You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant,” exulted Arlo Guthrie in that counterculture landmark ballad of the late 1960s. Alice quickly became a national folk heroine, but Guthrie’s best-selling record—and the film that was based on it—gave an impression of whimsy and fun that Alice’s life hasn’t always matched.
Soon after Arlo started singing the song, Alice decided the funky restaurant in Stockbridge, Mass. had become a monster. She closed up and flew off temporarily to Puerto Rico. But her troubles continued. She divorced husband Ray Brock and sold the early-19th-century church where she and Ray had played surrogate parents to Arlo and his friends before he made folk song history. Alice settled in Boston but returned to Stockbridge to tend her vegetable garden and her own private affairs.
Alice could not stay out of the kitchen forever. Five years ago, broke, she opened Take Out Alice, a fixed-up roadside shack whose eclectic menus ranged from tacos to salmon mousse. Tourists sometimes waited two hours in line for service. The following year Alice and the young people she has always attracted built on a dining room with a seating capacity of 45—”Sixty,” she says, “if they’re good friends”—and Alice’s Restaurant was reborn.
Today, however, Alice is quitting Stockbridge again, to reopen this May in Lenox, six miles away, site of the Berkshire Music Festival at Tangle-wood. “I’m ready for a place where the chairs match,” says Alice. “I barely break even and the local bureaucracy has fought expansion every step of the way. They’ve made my life miserable here with harassments over regulations that no other place has ever had to comply with. I’m not allowed to have a public bar. We often send people away without dessert because we’re ordered to stop serving at 10. I’ve met every condition—the police have never been here once—but it hasn’t helped.” She sees herself victimized by the reputation the song and the movie gave her. “I’ve always been a symbol,” she says, “never a person. It was my fault, they think, that kids in the Berkshires smoked pot. All that people around here remember is what they saw in that film. They’ll never forget it.”
Alice won’t either. “I hated the movie,” she says bitterly. “I didn’t realize then how badly I was treated. I got $12,000; the film made millions. Everything came out parallel to the truth—but none of it was true.” She has put the days of communal living behind her. “Now I’m a small-time capitalist, really middle-class. I owe the bank $100,000. I employ local people, bring in tourists, head the Heart Fund. But they hate my life-style: I don’t dress, I’m not married, I’m too outspoken. Besides, I have more fun than they do. I have a better sex life.”
Whatever her image in Stockbridge, no one can deny Alice works hard and is a talented self-taught cook. Her kitchen schedule begins at 7 a.m. and rarely ends before midnight. “It’s panic, hysteria and pressure all the time,” she says, followed often by generous helpings of Southern Comfort to “bring me down.” Alice adds, “The restaurant is a great distraction. I’d like time to draw, paint, spend time with ideas. But then I’m not very good at structuring my life—so I’m better off here.”