February 09, 1976 12:00 PM

By the time he had completed his third novel, 92 in the Shade, Tom McGuane was tired of being continually declared the Hemingway of his generation. Sure, he had found that writing fiction made him “happiest, but it doesn’t pay spit, so a boy has to do other things.” In the 1970s that could only mean making movies—and the messing around that inevitably seems to accompany it.

Thus, when 92 was ready to shoot, McGuane had already apprenticed on the screenplay of the current western Rancho Deluxe and in the gossip columns opposite actress Elizabeth Ashley. Tom arrived on the Key West set of 92 in the fall of 74, established enough to direct as well as write, not to mention attracting Ashley into a minor part. His wife, Becky, a stoic direct descendant of Davy Crockett and of a dozen years’ marriage to McGuane, was in town with their son, Thomas IV.

Then leading man Peter Fonda arrived freshly divorced from his own wife of 12 years, and as McGuane wryly recalls the ensuing marital merry-go-round: “I went behind the bleachers for a hot dog, and you couldn’t tell the players without a program.” McGuane’s Becky fetched up with Fonda. Tom himself ended, not with Liz Ashley, but with the movie’s free-spirited co-star, Margot Kidder (whose credits include Robert Redford’s The Great Waldo Pepper and James Garner’s TV series Nichols).

Right now, Tom and Margot are roughing it on his 300-acre spread, Raw Deal Ranch, in the northern Rockies near Livingston, Mont. Tom, 35, is finishing up his next novel and hewing to his Hemingwayesque life of backpacking, hunting and trout fishing. Margot, 26, is mothering their out-of-wedlock 3-month-old daughter, Maggie. Young Tom, now 8, lives with them, and who’re the folks a mile down the road? Fonda and Becky, who married in secret recently and bought a neighboring ranch.

As for the upshot of these tempestuous months (92 has succeeded with a few discerning critics but not at the box office), McGuane shrugs, “I know it’s a good film, and as Fidel Castro once said, history will absolve me.” When Tom is not tending his only other crop, hay, he’s on the phone with agents. His other properties include two earlier novels, The Sporting Club and The Bushwhacked Piano, and the screenplay for The Missouri Breaks, Arthur Penn’s forthcoming $8 million Western starring Brando and Nicholson.

The rigors of showbiz and life in the Rockies don’t faze Tom or Margot. He grew up outdoors in Michigan, the son of a wealthy auto-parts manufacturer, and after shuttling through Michigan State, Yale and Stanford, settled in Montana for the unequaled fly-fishing and hunting (which he first wrote about in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED). On one recent outing, he bagged an antelope an hour after dawn in a deep ravine and spent the next three hours hauling the 100 pounds of meat on his back four miles home. McGuane’s rugged life and spare prose style inevitably provoke analogies to Hemingway, one of his admitted heroes, but Tom doesn’t see the resemblance, “except maybe geographically.” Like Papa, Tom winters in Key West.

Margot was born in Yellowknife, in Canada’s frigid Northwest Territory. Her father, a peripatetic mining engineer, dragged her along to 12 schools in 11 years. But supersmart, she was able to skip two grades, and when she finally dropped out to try acting at 17, she had already done a year at the University of British Columbia. She joined a rep theater in Toronto but left for Hollywood, where she filmed nude scenes in two movies by the time she’d taken her first acting lesson. After finding starletdom a drag, Kidder returned to Canada to learn film editing. With plans to make her own movies (she’s a member of the American Film Institute’s women’s workshop), Margot now waxes acerbic about most of her pre-McGuane credits, e.g., Gaily, Gaily: “A turkey,” and A Quiet Day in Belfast: “A complete disaster.” Margot’s favorite role is the sexy Miranda in 92 in the Shade, though she insists it’s “not just because Tom directed it.”

The arrival of their baby daughter may be the strongest affirmation yet of Tom and Margot’s relationship (doctors had warned Margot that she’d have difficulty having children), but McGuane and Kidder are not talking marriage. Tom, who’s practically wed to his handcrafted rifles and fly rods anyway, argues that “Marriage is anti-romantic—husband and wife are terms like turkey and goose. Worse, they denote ownership.” Margot agrees that “being a wife is a regular job and not an appealing one, at least for me.” (Even so, she’s recently been telling friends they’re engaged, “just to keep the romance without the drudgery.”)

Margot occasionally chafes at the “male-oriented” Rockies lifestyle. “A male’s role in rural living,” she says, “seems to be more interesting than a woman’s.” Her response is to work on a screenplay and develop her own writing career. (She turned out a memoir last year for Playboy, though her words may have been lost on readers distracted by the accompanying nude photographs.) Margot wants to return to moviemaking, but not if that means deserting her man. “I can’t bear the idea of not having Tom to go to sleep with every night and waking up with every morning,” she has decided. “It’s as simple as that.”

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