The last installment in the true-life saga of Alexander Cochrane Cushing took our hero through the 1960 Winter Olympics. Everybody remembers it as splendid drama, written and perpetrated by Cushing himself. With only one double chair lift, a modest ski lodge and rooms for, oh, say, 100 guests in some converted Army barracks, he called on the International Olympic Committee meeting in Paris one day in 1955 and coolly asked it to bring the Games to his little Squaw Valley resort hidden up there among the noblest slopes of the Sierra Nevada. And what stunned the world at the time was that the IOC accepted.
Dramatically, the home folks in California rallied to the cause. The somewhat shaken financiers of San Francisco raised more than $13 million—with generous help from the state treasury—and before you could say "cérémonie olympique protocolaire" there was little old Squaw Valley looking like a Swiss postcard. There were flags, a fancy ice arena for skating and hockey, ski jumps, three more chair lifts to the excellent downhill and slalom runs, an Olympic Village, the works. There are those who still insist today that the Squaw Valley Olympics were the best run, gayest Winter Games to date—better than Grenoble, grander than Cortina or anyplace else. And as the curtain descended, Cushing was standing quietly in the wings plotting again.
A number of Cushing's old friends expected him to turn in his skis at that point. He had, after all, spent more than 10 years away from his old pals and youthful playgrounds in New York, Newport and Boston. The old friends are still waiting; Cushing is still in Squaw Valley, and he is concocting the biggest ski resort in the world.
Not that Cushing is any better suited for the role now than he was then. He still does not have the temperament and inclinations of your everyday boniface, greeting customers by their names and making them feel welcome. That sort of thing is not at one with his Bourbonesque style. Not only that, but Cushing has never forgotten some early advice from his friend Michael Romanoff, the distinguished restaurateur. "Cushing," Romanoff intoned in his imperial way, "avoid your customers at all costs. If they get used to your being around, they will ruin you."
February 9, 1970
And, carefully avoiding his customers, Cushing stuck it out at Squaw Valley. Building things. Installing new ski lifts; it seems like a new ski lift goes up every week at Squaw—there are now more than 26 of them in all shapes and colors. Then came last spring, when Cushing staged his happening, a sort of Squaw Valley Revisited.
From Palm Beach, Boston, San Francisco and Hollywood came this covey of fashionable people, the ladies wrapped in something like a $3,000 iridescent, four-color, reversible mink coat or an Emba Jasmine mink jacket with leopard trim or just plain old sable. By evening the guests were assembled, some 100 strong, in an enormous five-story concrete blockhouse. Drinking booze out of plastic cups, they shouted hello, kissed, jostled and talked over the metallic roar of a rock combo while a 40-mph blizzard hissed and groaned outside. Over the heads of all could be seen the quizzical face of the host, a wool hat covering his shaggy crop of reddish-blond hair and a 19th century mink coat (inherited from his grandfather) reaching some six feet from his shoulders to his ankles.
Cushing had assembled his friends to attend the christening of his latest super thing, something suitable to match his Squaw Valley dream—the most capacious aerial tramway in the world. Each of its giant gondolas, running alternately up and down the thick cables, can whisk 120 skiers at a time from the 6,200-foot level of Squaw Valley Lodge to the 8,120-foot level of the middle slopes—a distance of almost 1½ miles—in a matter of five minutes. That adds up to 1,400 skiers an hour, and nothing else on earth can move that many of them that far in such a short time.
One of Cushing's assets is a wry humor that makes it possible for him to laugh at the more frustrating aspects of his life, such as high finance. So it was not surprising that when it came time to smash some champagne across the prow of the first gondola, one found it had been christened The Connecticut General, not in honor of Nathan Hale but of the insurance company that had put up a big hunk of the money for the $3 million outfit. Fittingly, the bottle was swung by Mrs. Dorothy Earl Laughlin, a sparkling member of the Long Island-to-Santa Barbara set and also a pioneer investor in Squaw Valley. Ann Miller, the willowy dancer of 10,000 M-G-M musicals, who served as the original Miss Squaw Valley at that first weekend in 1949, named the other car A. P. Giannini. That is a local joke. Whenever Cushing has needed serious money for one of his major projects he has always found it at the late Mr. Giannini's well-known Bank of America.
The blockhouse, where everyone was drinking, is another Cushing touch. At first glance it would appear that Cushing had brought back one of Hitler's Festung Europa fortifications. Wrong. The blockhouse, rising 82 feet above the road at the entrance to Squaw Valley Lodge, doubles as the lower terminus of the new tramway. It was designed by Boston Architect Joseph Richardson, Harvard '35, a schoolmate of Cushing's, and it is a fat, functional creation. Despite its 16-inch-thick walls and blocklike appendages, everything in the building flows—from the machinery in the basement that drives the tramway, up through the automated main floor where the riders are processed and sent by elevator to the loading platform, and on up to the portals where the gondolas leave and enter, barely clearing the roof of one wing of the lodge.
The new tramway is the latest item in Alec Cushing's long-term grand design for Squaw Valley. At first, during the years that followed the excitement of the Olympics, Cushing had often felt like a trapped man. Most of the major Olympic facilities—notably the Blyth Arena for ice skating, the 300-room Olympic Village and the new Red Dog chair lift—had been built by the Olympic organizing committee on land that did not belong to Cushing. Their ownership reverted to the state of California, and there was always the immediate threat that the state might lease them to a rival operator. "For 18 months, five days a week, I spent all my time going from one state agency to another in Sacramento—and talking to lawyers. I was just about ready to shoot myself," Cushing says now. "If I could've, I would have left and done something else, but I had to stay and straighten things out. I owed it to my stockholders."
But by the summer of 1962 Cushing felt secure enough about the future to build four new double chair lifts. The next summer he built a gondola tramway to carry 600 people an hour to and from the middle slopes and added a small lodge at its summit, called the Gold Coast, where one could get a modest lunch. By the winter of 1965 Squaw Valley was booming, operating 12 double chair lifts that handled some 10,000 skiers an hour plus half a dozen Poma lifts for beginners. "If anyone had told me in 1960 that we would be building three or four lifts a year, I would have thought they were crazy," Cushing says. "I thought it would take 10 years to get all the business we could absorb on the three lifts we had at the end of the Olympics. The first year we were in business we only handled 68,000 skiers, all told, and after the Games I thought 400,000 a year was a wild figure. Now we can handle more than 22,500 skiers an hour, twice the capacity of anyone else. All the other resorts are going through the same thing in a lesser way. In this business you have to keep building and building just to stand still."
It was during a drive from Squaw Valley to the Reno airport five years ago that Cushing first began to sense other new adventures for., his resort. In the car with him was the late Howard Gossage, a mildly eccentric San Francisco adman with an offbeat imagination. To amuse one another, Gossage and Cushing began trying to recall the names of obscure movie actors—people whose faces one has seen hundreds of times as detectives and room clerks and ma√Ætre d's.
Suddenly Gossage suggested that Cushing might brighten up Squaw Valley's slow summer months by holding special film festivals in honor of some of these familiar but anonymous pillars of Hollywood. Out of this conversation came the first Douglass Dumbrille film festival staged at High Camp that summer. It was "high camp," indeed.
Then, for an encore, Cushing flew off to the distinguished old Boston firm of Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott, of which Cushing's old friend is a present-day partner. The colossal Squaw Valley blueprint emerged. The ex-schoolmates projected such ideas as the new tramway (that Richardson was on hand to help christen), an 18-hole Robert Trent Jones golf course at the 8,000-foot level ("the kind of course where if you hit a wild slice you have to walk a mile—straight down—to find your ball," as Cushing happily puts it), high-rise buildings at the floor of the valley and maybe even on the 9,000-foot peaks of the Sierra Nevada, things that even NASA might blush to suggest. Before Richardson entered the scene Squaw Valley's original capital investment of $400,000 had grown in gradual stages to about $1 million at the time of the Games and from there to around $4 million during the post-Olympic building spree. What Richardson and Cushing are dreaming of now would cost another $10 million. Cushing, who has never drawn any salary (he lives entirely on an expense account and a comfortable private income) nor been paid any dividends, could hardly wait to get started.
It is a standard joke around Squaw Valley that Cushing really does not have too much of an idea what is going on around the place from day to day. Ask him if a certain lift is operating or where the best place is to have lunch or if the lodge is full for the weekend and he is likely to say, "I don't know." He keeps a staff of button-down Ivy Leaguers for such details, and as one of them said recently, "Alec can't be bothered about what's going on right now. He's thinking about three years from now."
As a result, Squaw Valley suffers in some respects. The carriage trade tends to squawk about the rooms and the service and the food—a part of the scene that bores Cushing—and others often complain that the Squaw Valley people are uppity. That does bother Cushing, for it is the mass business that he wants to keep his lifts running full. For these anti-uppity clients Squaw Valley runs a rock discotheque in one of its bars, while the carriage trade sits around a dance floor upstairs and listens to a jazz combo. One item that Cushing really puts his mind to now is the music, since he is a jazz enthusiast who plays a fair ragtime piano.
Actually these are minor diversions. The vision that has preoccupied Cushing's mind for several years now is the prospect that one day a skier will be able to start off at Squaw Valley, take a lift to the summit and then ski all the way to Lake Tahoe and back, a distance of some 12 miles as the crow flies. That means Squaw's lifts will have to be interconnected with those of Alpine Meadows, the next adjoining ski complex, and Alpine Meadows" to those of a new resort called Twin Peaks, which is planned for the slopes bordering the lake. "You can do something like that in Switzerland," Cushing points out, "but there you have to ski by your watch to make sure you can catch a train back to where you started. If our plan is ever completed, you will be able to ski both ways without worrying about transportation. There'll be nothing like it in all the world."
During the big gondola weekend Cushing held a cocktail party for the ski press and fielded some fairly pointed questions from the writers. They wanted to know such things as when the access roads to Squaw Valley would be improved. ("We're the biggest taxpayer in Placer County," Cushing answered, "but that doesn't seem to carry much weight when it comes to improvements.") They wanted to know what Cushing planned to do next, and he gave them a whole list of things, including a big new restaurant at the summit end of the new tramway and a 16-story high-rise condominium next to the lodge ("but we probably won't do anything for a couple of years. The tramway cost so much it will take us some time to pay for it").
Finally a writer asked Cushing when his lifts would be integrated with those of Alpine Meadows. "I don't know," Cushing said. "I'd like to do it as soon as possible, but they seem to be a little hesitant. The last time we talked about it I got so enthusiastic that I think they thought there must be some hitch to the idea."
"Well, Alec," the writer replied, "at least you're getting to know yourself."
That broke up the room, and no one laughed harder than Cushing, who thrives on contention and is inwardly pleased by the thought that he is known as Cushing the Impossible—an epithet that can be read in several ways.