To understand Sun Valley one must first appreciate that it is a ski resort where skiing ranks second, maybe even third. The valley is a lot of other things: a Swiss village hidden up there somewhere in Idaho, a feeling, a mood, girls in tight pants, sleigh bells, Sonja Henie and an old concrete lodge. It is part of the American subconscious, and anyone who has never been there knows deep inside that one day he must see Sun Valley, just as he must see the Washington Monument or Greenwich Village. The valley is a glamorous playground, the iced Riviera of all U.S. resorts. Beautiful people cavort there. It has movie stars and those who look like movie stars, Austrian ski instructors with white teeth and burnt umber faces, and pine trees with soft snow clinging to them.
For 28 years Sun Valley has been a very special place. The Union Pacific Railroad built it, and Steve Hannagan, the flack of all flacks, made it a dream. He moved the sheep out and the celebrities in. Ernest Hemingway came, bought a home and did a lot of hunting, practically no skiing and an awful lot of drinking there. The valley became the backdrop for some of the most scenic and least dramatic movies ever released. Claudette Colbert made it fashionable by coming there to shoot She Met Him in Paris, and Glenn Miller came with the band and played It Happened in Sun Valley while young Sonja pranced around the rink in that fluffy little costume and those Nordic dimples. There were rich heiresses and poor heiresses and the Miami Beach girls who came to gamble and get divorced. When Sun Valley opened in December 1936, David O. Selznick belted Banker Charles F. Glore in the eye, and Hannagan saw that it made all the wires. Newspapers were big on that sort of thing, and the valley produced copy for years. June Allyson and Burt Lancaster and Sam Goldwyn and Louis Armstrong played there. So did Robert Young, Tommy Hitchcock, the Studebakers and Clark Gable. Norma Shearer stayed on to marry Ski Instructor Marty Arrougé, the first of many such international matches. Party girl Virginia Hill came and paid for everything with $100 bills she carried around in a shoe box. The Shah of Iran skied at Sun Valley, accompanied by a bodyguard who toted a gun and fell down a lot. Eventually everybody who read papers or sang songs or went to movies somehow ended up with a piece of Sun Valley in his heart.
Everything was serene at this snowbound stage setting until early last fall, when stories began going around that the Union Pacific—still the losing landlord of all this Gem√ºtlichkeit—was getting out. The first rumor was that Walt Disney was buying the place and in no time Sun Valley would be transformed into Disneyland North. Residents shivered. Then it was announced, officially, that the Janss Corporation, a monster southern California land-developing outfit, had bought the valley, and the residents froze with fear. "The queen is dead," one Northwest ski writer penned in despair. An epidemic of property-value stomach developed around Ketchum, the little town in the valley. Movie Actress Ann Sothern, one of the area's scenic wonders, got right on the phone and called the Janss people to demand assurance they were not going to install a slum next to her almost-Austrian chalet. Sun Valley fanciers protested that theirs was a well-established emotional institution and that you can't just buy that sort of thing, even if you are a monster from Los Angeles.
But that was in the autumn. Now, with the fresh snow falling and the stretch pants stretching, it is clear that the old queen of winter resorts is going to survive her rather unregal change of hands. The snug, all-enclosed atmosphere of the valley has not diminished. The food is good. The bellboys at the Sun Valley Lodge are in new uniforms, but as quick as ever. Lovely women still sweep through the lobby in cerise and mauve pants, trailing a trace of Chanel. There is still hot spiced tea in the afternoon, the ski instructors still make feminine hearts go clippety-glump and there still is music and dancing all night. So rewarding is the outlook, in fact, that some Sun Valley property owners have even begun talking in sweeping terms about this wonderful new company ("We were never really worried there. Nope. Not for a minute") that is channeling more than $30 million into the resort and the Idaho economy. The estimates of the local residents may be a little high—that much money would probably buy every fireplug, house, picket fence, building and pump handle in all of Ketchum—but such is the talk of a town so long turned inward from the rest of the world.
January 4, 1965
What has set the worries of Sun Valley to rest is a confrontation with the California monster that bought it and the discovery that Janss Corp. is really two craggy-faced men, Edwin and Bill Janss, who have both the means and the intention to care for the place dearly. The Janss brothers already have considerable third-generation wealth, which they are building into a fourth-generation fortune. They own properties all over the place: a new resort spread in Hawaii; a city, some ranches, golf courses and another resort in California; a mountain in Aspen, Colo. They regard themselves as "forward-thrust" businessmen, and tough ones, too. This is the first time they have ever bought a mood.
One crisp, clear day last month Ed Janss flew into Hailey, Idaho in his $60,000 Cessna 310, and Bill Janss arrived from another direction in his own Cessna. They sloughed through the new snow to Sun Valley and looked around at Baldy Mountain with its spider web of ski runs, the tight little village, the grand old lodge. "All this," said Ed, "is something wonderfully mysterious. I'm not quite sure we bought the resort, really. I can't escape the feeling we are holding it in trust. This whole place has somehow been woven into the fabric of American life. It's a unique thing. Give a thought-association test. Say 'ski resort' and people will answer 'Sun Valley.' We can all feel it. Sometimes it snows pure nostalgia up here."
"There is a mood," says Bill Janss, who has been hooked on Sun Valley since he raced for the Harriman Cup and honeymooned there in 1940. "We bought a cluster of buildings and a flair, and we inherited old Steve Hannagan's legacy of sunshine on the snow and everybody standing around in shorts all tanned and glistening. We started out a year ago to do an in-depth study on this place. We were consultants for Union Pacific. Then one day we realized the place was so perfect and had so much potential that we ought to buy it."
Others had tried to buy Sun Valley and had been turned aside by the railroad, which seemed to be content with the resort as a guaranteed money-loser and tax write-off. One Janss official swears that Union Pacific board meetings were always opened with the words, "Well, gentlemen, how much shall we budget for our Sun Valley losses this year?" When the railroad unexpectedly suggested the Janss brothers take it over, there was no hesitation. "We had already sold ourselves on the deal," says Ed Janss.
Together Ed and Bill Janss blend into the Sawtooth Mountain backdrop and semisweet Swiss architecture better than anybody since the mid-1930s, when a young, slick-haired Averell Harriman began to make things happen in Sun Valley. Ed Janss, 50, has the look an advertising agency would build a campaign around—an air of relaxed authority. His face is permanently tanned and weather-creased, his hair close-cropped and worn as though someone had just walked through it. His shirts are monogrammed at both chest and cuff, and his suits are clearly expensive but so ingeniously rumpled that he always manages to look as if he just stepped out of a train wreck. Bill is four years younger and will achieve the full mountain-country look in time. But already he is pretty potent stuff. When he first arrived at the valley as co-owner the staff was understandably solicitous and eager to make a good impression. Dorice Taylor, chief of the publicity bureau, stepped up to say something appropriate and murmured instead, "Why, he has the bluest eyes I have ever seen in my life."
Thus suited by nature to the Sun Valley mood and manner, the brothers began moving in on the main problem, how to pick the place up and point it in a new, moneymaking direction, yet make it appear as though not much had happened. This amounts to high-level financial plastic surgery. Sun Valley has plenty of land (4,800 acres) in its mountain notch. The sun pours into it most of the time, and there are days, as Publicist Hannagan promised, when everybody stands around in shorts and glistens. Baldy Mountain is already well served by lifts and has wide-sweeping ski runs for intermediates and experts, while the hackers have a smaller mountain all to themselves. But many of the main trails get lumpy in heavy traffic, and by midafternoon on busy days the effect can be one of skiing off the side of a gigantic golf ball. Powder snow has always been in short supply at the valley—Baldy faces the wrong way—but starting next season skiers are going to get this kind of snow. The powder-snow fields, some 1,000 acres of them, lie thick behind Baldy on the Warm Springs Run. Janss path-finders have surveyed the section and mapped new ski trails. "The trees will be carefully trimmed out—not in the old time slash-a-trail style," says Bill Janss. "We will leave clusters of trees to add the element of seclusion and mystery for skiers." In the spring a $400,000 lift will link top and bottom. Other lifts and trails will interconnect the entire mountain area and, in seasons to come, skiers will be riding up to newly opened sections that fan out from all sides of the meadow floor.
First touches of the new proprietorship have already appeared on the hillsides with the installation of hot-air mitten and boot warmers, an idea the corporation stole from men's rooms everywhere. Sun Valley offhandedly refers to them as "Vail blowers," a not-so-subliminal suggestion that it gets an awful lot colder in Colorado. New hooded capes have been added to each chair lift to keep upward-bound skiers warm, and the chairs have been upholstered with foam-rubber cushions.
The brothers have been busy back at the village, too. Everything has been repainted in soft loden greens and mustard tones, and the lobby of the lodge has been remodeled. On one preseason inspection trip Bill Janss strolled down to the cavernlike boiler room underneath the lodge and pronounced it just right for a rathskeller. He called in the decorators. "Paint the ceiling blue," he ordered. "Exactly the color of this golf shirt I have on." They mixed up some paint and matched it. "Do not touch anything else," said Janss. "We'll screen off the boilers with big cloth panels and then shine spotlights on them so they show through. We will put in a bar—over there, against the wall—and serve beer and corned-beef sandwiches." Brother Ed called up from Los Angeles. "You ever hear of a steel band?" he inquired. "I have just heard the greatest one ever. They play Calypso and anything you want. I had them for a party at the house, and I've signed them for the season at Sun Valley." "Fine," said Bill. "I've got just the place for them to play." The whole thing is kooky enough to make the Boiler Room the Peppermint Lounge of the ski world.
But the brothers still have a mountainful of problems ahead. For all its neo-European charm, Sun Valley has always been hard to reach. In the Union Pacific's day it was called 2,618 rail miles from New York City. There has been air service, but none of the connections with the main incoming flights to Salt Lake City, Twin Falls or Boise, Idaho have ever been very good. When asked by the Janss brothers about this, the airlines showed no desire to adjust their schedules. "Well, now," mused Bill (and it was one of those real loud muses that gets all the way to airline vice-presidents), "we could always buy our own airline and feed people into the valley." Suddenly the air connections got much better.
The Sun Valley sequence—study a property, buy it, treat it tenderly and make money from it—follows a Janss family method for big business advancement that dates back to 1899 and Peter Janss, who was Bill's and Ed's grandfather and one of the West Coast's first big real estate wheeler-dealers. "He was a country doctor, just a general practitioner, I think," says Bill Janss. "Sometimes he would take pieces of land for his fee. Then he began buying property east of Los Angeles. By 1911 he had control of something like 47,000 acres in the San Fernando Valley and was an established figure."
Dr. Peter had two sons, Harold and Edwin Janss Sr., and he taught them well. Edwin became a doctor, and both he and Harold started using the land their father had accumulated. By 1928 they were building Westwood Village in Los Angeles, the nation's first planned "urban core" community. Then Dr. Edwin went north and talked the University of California into establishing UCLA in the village. "After that," recalls Ed, "his civic duty was fulfilled, and the doctor bought UCLA a football team. I think they were a bunch of practically professional gorillas. He paid for their first season. He bought all their food and put them up at a military academy off the campus. I can't remember how they made out." Dr. Edwin also fathered Ed Jr. and Bill, and his family's sense of enterprise was passed along to the brothers.
Looking back on it, Ed says: "I had a real choice in life. I could become either a playboy or a dilettante. I went to Stanford for two years—where I organized the school's first ski team—and then I transferred to Davis Agricultural College. I was the only kid in school who operated a string of Thoroughbred racing horses on the side. I was 20 years old and I had 25 horses running. I was the youngest owner in the country. Those were pretty wild days." Wild perhaps, but routinely wild. Soon Ed was at loose ends. The family money was being channeled into stock investments. Father Edwin was settling down. There wasn't anything to do.
"I said to myself, 'Can you work?' " Ed recalls now. "And the answer was, 'I don't know how.' Well, then, 'Can you farm?' I figured perhaps I could, so I moved out to the family ranch in Conejo Valley in Ventura County, about 40 miles from Los Angeles. I didn't know anything about farming, really; but I had 10,000 acres and a maid and butler and breakfast in bed every morning, and I faked the rest. I used to say to my foreman, 'Well, what do you think we ought to do today?' And he would reply, 'Oh, maybe we ought to plow.' Or cut hay, or something like that. And I would say, 'That sounds like a hell of an idea,' and that's how I learned to farm."
The Conejo countryside was gentle and rolling. It was like the homestead scene in a thousand cowboy movies where Dad steps down from the covered wagon, squints out at the mountains and lowlands and decides that this must be the place. It was so lush and so slow that it exhausted Ed early. And Los Angeles was just over the next couple of hills, looking in his direction. So in 1957 Ed built some houses in Conejo.
"People bought them right away," Ed recalls with great satisfaction. "They seemed to want to settle there. I found another 50 acres of land, bought it at $500 an acre and divided it into 96 lots. I sold—get this—I sold the lots for $3,500 each in one day. One day. That was the fastest quarter million I ever made."
Brother Bill, meanwhile, had been following an independent course. He went to Stanford, skied in Europe, raced at Sun Valley and was picked as an alternate on the U.S. Olympic team in 1940, the year the Games were canceled because of the war. Bill eventually moved to Thermal, Calif. to operate one of the family holdings, a cattle-feeding station, and became an educated, blue-eyed, rich cow-puncher. ("You know what?" says Bill. "Those were wonderful days. I used to get out there on horses and move those cows around. I mean really punch the bounders. But I never have time to ride anymore.") One day Uncle Harold, who was beginning to feel that Janss money unspent was Janss money saved, went over the cattle station's books and cracked, "What's this item here? Five dollars for a pair of spurs?" With that, Bill quit the family businesses until the day came in 1954 when Dr. Edwin, Ed and Bill bought out Uncle Harold by selling Westwood Village and paying him off in cash. Now Bill was back into the family operations.
Expansion began in all directions. Conejo became a self-contained city with its own business area and own sewer plant. The whole operation set some kind of record for California zoning procedures, and other realtors moved in around the fringes to get some share of the enormous profits. But guess who they must pay to hook into the sewer lines?
When Dr. Edwin retired, the third generation was replaying the theme of the first two. "Dad was a little worried about the new portent of aggressiveness that we were showing," says Ed with a smile. And when Ed himself went over the books one day and saw that Bill had bought, not a $5 pair of spurs, but a 4,000-acre ranch in Aspen, Colo.,—he didn't say a word. "I suspected it wasn't for cattle," he admits.
The 4,000 acres gave the brothers access to 8,000 additional acres of skiing mountain, the biggest such spread in North America. They call it Snowmass, and in another year it will be developed as a multimillion-dollar project in the Aspen complex. A complete Janss village will go into the high mountain slope: ski lodges, hotels, shops, homesites, cash registers. The Aspen Ski Corporation, recognizing its big new neighbor, has put Bill on its board of directors. "I think maybe they wanted to know what I was up to," he says. They know now.
The monster, Janss Corporation, is producing other little monsters, too. At Kaanapali Beach on Maui the brothers are building a $60 million resort, moving beaches, converting swamps into softly lighted lagoons ("You can light a lagoon at night. You can't light the ocean," Ed points out matter-of-factly) and installing an 18-hole golf course. They have chosen the symbol of a happy whale for this whale-size resort. (The Janss brothers are big on symbols.) In August of this year Ed and Bill bought 4,600 acres at Lake Nacimiento, near Paso Robles, Calif., for still another resort, and they hold options on 35,000 more acres of California land that is tagged for future development.
Even the cattle-feeding business, now the biggest of its kind in the country, is making money. "And to think they used to call me Crazy Bill," says Bill, who is doing a $15 million-a-year volume making skinny cows fat. It is not an easy operation. The jet set gathers for golf and tennis in Palm Springs and El Dorado, a few miles across the valley floor, and a strong wind from the stockyards can make a millionaire's eyes water and ruin his game. Bill has solved that. He has installed high, reedlike tubes over the yards and he pumps perfume through them. "It really works," he explains. "It erases everything. One day we mixed up a batch of My Vice, or something like that, and it wafted over there and I hate to think what happened."
Bill is actually perfuming his own home, for he lives in Palm Springs in a long, low, native-stone, polished-wood-and-glass house tucked into the mountainside. He and wife Anne also keep an apartment in Los Angeles and are building a home in Aspen. One of Janss's two daughters is a Stanford sophomore and a son is prepping at Exeter. Bill commutes among all of these sites in his Cessna, setting it on course with the automatic pilot and using the flight time to read mail and write letters.
Ed Janss and his wife Virginia live at the Conejo ranch in a rambling home on a high bluff overlooking their city, their golf course and their stables—he still runs horses and, like all Janss enterprises, the stable pays its own way. The house rambles because Virginia has remodeled it every year for 20 years, and now it sprawls in a full circle enclosing a patio and garden. It has five bedrooms and two living rooms and is so full of Ed's modern art collection—one of the best in the U.S.—that there are original oils in all five bathrooms. Ed recently put more pressure on the wall space by returning from New York with a Jackson Pollock worth $75,000 or more. So extensive are his modern art holdings that some are in traveling exhibits, the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art has others, Janss offices around the world abound with even more and, finally, Ed's garage is littered with the overflow.
Last year Ed and Bill Janss made themselves co-chairmen of the board of their corporation, and the man they made president, Vic Palmieri, states the credo of the entire operation well. "It is quite simple," he says. "Society is changing and its tastes are improving. It demands a new leisure setting. Urban anxiety is making resorts more important. We are in a position to turn Janss Corporation's city-building capabilities into resort building. But in doing so, we do not intend to recreate the Miami Beach failure, that is, where people are alternately fed to death and sunned to death.
"The resort business until now has been too full of clichés. Most land developers are doing little more than cutting up land in the old way. This is like breaking a trust for the future. Thus, when the Sun Valley purchase came up, it fitted directly into our master plan."
The Janss brothers say that the Sun Valley master plan includes much more than skiing. They envision a Sun Valley of the future that will be a cultural headquarters, an intellectual watering hole in the western mountains. It will borrow from the Aspen Institute program in offering seminars and institutes as mental challenges for business-weary executives, and physical reconditioning as well. "The valley will change, but not outwardly," says Palmieri. "In another year there will be 50 new cottages at the resort—completely blended into the background—and we will have started on a golf course and a new scheme of shopping centers. But the character will be preserved."
Last month Ed and Bill Janss passed their first Sun Valley character test.
"I was in the Los Angeles office," says Ed, "when one of the big Hollywood movie producers called. This producer knew we had bought the resort, and he said, 'I've got this great script for a Sun Valley movie, Ed baby. It will make Sun Valley more famous than ever.' Would I read the scenario and give the go-ahead? I told him to send it over.
"The first page of the script described a Sun Valley setting. Then in strolls this bosomy blonde. She is wearing a sweater described as two sizes too small. She comes walking by this ski rack and...." Ed smiles. "And I closed the script right there and rejected it. It is not the kind of mood, the kind of atmosphere, we want for Sun Valley. What are these people trying to do—ruin our beautiful image?"