Vail Daily columnist Warren Miller: Friend went a long ways after the couch surfing days
Vail, CO, Colorado
As I work on my autobiography, the words and events seem to stretch out ahead of me in an endless parade. I wish I could put events in their proper order, but that is impossible at this stage. There is no way I can pinpoint the year, but it was roughly 1955.
I was short of cash from Jan. 1 until Dec. 31 that same year, as in the past and future. I was staying on a friend’s living room couch as often as possible. I figured that two nights sleeping on an uncomfortable sofa would save me $10 that I would have had to spend for two nights in a motel, and then I could buy raw film instead.
In Aspen I ran into Don Bren, who was trying to get a berth on the 1956 Olympic ski team. He and his wife had rented a small log home somewhere in town, and I really liked his couch.
While he skied and trained hard every day, his wife worked for Howard Aurey at the Skiers Chalet, a restaurant alongside of the old No. 1 chairlift. (The piece of land came up for sale in the early 1950s for $9,000 and Howard went right to the bank, drew out the money and bought it. When the survey was done, he also owned the land the chairlift was on all the way up to tower 2 or 3. But that’s part of another story.)
Don’s wife would work occasionally at night when Howard figured there were enough people in town to stay open for dinner.
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I had known Don for four or five years at Sun Valley over Christmas vacations, when he would come up with his mother and stepfather.
He was a great skier and trained hard, but he just didn’t make the cut. The four or five days I stayed with him worked for both of us. I think he might even have skied for my cameras, but I don’t remember for sure.
When he did not make the team, at the end of the season he went back to southern California and with his business degree from the University of Southern California, he decided to get in on the postwar housing boom in southern California. He borrowed $10,000 and built a couple of what were called tract houses. He not only was the contractor, but he also did a lot of the work on the house – pounding nails, helping with the plumbing, wiring, concrete work and anything else that needed to be done to finish the house. He was (and is) a smart and hardworking guy.
For a lot of years I would see him at Sun Valley skiing over the Christmas holidays. One year I was surprised when the talk on the ski hill was that Don Bren had flown up in his own airplane and brought along some friends.
He had a large group of friends at Sun Valley, and as I got busier and busier each year working on my films, I sort of lost track of him.
When his name came up the other day and brought back these memories, I Googled his name. I knew that he had been successful, but not to the extent that I learned online.
After I slept on his couch in Aspen, he became a very large land developer in southern California. His wealth is currently pegged at $12 billion (with a B). He has contributed more than a billion dollars to the educational system in California, built a law building at the University of California, Irvine and established a law school there as well.
His resume on Google is extensive, and I understand he is still skiing at Sun Valley every winter with the same smooth style that I remember he had before he became one of the 100 wealthiest people in America.
To me, the wonderful part of this story is that this can happen only in America, and nearly everyone I’ve ever met – and there have been many, many – has all been equally as generous with their money to help out in the areas they feel need it most.
But even more important to me is that everyone pays the same price for a ski lift ticket, skis or snowboard, boots and poles. They can sleep in their cars in the parking lot or in a very nice condominium, but when they all stand at the top of a ski hill everyone is equal.
I wonder if Don still buys his ski equipment at the end of the ski season, when it is a lot cheaper, as we all did when his wife was flipping hamburgers for Howard Aurey in Aspen in 1955.
I also wonder who his interior decorator is and what kind of a couch he has wherever he has a ski resort home. If I show up with my sleeping bag, will he let me sleep on it as he did in 1955?
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to more than 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto