Berkshire Sampler, Pittsfield, MA
Sunday, October 17, 1976
By Eileen Kuperschmid
NORTH BROOKFIELD – He's very attractive but he is rather short. You think that it bothers him more than a little because he wears such high heeled cowboy boots and because he struts more than he walks, thrusting out his chest and holding his head so far back that it seems almost as though he is looking beyond you.
He's an empire builder, an acquirer, a constantly moving, constantly alert man whose life is characterized by change. His name is Markle, Gilbert Scott Markle, and though he is usually smiling and very personable, you know that you will never really know him very well.
Born in New Jersey, raised by a mother who was a singer and a father who was an audio engineer, Markle interviews himself for you. No need to ask any questions, he'll tell you exactly what he wants you to know.
"I graduated from RPI…bachelor of science…won a Fulbright and went to France…" he is rapping this out bang, bang, bang. You are trying to keep up, shorthand scratches filling the page.
"You said a bachelor of science in physics?"
"Yes…went to Paris on the Fulbright where I was a minor celebrity…also have a bachelor's degree in the philosophy of science… later got a master's in philosophy…professor of philosophy at Clark University where I received tenure eight years later…went on sabbatical…never returned".
"Oh, Let me see if I got this straight, RPI…"
"You got it all. Anyway ALSG was making enough money then so I didn't have to teach anymore…"
Okay – okay – enough is enough. Let's backtrack a bit.
ALSG are the call letters for Markle's student touring agency – American Leadership Study Groups. The idea behind ALSG is simple enough. Any teacher wishing to tour Europe may do so free if he or she can find eight students who are willing to pay. There are 15, 25, and 35-day tours and there are both Spring and Summer programs to choose from. When the groups arrive in Europe they are met by a native courier who knows Europe like the back of the proverbial hand.
Located in large offices in the Worcester Airport, ALSG employs a sales force of eight men and women (all English). Each of them has been a courier at one time or another and all eight are exceptionally knowledgeable, pleasant and cool. Cool, bright, dedicated and attractive people surround Markle. A Markle person knows his stuff, and if he doesn't live up to the image, according to one associate I spoke to, he doesn't last long.
The business has grown so rapidly that a computer was purchased not too long ago just to keep track of increases in revenues.
"It ensures greater efficiency," says David Stitt, who has been coordinating the sales efforts of ALSG since 1973. "Together with a sophisticated marketing policy, the staff can now spend more time getting the programs together and less time on administrative duties.
"Each tour has a theme and is an in-depth insight into the cultures of the countries that the students are visiting," explains Stitt. "Hopefully the students become more involved in history by the end of the program."
* * *
In addition to the traveling programs, there are language-study programs wherein each student gets 60 hours of classroom study.
"The difference between us and the other organizations," states Stitt with more than a touch of pride, "is that while they will enroll students in an already established school run by Europeans, we develop our own program and have our own teachers. We get accommodations at universities and we buy services like transportation."
Heavily staff-oriented, ALSG employs approximately 100 Europeans in addition to its Worcester forces.
Though the mood in the ALSG offices is almost defiantly casual, it is also evident upon further observation that there's little if any dead wood floating around. Everyone seems to be having a ball. Indeed, ALSGers make you want to quit your job and move in with them. It's obvious that Markle has gone out of his way to create an aesthetically pleasant working space for his team of young people. Wall-to-wall carpeting, thick and soft, dark wood paneling, recessed lighting and huge picture windows over-looking the runways are but a few of the niceties.
Markle's private office sports leather couches, enlarged photos of himself and his friends, a modern conference table and a desk with two large stereo speakers balanced on either corner. Markle wasn't there when I was given the tour – as a matter of fact, Markle is rarely there.
"By 1974, ALSG was pretty well running itself," says Markle. "I bought this farm, Long View, with the idea of just having a change of scenery."
* * *
We are sitting in the dining room of Long View Farm in North Brookfield, Mass. It would be difficult to find a more idyllic setting. This working farm has a huge, immaculate red barn, four head of three beefers and a milker, a pig by the name of Georgiana and five little piglets, 30 chickens, four horses, a vegetable garden that supplies everything from tomatoes to corn to brussels sprouts, a pond complete with ducks and a corral. The rambling 19th century farmhouse was completely gutted by Markle's staff two years ago and the result of their handiwork is charming – rustic elegance at its finest. Housed in one wing of the house is a recording studio where people like Don McLean record. The studio has a working fireplace, a baby grand piano, a balcony overlooking the recording area, a glassed-in room with every conceivable piece of sound equipment, and though there's no partridge in a pear tree, there are thick, wine-colored drapes and yes, wall-to-wall carpeting covering just about everything. There are sleeping lofts and guest rooms in both the house and the barn and there's also a well-appointed two-room cottage. It's a nice place to visit but I'd rather live there.
Markle hadn't intended to build a recording studio when he originally purchased Long View. He just more or less wanted a pretty place to live when he wasn't staying at his house in the Truro dunes or the other one he's got on Tobago, a small Caribbean island. However, one thing led to another and after hauling in all sorts of stereo equipment, "It became apparent that I was, in fact, building a studio."
Markle has, of course, another staff here at the farm. The five people, two women and three men, that comprise it, are less cool and sophisticated than the ALSGers but they are just as hard-working and just as dedicated to Markle. Markle's people are more like fans than they are employees. One wonders if this degree of loyalty is accomplished because he inspires those around him with the importance of whatever it is he is into at any given moment.
Kathy Holden is in her early twenties, intelligent, unaffected and open. She's been living at Long View for a year now and most of the animals here bought at her urging.
"Gil said, 'Whatever you can take care of, you can have.' He was just concerned that the animals be both useful and also contained," says Kathy. "He didn't want pigs running around on the lawn."
"I take care of the animals and since it was my idea to buy the cow I milk it."
The beefers are killed each year, as Georgian the pig will be when the time comes. Between the garden, which Kathy also tends, and the animals, a large portion of the farm's food supplies are self-produced. Kathy does the necessary marketing, feeds and waters the animals, mucks the stalls, and is responsible for making breakfast and lunch for everyone – and everyone usually turns out to be 15 to 20 people.
"You lease the entire facility (all 145 acres of it) on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis," writes Markle in the farm's promotional brochure. "The whole place is yours: valleys, barn, pond, horses, cows, chickens, and the goat. You live there with good food, yeast bombs, booze and other amenities all provided. No other act around waiting to record, and so the studio is yours 24 hours a day if you want…
"We need $1,250 a day to keep the place cooking for you. A bit less maybe if you can work seven days a week. (That's about $50 an hour if you're crazy enough to go all day long; twice that if you work an average studio day.) Room and board are included and they're both pretty good, we're told."
Kathy Holden and the rest of the staff at Long View are as busy as beavers and they work all day everyday – but it is a nice place to work if you like the rich, bucolic life that this farm offers.
Why are they painting that cottage, you wonder, when it's already painted and perfectly acceptable looking?
"They're painting it and the barn for Stevie Wonder," Kathy explains. "He was supposed to come in May so Gil had us wash all the windows. I asked him if we had to do it again now and of course he said, yes."
Today the farm is pretty peaceful – Markle has just driven off in his black caddy – the real long model that looks like the ones funeral parlors employ -- and is planning to private plane it to his Cape Cod house. They'll only be eight of us for lunch.
"If there was a group here, you'd have to talk to me in the kitchen," Kathy explains.
We're sitting on the flagstone porch overlooking a valley beautifully decorated with vivid autumn foliage. The pond lies down the road a piece and you can see the ducks floating in a straight line following each other from side to side. It's easy to see why Markle's brochure refers to Long View Farm as a "Disneylike rural environment." It does seem to be too perfect to be real. You wonder if the ducks are on salary.
"There's usually more people around than there are today," Kathy continues while scribbling down her shopping list. "There's always an entourage and there's always girlfriends."
The evening meal is cooked by John Farrell, whose duties include helping Kathy with the garden and helping Kent Huff and Geoffrey Myers, the artisan carpenter, with the ever-ongoing upkeep of Long View. Pat Glennon says Gil hired her to be an understudy for Kathy and John. Myers and Farrell met Markle when they worked on his Truro home. After buying Long View two years ago, Markle called and asked them to join him in North Brookfield. Do they like it?
"It's wonderful. Gil gave us free rein. It's a life-style more than it is a job and I like the absence of 9 to 5," says John.
* * * *
You keep wondering what's going on. All of this pastoral splendor and well-heeled comfort, everyone getting along with everyone else, private planes and fresh milk, slim Jaguars and fat Caddies, talented people and open-ended expense accounts. Yeah – all of that and Stevie Wonder too!
"It's a matter of keeping amused," Markle had explained earlier in the day when I'd asked him how he could account for his radical lifestyle changes. "It seems to happen every seven years. The recording studio is as little boring of an enterprise as I have stumbled across."
"What are your past times – you know the things you do when you're relaxing?" I asked after noting the rather meager selection of books in the library. Didn't philosophy professors, even ex ones, read a lot?
"I do nothing else but those things that are concerned with my work. It's not a 9 to 5 proposition. I love it – it's fun – very amusing. There are 10 different elements going on all the time."
That's probably why it's so hard to get him to sit down and talk with you for more than a few minutes at a time. That must be it – he's just too busy.
"I got your message," Markle says to me over the phone less than a week later. "Kent tells me you'd like to speak to me some more when I have a spare hour or two." He interrupts himself with a chuckle. "That's something I haven't had for years."
But, his work doesn't seem all that ulcer producing, and he does admit that he "follows the sun."
Does he miss the academic world – the huge lecture halls where he spoke to admiring students?
"There is a certain melancholia," admits Markle with a wide grin. "I sometimes miss the halls overflowing with young female students. Yes, I miss it, but for the wrong reasons. It was getting too stagnant. The moves were all too well known to me."
Markle's new pet, the studio, came out smelling like a rose on Aug. 20 when Stevie Wonder arrived with his entourage and about 100 or so photographers and reporters. We were all here to get a preview of Stevie's new album, Songs in the Key of Life. The two-record album, which is a beauty and which contains at least five solid hit singles that I could count, was recorded at another studio but Stevie liked the Long View atmosphere so much that he decided to throw his press party there.
Two deliciously stocked bars with two superb bartenders kept us all from dying of thirst and the 20-foot long buffet included everything from a side of roast beef to Indian pudding and homemade pies.
This is the way to go you think as you wander around the studio waiting for Stevie to make his appearance. This must be the way the beautiful people live. There are no flaws in this party, no dropped soufflés or stale bread, no crying children or broken speakers. And once again, you note the perfection and the ease with which it seems to have been accomplished. None of the farm staff or the ALSGers seem in the least harried. Markle looks marvelous in denims that are faded just right and wearing leather boots any cowboy would give his eyeteeth to own.
"Here comes Stevie!" an excited reporter shouts and it is interesting to see how this blind musician inspires such excitement among a usually hardened and cynical press.
* * * *
Assisted by a woman from his PR firm, Stevie walks down the stairs to face his admirers, many of whom he has flown up from New York. He's also in cowboy gear from the top of his beige Stetson to the soles of his dark brown boots. You wish you'd worn your fringed suede vest or your hand-tooled leather belt. Orange plastic glasses, the kind children wear, cover his sightless eyes. He keeps smiling and moving his head from side to side.
You don't have any way of knowing whose idea it was to put a holster with two LP album covers dangling from it around his waist, but you can't help but think it's just a mite tacky. Then again, that's show biz!
The day runs smoothly from the first martini to the last cup of coffee. After listening to record number one, we are all invited to go outside and partake of the feast. Then there's the second album to hear and after telling each other how "far out" it is, we troop back outside. There, one can either climb aboard a hay wagon drawn by two beautiful horses or if you're not into farming-it, you can take a scenic helicopter ride.
Even Markle's usual attitude of indifference in the face of luxury and splendid creature comforts slips for a moment.
"Isn't this great," he cries, genuinely excited about the noisily dipping helicopter and the crowds of excited reporters who are trailing after Stevie Wonder with madly clicking cameras.
"It's crazy – it's a circus," you laugh as you reload your camera. Without even bothering to ask, you know that Stevie Wonder will be as illusive to get a hold of as Markle has been.
"There is a point," says one stranger you've managed to collar for a few minutes, "where too much decadence becomes boring. But, all in all it is fun to watch."
Around six o'clock a general exodus occurs and you figure that that's that – the party is over!
"Thanks, Gil," you say on the way out.
"Did you get everything you need?" he asks. You're just about to say something about stealing a few more minutes of his time when he answers himself. "If you don't have what you need by now, you never will."
You mumble something about the blanks in his life – was he a happy baby – has he ever been in love – you'd like to angle the story around him, you say, around his personality, but so far he is still pretty much of a mystery to you.
"That's fine," he laughs. "It's better for me if I remain a mystery."
So be it, Gil Markle – that's what you'll remain – an absolutely perfect mystery.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.