Burt’s bliss

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Dear Artist,

Until recently, a retired beekeeper named Burt Shavitz was living in a 400-square-foot converted turkey coop in Parkman, Maine. He had a refrigerator, a radio, cold running water, a wood stove, and the wag of his Golden Retriever’s tail. He called his home “Camp,” having built onto it 40 years earlier with scrap lumber and windows he’d found at the dump. When asked once if he needed the Internet, he replied, “Like a hole in the head.”

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Burt Shavitz (May 15, 1935 – July 5, 2015)
Robert F. Bukaty photo (AP)

Burt was born Ingram Berg Shavitz on Manhattan, May 15, 1935, the son of an actor and a sculptor. He grew up in Great Neck, Long Island and was expected to join his grandfather’s graphic design business. Instead, he went to college in Delaware and, after being drafted and serving in the army in Germany, moved into a $30-a-month walk-up in New York City. He freelanced as a photographer before earning a press pass from Time/Life. “I could go anywhere I wanted with that pass,” he said, and covered John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X and the civil rights movement and the first Earth Day in 1970.

Burt would see his elderly neighbour sitting at her window most of the time and never going out. “That could be me if I don’t get out of here.” he said. And so Burt packed up his Volkswagon van and drove to the country, where he got a job as a caretaker and learned beekeeping.

One day after a rainstorm, Burt saw a fence post clumped with honeybees and took it as a sign. He began with one hive, and expanded to twenty-six. “You don’t have to destroy anything to get honey. You can just use the same things over and over again, put it in a quart canning jar, and you’ve got $12.” Burt’s hives were stolen once, and so he stole them back. After that he stencilled his name on his boxes: “Burt’s Bees.”

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“I have no desire to be an upward mobile rising yuppie.”
(Jody Shapiro photo)

“I’ve got 40 acres, and it’s good and sufficient and it takes good care of me,” said Burt. “There’s no noise. There’s no children screaming. There’s no people getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning and trying to start their car and raising hell. Everybody has their own idea of what a good place to be is, and this is mine.”

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “A good day is when no one shows up and you don’t have to go anywhere.” (Burt Shavitz)

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“I’ve been extremely fortunate for an entire lifetime — as long as I wasn’t in urban America.”
Burt Shavitz photo (1960s)

Esoterica: In 1984, Burt was driving his yellow Datsun pickup when he spotted 33-year-old waitress and single mother of twins, Roxanne Quimby, hitchhiking from her lake cabin to the local post office. Burt suggested she recycle his leftover beeswax into candles, and gave her a 19th-century farmer’s journal where she learned to combine the wax with sweet almond oil to make lip balm. At the craft fair, Roxanne asked their booth neighbour and local engraver Tony Kulik to make a logo using Burt’s scruffy face. Roxanne and Burt had been chugging along for about a decade when they decided to move to North Carolina to take advantage of tax breaks and a bigger labour pool. But Burt missed Maine and didn’t like being in the trenches. With their relationship in a nosedive, Roxanne offered Burt $130,000 for his stake, and Burt went home to “Camp.” Eight years later, Burt’s Bees was sold to Clorox for $970 million. Burt Shavitz passed away at home in Maine on July 5, 2015. Click here to see the trailer for Jody Shapiro’s 2014 documentary about Burt Shavitz.

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