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Roger W. Hollander, Irma Lake, and “Buffalo” Bill Gates

by Susi, 1 March 2010


Last June I heard Bill Gates bought Irma Lake Ranch in Wyoming, the property of a dear friend of mine, Roger W. Hollander. I was happy to receive the news. I loved this place passionately, and will never forget the times that I spent there. Knowing the ranch remains in private hands is somehow heartening. (More info on the fate of the ranch can be found in the Huffington Post here.)

Roger bought Irma Lake in the 90s to serve as his private home and headquarters of his Empire of All Things Extraordinary. The ranch had belonged to Buffalo Bill Cody, and was used to entertain celebrities and heads of state on hunting and nature outings in the mountains and plains near what is now Yellowstone National Park. Cody even had the Burlington Northern Railway build a spur line out to the ranch. Many of the original structures from Cody’s time still survive intact on the 500 acre property, thanks to Roger’s conscientious stewardship during the years he called it home. (You can download a property brochure from the listing agent for the sale, here.)

Roger had a terrible automobile accident on the ranch a few years ago while driving down the seven mile mountain road from Irma Lake Lodge, his spectacularly beautiful and intensely personal home. In the pre-dawn hours, heading for the Cody airport, he rolled his SUV, and was left in sub-freezing weather, unconscious and upside-down, held in place by his safety belt. Several hours later he was found by ranch hands and rushed to hospital. The head injuries and exposure were so severe that even a hardy soul like Roger was unable to recover fully from them. He remains in rehabilitative care in Wyoming to this day and all of his true friends are still deeply saddened by his accident and its tragic effects.

One of the most intelligent, most intense, most understated and most interesting people I have ever known, Roger was a passionate and eclectic collector of many things – – of rare books, photography, 20th century furniture, wine, films, classical music, jazz, Indian textiles, Chinese minority people’s costume, and of great good friends.

Hardly a day goes by when Roger doesn’t come to mind. As a tiny tribute, I share some images here from three weeks I spent at Irma Lake in 2004. I can’t recall a time I was ever happier than during those weeks. Roger created a complete world around him, of the best and most intriguing people, thoughts, objects, images, films, music, and natural beauty. His collections are being dispersed to the four winds, some headed for museums, others for private collections, others dismantled and offered at auction. Happily, his extraordinary home in the mountains outside Cody will remain a private home, cared for by someone I believe will respect the spirit of the place. Bill Gates will now step into the shoes of Buffalo Bill and Roger Hollander in preserving the heritage of Lake Irma.


Buffalo Bill’s private sanctuary cabin. Intact. I had hoped to spend some time in retreat there, with maybe one great book and a fine Orvis fishing rod that was made for me as a gift in the 1980s. 


Roger’s eye for textiles and 20th century modern furniture was impeccable.


The valley where Irma Lake lies – – sublime in all seasons, and always changing.


A clearing in the aspen woods, during a morning walk from the house.


Innately generous, Roger adamantly insisted that I must take over the keys to the Land Rover and to the ranch gas pump for exploring.


The Buckeroo State . . .


Roger had horses but they went wild and were often spotted grazing here and there or rambling the roads.


He dared me to go skinny-dipping in Irma Lake in the autumn when the water was just a whisper above freezing. I never could turn down a dare like that. It snowed the next day.


This guest bedroom had a wealth of native weavings and Pendleton blankets, another had a Kenny Scharf painting made as a gift to Roger for a landmark birthday, still others had all manner of treasures, artifacts and lore curated and assembled in them. The list is endless. At Lake Irma you lived amid Roger’s collections and were edified by them at every moment of the day and night.


Roger loved his kitchen, although I wouldn’t say he was a great chef, despite his great enthusiasm! As everywhere else in the house, the kitchen was chock-a-block with fascinating and often unrelated objects and information, all of them extraordinary, but none as extraordinary as Roger himself.


A constant trickle of guests would come to stay at Lake Irma, and not a dull character among them. On this occasion we had Mattiebelle Gittinger, the curator of the Textile Museum in Washington, DC. The weekend before it was one of Roger’s old friends from Yale, Michael D. Coe, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and one of the world’s leading scholars on Pre-Columbian art (and Angkor). Roger wished more people would visit. His dream was for the house to be a centre of exchange, creativity, scholarship, fellowship, good food, and . . .


. . . exceptionally good wine. These were typical of the bottles he opened for just any old evening at home.


The cellar was deep and diverse . . .


. . . the sommelier’s knowledge unsurpassed . . .


. . . and the corridors downstairs were filled with still-unsorted enological acquisitions . . . amid archival racks of the best of world cinema, and chests of drawers filled with meticulously catalogued recorded music . . . and pretty much everything else I think is worthwhile in this life . . . 


. . . including all manner of ephemera in abundance. Here’s a stuffed bobcat lurching forth from a pile of wine boxes beside the deep freeze.


And strewn on every flat surface were the incoming drifts of books and auction catalogs he constantly acquired, strewn amid bushels of correspondence.


Roger was loved by society, invited everywhere, but the hurly burly of fêtes and galas never ruffled his feathers in the least. At big events like this he was a source of respite, of calm amid the storm, and always easy to engage in an involved conversation on almost any topic you can mention. That’s Roger. Here he is at the Founder’s Ball at the Cody Museum, which we attended together and enjoyed enormously. I never knew Buckeroos could be quite so elegant.  They sure clean up nice.


A toast to life. Footnote: the finest of Rocky Mountain Society, to my great surprise and delight, raved about my dress, by Balinese designer Oka Diputra. Glad I had a stack of his cards in my bag.


And here is Irma Lake Lodge, on 500 acres of woodland, rolling hills, and rocky crags, dotted with trout-filled lakes and lakelets.


On my last day during that visit to Irma Lake, I stopped to take this photo on the way up from town. The gravel drive is seven miles long, climbing up into the mountains. It’s painful to see this image. It was taken near the spot where Roger’s car rolled off the road.


And there the story goes cold . . . here’s a view of the old dairy barn, converted into a guest house.


And on the terrace in front of the house, a chilled lounger . . . mute, monochromatic and still . . .


Finally, the last photograph I took during this visit to Irma Lake. I saw a stone standing on the crest of a small ridge beside the road up to the house, and I got out of the Land Rover to stop and think about it. And I took a photo. Now when I look at the picture, I see a mute monument to Roger with no epitaph, as the man still lives, although he is far away from us, in a place as mysterious and solitary as this stone by the roadside on an open ridge above the autumn grasslands of the valley below.

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