William ‘Gatz’ Hjortsberg

Author William “Gatz” Hjortsberg, 76, of Livingston and McLeod, passed away in his home on Saturday, April 22, 2017. Throughout the recent diagnosis of pancreatic cancer he maintained his dignity with wit and humor, even dreaming up a new short story, given his recent hospitalization, about a character named Karnowski and a truly tortuous hospital chair.

Gatz was born on February 23, 1941 in New York City. A first-generation American, his parents immigrated to this country in the late 1920s. His father, Helge, ran away from home in Sweden, joined the Swedish Merchant Navy and eventually jumped ship in New York Harbor. His mother Ida left her family farm in Switzerland to seek out a better life in the U.S. As he told the story, in 1930 they met at a dance in New York City, neither speaking the other’s language. His father became a successful restaurateur. The family owned a summer home in the Catskills, in upstate New York, which gave him his most cherished childhood memories. It was there that Gatz learned to trout fish and hunt, which were lifelong passions, and where he met his oldest friend, Fred Muehleck, with whom he spoke every day. Sadly, at the young age of 10, Gatz’s father died suddenly, and he and his mother lost everything. Ida labored ceaselessly so that Gatz could receive the best possible education.

An only child, he learned quickly to fend for himself while coming of age in Manhattan. He told stories of sleeping in Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park in the summer and sneaking into jazz clubs when he was a teenager where he heard jazz greats like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck. He attended Grace Church School, where he was an altar boy (best way to meet girls, he always joked), and McBurney High School. He was accepted to Dartmouth College, graduating in 1962, and went on to a Master’s Program at the Yale Drama School, working toward a degree in playwriting. In that same year he married Marian Renken. The two ended up leaving before he completed his degree in 1964 to embark on adventures in Europe, North Africa, Spain, the British Virgin Islands, Costa Rica and Mexico, all the while initiating a career as a freelance writer. He returned to the States and was accepted as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

Gatz was an inveterate storyteller and could keep any audience hanging on every word. It didn’t matter who it was, he’d never spare a detail, or cut the tale short. He could always get a laugh out of you, and if he thought he could send a shock through your sensibility, he wouldn’t hesitate. His mischievous side was forever entertaining. He was kind, generous, and had a big heart and these virtues served him well. He loved this world and most everyone he met. He was grateful for his life on earth and died having no regrets.

His passion for language and art was exemplified in his writing of satire, fiction, prose, mysteries, thrillers, science fiction and fantasy. To him it was all literature, from Krazy Kat and Little Nemo to Chandler and Fitzgerald — he saw the beauty in it all.

On an invitation to come fish the Yellowstone from his friend Tom McGuane, Gatz traveled to Montana for the first time in 1969 with his family. He returned for good in 1971, first living in Pray and then settling in Pine Creek. He was part of what his friend, neighbor and eventual literary subject, Richard Brautigan, called “The Montana Gang” — a group of artists, writers and friends — Russell Chatham, Jim Harrison, Jeff Bridges, Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Tim Cahill and many more — who all called Livingston and Paradise Valley home.

While Montana provided an inspiring environment for an artist to raise a family and write, it also opened up a life in the country that as a New York City boy he only had a taste of.  Gatz and Marian raised their children, Lorca and Max, in Pine Creek, and embraced a rural way of life in the country which included keeping horses, raising hogs, rabbits, chickens and tending a bountiful garden, an activity he enjoyed until his life’s end. He explored every creek bottom and river with a fly rod and hiked and rode deep into the surrounding backcountry.

After a brief second marriage, Gatz moved to Sweet Grass County.  The joy that came from this marriage was his stepson Michel. This loving bond held a special place in Gatz’s heart until the end. His new home, the Lion Head Cabin, was his favorite place in Montana. His abiding respect for the Boulder Valley and all of his neighbors is best exemplified through his involvement from the beginning with the Cottonwood Resource Council, a group with whom he tirelessly worked to create the Good Neighbor Agreement with the Stillwater Mining Company — an agreement without precedent and essential in preserving the rural character, agricultural traditions, and pristine environment of the Boulder and Stillwater valleys.

Through the invitation of their mutual friend Richard Wheeler, Gatz met Janie Camp in 2000. Their shared love of art bound them and opened doors to an everlasting love and respect for one another. They were married in 2007 at the Lion Head Cabin. They enjoyed their life together, and their time with family, friends and especially their grandchildren. It was a renaissance time for Gatz as he was inspired with newfound creative energy, finishing work and lifelong projects. While he never lost his inventive imagination, one could say he found his voice again (and what tenor he had) with Janie at his side.

Gatz is preceded in death by his parents, Helge and Ida Hjortsberg. He is survived by his wife, Janie Camp, of Livingston; his daughter Lorca Hjortsberg, of Long Beach, California; his son Max Hjortsberg (Anna) of Livingston; stepsons Michel Leroy (Michelle) of Queens, New York and Jake Camp, of Denver, Colorado; and grandchildren Silas Hjortsberg, Vivian Leroy, Bechler and Alejandro Camp.

A memorial service and celebration of his life are planned for Saturday, May 20. If one so chooses, donations in his name can be made to Cottonwood Resource Council, P.O. Box 1105, Big Timber, MT 59011. A special thank-you to Livingston Healthcare Hospice, Dr. Laurel Deznick and Dr. Denis Noteboom. Their loving care and support helped us through this end of life journey.
 

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Comments

Thank you Max for distilling the life of a wizard of words, a lover of life's edges, and a man who held his ground.
Your dad and I had a twenty-five plus year friendship that swelled in intense contact and then would abate into infrequent and spontaneous moments be it at Elk River Books or on the street in Bozeman. 
His tenderness and damp eyes when telling me about your life Max or Lorca's adventure expressed the depth of his sensitive loving nature.
And man, what an imagination. I was fortunate enough to spend time with Brautigan as well and shared those tough days when he was found, deceased and alone.
But your dad was with those he loved in his beloved home and if a fellow has to pass then that's the way to do it.
Upward brother Gatz, you have left us more than we were...
Timothy