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They Could Be Anything They Want (Together)

Marti Ladd was prone to confusing the troubadour Pete Seeger with the classic rock artist Bob Seger. Her knowledge of Arlo Guthrie was equally fuzzy when he checked into her upstate New York inn in 2001.

“There was a name recognition, but I didn’t know what he looked like, I didn’t have any of his albums or follow his career,” Ms. Ladd said. Two decades later, she agreed to marry the famous stranger who landed on her doorstep, though his proposal came with a warning from him: “You know you’re going to be known as Mrs. Thanksgiving now, right?”

Mr. Guthrie, 74, is the oldest son of the folk singer Woody Guthrie and the creator of “Alice’s Restaurant,” the late-November radio staple and unofficial soundtrack to Thanksgiving. His stay at the Wild Rose Inn, in Woodstock, N.Y., 20 years ago was to help his friend Happy Traum make a film about a fellow musician, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Ms. Ladd became a fast friend when she offered him a can of beer. “It was a Guinness, which I love,” he said.

Within weeks of his checkout, he and Ms. Ladd, 60, had struck up the precursor to a text relationship. “We kept in touch through instant messenger, before there was texting,” she said. “We would talk about spirituality, philosophy, the trials and tribulations of our respective careers.”

Mr. Guthrie, then touring internationally, found a favorite place to stay when he and the regulars on his tour bus, including his wife, Jackie Guthrie, played dates near the Catskills. On tap were Guinness, friendship and subtly savory cheese blintzes.

“Each time Arlo visited the inn, I would have a fresh batch of blintzes from his grandmother’s recipe waiting for him,” Ms. Ladd said. Through messaging, they had uncovered that their great-grandfathers were from neighboring small towns in Bessarabia, now Moldova. “I had come from a long line of gastronomic Jews,” she said. “He missed the homemade blintzes his Bubbie made.”

The couple met 20 years ago, when Mr. Guthrie checked into Ms. Ladd’s upstate New York inn in 2001.Credit…James Jackman for The New York Times

The similarities in their backgrounds didn’t end there. Both grew up in Brooklyn — he in Coney Island and she in Canarsie — and each had moved to mountain towns in the Northeast as young adults. Mr. Guthrie landed near Great Barrington, Mass., where he founded the nonprofit Guthrie Center in 1991 to honor his father and mother, Marjorie Mazia-Guthrie.

Ms. Ladd lived in the Catskills and worked as a costume designer for Broadway and television before opening the inn in 2000, the year after she was divorced from the father of her son, Austin Hall-Davis, now 30 and a pastry chef.

Mr. Guthrie’s marriage had always burned bright. When it comes to love, he said, “I’ve been pretty freaking lucky.” He and Jackie Guthrie had four children, all musicians. They had been married 46 years when she died of liver cancer in 2012.

The loss was acute and disorienting. “I felt like there was a hole in my heart,” Mr. Guthrie said. His career made grieving next to impossible. “When you’re an entertainer, none of what bothers you is allowed onstage,” he said. “I didn’t have an opportunity to mourn.”

When the curtain came down, Ms. Ladd’s friendship provided a way forward. “After Jackie passed, I started showing up whenever he called me from the road saying, ‘I need your help,’” she said. “Whether it was Minneapolis or San Jose or wherever, I’d drop everything at the inn and say to my son, ‘You’ve got the reins.’”

Sometimes she would find him a dentist appointment. Sometimes she would make sure he had the right guitar picks in the right pocket. Always, she did his hair.

Arlo Guthrie, center left, Bob Dylan and others sing at a benefit in New York in 1974.Credit…Ray Stubblebine/Associated Press

“The truth is, nobody else could get through that tangle of curls,” she said. By the end of 2013, Ms. Ladd felt the friendship deepening. “My heart’s desire was with him,” she said. “I told him I was falling in love with him.”

His response was tempered by his still-processing grief. “I don’t know if I have that in me,” he said. But then, “that part of me started to come alive again. I wasn’t looking for it. I wasn’t asking for it. It just happened, because of Marti.”

For a few years, they tended to a romance that required minimum care. “For both of us, starting with the friendship, it’s always been a come-as-you-are party,” Ms. Ladd said.

Yet coasting into life as a couple unencumbered by pressures each felt in their younger years, like the pressure to build families and bank accounts, didn’t spare them trials familiar to older couples.

In 2016, on his way to California for a series of concerts, Mr. Guthrie had a stroke. Ms. Ladd flew to San Jose, into grateful arms. “He said, ‘I not only want you in my life, I need you in my life.’ To me, that was when we made a real commitment to each other.”

“Alice’s Restaurant,” the 1967 song and 1969 film, follows Mr. Guthrie’s real-life ordeal after he offers to take the trash out for a friend who hosted him for Thanksgiving dinner. He is jailed for littering, then deemed unsuitable for the military draft, helping him skirt service in the Vietnam War.

He had been performing the 18-minute monologue at Carnegie Hall every Thanksgiving for 49 years when he had another stroke days before the 50th anniversary show in 2019. This time, he was hospitalized. But he defied doctor’s orders and played anyway. “Even if I died onstage, I was going to be there,” he said.

A few days later, he woke up at his home in Sebastian, Fla., and had a third stroke. Ms. Ladd, who by then had sold the Wild Rose Inn and bought a house in Florida a mile from Mr. Guthrie’s, nursed him through his recovery. By the end of the year, he was back on tour. Then came Covid.

The venues he was scheduled to play postponed or canceled his shows. Mr. Guthrie officially retired in October 2020, while he and Ms. Ladd holed up at his farm near the Guthrie Center in Housatonic, Mass., waiting out the pandemic.

Ms. Ladd and Mr. Guthrie were still quarantining in Massachusetts when Ms. Ladd had a stroke on Oct. 3, 2021. At first, Mr. Guthrie didn’t know what was happening. “When she was talking to me it sounded like gibberish,” he said. “I thought she was fooling.”

Mr. Guthrie’s strokes had affected him physically, interfering with his balance and coordination. Ms. Ladd’s stroke compromised her thoughts and speech. She was hospitalized for two days, then sent home to Mr. Guthrie’s care. On one of her first nights home, she tried to say the word “apocalyptical.”

Mr. Guthrie proposed to Ms. Ladd in October over morning coffee at the kitchen table. “‘I’m going to take care of you the way a man wants to. I want to marry you,’” Mr. Guthrie said to Ms. Ladd.Credit…James Jackman for The New York Times

“It came out ‘Popsicle,’” she said. “Arlo was cracking up.” Underneath his amusement over her verbal stumble, though, was a welling of emotion about the woman who, for nearly a decade, had shepherded him through his own crises.

“My father always said be true to your own life and your own reality,” Mr. Guthrie said. His reality, and Ms. Ladd’s, had become anchored to a sense of life’s fragility. “Not only is life fragile, it’s shorter than you think,” he said. “And when you find somebody who is your friend, who brings you comfort and makes you smile, those become important things.”

On Oct. 22, Mr. Guthrie proposed at the farm, over morning coffee at the kitchen table. “I said, ‘I’m going to take care of you the way a man wants to. I want to marry you.’”

Ms. Ladd was already married to him in a spiritual sense. “I told him, I made this commitment to you in my heart many years ago,” she said. “There was never any turning back.”

On Dec. 8, Ms. Ladd and Mr. Guthrie were married before a deputy county clerk, Tania J. Pearson, at the South County Courthouse in Delray Beach, Fla. Because of Covid restrictions, no guests were allowed.

Ms. Ladd, in a white dress with three-quarter-length sleeves and buttons at the bustline, matched Mr. Guthrie, in a black Hawaiian shirt and jeans, curl for curl. She wore a veil, though. “I didn’t have one the first time,” she said. “I wanted that lovely feeling.”

The 20-minute ceremony included vows they decided upon weeks earlier, when Mr. Guthrie’s sister, Nora Lee Guthrie, visited them at the farm. “She asked us, What are our vows?” Ms. Ladd said. “We both looked at her like deer in the headlights. I said, ‘Is that even allowed? Can you have participation at a courthouse wedding?’”

Mr. Guthrie vowed to make Ms. Ladd coffee every morning. Ms. Ladd vowed to serve Mr. Guthrie dinner. “But never on Sunday,” she said. “That’s when he makes me French toast for dinner.” They both vowed to live happily ever after, no matter what that looks like.

Mr. Guthrie, a grandfather of seven, has sensed ambivalence from some of his children about his remarriage. “I think there’s a natural hesitancy to embrace this moment on our behalf, and that’s fine,” he said. “So what I’ve decided to do is be married to the woman I love, and let everybody live their own lives. It’s up to them if they want to be part of us.”

Equanimity, and love, will guide him. “Each day counts, and each moment is a treasure. I could live another five, 10 or 15 years, who knows? But I’ll treasure the moments I have with this particular girl.”

The couple, who had no guests at their 20-minute ceremony, didn’t want the fuss of a large wedding. “We’ve been there. We didn’t need a repeat,” said Mr. Guthrie.Credit…James Jackman for The New York Times

On This Day

When Dec. 8, 2021

Where The South County Courthouse, Delray Beach, Fla.

Fanfare After the ceremony, the couple was showered in birdseed by Ms. Ladd’s mother, Barbara Rittel; her aunt, Claire Pugatch; her sister, Dr. Lisa Rittel; and her brother, Michael Rittel.

No Fuss Their decision to marry at the courthouse was the result of a shared been-there, done-that attitude. “My grandson just got married, and there were a couple hundred people out in a field having a great time,” Mr. Guthrie said. “But we’ve been there. We didn’t need a repeat.”

Surprises The couple was heading to the Delray Sands Resort in Highland Beach, Fla., for a post-wedding celebration when Mr. Guthrie’s car was sideswiped, rendering it inoperable. Local police were dispatched to find the newlyweds in full wedding regalia waiting on the curb, eating slices of pizza. Eventually, they proceeded to dinner at Latitudes, a restaurant and lounge at the resort. Their wedding cake was so large, the bride served slices to strangers at nearby tables.

Easy Street Mr. Guthrie and Ms. Ladd will continue to divide their time between Massachusetts and Florida. “Marti and I are just looking to take it easy, to not go anywhere or do anything or be anyone,” he said. “We can just be ourselves.”

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