When Butchie Denver rolled into Northern New Mexico with a menagerie of exotic animals that included Henry the chimp and Myrtle the tiger, she raised plenty of eyebrows. “It was like the circus or the gypsies had arrived,” said Tony Trujillo, Denver’s friend and partner of 40 years.
Denver died of cancer early Monday morning (June 25) at a hospice clinic in California. She was 74.
Denver was known in Taos as a raving spitfire who wasn’t afraid to give politicians a piece of her mind. She was a constant presence at public meetings and community forums, and was passionate about local issues, particularly water.
Named “Butchie” because her dad had wanted a son, Denver grew up on the West Coast and mingled with famous and powerful people from the time she was a child. Legend has it that she told both Howard Hughes and The Rolling Stones that they smelled bad.
“She was one of a kind,” said Julie Brun, one of Denver’s daughters. “She said directly what was on her mind, and you knew exactly where you stood with her.”
Brun said her family lived in Laurel Canyon, Calif., during the mid-’60s, and their house often hosted famous artists and musicians. Denver is said to have had relationships with Chris Hillman of The Byrds and John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful.
Brun said her mother was always the center of attention. “I remember sitting on the bathroom floor and watching her get ready to go out at night,” Brun said. “I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. So tall. Blonde. Smart.”
Denver ended up marrying Bob Denver, who played Gilligan in Gilligan’s Island, and the new family moved to a 500-acre farm in upstate New York where Denver collected rare animals, including cheetahs. Right after buying Henry the chimp, Brun said the first thing Denver did was take the baby primate to FAO Schwarz to buy him doll clothes. Brun said the chimp became a brother to her.
In 1972, after she and Bob Denver split up, Butchie Denver, her kids, and their miniature zoo moved into three aluminum trailers north of Taos. Trujillo said she put Myrtle the tiger in a coop with enough room to exercise, and the big cat survived off dead chickens.
“Every morning she’d wring a chicken’s neck and feed it to the tiger, that way he didn’t learn how to kill,” Trujillo said.
One day, the tiger ate one of Denver’s baby pugs, then escaped into the woods. “Butchie went driving out into the forest and the tiger let out this roar like thunder,” Trujillo said. “Everybody thought she’d been killed. But then she walked out of the forest with Myrtle on a chain, telling him off real bad.”
Denver’s tongue lashings extended beyond misbehaving pets. She was infamous for scolding public figures whom she suspected of betraying the public trust or acting in any manner other than in the community interest.
Denver’s activism earned her a place among the Taos “brujas” (witches), which also include Fabi Romero and Trudy Healy. “We were foot soldiers, and between us, we really got a lot done,” Healy said. “We became legendary.”
Healy said the brujas took no prisoners with Taos politicos and strove to improve transparency in public participation in government. Denver was known for talking straight to powerful people.
“She was fearless at speaking truth to power,” said Ron Gardiner, who collaborated with Denver on several community projects.
Healy said an obscenity-laden lecture from Denver was bad, but it was also a compliment. It meant you were worthy of her scorn. “If she thought you were just an idiot, she would ignore you, and that was probably worse,” Healy said.
“She’d get on the county commission’s case, the mayor, or town council, or really anyone’s case if they were too puffed up or thinking about feathering their own caps instead of pursuing the true public interest,” said Simeon Herskovits, a water law attorney who worked with Denver on water issues around Taos. “She never lied and she never held back. She was completely and utterly honest about what she felt, even if she was wrong. And she would admit she was wrong.”
Denver’s gruff exterior and confrontational approach was offensive to some who crossed her path. She preferred to dress down in baggy shirts, jeans and sandals, and ignored decorum to get straight at an issue.
She was also well-read and could speak in great detail about a variety of subjects. Her exposure to vastly different worlds added to her varied character, Trujillo said. “She swore like a pirate, but could speak like English aristocracy,” Trujillo said.
Kay Matthews, Denver’s friend and activist ally, said Denver was tenacious when it came to seeking justice. “She was willing to fight to the bitter end, to not make compromises or cede too much,” Matthews said.
As head of a committee charged with overseeing water transfers in the county, Matthews said she will miss Denver’s extensive local political knowledge. “She had a relationship with all the movers and shakers, and she was comfortable in any community” Matthews said. “She knew everybody and she knew everything that everybody did and had done in the past.”
Healy said she spoke with Denver by phone just days before she died.
“She wanted me to tell her about the politics,” Healy said. “She wanted to hear every little thing, and she would giggle the whole time. She was feisty to the end.”
Friends all credit Denver with having a great sense of humor and the ability to laugh at everything, including herself. She was always asking friends about their pets and family members, and would get giddy when hearing about babies. In private life, Trujillo said Denver was caring and delicate, with a great love of art and culture.
Brun said a memorial service for Denver will be held in Taos Sunday, July 8. The time and place of the memorial were yet to be determined as of press time.