Burt Shavitz, the man who co-founded and gave his name to the “Burt’s Bees” cosmetic empire after leaving a career as a New York City photographer in the 1960s and eventually settling down in rural Maine, died Sunday at the age of 80.
The Parkman resident’s death was mourned on the Facebook page of Burt’s Bees, the company he co-founded with Roxanne Quimby. No information was given about the cause of his death.
“It is with broken hearts that we must convey the saddest news: Burt Shavitz, our co-founder and namesake, has left for greener fields and wilder woods,” the statement began. “We remember him as a bearded, free-spirited Maine man, a beekeeper, a wisecracker, a lover of golden retrievers and his land. Above all, he taught us to never lose sight of our relationship with nature.”
Shavitz, whose bearded visage was memorialized in a woodcut and made a familiar sight worldwide by its presence on cosmetic labels, was born into an artistic Manhattan family. He started taking pictures when he was young and became a photographer while serving in the military in Germany.
After his military discharge, he went home to New York and wandered the city taking photographs, many of which appeared in such venerable publications as the New York Times and Time and Life magazines. He also got to know such luminary artists and writers as photographer Diane Arbus, author Tom Wolfe, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol and jazz musician Thelonius Monk.
Despite those connections, Shavitz told the BDN in 2014 that he decided to leave New York City when he saw that one of his elderly neighbors was a woman who never left her room, instead always gazing out her window.
“I realized if I stayed there long enough, I’d end up in the same boat, which is nothing I wanted to do,” he said then.
Shavitz left the city in 1970 for upstate New York, traveling with his Volkswagen van, motorcycle and other belongings. Later, he moved to Maine, where he was a familiar figure in Piscataquis County who sold honey from his own bees out of his truck. According to the 2013 documentary “Burt’s Buzz,” he picked up Quimby — at that time a single mother living in the woods with her two kids with no electricity and no running water — when she was hitchhiking to the post office.
Quimby began working with Shavitz, learning beekeeping and how to make beeswax candles. According to the documentary, Quimby had the idea of using the beeswax that Shavitz had saved to make lip balm and other products.
The two together founded Burt’s Bees, a company whose all-natural products and homespun marketing appealed to hippies, homemakers and the well-heeled alike. They moved the company headquarters from Maine to North Carolina in 1994, and Quimby bought out Shavitz in the late 1990s, not without controversy and for a sum of less than $1 million, reportedly. She sold the company to Clorox Co. in 2007 for $913 million, reportedly making more than $300 million in the deal.
Shavitz and his beloved golden retrievers lived in a rustic home in Parkman, which was heavily damaged by fire this February. According to the documentary, even in recent years he continued to have a business relationship with Burt’s Bees and Clorox. The documentary shows the eccentric Mainer traveling to Japan, where his namesake cosmetics — and Shavitz — were wildly popular. There, he was greeted with the kind of adulation that seemed more likely to belong to a movie star than a backwoods beekeeper.
He shrugged off his fame, according to his 2014 interview, telling the BDN that he was more focused on the present than anything else.
“It was flattering, after a fashion,” he said of the documentary. “I like the lead character.”
BDN photo editor Brian Feulner contributed to this report.