On the morning of March 12, Sally Grossman, the widow of Bob Dylan’s foremost manager, Albert “the Baron of Bearsville” Grossman, failed to answer her locked front door. A spare key was fetched, and the baroness was found at peace in her bed. While cause of death has not been determined, Sally recently gave up cigarettes and — to one and all — seemed an unstoppable force at 81.
A first wave of obituaries of course concentrated on her Dylan cover. Old news! For Sally Grossman experienced her greatest triumph just as she was leaving us. Only a few days earlier she’d finalized the list of interviewees for a fully negotiated documentary based on her own vision of Albert Grossman’s life and legacy. Naturally, this would require explanation of their unique marriage — but on Sally’s terms!
As early as 2014 Sally had dispatched biographer Holly George-Warren to conduct over several hundred hours of interviews toward a first full biography of Albert. She wanted to have influence over how the world perceived a figure who’d changed it.
Shortly before selling the nearby private estate where she and Albert were married, Sally converted the creekside offices of Albert’s Bearsville Records seven years before into a comparatively modest if gorgeously appointed home.
Sally Ann Buehler was born in Manhattan on August 22, 1939 to parents who each had their own career. Sally and her brother were briefly sent to a professional children’s school. Saturday mornings the family watched Sally Ann star in a TV commercial for Silver Cup Bread, which aired each week as a sponsor of Hopalong Cassidy; that is, until the Buehlers decided, “this is no life for a kid.”
Sally attended Adelphi University and then Hunter College. In ’87 she told Rory O’Connor, “I used to see Albert Grossman around the Village when I was still a student in the beginning of the sixties.” Grossman had put together the folk super-group Peter, Paul & Mary, who took America by storm, especially after recording a song by Grossman’s newest client entitled, “Blowin’ in The Wind.” For the next decade Albert had the golden touch; his client list became the most impressive in the world.
Sally was studying literature and cultural anthropology until both became living realities in the folk scene of Greenwich Village. She dropped out and took waitressing jobs at the Café Wha? and The Bitter End. Grossman frequented both. “Back then Albert never even said hello to me. He was too purposeful….” That changed.
A man of who re-invented the music industry while replacing pap with art, Albert intimidated the ill-prepared with an ominous, all-knowing stare. The young beauty at his side, however, was a wordsmith whose ebullient conversation lifted Albert’s mood instantly. “Sally was so enthusiastic, so inquisitive, so knowledgeable,” Peter Yarrow said, “She was filled with laughter and delight.”
Shirley and Milton Glaser tipped Albert off to the Striebel house for sale on a secluded hilltop in Bearsville. He purchased it and in 1964 married Sally on the lawn. Dylan was staying at Peter Yarrow’s cabin, with the newlyweds, or crashing upstairs at The Espresso Café, while juggling two dark-eyed beauties, rather similar in looks to his manager’s bride. He’d piss off both his lovers, no doubt, by inviting Sally (in fetching red) onto the shoot in her own living room for the cover of 1964’s “Bringing It All Back Home.”
Albert had taken Sally to Mexico by then. Her hunger for travel seemed never to abate. “Sally was always filled with the excitement of her adventures,” recalled Yarrow. “She was a brilliant student of worlds so disparate from the United States — worlds of feelings, and thought, and spirituality. She really wasn’t fully at home in the U.S. as a place that really reached into the depths of her soul.”
The lady, profound
Maybe “the depths of her soul,” didn’t seem as important to Sally recently as what was going on across the creek.
Having convinced Albert to accompany her to India in 1967, Sally suddenly encountered “the Bauls of Bengal,” who burst into sacred song in a room at the Oberoi Grand Hotel in Kolkata. So began Sally’s more than 40-year love affair with a sect which acknowledged no temple save the human body, and no teachings save those sung in devotion.
“Some were like family to her,” travel companion, Rhonda Granger, explains. But while the world was wondering at the Bauls on Dylan’s cover for “John Wesley Harding,” Sally performed a yearly pilgrimage to Bengal, and in 1971 produced Howard Alk’s Luxman Baul’s Movie.
She also slowly developed another deep connection with Jenni, the daughter of Albert’s clients Maria and Geoff Muldaur. On hearing the sad news, Jenni Muldaur’s Instagram replied, “[Sally] was gracious and beautiful and always looked after me. I knew her my whole life and will miss her dearly. She took me to India about 15 years ago to visit Baul singers in Kolkata. They do not make people like this any more.”
As to how Sally would explain her absence from Bearsville for so much of her marriage, Peter Yarrow answers with signature deference:
“They were a great team, because their brilliance reflected back and forth until it was laser-like,” he said. “But Sally internalized Albert’s downsides as well as his upsides. And for all her courage and capacity, Sally did not have the kind of tools Albert had to do what he did. And that’s a hard thing for somebody as gifted as she … to always stand in the shadows. Yet their love for one another was so extraordinary, they managed to set one another free, while remaining dear, loving, yet combative life partners.”
By the end of 1970 Dylan had filed suit, Janis was dead, and Sally would later admit that Albert was “burnt out” on management, and “he couldn’t wait to get out ….”
Wunderkind Todd Rundgren had been signed to produce Albert’s stable of artists at a gradually evolving Bearsville Studios, and Albert created Bearsville Records to bring that music to the world.
In years to come, Ian Kimmet (wooed from London in ‘78 as second-in-command at Bearsville) would witness a more bittersweet back story. “Albert would be up there in his office,” Ian remembers, “Sally would call in from Oaxaca, and he’d just sit there alone in that room talking to Sally for hours at a time. He seemed devoted to her — to be honest, I could see the love in his face.”
When Sally came home, Albert would show off a dozen improvements — tiny and grand — in the restaurants he’d built along the Sawkill. His greatest joys and frustrations nested in the huge old barn he sought to transform into a gem of a theater and adjoining restaurant. Something always needed to be torn out and rebuilt. Albert became so obsessed with the theater that his client list dwindled. He couldn’t have cared less.
He’d bought land all over Ulster County, but wouldn’t sell it. Informed by his accountant that he needed to make money, not spend it, Albert boarded “an important flight” for London on January 25, 1986.
He died of a heart attack before the plane landed. Sally was devastated. At the funeral, tears glistened beneath her veil.
Blinded by love
Then came a series of remarkable events.
Years before, Andy Warhol gave his “Double Elvis” portrait to Dylan, who traded it to Albert for a couch. After Albert’s funeral, Sally auctioned the painting at Christie’s for most of a million dollars, every dime of which she spent completing Albert’s theater from 1986 to 1989. It first opened as home to River Arts Repertory, which boasted the premiere of Edward Albee’s last play.
When Ian Kimmet left briefly for Nashville, Sally took over Albert’s music businesses. In double coups, she put Rhino Records in charge of Bearsville Records, and had Warner Brothers administer Bearsville’s publishing. In the years following Albert’s death, Bearsville became industry legend. Its clients included Cher, REM, The Divinyls, The Pretenders, Simple Minds, Psychedelic Furs, The Dave Mathews Band, Ozzy Osbourne, The Indigo Girls, Joan Jett, Jewel, Alice Cooper, Bryan Ferry, Joe Cocker, Iggy Pop, Metallica, Laurie Anderson, Suzanne Vega, Jeff Buckley, and Natalie Merchant. Several of them played concerts at The Bearsville Theater.
There were Albert’s three restaurants to maintain at his high standard. Sally stood by her dear friend, MarLee Wang , restaurateur at the Little Bear, and championed home-town heroes Peter Cantine and (chef) Eric Mann, who — given their chance as proprietors — brought the Bear Café to greater attention. Eventually she also accepted their bid (which was second highest) to buy the entire property, knowing the Woodstockers would maintain Albert’s aesthetic. But what all owners (until the present one) failed to guard against was time itself.
It was lucky for Sally, then, that Lizzie Vann, the current owner, was blinded by love. The British-born local entrepreneur bought Albert’s neglected Xanadu, and has now spent at least that amount restoring it.
Sally was displeased, anyway. She didn’t want her picture in The Theater, only Albert’s. Just the same, Lizzie, who admires Sally’s accomplishments greatly, has offered to host her memorial at a better-vaccinated moment.
I fully expect an email by morning from Sally refusing to attend. She has better things to do, after all. She’s already riding Glory’s train.