Burt Shavitz, co-founder of Burt’s Bees, died on July 5th, aged 80

burt shavitz burts bees

SETTLING back in his rocking chair, feet spread to feel the heat of the stove, Burt Shavitz liked to reflect that he had everything he needed. A piece of land first: 40 acres of it, fields and woods, on which he could watch hawks and pine martens but not be bothered, with luck, by any human soul. Three golden retrievers for company. A fine wooden house, 20 feet wide by 20 feet deep, once a turkey coop but plenty spacious enough for him. From the upper storey he could see glorious sunsets, fire off his rifle at tin cans hanging in a tree, and in winter piss a fine yellow circle down onto the snow, and no one would care.

As the co-founder of Burt’s Bees, he could have been a multimillionaire. He had once held a third of the cosmetic company’s stock, valued in 2003 at $77m; he had surrendered it a decade earlier for property worth $130,000. In 2007 Clorox, a big corporation famous mostly for bleach, bought Burt’s Bees for a sum just shy of $1 billion. A fortune moulded originally from his honey and his beeswax allowed the other co-founder, Roxanne Quimby, once his lover, to purchase 100,000 acres of Maine to return them to their pristine wildness. His romantically bearded younger face, in battered hat, still graced the little tins of hand salve that would set you back $8.99 in Walgreens. But what would he ever want all that money for? He had his corner, and was content.

His dream was to earn just enough to live a simple life. His idea of business, before he met Roxanne, was to load his yellow pickup with honey from his bees in old quart pickle jars, park it beside Route 7 just out of Dexter, Maine, and see who chanced past. He was thought an independent cuss locally, given to swearing and bad manners, but he still sold enough honey—in the months between July 4th and the start of hunting season, before cold weather thickened the product—to pay his property tax, vehicle registration and lighting bill, and buy enough to eat.

Into the wilds
Bees were a marvel that way. They were the sort of livestock even a New Yorker could manage, for that, despite appearances, was what he was. He had been born in Manhattan and in the 1960s became a photographer there, snapping Black Muslim rallies and dandified drug-dealers on the Bowery, while growing steadily disenchanted with city life. A series of pictures of Harlem children showed them caged by metal bars and wire-mesh fences, spending their lives amid macadam and cement. He photographed the old woman who lived opposite his apartment, on 92nd and Third, staring sadly from a frame of lace curtains; she never left that room. At that point he decided to throw his books and a horsehair mattress into a camper van, and leave for the wilds.

He had almost no money and certainly no ambitions. Beekeeping saved him from a hobo’s existence. He did not even pay for his bees; he found a swarm on a fencepost as he was driving into Maine, and took it as a good omen. A friend in upper New York State had taught him beekeeping and given him a hive, gloves, mask and smoker, so all he had to do was house the swarm and scatter the hives through the woods around Dexter. And then the honey kept coming. No more hassle until the spring day in 1984 when he picked up the pretty, hippie Roxanne, hitchhiking to her waitressing job at the Dexter Motor Lodge, and everything changed.

They never lived together. That was as well, for the turkey coop was smaller in those days, and Roxanne would have filled it to bursting with her enterprises. He had 200lb of beeswax sitting about with no obvious purpose; she turned it into candles, furniture polish (which didn’t sell), lip balm (which sold wildly), hand lotion, even ornaments for the Christmas tree. Together they went to craft fairs all over Maine, he tetchily, she bustling and bright and overflowing with ideas. By 1991 they were a company, called Burt’s Bees after the name he had stencilled on his hives in the woods to keep off robbers. By 2000 the company’s annual revenue was $23m.

She tried to bring him along, but he didn’t much care for it all. He was still the face of the brand, though he never believed (as she did) that he had the pulling power of Colonel Sanders. He followed her when in 1994 she decamped to North Carolina, abandoning the flower-child kitchen candle-dipping in New England for factory production in a place where taxes were lower and unions weaker. But he missed Maine too much, and soon sold out and went back: no longer to keep bees, just to do what he wanted, when he wanted.

He didn’t need any of that commercial buzz, the stress and press of it, and especially not the bitterness between him and Roxanne, though that ebbed and flowed. To be an “upper-mobile rising yuppie” was not on his agenda. In 2003 another $4m was passed to him, allowing him to be a rather well-turned-out hermit, with fleece and plaid jackets straight out of L.L. Bean’s catalogue and a glimpse of a nice watch under his cuff. When asked he would travel, even as far as Taiwan, to hold up little tubes of lip balm and appear among swarms of small children dressed as bees. For the rest of the time, he would wander into the woods or lie on his lawn to watch the baby foxes play, murmuring “Golly dang!” with simple happiness.