Born in Albany, Oregon, in 1938, Gary Koeppel has packed in a lot of life. He recently published The Legend of Quail Lodge, a coffee table book about the renowned golf course, as well as its founders Edgar and Terry Haber. Koeppel taught at the Esalen Institute in the 1960s, represented Henry Miller as an art dealer, and founded the Big Sur Fire Brigade. That’s not all. He spoke with the Weekly about his own story.
Weekly: How has writing been part of your life?
Koeppel: I went to dental school, but after three months I realized I did not want to look in people’s mouths the rest of my life. [I went to] Oregon State and enlisted into Bernard Malamud’s writing course – I had no knowledge of who he was. I went to Portland State and got a degree in English lit, then got a fellowship to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I wrote a novel, and worked for [writer and teacher] Paul Engle doing research on national parks. Fritz Perls, founder of programs at Esalen, heard about the writing method I developed as a teacher: I called it “experiential composition.”
Engle ended up hiring you. What was Esalen in the ’60s like?
1968 was a pretty hairy time: bohemians converting into hippies, the whole “movement.” Esalen was filled with a lot of psychosis and paranoia because of the drugs. It was a little overcome by the insanity of the late 1960s. I resigned and moved to Malibu and was offered a job writing for Capitol Records, a hot company. The other directors came in late, drank six martinis for lunch and staggered home. They said I have to be like them. So I quit.
What did you do next?
I developed a new kind of candle, and that became very successful. I was invited to Disneyland and Universal Studios. I sold smaller candles to Nepenthe. I couldn’t get Big Sur out of my mind. In 1971, Coast Gallery [in Big Sur] had fallen into major disrepair as a drug center for South Coast pot growers. I was able to buy it in 1971.
How did you become Henry Miller’s art dealer and gallery rep?
When I bought Coast Gallery, I found [in a closet] a cache of 20 Henry Miller paintings, prints, etchings, drawings. I learned where he lived in Pacific Palisades. I drove there and walked up to his front door, and [there] was taped a message: “When a man has reached old age and has fulfilled his mission, he has a right to confront the idea of death in peace… One should pass by the door of his house as if no one lives there.” So there I stood, reading that sign for the longest time before I finally knocked on the door. A man answered, very slight, stooped, wearing pajamas, a bathrobe and slippers. I told him I was the new owner of the Coast Gallery and I had found art that belonged to him and was returning it. He cocked his head and said in his throaty Brooklyn accent, “Well, nobody ever brings anything back, don’t you know?”
When I went to go, he said, “Here, take these [paintings] back to the Coast Gallery. I need the dough, don’t you know?”
Tell me about the Big Sur organizations you founded or co-founded.
In 1974, I co-founded the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce and in ’75 founded the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade. Both are alive, well and healthy. In 1976, the California Coastal Commission [and] a handful of people wanted to convert the Big Sur coast into a national park. Quality of life would have suffered irrevocably. I founded the Big Sur Gazette in 1978, covering the attempt. A David versus Goliath battle. David won.
You’ve also been successful in art exhibitions.
From 1980 to date, my wife Emma and I opened up six art galleries. Three in California, three in Hawaii. We produced 30 two-month-long art events in Paris, Tel Aviv, Berlin, New York, California, Hawaii, featuring all kinds of artists. For 14 years we produced the Maui Marine Art Expo, putting marine art on the map [and] raised about $500,000 for the Cousteau Society.
What do you attribute your success to?
[Laughs.] Never be afraid of change. Never be afraid to take risks.
What are you doing now?
I recently finished a pilot for a TV series called The Godson. [My wife and I] have stopped producing art events. Carmel Coast Gallery and Pebble Beach Coast Gallery are sold, Big Sur Coast Gallery is in process of being sold. I’m focusing on my writing. Full circle.