Sun valley, the most fabled and still the most wonderfully different ski resort in the United States, lies in a sparkling mountain snow bowl about 64 miles north of a Union Pacific depot in Shoshone, Idaho. It is the only ski resort in the country generally familiar to people who 1) have never seen snow, and 2) have seen snow but don't like it.
This is because Sun Valley was conceived in an almost playful public relations mood by the Union Pacific Railroad, and as a result has been continuously and successfully impressed on the public mind.
It has been on exhibition ever since its first season back in 1937, when Claudette Colbert brought a movie company here for the Swiss sequence of She Met Him in Paris. Then Sonja Henie made Sun Valley Serenade in 1940, and she was followed by others like Joan Crawford (A Woman's Face, 1941), Van Johnson and Esther Williams (The Duchess of Idaho, 1950), Stewart Granger and Cyd Charisse (The Wild North, 1952), Jane Powell (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, 1954), Marilyn Monroe (Bus Stop, 1956). In all, it has been the location for 19 film epics. And in keeping with the new era, last winter Desilu Productions with Lucille Ball brought the valley to TV.
In the 21 years between Colbert and Ball, only a very few newspaper-reading American adults escaped exposure to one of the 10,000 printed pictures and stories on Sun Valley, dutifully recording the arrival of specially important guests, or another 12 inches of new snow, or a bevy of girl skiers who were caught in their bathing suits, fortunately, relaxing beside a Sun Valley swimming pool.
December 1, 1958
The image thus created has its fascinations and is certainly an asset to the establishment. It is definitely part of that which makes Sun Valley different. However, from a skier's point of view there are things more exciting, believe it or not, than the prospect of meeting Lucille Ball in stretch pants. For instance, a skier is more excited to learn that the wall of skiable mountain at Sun Valley rises 3,000 vertical feet over the floor of the valley; that several mountains have been bulldozed smooth and planted with grass seed to make a flat undercarpet for the 50 miles of trail running down into the valley, and that there are four miles of lifts running back up—in other words, that Sun Valley is a good place to ski.
He would be equally pleased by the little resort village itself spotted on the valley floor. Here Sun Valley is different: from ski lift to soda fountain, it's all in the company. The skier needs nothing but his room number as credit in a ski empire that includes Sun Valley Lodge holding 288 skiers, Challenger Inn holding 370, five Swiss chalets holding 248, a line of stores, a movie theater, two steam-heated swimming pools, an ice rink, a bowling alley, a nightclub, a dance bistro, a beer hall and the busiest night life north of Denver. In other words, Sun Valley, in its different and delightful way, is a good place for after-ski too.
All this goes right back to an Austrian fellow named Count Felix Schaffgotsch and the days of the valley's founding. Count Felix was a scion of an old Austrian family, an avid skier and, around 1934, clerk in the firm of Brown Brothers, Harriman in New York. When Averell Harriman, a partner who was also an avid skier, left the firm for the presidency of Union Pacific, he got the count to undertake a search to find the perfect ski area, somewhere along the Union Pacific tracks. The count went 5,000 miles more or less, scanning mountains from UP coach windows. He finally settled on an unnamed dent in the Sawtooth section of the northwest Rockies, which had been known principally for its sheep-grazing land. The only inhabited place there was Ketchum, a sheep-shipping town.
As a beginning Harriman hired what he considered the world's finest public relations man, Steve Hannagan, the man who created Miami Beach "starting with a sand dune," as he put it. Hannagan went up to the valley immediately. He later described his trip as follows: "We went up there in a hand car. Then we got on a sled. After that we had to walk. All I had on was a light tweed suit. We got there and looked around and all I could see was just a lousy field of snow. It was colder than hell."
Hannagan was never one to let an impression interfere with a good phrase, however. "I always believed in a good name," said Hannagan. "We had a lot of trouble that way with Miami Beach, being so near Miami. I always said if I ever started another town down there I would call it Sunshine, Florida." Hannagan called this place Sun Valley.
Ground was broken in June 1936. By Christmastime Harriman had put in Sun Valley Lodge, the attached swimming pool, and some lifts—an investment of $1 million. For the grand Christmas Day opening, Hannagan got Claudette Colbert, Tommy Hitchcock, Robert Young and Sam Goldwyn. The only thing Hannagan couldn't bring in was snow. Unhappily, on the eve of December 24, with newsmen waiting on every hand, the ground was bare.
HEAVEN WAS KIND
If Hannagan ever prayed, he did then. And Heaven was kind. The season's first flakes came in early that night. Hannagan spent the rest of the night at the window with a bucket of champagne at his side, celebrating quietly as the valley filled up.
Thus saved, Hannagan thereafter left as little as possible to Providence. He had built Miami Beach on the well-filled bathing suit and intended to do the same here. The luxurious hot-water pool was strictly Hannagan's idea, and before long the models, starlets and pretty girls who swam there appeared in publications throughout the land.
The lodge that had been built was of concrete dyed a beige color and roughed to look like timber, and the architect, G. Stanley Underwood, did it in a subdued Hansel-and-Gretel style—balconies and that sort of thing. The guests loved it. The lodge was packed from Christmas through March that first year. Robert Pabst of the beer family was there, and Julius Fleischmann of yeast, among others. LIFE sent out the famous photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt right away. His pictures subsequently showed J. M. Studebaker manfully struggling with the newfangled sport, and his wife skiing rather better. They showed Lydia du Pont brooding over some bruises and Mrs. Margaret Emerson McKim Vanderbilt Baker Amory smoking a cigaret. They also showed Gloria Baker, heiress to $10 million, resting her head pertly on the lap of Ski Instructor Hans Hauser. Shortly thereafter Miss Baker was yanked home. In the early years Ernest Hemingway came with his wife, stayed to finish up For Whom the Bell Tolls and left the only corrected copy of the manuscript in existence with his friend Taylor Williams, his hunting guide.
By 1941 Harriman had $6 million in the place. Sun Valley grew in reputation and luxury. At the height of its palmy prewar days, a greenhouse was installed for the sole purpose of supplying fresh bouquets to guests; three men were kept on the payroll to design and maintain fancy ice sculpture on the grounds; three full sled teams of purebred Huskies were kenneled in the village for the use of guests who would rather sit than ski. At one time the whole operation was running roughly three-quarters of a million in the red annually. Union Pacific happily wrote this sum off to public relations.
Then in December 1941 the U.S. declared war on Japan. Head Instructor Hans Hauser and other Austrians on the staff were hauled off to the Salt Lake City pokey as enemy aliens. (One of Hauser's men, Friedl Pfeifer, went on from detention to serve with distinction in the U.S. mountain troops, later founded Sun Valley's big rival ski area, Aspen.) The Navy took over the grounds as a naval hospital, and the hills were soon populated by pharmacists' mates.
Some of the old guard clung on, however. A group that included Hemingway, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Ingrid Bergman and some friends rented a row of cottages in Ketchum, took over a lift at Ruud Mountain and threw some fine parties. Hemingway, it is said, still had a good supply of Spanish wineskins and was apt as not to pot someone with a stream of vintage red before the night was over.
The war finally ended, and the valley was returned to Union Pacific. Hans Hauser and other employees eventually came back and life shifted again into high gear. Shortly after the war a real splash spender named Virginia Hill descended on the valley with a girl companion and a maid, bought a thousand dollars' worth of clothes and skis the first day and set up running parties at the bars. She paid in $100 bills and left the change. She hired Hans Hauser by the week. Even-the most enthusiastic disciples of the gay life breathed weary sighs of relief when Virginia departed with Hans—still hired—for Aspen. Today an acquaintance or two at Sun Valley occasionally gets a postcard from Switzerland, where Virginia, after a sensational appearance before the Senate rackets committee disclosing her relationship with the biggest shots of the underworld, settled with Hans when she was asked to leave the country.
Then came the big change. In 1949 Arthur Stoddard became president of Union Pacific, Harriman having headed for politics. One of Stoddard's first memorandums concerned the deficit at Sun Valley. Shortly thereafter the ice sculpture went, the teams of Huskies mushed northward and an earnest attempt was made to put the valley on a self-sustaining basis. The management tried, successfully, to interest the average skier in the valley's fine skiing. They emphasized the bargain Learn to Ski Week and the $3 per night chalet dormitory accommodations. This emphasis still exists today. Of course, guests who want comfort first still stay at the lodge, with its 144 rooms, superb restaurant, cocktail and TV room, tea lounge, barber shop, beauty parlor (always well filled), high-fashion clothing shop (dresses up to $250) and art gallery (Picasso prints for the price of a couple of weeks' stay). The cost of living at Sun Valley Lodge runs $18 to $30 a day for twin beds and shower, plus half that again for food from a kitchen that measures up to the best New York or San Francisco standards.
On the other hand, groups like the Detroit Ski Club, in for the week, usually stay in the chalets and the Challenger Inn, and cut expenses by taking the Learn to Ski Week which gives them seven days' lift tickets, six days' instruction, and room in one package, for $65 to $102. This points up the fact that nowadays, once he gets there, the Sun Valley guest can stay for prices comparable to those at any ski area.
For the price of his bed and board, the Sun Valley skier has the run of the village, containing a post office (Sun Valley has its own postmark), a gift shop, photo store, the Challenger Inn, the Ram Bar and Pete Lane's ski store. Lane goes south in Idaho every March to take part in the sheep-shearing (still big business in Idaho) that supplies wool that returns to his shop via Seattle as his best line of ski sweaters.
Then there is a hospital where John Moritz, the head M.D., is so good at setting legs that they send a couple of graduate doctors out from Peter Bent Brigham hospital in Boston just to watch every year. And there are the pools, both enormously soothing places to be after a day's skiing.
To top it all off, Sun Valley's hills have all kinds of skiing: from dizzy to gentle. Beginners have the wonderfully smooth mammoth ice-cream scoop known as Dollar Mountain. This pocket-size mountain, a half mile east of the village, has two chair lifts, Dollar and Half Dollar (Sun Valley has nothing but chair lifts), and is a perfect ski kindergarten.
The other Sun Valley mountain is Baldy, 2.1 miles on the other side of the village (through Ketchum by bus) and six times as high as Dollar. The runs under the lifts have some of the longest continually steep skiing in the country. North of the lift is College Run, fairly gentle in comparison and emptying into River trail, the runout at the bottom of the mountain. Off to the south, almost as far as the eye can see, smooth open fields run down from the ridge back of Baldy's peak. These are the famous bowl runs. With a little powder on them, they are an intermediate's heaven.
However, Baldy's lift runs—Ridge, Canyon and Exhibition—are the places where the skier who feels his oats can learn about the round and plentiful mounds called moguls. They build up gradually, piled up inside the arc of the sharp, linked control turns made by successive skiers following in each other's tracks down the steep terrain. A good mogul can run three to four feet high from track to crest. Unless you ski sharply and well, the sensation becomes something like being dropped off a cliff and then hit under the boots with a power ram. If you start doing much of this, it means you're tired and it's time to take the bus back to the lodge.
A word ought to be said here on the bus system, which sounds annoying but isn't. The buses run every five to seven minutes between the village and the mountains. The wait is never burdensome, and the ride is a nice way to meet people.
Another nice way to meet people is in the Sigi Engl Ski School. Out of 700 people likely to be staying at the valley, 500 are in class every day. Sigi Engl's ski instructors are men with souls of brooding patience. They start at the beginning of the week explaining how to put your socks into your boots without wrinkling them into painful ridges and go on from there. On Dollar every day are the most attentive groups of skiers in the world. The classes are lined up in single squads, dispersed on the hill for maneuvers. At a word from the instructor, each squad goes down in formation: one turn, two turns, stop. And again. And again. Sun Valley instructors are not martinets nor are the Sun Valley skiers robots; it's just that everyone wants very much to graduate to Baldy. The distinction between a Dollar skier and a Baldy skier is almost a social one.
The system used by the Engl school can be described as modified rotation. The upper body moves in the direction of the turn (not in the opposite direction, as in the Austrian shortswing). However, the elbows and hands are kept fairly even with the body until the time comes to bring the pole ahead for the next turn. There is none of the arm swing of the extreme rotation school. On easy slopes there is considerable unweighting, but on Baldy's steeper runs this is eliminated and all that is left is a simple sinking movement, coupled with a very pronounced lean toward the inside of the turn with the whole body (instead of upper body leaning out, as in shortswing), while the knees are pressed sharply toward the slope. Expertly done, it looks like an optical illusion. One minute the skier is going left and the next right and you swear he didn't move—around the valley they call it The Mystery Turn.
Once you have conquered the mystery, however, there are instructors ready to show you deep powder turns, high speed running and, yes, the Austrian shortswing.
After-ski at Sun Valley is most relaxed and at the same time most organized. Sun Valley's guests typically follow the casual European tradition during their stay. This means getting off the skis early enough in the afternoon for a swim in a pool, a round of tea at the lodge and/or a drink at one of the bars. You then have plenty of time to change to lighter clothes for dinner.
TRIOS, DANCES, NORMA SHEARER
On any given night there are three trios and an orchestra in the valley. The orchestra plays at the dinner dance in the lodge. If you still haven't seen a movie star, go there and you'll probably see Norma Shearer—still with the figure that used to photograph so well in the movies of the '30s—dancing with her husband, Martin Arrouge. (Arrouge was Norma's ski instructor. They were married here in 1945 and have been coming back ever since.) Dinner done with, the skier can move into the Duchin Room bar or go out on the village.
The Ram, Challenger Inn's drinking room, has the New York nightclub feeling, with one of the trios doing nothing to dispel it. Another trio will be playing at Holiday Hut, where likely as not the Detroit Ski Club and the Sun Valley employees are dancing polkas and fraternizing en masse over beer. Back at the lodge, there is an evening dance, strictly suit and tie, with the orchestra. Additionally, there are movies and bowling plus sleigh rides to Trail Creek cabin for steak and dancing to the third and last trio. And if you're lucky enough to fall in with any of Sun Valley's permanent residents like Dr. and Mrs. George Saviers (see cover), there is a lively social life all the way from Ketchum to the village.
In spite of the new decorousness, Sun Valley still has its wonderful differences. Hemingway came back to write another book this fall. Management still sends fresh bouquets to guests on its special list. And even the fun-loving gesture on a grand scale is by no means out. Last winter, for instance, a Sun Valley regular named Jim Harrison decided in advance of the season to have a joke on Sigi Engl. Harrison bought five sleds up north for $30 apiece, had them shipped to his home in Florida and engraved with Engl's familiar signature as if in endorsement of the product. (Note to nonskiing readers: skiers feel about sleds the way elephants do about mice.) Harrison had one of the sleds hung in Pete Lane's shop and the others dragged out to the instruction slopes by various girls who claimed to have bought them under a guarantee that Engl would supply them a hill and an instructor.
It was a gesture which pretty well typifies Sun Valley today—a place where high-class high jinks are occasionally still indulged in, but which basically is friendly to all, from habitué to the newly arrived. Everyone says hello. No one, not even the help, is rude to the guests. In fact, it would be hard to find a place where people seem more pleased with their jobs. Most of the 700 who work at the valley (ratio of guests to employees is about one to one) are under 25, and were picked from a waiting list of 2,000 applicants. Some, like Assistant Lodge Manager Lou Stur (who was halfway to a Ph.D. when he arrived) intended to spend only a season, but have stayed on and on, "caught in the velvet glove," as one employee put it.
The hand in the velvet glove is still Union Pacific. Management is expected to break even, and that is all. A sizable profit one year presages a profit-swallower, say a new lift, next year. A good time-study expert probably would have a heavenly time cutting the fat off Sun Valley on a cost basis, but Sun Valley is not run quite like that. UP is Big Daddy. And this comfortable feeling is one the place transmits to its guests.