Golden Slopes of Old

Slim Aarons Verbier Lounging SLI0170_websource

During wintertime, it is essential to the status of the world’s nouveaux riche that they be seen après skiing in the Alps, preferably St. Moritz and Gstaad. Once the snob has arrived, other status symbols are pursued. Jewelry, paintings, and membership in an exclusive lunch club are the things that count, because everyone who is anyone already owns a chalet with sauna, private movie theatre, and heated indoor swimming pool.

The problem is that both Gstaad and St. Moritz have recently—in the last 20 years, that is—been invaded by people rich in cash but very poor in ancestry. In actual fact, horrible fat Russians surrounded by bodyguards, and grotesque-looking Gulf Arabs trailing hookers are now as common a sight in the Alps as dogsleds, expensive après ski boots and wooden chalets.

When I first visited Gstaad in 1955, it was a small village that looked like a winter wonderland postcard. The locals wore lederhosen and smoked pipes. The visitors all wore dinner jackets at night and stood up when a lady entered a room. Everyone knew everyone else and musical beds were not unheard of. In other words, it was a paradise in the snow, especially for a 19-year-old. The skiing was terrific because there were no man-made pistes, and moguls were formed naturally, by downhill skiers. Skis were very long and heavy and made out of wood. One run back then was equal in energy expenditure to 10 today. And it was dangerous. If one fell forward one broke a leg nine times out of 10. The good skiers, who were back then very few, got the girl. Punto basta, as they say in the land of pasta.

The focal point of both St. Moritz and Gstaad used to be the palace hotels. The Palace in St Moritz has now been totally overrun by those sandy types who wear sheets, whereas the one in Gstaad is still holding on, barely. The other focal point is the chic and exclusive luncheon club high up. In Gstaad it’s called Eagle club, in St. Moritz The Corviglia. The latter is older, having come into existence back in the Thirties. I joined the Eagle the year of its inception, in 1957, because the first president, The Earl of Warwick, insisted I was the only Greek he could understand when speaking English. After close to 60 years of raising hell and boozing it up in the sun, I am now reduced to keeping out Russians and Arabs, although one or two of the latter have managed to slip by me.

Needless to say, things are different now. Skiing has become big business all over the Alps—Austria, France, and Switzerland being the three most popular places for downhillers, and, of course, après skiers. Skis are short and easy to use, bindings open easily, and the ski slopes are groomed by machines making everyone sliding on them feel like a champion. Even mother nature has been replaced, with snow making machines pumping out the white stuff like a Colombian coke factory. The big difference, however, are the people. In Gstaad during the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies familiar figures on the slopes were people like William F. Buckley, David Niven, Sir Roger Moore, Henri Cartier Bresson, Dmitri Nabokov, even Lord Menuhin, the great Yehudi. The rot began when Elizabeth Taylor bought a chalet and the paparazzi following her discovered the place. The ensuing publicity made Gstaad and other such resorts the targets of social climbers the world over. The Russians and the Arabs were as inevitable as the melting of the snows come April.

I have often written about the beauty of the Gstaad I used to know mainly because the place was so unique. It had remained unchanged since the 18th century, with strict zoning laws discouraging rogue builders and land speculators. On Main Street there were cheese and meat shops, ski stores, a tobacco kiosk and a bookstore. Fifty years on there are only Cartier, Ralph Lauren, Prada, Michael Kors, Tom Ford, Chanel, and about three banks. The bookstore was the first to be abolished once people who could count up to a billion but who were illiterate began to frequent the place. Two large supermarkets now feed the village,  since the tiny butcher and cheese shops long closed down and were sold to jewelers.

One of the town’s oldest and most beautiful restaurants, the Olden, which one family owned for five generations was sold to Bernie Ecclestone, the greedy billionaire who runs Formula I. He glitzed up the place, raised the prices 20 times over, abolished the dining room that only local farmers used, and turned it into a boutique hotel for the new rich. It was a bit like turning the Parthenon into a Hilton, but Ecclestone is not the worst there is in Gstaad. One day in future he will even be regarded as a gentleman. Have a happy new year.

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