Vail: ‘That was how it was’
Ryan Summerlin November 4, 2012
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from “Women of Vail,” by Elaine Kelton and Carolyn Pope. The Vail Daily is serializing the book as Vail celebrates its 50th anniversary. Books are available for purchase at www.bookwormofedwards.com, the Colorado Ski Museum, Pepi’s, Gorsuch, Annie’s and the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens.
My grandfather was the governor of Burma, and I was born there. My father was in the Indian army, and when war came, my mother, sister and I went to England, where I was educated. Then I worked in a very boring secretarial job in London until 1962. I had a friend in Canada who had a connection with Vail, so it seemed the right time to go and live in the States. I wrote a letter and was hired at The Lodge at Vail. Little did I know they couldn’t get anybody to work.
I had thoughts of St. Moritz as I daydreamed on the bus to Denver. An Austrian from The Lodge drove me to Vail – through the town of Dillon, no reservoir yet, and we ate in Georgetown. No snow, Dec. 5, 1962 – Year 1. It was a construction camp with mud, and The Lodge was still being built. There was a cookhouse trailer in front where everybody ate. Everything was way behind schedule. I was by myself, and it was getting dark and looked so strange to me. They put me up in Dick Hauserman’s rental apartment. Snow came in January that year. In Denver, they didn’t know much about Vail at all, but we got publicity because astronauts had put money in Crested Butte.
The next morning, I woke up and looked out and up the mountain – then I could see what it was about. That was pretty spectacular. I had never skied, and learning to ski was part of the attraction. No employee housing, they never got around to doing it. That first year, they moved us to wherever they had a little space. We lived in the Lodge, but the trouble with that was that it didn’t have heat or running water. You had to run to Fitzhugh Scott’s house for the bathroom.
The Wild West
They opened on Dec. 15. VA owned everything including The Lodge because nobody else would build one. They wanted a grand lodge, but nobody would do it. This was in the middle of nowhere, over two mountain passes, small roads, and no town close by. The tourist center was in Denver, and it was a long way away. Nobody knew if this place was going to go or not, and it very nearly didn’t. I worked in the reservation office and helped at the front desk. I wrote letters, so I suppose I was the manager’s secretary. There was very little snow that first year. In fact, we drove up to Mid-Vail in a VW Beetle on Dec. 10. They were testing the lift. We were the first ones on Lift 4 and went to the top. I didn’t have any winter clothes and only little boots. We got off to look over at the Back Bowls – the snow didn’t come over my ankles. The U.S. Ski Team came and trained at Vail that winter. They had the army coming in with baskets putting snow under the trees – no machinery then.
It was a great hiding place for crooks and a great place to work if you didn’t want anybody to find you. Shootouts and wild things were going on. One of the bellboys wanted to kill the chef; he got drunk but didn’t have a gun. The head of ski patrol was a deputy. They wrestled the bellboy to the ground and drove him off to Eagle. One of the 10 Most Wanted on the FBI list worked as a dishwasher. It was the Wild West. I was a cocktail waitress, too, because you needed to have two or three jobs.
Anne and Joe Staufer arrived in January; Rod and Heather Slifer were newlyweds; Isabel came with the Kansas City Ski Club and met Manfred (Schober). Bunny Langmaid, Blanche, Barbara Parker. Gaynor and Joann Miller were some of the people with businesses. Gretta was here quite a lot with Bill Whiteford. Suzie Kuehn (Shepard); Hemmye and Irene Westbye. Roger and Barbara Brown. After ski season, I decided I didn’t want to be here anymore. Socially it wasn’t for me. I had a cousin at Berkeley, so I went to San Francisco and loved it there.
By September, I realized I had to go back to Vail to collect my stuff; I came back to find that Joe Staufer had persuaded VA to open The Lodge in summer. They did it with a skeleton staff that included Jim Slevin. He was there because Dick Hauserman was building the Plaza Building and persuaded Jim to open something – open a restaurant! He did, and they talked me into staying. It was a fun atmosphere. They had horses where Manor Vail is, and we rode where the golf course is. We went fishing. Then we’d do our various shifts. Joe had a special weekend deal for $15 a room for two nights, two dinners, two breakfasts and a gondola ride.
Jim Slevin and I got to be close. Then Peter Seibert came to me and asked me to work for him in the winter. I had to decide if I should stay one more winter. I worked for Pete as his secretary up Bridge Street. I was living in a trailer with three other girls. Jim and I got married, and he opened La Cave New Year’s Eve 1963. He paid a year’s liquor license for one night. You could dance, and it was the first discotheque in Colorado. My sister sent two 45 rpm records by a new group in England that was causing a stir – The Beatles. “She Loves Me” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” We had a combined restaurant/nightclub and stayed open ’till 2 in the morning. It was a lot of work, and we didn’t have much time to ski; that’s why I never became a good skier. I even remember sitting in our apartment and throwing all the bills up in the air, catching one, and saying that this was the lucky guy who was going to get paid. People were so nice and helped each other out – no cutthroat stuff, not too much greed. Developers weren’t there yet.
It was such a gamble in those days. Jim had produced a couple of plays in New York, and they’d lost money. Dick Hauserman invited him to visit, and he stayed. Weird coincidences. People were arriving and staying – like the Morettis. It was becoming more interesting. Employees were always very hard to come by, especially in the restaurant business. We built Golden Peak House in 1967 with the Morettis and opened the Copper Bar because we couldn’t get anyone to come to La Cave underground for lunch. Breakfast and lunch – plus nighttime. Donovan was our bartender, and he was so good at it. He asked to buy the bar, and that’s how Donovan’s came to be. I opened Kaleidoscope with Anne Staufer; we had no idea what we were doing. Personally, the thing I would say about coming to the States (or maybe it was the Vail experience) was that it enabled me to do all these amazing things that I could never in a zillion years have done in England, ever. Women with no business experience. Then we started the Children’s Corner in the same building when I realized there was big potential. We were the first and only one; yuppies were having children later in life and had more money. They were willing to spend money on children’s ski clothes and not just dress them up in old ski pants.
Nobody in my family came over here except my sister who worked at the Copper Bar. My family would have said, “You can’t possibly do that.” But we weren’t scared to open a business.
Interstate 70 and the tunnel were being built. Wild things – we went to Minturn for breakfast when La Cave closed at 2 o’clock in the morning – to a place called Jeff’s, I think. It was the original Saloon. All the early people will tell you that they wouldn’t have missed those early years for anything. People gave lovely parties, and everybody was invited. Halloween was always a big fun thing. It all seemed to be centered on going to bars and having a wild time and drinking. We worked very hard, too. That was our social outlet. You didn’t just jump in your car and go to Denver. You stayed overnight, loading up with food at the supermarket. Best parties were at the Casino, the Kindels’, and Sheika gave great parties. It was always fun to go up to the Murchisons’ house. Was there an elite group? Not in the early years.
Here’s a story: Jim went to the Vail Village Inn one evening after work. He must have been really drunk and had the idea of going into the pool. So he took off all his clothes and jumped into the VVI pool. A stranger sitting next to him did exactly the same thing.
We had a snoopy postmistress who knew everything. Someone got the mail from Minturn and brought it over. We sent out wedding invitations, and she would say to people, “Have you had your invitation to the Slevin wedding yet?” So we invited everybody. We wanted to get married Oct. 3, but people said to us, “You can’t get married Oct. 3; that’s the opening of the grouse season.” We changed it to Friday, Oct. 2. On Oct. 3, we went up on the gondola, took our dog, took our guns and hunted grouse. Our dog was hopeless because he was gun-shy. About a week or so later, Blanche and Dick organized the honeymoon. There were 10 or 12 of us on horseback, and we went up to Pitkin Lake. Donovan was shooting grouse from the saddle. We came down the same day on horses. And that was how it was.
Women of Vail was produced by a team that includes Elaine Kelton and Carolyn Pope, publishers; Joanne Morgan, designer and production; and Rosalie Hill Isom, writer-editor.