McCabe was angler, publisher and photographer
News&Guide co-publisher, 101, died Friday at her home in Moose.
By Thomas Dewell, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
June 27, 2012
Elizabeth McCabe lived to 101 enjoying raw tuna and rum drinks when dining in the Caribbean, rare lamb and red wine when in Jackson Hole.
The photos she took for valley newspapers needed to be direct, showing an animal’s eyes, the broadside of the Tetons or shopkeepers standing with their wares. She wasn’t too interested in arty images featuring sublime light.
After she won a Wyoming Press Association award for a photo of winter sunlight glimmering on snow and ice, her competitive spirit pushed her to take similar pictures, begrudgingly.
Having first visited Jackson Hole in the 1930s, she hated to see the valley change and backed preservation: She put the bottomland of her Circle EW Ranch near Moose into a conservation easement.
She had seemingly boundless energy, even into her 100th year, and some friends wondered if she would outlast them.
After repeated bouts with pneumonia, her body frail and failing, she died Friday at her home. She held daughter Ann Ramsay’s hand as she passed peacefully.
McCabe, who served as Jackson Hole News&Guide co-publisher, advocated for valley wildlife — grizzlies, moose, elk, deer, raptors — but she could never find a place in her heart for wolves.
She worked for more than 40 years at valley newspapers: the Jackson Hole Guide, which competed with the Jackson Hole News, and the News&Guide after the papers merged.
She caught the holy grail of saltwater fly-fishing, a Little Cayman permit, when she was 88. When she was 89, she caught another off the island she started visiting three decades ago.
At 99, she competed in the 25th Jackson Hole One Fly, catching big fish and posting a respectable score. Her team was called Old Media.
She raised four daughters, enjoyed two grandchildren and lived to welcome two great-grandchildren to the world.
She wasn’t perfect, wasn’t always the gracious hostess so many knew. She could be impatient and wasn’t afraid of telling people something she thought they should hear, even if they might not like it.
Late in life, McCabe accomplished a rare feat, transforming the way many people saw her.
While those who knew her well remained loyal friends, a certain segment in Jackson Hole for a time saw her as aloof and, perhaps, disconnected. As her circle of friends expanded, more valley residents learned what it was like to enjoy her hospitality and draw inspiration from her will.
More boaters saw her in her late 90s successfully fishing the Snake River. More people admired her as she produced a new photo each week for the News&Guide.
She became a broadly admired, if not adored, figure.
“Liz is certainly one of the great Jackson Hole characters,” News&Guide co-publisher Mike Sellett said. “For her first 100 years, she was a woman of tireless energy and great talent who surrounded herself with people she genuinely enjoyed.
“Whether fishing the Snake or stalking a moose on some river bottom, Liz was dedicated and more than a little competitive,” he said. “She truly loved Jackson Hole and has played an important role — photographically and personally — trying to preserve the beauty of her adopted home.
“Like many others, I am lucky to have known this remarkable woman.”
Her will confounded those around her as she fought back pneumonia several times in the past year. While visiting Little Cayman to celebrate her 101st birthday in March, she woke with a fever, an early indication her lungs were again infected.
She was flown to a Grand Cayman hospital the day after her birthday and, after saying she wanted to go home, returned to Jackson Hole and her cabin at the Circle EW on March 25.
Her ranch manager, Todd Wagner, helped get her to bed. Her bedroom window overlooked stands of cottonwoods along the Snake River and the Tetons. The Wagner family had planned to join McCabe on Little Cayman for spring break, but her illness kept them home.
Tired and drained, McCabe told Wagner she was disappointed to have interrupted so many vacations.
“Bless her heart,” Wagner said.
Elizabeth Joan Wiel was born three months premature on March 20, 1911, at the Lane Hospital in San Francisco, the daughter of Eli and Elsa Wiel. She spent the first months of her life in an incubator.
“They didn’t think I would make it,” McCabe said in a 2004 interview. “A doctor has told me since that preemies, if they make it, are usually stronger.”
Eli Wiel, born in Baltimore, “was probably one of the outstanding businessmen in San Francisco,” McCabe recalled. He worked for the Buckingham, Hecht Shoe Company which made men’s footwear, cowboy boots and hiking boots in the city’s Mission District.
The factory made shoes for GIs during World War II but folded after the war because the unions were too demanding, McCabe said.
Elsa Wiel came from New York, and McCabe described her as “the last of the Victorian ladies. She was a complete lady, unlike me,” she said.
Elsa Wiel was literary and athletic. Both parents were good at golf and enjoyed fly-fishing.
In the 1920s, a San Francisco sportswriter came to Eli Wiel saying he had an invention but didn’t have the money to bring it to market, McCabe said. Eli brought home the invention, the S.O.S. scrub pad, “and tried it, and it was wonderful,” McCabe said.
Wiel found two other investors to cover mass manufacturing costs.
McCabe recalled a trip to the scrub pad factory in Chicago. The manager of the facility pointed at a pile of S.O.S. pads and told her she was looking at $1 million worth of the product.
“It was pretty tall, as tall as an elephant,” McCabe said.
The Wiels bought 22 acres in Atherton, Calif., in the early 1920s and built a country house. McCabe started playing tennis when she was 10 and had a pony until she was 12.
She attended Castilleja School for elementary and secondary education.
“I got a B average,” McCabe said. “I was not a student. I played tennis.”
McCabe graduated in 1929, the year the stock market crashed.
“My father didn’t lose anything,” McCabe said. “He saw it coming. I guess he must have sold his stock.”
McCabe entered Stanford University, but she contracted polio at 19.
The illness got in the way of her dating life.
“I had a date lined up with Lawson Little — he was the national golf champion,” McCabe recalled. “I was going to go. My mother wouldn’t let me. I had a fever of 103 or 104.”
McCabe had polio for a month. She said the disease settled in her throat, which may have led to her having voice and throat troubles later in life.
Polio made academia difficult for McCabe.
“I left before they asked me to,” McCabe said. “I probably would have flunked out. I was sick.”
In ensuing years, McCabe didn’t pursue a profession. Instead she embarked on what she called her time as a “tennis bum” and began taking photographs.
“My father wouldn’t let me get a real job,” McCabe said. Eli could take care of his family financially. “It wasn’t fair to take a job away from somebody who needed it.”
McCabe acquired a Kodak Brownie camera. She did her own darkroom work and took pictures of friends and their children, selling them prints she made.
In her career, she used Kodak, Leica and Canon cameras. Late in life, she switched to digital photography, even though it was confusing. She did so after recognizing electronic images would reproduce better than film in the newspaper. The change was considerable, given the fact that she refused to show any real interest in email or the Internet.
She met Malcolm Ramsay through friends in 1936.
“He was fun, liked to have a cocktail and go out,” McCabe recalled “I do remember he had asthma even then. I remember him saying, ‘I’ll call you as soon as I get over my asthma.’ I thought that was the best line I had ever heard.”
The couple married in the spring of 1938, and Ramsay went to work in the family shoe business. He would work long hours, often six days a week.
They lived in the city for a few years. After Elizabeth Joan Ramsay was born in 1940, the streets of San Francisco weren’t so appealing.
“When Joan came along, I got sick of pushing a baby carriage up a hill, so we moved back to Atherton and rented a house,” McCabe said.
The Wiels gave their daughter and son-in-law 5 of their 22 acres, and the couple started a home at the onset of World War II. Supplies were tight, but the Ramsay family moved into the home in 1941, even though the structure “wasn’t completely refined.”
Carol Alison Ramsay was born in 1941, Anne Milne Ramsay in 1944 and Barrie Ramsay in 1945.
Family life proved “hectic,” with plenty of diapers to change. As the girls grew older, Liz drove them from school to activities.
“All I wanted was a Yellow Cab hat and a meter that paid for all the hours of driving,” McCabe said.
McCabe’s parents first came to Jackson Hole in the 1920s, and they bought property in the 1930s. Prentice Grey, who owned land in what today is known as the Solitude Subdivision near the airport, sold the Wiels 40 acres on the northern edge of his property for $40 per acre, McCabe said
The Wiels moved cabins from Grey’s ranch to their property.
“They were pretty old and decrepit even then,” McCabe said.
The cabins were not winterized and lacked plumbing. Phone service — a party line — didn’t arrive until 1939.
To get to Jackson Hole from California, McCabe boarded a train from Oakland to Salt Lake City, then took another train to Victor, Idaho.
“Someone met me and drove me over the pass, which was slightly harrowing in those days,” McCabe said.
During her three-week summer stays, she rode horses and took Saturday night trips to Jackson.
“I used to love to gamble at the old Log Cabin Saloon,” McCabe recalled. “It was wild and woolly. It was fun.
“I shot craps, mainly,” she said. “I made money.”
She remembered when President Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps, sending youths west. She met the off-duty workers at places such as a dance hall at the current site of the Wilcox Gallery opposite the elk refuge.
“I would go and dance with all these CCC boys,” McCabe said. She didn’t recall the music and said she didn’t stay out all night.
McCabe embraced Snake River fishing in 1938. She and her husband would come to Jackson Hole for a month in the fall. Sometimes she’d travel to the valley in early April, when fishing season opened.
She fished on horseback, walked or drove to holes on the Snake. Anglers used bamboo fly rods and flies from Bob Carmichael, who owned the Moose tackle shop.
“I remember the Carmichael Indespensable,” she said. “I still use them today.” She also used a Royal Coachman.
“I remember one day in the 1950s catching 10 good-size trout in a hole at the Dornans’ ranch and going to town, packing them up and shipping them overnight on the plane to my neighbor in California,” McCabe said in 2004. “Can you imagine that now?”
McCabe fished with her mother’s cousin, Albert Schwabacher, who owned what is now Lost Creek Ranch. Schwabacher canoed the Snake, floating to a hole and getting out to fish on foot.
“You’d always tip over, and he always had dry clothes [for himself], but nobody else did,” she said.
She brought her entire family to Jackson for the first time in 1951, the same year Eli Wiel died.
The family knew author and dude rancher Struthers Burt as well as the Turner family, which still runs the Triangle X Ranch.
“There were a lot of parties,” McCabe said. “All the ranches had parties.”
In 1968, McCabe met the new owner of the Jackson Hole Guide, Fred McCabe. The two married in 1970.
“I thought he was great,” Elizabeth McCabe said in the 2004 interview. “He was telling jokes and being entertaining — he was always telling jokes and being entertaining.”
Fred McCabe put Liz on staff as a photographer. Her first project was high school graduation.
In 40 years, she produced perhaps 2,000 covers for the Valley section, cataloging Jackson Hole through decades of incredible change.
She made the Teton County Fair and the 4-H competitions her personal photo beat, each year producing a special collection.
Her 4-H photos covered generations of livestock producers. She also generously purchased livestock that 4-H youths raised and distributed the meat to newspaper staff.
She covered her last high school graduation at 100, offering her final Generations of Graduates photos in spring of 2011. Last year, she covered the fair despite broken ribs.
McCabe always wanted her pictures and those of others to look good in the newspaper. Early in their relationship, the McCabes bought a new press for the Guide.
“Fred used to say we printed the Guide on the press Gutenberg used to print the Bible,” McCabe recalled.
Soon after Fred and Liz McCabe joined forces, Virginia Huidekoper and Ralph Gill, in part reacting to how the Guide covered Jackson Hole, led the creation of the Jackson Hole News.
“That was a good wedding present,” McCabe said.
McCabe recalled Mike Sellett, who would eventually own the News, coming into the Guide looking for work in the 1970s.
“Goddamndist hippie I’ve ever seen,” McCabe recalled.
Sellett had a beard, a no-no for McCabe, and long hair, another no-no.
“He was a mess,” she said.
The McCabes didn’t hire Sellett.
Under Fred’s watch, the Guide had a host of editors — some good, some bad, some memorable for their behavior.
The paper suffered through what McCabe called a series of bad editors in the 1990s. Fred was sick then and couldn’t manage the paper effectively.
McCabe recalled when Fred boosted the price of the Guide to 75 cents in the 1990s, which she opposed. Fred thought Sellett would also raise the price, but the News stayed at 50 cents.
“They were smart enough not to,” McCabe said.
Fred died in September 1997, and McCabe became publisher.
Step-son-in-law Al Renneisen, who moved to the valley with wife Julie, Fred’s daughter, served as the Jackson Hole Guide’s general manager. The couple helped Liz negotiate life.
After Fred died, McCabe changed the price of the paper back to 50 cents when the price of newsprint dropped.
For the five years before the merger, McCabe continued taking photographs, hunting for stories and trying to get businesses to buy ads.
“It was fun,” she said. “I enjoyed the responsibility. I used to sell ads when I could. Once in a while I’d get one away from the News. Then I’d be jubilant.”
Renneisen helped put out a paper in a town with a tight employment market, and a host of challenges.
Looking for a succession plan, the 91-year-old needed to find a way for the Guide to continue. Sellett and McCabe merged the papers in 2002.
On a handshake, Sellett said McCabe could keep running her pictures on the cover of the Valley section if the News got to appear before the Guide in the name of the paper.
McCabe served as co-publisher, bringing her goodwill to the venture and serving on the editorial board. As someone who got to enjoy the Jackson Hole of 80 years ago, the lifelong Republican wanted the valley preserved.
“I’ve become a conservationist because there is so little land left,” McCabe said in 2004. “We all have to be conservationists. I don’t want them to drill for oil and gas, and I don’t want them cutting trees. I think we have one of the few pristine areas in the country, and we’ve got to preserve it.”
She didn’t like the big houses now commonplace in the valley.
“Jackson Hole has changed too much,” McCabe said. “I don’t like all the monstrous homes. Especially when the owners are only here two or three weeks per year.”
McCabe enjoyed living in Moose, in a cabin with a master bedroom, kitchen, dining room and living room. She hosted countless parties, welcoming senators, bankers, fishing guides, photographers, reporters, neighbors, children, massage therapists and acupuncturists.
She was never afraid of a good time or its consequences.
At Halloween parties at her Moose home, a tray of plastic spiders would emerge, and the Schwiering painting would be removed from the dining room. Guests in the know would grab the spiders, stuff them in their water glasses and then wet others at the table with what were actually tiny squirt guns. Other guests would quickly catch on, and an entire room would erupt into a water fight and laughter.
Her dining room was the kind of place where people wished they could hear the walls talk.
McCabe loved Jackson Hole, and she loved her home. She woke almost every morning to the view of Grand Teton National Park.
“I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anyplace,” McCabe said in 2004. “I feel very lucky to be able to wake up in the morning and look at those mountains.”
Last week, with family and friends visiting regularly, she closed for the last time the eyes that had seen and captured so much.
McCabe is survived by daughters Joan Palmer, of Healdsburg, Calif., Carol Rose, of Gainesville, Texas, Ann Ramsay, of Atherton, Calif., Barrie (Albert) Zesiger, of Rowayton, Conn.; grandson James Palmer, of Los Angeles.; grandaughter Elizabeth (Michael) Traverso, of Healdsburg; and great-grandchildren Hugo and Isla Traverso, of Healdsburg.
In accordance with McCabe’s wish, there will be no services. Although she never felt she needed to be memorialized, those who would like to honor her may contribute to Teton County 4-H, P. O. Box 1708, Jackson, WY 83001.