Musician Holly Throsby finds magic in the Arizona desert
Surrounded by the arid magic of the Arizona desert, the Sydney singer, songwriter and novelist made friends and created precious memories.
When I was 15 years old, I travelled with my mum [radio broadcaster Margaret Throsby] and my stepfather, Graham McCarter, to Tucson, Arizona. We were to stay with my stepfather’s friend, Pam, the widow of the American film star Lee Marvin. Graham, a photographer, had met Pam and Lee years earlier when they were in Australia to fish for marlin in the deep waters off Queensland. Graham was invited to lunch through a mutual friend and Lee took a shine to him.
By the time I went to Tucson, Lee had been dead for seven years. Pam lived with her teenage grandchildren in the Marvin residence: an adobe brick hacienda-style ranch house in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Designed by the Swiss-American architect Josias Joesler, it was a low-slung affair, with hand-hewn beams, red concrete floors and Spanish Mission porches. There was a guesthouse, a pool, a tennis court and the Fish Room, where an enormous marlin hung above the fireplace: a life-size replica of the 275-kilogram monster that earned Pam an IGFA Women’s World Record. It was the most fantastic house I’d ever seen.
Pam was wonderful. Warm, welcoming and an active Democrat. She baked pies and had two fridges and a pantry the size of my bedroom. I hit it off with [two of] her grandchildren, Emily and Trevor, immediately. We talked endlessly, smoking Marlboro Lights late into the night. Trevor made the first four-track recording of me singing my original songs and gave me a copy on cassette.
In the daytime, I’d walk around the house, admiring Pam’s art and artefacts, and out onto the pebbly desert ground to look at giant saguaro [cacti], the mountains, the flowerpot broken in the night by a wild javelina
[a boar-like mammal]. Nothing seemed as magical to me as the landscape of Tucson and I pointed my camera at everything, feeling very meaningful and changed.
Pam and Emily took us to the Tohono O’odham reservation and we ate Navajo fry bread; they drove us to Bisbee to look over the rim of a giant copper mine; we went to a barbecue restaurant that had an oral menu of “steak, ribs or half a chicken” and I loved it, even though I was a vegetarian and had nothing but a bread roll and an iceberg salad. Emily and I watched The Last of the Mohicans on Lee’s movie projector in the Fish Room and cried. Then she gave me her worn copy of [Dee Brown’s] Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and I cried again while reading it on the plane home.
I recall writing Pam a terribly earnest letter on that plane ride, too, expressing how altered I was by our visit. I don’t recall if I sent it but I do know that I returned there four times, most recently with my mum, my partner and our daughter. Pam, Emily and Trevor took us all out for my 38th birthday and Pam, who resembled a movie star herself, didn’t let on how unwell she must have felt. She died on 2 April this year and left a giant hole in our hearts. Tucson remains, in so many ways, the landscape of my dreams.
Holly Throsby (left) on her first visit to Tucson, Arizona, in 1994, with Pam Marvin’s granddaughter, Emily The journey Sydney to Tucson, ArizonaThe year1994 Need to know…Her new novel, Cedar Valley, is out now.