Larry Harvey: Founder of Burning Man (1948-2018)

The Harvey parents, circa 1940

The Harvey parents, circa 1940

Larry Harvey was adopted as an infant by Author (“Shorty)” Sherman Oliver Harvey and Katherine Langford Harvey.

Larry's parents were middle class business owners, who lost their family wealth when there was a bank failure - as a community leader, Larry’s father believed showing confidence in the bank was a matter of civic responsibility, and refused to withdraw their funds in a panic. Newly impoverished, Shorty and Katherine ultimately relocated Portland Oregon. There they would build a house, only to have it destroyed four months later by a flood of the Columbia River. But again they rebuilt.

Larry was born in Portland Oregon and raised by his parents in the north side of the Parkrose suburb at the end of SE Holman Street. The area was semi-rural, near the Columbia river, with a mixed immigrant population. Larry had one sibling, his brother Stewart, also adopted and five years older than Larry.

Together Larry and Stewart explored their neighborhood, an area mixed with homes and small farms. Near their house was a small pond and a park. Larry felt alienated from his parents. He often described feeling alienated from his parents, who had moved from Nebraska to escape the dust bowl conditions, but retained 19th century farmer values. Throughout his life Larry praised his parents for their work ethic and rigid morals. However, he also felt alienated from them. Not only were his values different, he viewed himself as more intelligent than his parents, and believed they were at a lost at how to relate to him as a precocious child.

Larry in front yard, SE Holman St, winter 1953

Larry in front yard, SE Holman St, winter 1953

His relationship with his brother Stewart was described in varying terms throughout his life. In his younger days, he noted that Stewart was cut from cloth more similar to his parents, and that the significant age difference also lead to some separation. Stewart was more gifted with his hands, and had an interest in building and other physical activities, providing a more direct connection with his parents. But both Stewart and Larry (increasingly so in later life) agreed that there was a deep kinship among the two brothers. There were few other children in their neighborhood, so regardless of age difference, Stewart and Larry spent much of their free time together, exploring and playing together.

According to Brian Doherty (This is Burning Man), Larry’s distance from his father increased when father told him adopting children was the worse mistake of his life. Regardless of an apology (sent via Larry’s mother), the pain remained with Larry, and now the only love Larry thinks is worth a damn is the kind of love we feel for a work of art: unconditional love.

Author (“Shorty”) Harvey in his home workshop

Author (“Shorty”) Harvey in his home workshop

Larry respected his parents lack of materialism, but craved attention and affirmation. Larry’s signature hat was an adaptation from his father, an affectation that Larry wore regularly until a few years before his death.

In the summer of 1967, Larry left his parent’s home to spend the summer in San Francisco, before moving back to Portland to attend Portland State University (PSU). Although his educational experience at PSU wasn’t positive, he met Janet Lohr, who he began dating. Although Jan would ultimately spend much of her career pursuing pottery, in the 70s she was seeking a career in education. Together they traveled across the western United States during the summer, and in eventually decided to move to Coquille Oregon, where Jan found a job to earn her teaching credential

Larry reported enjoying his life in Coquille, spending much of his time in the outdoors. After moving around Oregon in the 70s, in 1978, Larry moved with Jan to San Francisco, initially living on Ashbury Street. In late 1980 Jan and Larry broke up. Jan had been supporting him, and Larry found odd jobs to support himself, including grilling hot dogs at The Farm (at that time a punk rock club), working as a bike messenger and driving a cab.

Larry began dating Patricia Johnson shortly after his break up with Jan, and married her soon after. He had his only child, a boy named Trisan, in 1982. His marriage was short-lived, however, and soon he found himself single and looking for purpose.

Thanks to a small inheritance, Larry purchased a car and launched his landscaping service Paradise Regained, a landscaping service that catered to lower middle class customers. Larry business partner, Dan Richman, had a circle of intellectual oriented working men, whom he introduced Larry to. Among these “Latte carpenters” (as Larry would refer to them) was Jerry James, with whom he would build the first Man. Jerry James also had a young son, and the four of them would go out on play dates together, often building things with wood. Jerry reported that during this period he looked to Larry as almost a father figure, and deeply enjoyed the friendship and comradely the four shared.

During this period Larry was also employed as a gardener during this period by Edgewood, a health care company, which was helping to pay the bills as his landscaping company was not generating the revenues he had hoped for. In 1982 he also moved in with a man named Dan Miller in a small Alamo Square apartment on the first floor of 575 Pierce Street, directly across from Alamo Square. He and Dan would become close friends, and he would remain in this small rent controlled apartment for almost all his life, including while raising Tristin. Dan moved out in 2000, upon getting married.

About the same time Mary Grauberger became an important influence for Larry.

Mary had come to the Bay Area in the 60s attracted by the Berkeley free speech movement. She began to work as a sculptor, selling pieces out of her car She met Jan Lohr in the mid-70s and by the late 70s, after assisting with setting up Unity Fairs, she began a series of spontaneous art-party happening down on San Francisco’s Baker Beach.

Baker Beach is a beach frequented by nudists, and noted for its seclusion, pinched of at both sides by cliffs, and nearly under the Golden Gate bridge. Mary noted that Baker Beach "was “just a bunch of nude freaks going down to the beach to hang out. I was a sculptor and I’d get bored sitting around the studio, so I’d pick up stuff washed up on shore and build sculptures. We’d stay ‘till the evening and cook, and then it seemed natural to torch the sculptures. It was a personal thing, for fun.” “I liked everything to disappear quickly. It’s more beautiful to have people experience it and then it’s gone.”

She would often do her art gatherings on the summer solstice, but not always. She stopped in the mid-80s. She doesn’t seem to care that her projects sparked Burning Man. “The difference between me and Larry, is that Larry needs to be famous and feel that he has moved society in some way. I don’t need that at all. … I admire Larry because he got what he wanted. Most people would have dropped out when Burning Man must seemed like a piddling daydream. But he was sure of it, and he was right. People seem to need it, and they come from all over the world. But I know it’s hard on Larry’s health and I have no desire for it. Women can have children — fame is like a man’s own child.”

In early 1984, Larry began dating Paula Peretti. Larry challenging relationship with Patricia Johnson, and the challenges of helping to raise Tristan as a single father, combined with financial struggles led to a challenging time in Larry’s life. However, his new relationship with Paula was an intoxicating escape. He had been introduced to Paula by way of Dan Miller’s girlfriend Chrylu (whose legal name no one seems to remember) who was living with Paula. The relationship with Paula was unstable from its start, and Larry knew falling for her was a dangerous path. Nonetheless, he did fall for her, and the pinnacle of the relationship occurred on the summer solstice in 1984, when he took Paula and Tristan to Baker Beach. Years later he recalled writing their names in the sand in fire using lighter fluid. This day in particular felt like the birth of a new family to Larry, although he intellectually knew attachment to Paula might end badly. He later noted “I said to myself, 'Don't look at her that way.' And of course I did. And I felt my soul seep out the corner of my eye."

A short time after the day at Baker Beach the relationship ended, on an ugly note, with Paula being involved with another man. This, combined with financial challenges Larry was experiencing and a general loss of direction, contributed to a nearly two-year funk for Larry. Larry’s brother Stewart recalls being concerned for Larry during this period: “I remember stopping by to visit him during that period on the way back [to Portland] from a Friends of Photography workshop in Carmel. My brother was a mess. ‘I’m having a nervous breakdown’ [Larry] blurted out when I asked what the hell was going on.” Stewart also speculated “Looking back on this period, I’m convinced there was more to his pain than an ill-fated love affair. A series of missteps had culminated in something of an existential crisis…”. In 2000 Larry reflected on that period “It was two years since we broke up, and I still lived with that pain every morning. I'd wake up and feel fine, and then I'd be looking at my books and I'd remember her, and then I'd be ruined.” While the story of the origin of the Man has been disputed, Larry told essentially the same story to multiple sources, including print journalists, and others have repeatedly verbally confirmed it in private (see more here).

With the approach of the painful two-year anniversary of the summer solstice with Paula, Larry decided to try to erase the painful memory, or at a minimum get out of the house with purpose, and used the idea of burning the effigy as a means to accomplish this. He approached Jerry James with the suggestion that they build a figure of a man, take it to Baker Beach and burn it. The figure of the man was built by Jerry with some help from Larry in the “dismal basement garage” of Larry’s ex-girlfriend, Ellen Into (daughter of Whittaker Chambers). Jerry, Larry, their two boys and four or five others dragged the eight-foot man to Baker Beach, doused him with gas, and ignited it. Randomly, they passed Dan Richman and a date, and Dan scoffed uncomprehendingly at their proposed odd ritual.

Larry recalls that “then the most significant thing happened: Strangers ran and joined us. Suddenly the crowd doubled or tripled. The Man was near the waterline, so the people formed a half circle around him and they too were delighted by the flaming humanoid form. It was darkening toward night, as I recall. I could see everyone’s face lit by the flame. We were moved, as one is moved by the enthusiasm of strangers for something you’ve done. … And then a woman I didn’t know ran up and held his hand - the wind was blowing the flame all in one direction. Just as a lark. She was touching it as if in awe of it, but also companionable, like it was something you could lean against. — Ah participation!” “And a guy played a song about fire, improved it on the spot. … In that instant, that gift - it was moving.”

Larry went on to note the significance of the participation of strangers “Those acts of impulsive merger and collective union were what made it so special. I’m very much of the conviction that we would never have done it again if those circumstances had not happened and helped us be so moved by what we’d done.”

Larry was never a big music fan. Jerry James remembers him commenting “Music is best when filtered by conversation.