VAIL, Colorado - Marie Claire Moritz was one of Vail's first, and foremost hostesses, to visitors, friends and her extended family in Vail.
Moritz died Feb. 6 after a lengthy illness. Several friends recalled her as one of Vail's treasures.
She and her husband, Walter, founded the St. Moritz restaurant in the 1960s, and La Tour restaurant in 1980. Along the way, the couple raised three sons and, like other young families in Vail, helped raise everyone else's kids in the fledgling resort town.
"A lot of kids came to think that dinner had to be a three-course meal because of (the Moritz family)," Elaine Kelton said.
Kelton's three daughters and the Moritz's three sons grew up together - as did all the kids of Vail in the 1960s - and most of those kids found a welcome at the Moritz's place.
Kids were a big part of Marie Claire's life. She went to as many of her sons' sporting events as she possibly could, even if the sport was somewhat mysterious.
Merv Lapin, who has long been involved in Vail's youth hockey programs, coached the three Moritz boys.
"She never got the rules right," Lapin said. "But you always knew she was there."
Beyond the kids, most of Vail found a warm welcome at the couple's restaurants.
Rod Slifer lived in the old Crossroads building when La Tour had opened across the street.
"I had to walk by every day and it usually dragged me in," Slifer said. The restaurants were "full of locals and visitors," Slifer said, and the bar was always busy. While Walter worked away in the kitchen, Marie Claire was out front, greeting new diners and old friends with humor and grace.
"She had an incredible personality," Slifer said.
That personality is the first thing most mentioned when talking about Marie Claire.
"She was a pistol," Lapin said. "She was a funny, funny lady, but very warm - a European lady with a twinkle in her eye."
Packy Walker said he used to have dinner at La Tour a few times a week back in the 1980s.
"We always enjoyed it," Walker said. "You knew you'd see her and it made your night."
Sheika Gramshammer arrived in Vail a couple of years before the Moritzes did. Gramshammer said she and Marie Claire were kindred spirits, both having grown up in orphanages, and both landing in something of a frontier town as young women.
"We both didn't speak too good English, so some funny things happened," Gramshammer said. "And we both loved champagne."
Over the years, Marie Claire and Gramshammer told each other they were "only a phone call away."
"The bond we had, we cherished it," Gramshammer said.
Much of Vail cherished Marie Claire.
"For me she always had a good word with the spirit of overcoming and moving on," longtime friend Anne Marie Mueller wrote in an e-mail. "She was always encouraging our (daughter) Karina with praise and love."
And, like so many others in early Vail, Marie Claire knew her audience.
"She really set the standard for fun, and great food at the restaurant," Kelton said.
After Marie Claire and Walter sold La Tour, they enjoyed only a year of retirement together before Walter's death in 1999.
Soon after, Marie Claire wrote a book about her husband, filled with her memories, bunches of photos of Vail's early days and recipes from Walter and several of Vail's top chefs.
"It was a real love letter to her husband, and to Vail," Kelton said. "You really hear her voice in it."
Marie Claire's spirit persisted even as she was being treated for cancer.
Dave Garton - who also knew Marie Claire from the early days - was treated for cancer at the Shaw Regional Cancer Center the same time Marie Claire was a couple of years ago. During his first treatments, he noticed that Marie Claire would bring little pies and cakes to the patients at the center.
"I didn't know at first if she was a patient or a good Samaritan," Garton said. "At the St. Moritz it was like coming into her home, and she was doing the same thing for the cancer patients - that woman could light up a room."
While Marie Claire's sense of hospitality and fun never wavered, Garton said he did notice something as his friend got older.
"Every year she lived in the United States, her French accent got thicker," he said. "But she was just really terrific."
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or email@example.com.