John Vertigan, the Australian ad man who happened upon Marshall in the early 1970’s and, as proprietor of its local tavern, became one of the hamlet’s preeminent characters, died last Tuesday at age 76.
With his trenchant wit and dusky mutton chops, Vertigan charmed many, and humbled many more. “He had a kind heart and cynical tongue, and could smell bullshit a mile away,” said his daughter, Vanessa Vertigan Guthrie. “If you were in need, he would give you the shirt off of his back.”
Vertigan harbored a pensive and peripatetic spirit. “He traveled the world on words,” Vanessa said. “He loved to bask in the heat of the day and think—ride his tractor, and think; read a book, and think; sit at a bar, and think.” As a creative director for several high-end advertising firms—J. Walter Thompson, Ted Bates, Benton and Bowles—he displayed an uncanny knack for shaping one-liners. One of his greatest—“There is only one Jeep”—remains in use to this day.
And while he managed the Marshall Tavern—one might say it managed him—for just six years, in that time Vertigan transformed the town, refurbishing the rickety bayside joint and shepherding rising musicians to its homey stage. “John became sort of the mayor of Marshall,” Gary Giacomini, a friend and county supervisor at the time, said. “The tavern became this great unifier of all the West Marin folks—ranchers, artists, latter-day hippies. The focus was camaraderie and fun. I loved it for that.”
John Vertigan was born September 11, 1935 in Mildura, New South Wales, Australia, to May Ford and Geoff Vertigan, a respected general in the Australian army. Young Vertigan followed in his father’s footsteps, briefly enlisting in the air force before surrendering to more mischievous ways. “John was born with an irreverent gene,” Linda Emme, a longtime Marshall resident and friend, said. “He got himself into trouble a lot early on, I think.”
Vertigan eventually capitalized on his creativity with a career in advertising. As an artistic director he traveled the world, building catchy lines for Chrysler and other large companies.
Around 1970, Vertigan, who had become smitten with West Marin, got wind of a shoot-out at a property near Marshall. “And John’s first thought—relying on the old New York axiom that the best place to find an apartment is the obits section of the local paper—was, ‘Hey, maybe there’ll be a house available,’” Emme said. Vertigan soon left his job in San Francisco and moved into the house, a creaky split-level on Marshall-Petaluma Road.
The same year Vertigan purchased the Marshall Tavern, a derelict train depot and saloon, and began renovating it from the inside out. And for much of it, he had help. Ed Biagini, a neighborhood creative masquerading as a part-time carpenter, assisted with the plumbing. The opportunity proved fortuitous. “I started playing the piano over on the stage one day and John heard me and asked who it was,” Biagini, now a plumbing contractor, said. “Al Clark, who was there at the time, said, ‘It’s Ed; he’s doing the plumbing. John liked it and had me start playing regularly on weekends. He advertised it as: ‘Ed the Plumber.’ Suddenly, people are calling me to do all this plumbing work, and that was sort of the start of my career. I used to joke with John that I had a beef with him because I wasn’t really sure that I ever wanted to become a plumber in the first place.”
Under Vertigan’s ownership the tavern attracted up-and-coming musicians and prominent singers seeking reprieve from the chaos of cross-country tours. Joan Baez, Neil Young, Mimi Farina and Van Morrison were some of the many burgeoning stars to pass through its doors.
“It was a magical time,” Vertigan told a reporter in 1999. “Musicians really liked playing there…. We couldn’t pay them much, but we gave them everything we could.”
David Clarkson, a jeweler who lived next door to the tavern, remembered it as a down-home watering hole. “Cleaning up my yard in the morning and trying to sleep through loud music until two in the morning—those are two things I remember,” he said. “Some of the time it was a pain in the ass. But it was also my local bar, my place to hang out with friends.”
But Vertigan’s strength was not in tending bar—friends say he gave away too many free drinks—and by the mid-70s he began telling locals that he would soon be returning to a “real job.” He sold the tavern for a reputed pittance in 1976, bought a home in Inverness and went back to advertising. He raised Vanessa, whom he’d had with a previous wife, mostly on his own. “John was a very responsible and family-oriented man,” Emme, Vanessa’s godmother, said, adding that days before Vertigan passed she visited him and told him as much. “‘No,’ he told me. ‘Vanessa raised me.’”
After the 1982 flood, Vertigan and Vanessa moved to Marinwood and later Petaluma, where he semi-retired and grew flowers for Smith and Hawkins. He lived out his final years near Vanessa, her husband and three small children.
John Vertigan is survived by his grandchildren, Genavieve, Simone and Lochlan Guthrie; his son-in-law, Kris Guthrie; his daughter, Vanessa Vertigan; his sister, Judith Howard; and his nephews, Adam and Simon Howard. Donations can be made to the Parent Club of Laguna School, where his grandchildren are receiving their education.