Since 1960, it’s good to be on the Chamonix mailing list just to keep up with their development. In the early 1960s with my “well-honed” French language skills, I was reduced to eating le omelet three meals a day, and that was about it. However, when you are speaking skiing, there is no language problem. It is all talking with your hands and drawing pictures in the snow where you want your skier to go so he or she and the terrain look the best. James Couttet, former French Olympic skier, and I had a great filming session until we had dropped about 7,000 or 8,000 vertical feet, and the powder snow had turned to ready-mix concrete that had already partly set up.
Click onward a year after narrating the story of James Couttet and myself, alone on this great mountain in my annual ski film.
During this era, in my second ski season of skiing and filming L’Ouef at La Flegere in Chamonix, I had named the gondola cars the “Dangling Easter Eggs” when they appeared in my ski film. I was still cranking out my feature-length ski films on my hand-wind $265 Bell and Howell camera. This would be film No. 16 or so in a lifelong series of ski films that, even though I’ve nothing to do with the current film company owners, still continue but are very different from my story-telling films.
Each gondola carried three passengers and was shaped just like an egg. Painted different bright colors, in the spring sunshine they really did look like dangling Easter eggs on a string gliding up and down the mountain. The lift went up the south facing side of the valley to one of the best views of one of the most spectacular mountains anywhere in the world, the massive icefalls of the North Face of 15,000-foot-high Mont Blanc.
I returned to rendezvous and ski with my new friend, the president of the resort. We met at La Chapeau restaurant for a standard two-hour French lunch: pommes frites, steak, salad and introductions all around the table while they sipped high-budget champagne.
“Warren, I’d like you to meet the governor.”
Lots of people in the world are called “governor,” so I thought it was no big deal. He was tall, handsome, with dark hair and with a very beautiful wife. Unfortunately, neither one of them could speak a single word of English and my French was still limited to being able to say hello, ordering omelets and say thank you.
It was very late in the spring and because of its southern exposure, the lower section of La Flegere was completely without snow so we were forced to ride down in the gondola. I got to ride with the governor and the president of La Flegere. As we neared the bottom, the president said, “The governor would like you to come to dinner at his home while you are here in Chamonix.”
Three days later, after a long day of filming good skiers in corn snow, I took a shower and slathered my face and the top of my bald head with moisturizer to ease the sunburn pain. Then I started the very long drive on a very narrow, icy and very winding road down through Megeve to Annecy.
Two hours later, in a wind-driven pouring rainstorm, I arrived on the outskirts of Annecy. There, I located a petrol station that was still open and could repair German-made VWs and, with the governor’s address clutched in my wet hand, I used sign language and my limited German to talk to the mechanic. I’ve had to use sign language for many years because of never having enough time to learn the languages of each one of the many different countries I filmed in — France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Yugoslavia, Norway, Chile, Japan and Spain. Ten minutes of arm waving later, I was given directions with what appeared to me to be a certain amount of reverence and awe to the address in questions.
I was surprised at what I saw when the property I was looking for finally appeared through the slanting rain and the intermittent squeaky scrape of my tired, rent-a-wreck type windshield wipers. In my dim headlights loomed a big iron gate that was 10 meters wide and 3 meters high.
To the right was a sentry box that resembled a phone booth with a peaked roof and no windows. It was painted with 5- or 6-inch wide slanting red and white candy stripes.
In the sentry box, standing out of the rain, was a soldier wearing a gold-buttoned coat with epaulets and holding a heavy rifle with a fixed bayonet.
Real professionals were guarding this house!
I knew I was headed for trouble because I was driving a Volkswagen with German plates.
“S’il vous plait? Le mansion Monsieur Governor?”
“Monsieur Miller. Le guest,” while pointing at me.
Marching stiffly to the far side of the gate, he leaned heavily against it and swung it slowly open. The headlights illuminated part way down a hundred meters of wide driveway, flanked on either side by immaculately trimmed shrubbery. The brightly lit house off in the distance, resembled a 47-room hotel I had once stayed in in Geneva.
I knew I was in real trouble as I coasted my rent-a-wreck to a stop behind a long line of nine Citroen limousines, three Mercedes, one Rolls Royce — all with chauffeurs. Maybe this guy really is the governor, so I better think this thing through.
I was still wearing the brown and white tweed suit and red polka dot bowtie I had worn on opening night for a lot of years. I realized that I shouldn’t have worn my two dollar Army surplus, sheepskin-lined flight boots because the sheepskin lining was going to get awfully sweaty at dinner. My very wrinkled, wash and wear, nylon, sort-of-white shirt had been in my duffle bag for at least a week and the wrinkles showed.
Parking off to the side in the dark, I skulked across the gravel driveway, and as I started up the long wide flight of outside stairs, the polished marble stairs were awfully slippery in the wind-driven rain.
I knocked on the massive wood, wrought iron, and cut glass front door, and when it swung open, I could see a highly polished marble-floored foyer with a pair of gently curving stairs that were 3 meters wide, going up each side of the foyer.
The butler, clad in tails and wearing white gloves, was visibly shaken by my appearance and started talking rapidly in very hushed tones of what sounded to me like Norwegian with an Italian accent. He probably thought I had gotten lost and belonged in the youth hostel down by the lake. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, but I could understand by his body language that he didn’t want me in his governor’s mansion.
“Meester Millar!” a voice shouted from the top of the stairs.
It was the governor and with him was my friend, the president of the ski lift company. If I had been them, I know that I would succumb to the fun of sliding down the banisters to greet me, and they would have if they hadn’t been dressed so formally. The governor was wearing a full set of tails, and draped over one of his shoulders was a handsome red sash full of an assortment of large gold medals.
I was now really in trouble the way I was dressed.
The ski resort president spoke his junior high school English, and it wasn’t until then that he told me that the formal dinner party was in my honor. It was a payback because my films had sent so many American skiers to ride his dangling Easter eggs in Chamonix.
“Yes, we’re in the governor’s mansion, and your host really is the governor of the Haute Savoie Province.”
“Yes, everyone, except you, is wearing their formal tails.”
“Don’t worry, Warren. You are a motion picture producer from Hollywood, so the other guests expect you to be a little weird.”
“Your clothes are no problem. The governor has an idea.”
I followed the two of them into a large library off the reception area where the governor lifted the lid to a walnut and silver chest that was resting prominently on a beautiful antique table. Inside the chest were half a dozen sashes similar to the one that the governor was already wearing. They were, however, all different colors: red, green, blue and white. Alongside the neatly folded sashes were at least two-dozen assorted medals. They looked similar to the ones that the governor was wearing on his sash and heavy because they were about 3 inches in diameter.
The governor picked out a red sash to go with my red bow tie and ceremoniously draped it over my head and let it rest on one shoulder. Then he rummaged around among his many medals, picked out five different ones and, one by one, pinned them on my red sash, starting with the most important medal at the top.
Then we started climbing up the winding marble stairway to the grand ballroom. On the first landing, I glanced at myself in a full-length mirror and, as I did, I tripped in my Army-surplus, after-ski boots and fell flat on my chest full of medals.
I was living up to their expectations of being from Hollywood — and weird!
In a few moments, I would be dining with 12 formally dressed men and 12 elegantly gowned women. I now began to walk very carefully in my tall, sheepskin lined after-ski boots, holding my sunburned head high, and wearing my tweed suit with dignity. My hand-tied red bow tie rested about 12 degrees off the horizontal, and I was proudly wearing my sash of the Order of Napoleon and my other medals signifying a few of my many accomplishments. An incredible gastronomic seven-course dinner was served and enjoyed by all, during which I assumed that most of the laughter was at my expense.
The drive back to Chamonix was long on winding ice and snow-covered roads, so I didn’t get to my hotel until about 3 a.m. By previous arrangement, however, I had to be in the line for the “Dangling Easter Egg” lift at 8 in the morning with my windup camera and three skiers. I knew the rainstorm in Annecy would hit Mont Blanc and create good powder snow skiing that morning in La Flegere. The 10 inches that fell overnight set the stage so that I could use the 15,000-foot high Mont Blanc massif as a background for many of the scenes in my next movie.
The governor and his wife missed that morning of untracked powder snow, but I found out at lunch that they and their guests had spent another hour and a half after I left drinking champagne and laughing at the crazy American from Hollywood with his brown and beige tweed suit and polka dot bow tie.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff log onto www.warrenmiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to www.warrenmiller.org.