett.
“That little town was just loaded with world-famous, well-known people,” Pat said. “It was such a rich life, filled with art, literature and wonderful, intelligent people, neurotic and spoiled.”
And it was in Taos in 1949 that Pat, home from her first and only year at New Mexico’s Highlands University, met Max, a cowboy-turned painter at the time and a creative force and untamed spirit most of the time.
They were married three months later, and things never really stayed the same for long after that.
“We had a terribly interesting life,” Pat said. “A lot of problems, but a lot of happies. And we’d still be together if he was still here. I wouldn’t have thrown him out.”
Big, black curtain
Pat was born Patsy Jo James in Mangum, Oklahoma, on April 17, 1929. Her father, A.J. “Doc” James, was a good mechanic with the Ford Motor Co. in Mangum. But when the Depression took a big bite out of his pay, he moved his wife, Floye, and year-old Pat, to Nara Visa, about 50 miles northwest of Tucumcari, and opened a mechanics garage and filling station there.
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“My mother’s parents had a farm in Nara Visa,” Pat said. “The town had a bank, a doctor and railroad depot. The railroad went through town to Tucumcari and Dalhart (Texas). There was a water tank in Nara Visa for the steam engines.”
Those were the Dust Bowl days, and what Pat remembers most vividly, although she was only 3 or 4, is the monstrous dust storm that swept through Nara Visa.
She said the people of the town could see it coming from a long way off. Her mother and father stuffed sheets and blankets in the cracks around doors and windows and put a wet bandana over her face and over their own faces.
An undated photo of Max and Pat Evans at Pat’s home in southeast Albuquerque. (Chancey Bush/)
“It was like a big, black curtain,” Pat said. “When it hit, it really hit. It had a roar, like an unreal thing. It was so dark, dark, dark.”
When she was 6, Pat moved with her parents to Portales. Her father was the Conoco distributor there, driving a fuel tank truck to all the service stations in the area. They were there for nearly four years.
“Portales is as flat as a table,” Pat said. “An anthill is a big thing there. Dad wanted to go where there were mountains.”
So they moved to Taos.
‘A wonderful place’
“It was a wonderful place to grow up,” Pat said of Taos. “We could ride our bikes anywhere, go hiking. You could get to a good fishing stream in 15, 20 or 30 minutes. There was no crime, no homeless. Even the winos Max wrote about (in “King of Taos”) had someone to take care of them.”
Pat’s father and mother operated a service station, mechanics garage and grocery store in Taos, and Pat helped.
“The store had three comfortable chairs, a heater and an ice box with the coldest pop in town,” Pat said. “Our store was like this little community thing. People would come to buy a couple of cans of green beans and stay to visit. No one was in a hurry, and everybody accepted everybody.”
A transportation company that operated between Taos and Raton leased space in Doc James’ garage building. Pat said all the town’s artists, including Taos Society of Artists founders Sharp and Couse, shipped their paintings with that company, so she had the opportunity to meet them.
“Sharp was strictly business,” she said. “Couse was warmer, more friendly.”
Pat said Mabel Dodge Luhan and her Taos Pueblo husband, Tony, were regular customers at the store.
“I was 16 and helped with (pumping) gas,” Pat said. “Mabel would sit in the back seat, very dignified. But Tony was the nicest man ever. He would get out and try to help with the windshield. Mabel would watch every single move, but just sit there. She was nice, but removed.”
Pat and painter Dorothy Brett, more than 40 years Pat’s senior, became good friends and would visit with each other while attending parties at the home of Frank Waters, author of “The Man Who Killed the Deer” and “The Woman at Otowi Crossing.”
“Dorothy Brett was really sweet,” Pat said. “She was deaf and used an ear horn she would hold up to your mouth. She just liked me. I could talk about anything because I was a big reader, I was open and I was good with people because I worked in the store and the filling station. We just had more darn fun.”
Pat Evans looks at an old photograph of herself and her twin daughters while reminiscing about a life that has taken her from Dust Bowl New Mexico to the glitter of Hollywood. (Chancey Bush/)
Max was one of the newer artists in Taos, but he had a painting on exhibit at a show at the Harwood Foundation. The day after he met Pat, he asked her if she’d like to go with him to see it.
Room with a view
“He was too early for the date,” Pat said. “He was supposed to pick me up at 2 p.m., when the Harwood opened, but he picked me up at 12:30. We drove around, parked on the plaza and talked.”
Max’s painting at the Harwood depicted two mortar gunners and was inspired by his own experiences as a U.S. Army combat soldier during World War II.
“He was in combat for six months in France, Belgium and Germany and was wounded twice,” Pat said. “He had terrible nightmares for years and would wake up screaming and flailing. I think he might have had PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).”
Pat, an intelligent, patient, strong person, was a stunningly attractive young woman when she met Max. A dedicated artist who painted in watercolors, she had her own dreams.
“I wanted to go back to school,” she said. “I didn’t much want to get married. But boy, he was really good looking and personable. He talked me into it.”
They were married in Raton on Aug. 4, 1949, and settled in a three-room adobe house on 18 acres about 7 miles west of Taos.
“It was just gorgeous,” Pat said. “We had horses and a couple of steers. We had a three-holer outhouse with a good view of the Taos Mountains when the door was open, which it usually was because the outhouse faced away from the road. There was an acequia behind the house, and across the road there was an active Penitente morada (meeting building.)”
Pat and Max were living in the three-room adobe when their twin daughters, Sheryl and Charlotte, were born on Oct. 16, 1954. And it was in that house that Max turned from painting to writing. Pat remembers how excited they were when Max sold his first story, an article about a coyote, to the Denver Post for $25.
“We wanted to frame (the check), but we needed the money,” she said.
There were good times and tough times. Max went into the mining business with his friend Woody Crumbo, a Pottawatomie Indian painter, and that went from boom to bust. And Max, like some of the characters in his fiction, had a penchant for drinking and raising hell, which resulted in the occasional barroom brawl with consequences.
Books by late New Mexico author Max Evans line a bookshelf in his widow Pat’s Albuquerque home. (Chancey Bush/)
One night, Pat got a call from the Taos jail. Max and a couple of his cowboy pals had been in a barroom fight with three Marines.
“They really tore up the place,” Pat said. “Everybody went to jail, except for two Marines who went to the hospital. The Taos jail was in a basement then. I had to take some food and a shirt down there. Max’s shirt had been torn to shreds.”
But the writing had taken hold on Max, and he was churning out books – “The Rounders” (1960), “The Hi Lo Country” (1961), “The One-Eyed Sky” (1963) and “My Pardner” (1963).
“He was a mess, but he was very productive,” Pat said.
And then actor Fess Parker, best known for portraying Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone on TV, called Max. He wanted to buy the rights to make a movie out of “The Rounders,” a mostly humorous novel about two banged up cowboys and a loco roan horse named Old Fooler.
“Our whole life changed with just one phone call,” Pat said.
Parker did not make a movie out of “The Rounders.” But director Burt Kennedy did. The 1965 film starred Henry Fonda and Glenn Ford.
Parker’s call, however, introduced Max to Hollywood. He started getting writing jobs in California and spending more and more time there.
Unhappy at being separated for extended periods of time, Pat, Max and the twins moved to a furnished house in Studio City, California, in 1964 and lived there for a year.
“The only friends we had out there were actors, or in the movie business, or writers,” Pat said.
Director Sam Peckinpah got to know Max because he wanted to make the movie version of “The Hi Lo Country,” Max’s novel about hard-living cowboys, romantic rivalry and murder.
Peckinpah, best known for his 1969 Western epic “The Wild Bunch,” had a reputation for being combative, for getting into conflicts with producers and movie crew members. Maybe it’s no surprise that he and Max hit it off.
“They just became fast friends,” Pat said. “They saw things so much alike and really loved their drinking.”
During the year Pat, Max and the twins lived in California, they spent a lot of time with Peckinpah and his four young children, three daughters and a son.
“He loved children,” Pat said of the wild man director. “He was the best daddy, so patient and sweet. He took our twins to get their first Barbie dolls. He was totally different with adults. On the set, he was the director and don’t you forget it.”
Pat and Max got to know many others in the movie world, including actors Warren Oates and Robert Culp and their wives and actor Brian Keith.
Sheryl Pat Evans chats with one of her twin daughters, Sheryl Evans, at their home in southeast Albuquerque. The paintings in the background are watercolors by Pat. (Chancey Bush/)
“Warren Oates and his wife were very sweet,” Pat said. “Warren was very calm. Robert Culp was very smart, intelligent conversation. There was nothing pretentious about him or his wife. Brian Keith would write letters to Max on anything he had at hand, brown paper sacks.”
And then there was Lee Marvin, who won a best actor Oscar for his role in 1965’s “Cat Ballou” and starred in 1967’s “The Dirty Dozen.”
“We first met Lee Marvin at a restaurant when we were with Sam,” Pat said. “Lee comes over and joins us at our table. He said, ‘I want to show you this new trick I learned.’ He gets up and rips the tablecloth out and dishes and drinks went everywhere. Lee says, ‘Oh hell, it didn’t work that time.’ You never knew what old Lee Marvin was going to do next.”
That year in Studio City was transformative.
“We sure did have a lot of fun,” Pat said. “I changed. The girls changed. We went back to Taos, and we just didn’t fit in.”
On Jan. 1, 1968, they moved into the Albuquerque house Pat lives in to this day.
A lot of work
The house is filled with art by Max, Pat and their artist friends. It is, of course, also well stocked with books by Max and others.
Max wrote more than two dozens works of fiction and nonfiction, and Pat typed and edited the manuscripts for all of them except the last one, 2020’s “The King of Taos.” Her deteriorating eyesight kept her from taking on that project.
“It was a lot of work,” she said. “Early on, I used a manual typewriter and did two carbon copies. I was just supposed to do those books. I was preparing for it all my life with all my reading.”
Her favorite of Max’s books is “The Hi Lo Country,” which is based on people and events in Max’s life.
“It’s just so real,” she said.
Peckinpah, who died in 1984, never did make a movie of “The Hi Lo Country.” But director Stephen Frears brought the book to the screen in 1998. The movie starred Woody Harrelson, Billy Crudup and Patricia Arquette.
“The King of Taos” was published just before Max’s death in August 2020. The book won the Wrangler Award presented by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and took finalist honors in the Western Writers of America Spur Awards competition.
“Max was a real cowboy because, you know, he started when he was 11,” Pat said. “He was a good roper, a great heeler. He never stopped being a cowboy. He always had that mentality, that freedom. Cowboys are different. There’s just a little bit of cruel in there. It’s not big, but it’s there. It has to be for them to rope and brand and castrate those calves. And they expect the absolute utmost from people working cattle.”
Pat is quiet a moment, settled in her favorite chair. A cow’s skull hangs on the wall above her.
“Max always did what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it, and I allowed it,” she said. “So that was that.
“We had hundreds of adventures, a million stories with Sam Peckinpah that are completely unprintable.”