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.

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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.

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