Aspen: The Call of the Wild

From The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 21, 1990.

The sun first peeks over the Continental Divide just after six on New Years Day, and partic­ularly at this hour, it seems there could be no more beautiful place on earth than the Roaring Fork Valley—red-tinged clay, bright white snow and a pure blue in the sky that only high altitudes can produce. Below, the narrow streets of Aspen, Colorado are empty, yielding no signs of the previous night’s parties. In­stead of whoops of frivolity there is only the squawking of jays and nutcrackers.

Still, the morning tranquility can barely disguise the tremors of celebration that have rocked the town all week long. Sleeping soundly under goose-down Du­vets in multimillion-dollar ranches and $2,000-a-night hotel suites is the biggest concentration of rich and famous people in perhaps the world. They gathered here, in this small town in the Rocky Mountains, to witness the end of the 80′s.The glitz contingent has become part and parcel of every story and conversation about Aspen.

And every season it grows larger. Whether recited alphabetically (Irving Azoff, Ed Bradley, Cher, Michael Douglas, Chris Evert, Jane Fonda, Melanie Griffith, etc.) or by genre—movie stars (Nicholson, Hawn, Schwarzenegger); moguls (Tisch, Walton, Murdoch); socialites (Bass, Guest, Hunt); media (Ziff, Waiters, Steinem); musicians (Simon, Henley, Van Halen, Buffett); models (Paulina, Christie)—the list of regulars leaves the same impression: that this community of 6,000 year-round residents has become the wintertime place to be.

“I get to work out, ski, meet a lot of beautiful women, go to great restaurants, and hang out with my friends,” says the Hollywood producer Don Simpson. “Every day is a party.” The rich and famous make their most concentrated ascendance between Christmas and New Years, when the population of the normally peaceful end-of­-the-valley triples, and the roar of private jets breaks the stillness with regularity. And this year’s scene, by all previous standards, was unmatched.

Marvin Davis flew in an entourage of 40, including Gregory Peck and Sidney Poitier; Dustin Hoffman and Calvin Klein brought their families. Barbara Walters, Lee Iacocca, Don Johnson, Adnan Khashoggi -they came to drink in the natural beauty of the place, and to get drunk on the scene. Nouveau riche groupies, starlet wannabes, and assorted hangers-on roamed the downtown mall in high heels, furs and diamonds. Nonskiers sported $2,000 ski suits. Press agents called the local papers to announce the comings and goings of their “clients.” (One L.A. PR. man worked the phones the day before New Year’s Eve desperately trying to find a party for a couple of his rich-but-nobody clients. “They’re in Aspen and it’s not happening for them,” he moaned.)

Overall, such intermittent invasions take up just a few weeks each year, but their effect –on both the world’s opinion of the place and the town’s own state of mind—lasts year round. The result has been a predomination of acquisition over preserva­tion. Hundred-year-old Victorian houses have been bought, torn down and replaced by modern man­sions that cover every inch of quarter-acre lots. Houses built on spec are furnished right down to the towels and the books. One-bedroom condos go for $500,000, to commodity brokers from Los Ange­les or bankers from New York; there were some 50,000 landings last year at Aspen’s tiny airport, more than half of them by private planes. And Range Rovers—at $40,000 each—are so ubiqui­tous that a serviceman flies in once or twice a week from Denver to do warranty work.

Accompanying all this are the accouterments of money and leisure: caterers, florists, expensive restaurants and boutiques, and security guards.Yet despite the knockout aura of the place and the quiet beginning to this new decade, things are hardly peaceful. Scratch the surface of the glitz and you uncover a small town—albeit a rich, high-profile one—wrangling very publicly toward the 21st century, trying its damnedest to maintain the beauty, diversity and hipness that made it a world-class community in the first place. Led by a four-term mayor some call a dictator, Aspen has banned smoking and neon and will soon vote on becoming the first town in the world, perhaps, to ban the sale of fur coats. A local newspaper colum­nist has suggested a ban on bans. In the meantime, real estate prices have dou­bled in the last three years. Affordable housing is virtually nonexistent. (Last year, single-family homes in the United States cost on average $111,755; in Aspen, $937,000.) Traffic jams snarl the two-lane highway that leads into town. Air pollution is increasing. Minimum wage is about $8 an hour, yet “help wanted” ads are plentiful.

As a result, the onetime hippie haven is becom­ing increasingly homogenized, more conservative; more a place for the haves and less a place for the have-nots, whose ranks include schoolteachers, lawyers, and other members of the middle class. The classic ski bum has all but disappeared. “I want my plumber to live in Aspen, ” says George S. Stranahan, tavern owner and founder of the Aspen Center for Physics. Indeed, locals are scared that the town will soon become the exclusive hangout for the fabulously rich and that their end of the valley may be nothing but an opulent ghost town during much of the year, with the million-dollar second homes shuttered, the streets quiet and lifeless.

While insisting that “spirited public debate” has always been a part of Aspen’s charm, Mayor Bill Stirling says that lately it’s turned vicious. A shrill faction of longtime locals—joined by a handful of newcomers who would like to close the gate behind them—rages constantly against new growth, furious that their home has become known as a “salt lick for celebrities,” “a petting zoo for the rich and famous.” Hopeful developers from out of town are harassed by threats of injunctions, law­suits, gossip, even violence. The nearly nonstop contentiousness has the outgoing city manager advising applicants for his post to think twice.

But maybe the most eloquent expression of Aspen’s current state surfaced soon after the 90′s had begun. The pizza maker at the ultrachic Mez­zaluna restaurant announced in broken English that he was soon leaving town for Beverly Hills. “It’s just gotten too expensive here,” he said.

Aspen has always been a special place. The Ute Indians called it “The Valley of the Thunder River,” and used it for a summer camp. The first min­ers-to-be crossed the 12,000-foot Independence Pass on snow­shoes in the winter of 1879, dub­bing their new home Ute City, then Aspen, after the wispy, white-barked trees that climb the steep rock canyon. By the 1890′s—thanks largely to a Macy’s department store partner, Jerome B. Wheeler—­Aspen was home to literary clubs, polo matches, and skiing, on barrel staves. The grand opening of his Hotel Jerome, on Thanksgiving eve 1889, was attended by society from around the globe and Aspen became known worldwide as the Silver Capital.In the late 1800′s, the silver market, thus As­pen, collapsed. The town sat abandoned, its build­ings crumbling, until the late 1940′s, when the Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke set out to revitalize it. Paepcke’s vision was of another kind of boomtown, a mecca for 20th-century thinkers and outdoors lovers, sort of a winter and summer camp for the elite. He financed a ski resort, and started the Aspen Institute for the Humanities and the Music Associates of Aspen, local institutions that today boast international reputations.

The creeping problems affecting Aspen today have surfaced over the last two decades. Many locals blame the “Freak Power” political move­ment of the early 1970′s—highlighted by a much-­publicized run for sheriff by the renegade journal­ist Hunter S. Thompson—which encouraged successive administrations of staunch no-growthers. They adopted stringent zoning laws, effectively throttling development. But, ironically, by clamping down on new building, the new rules essentially closed the valley and drove real-estate prices sky high, thus setting the stage for creating the nouveau riche boom that now threatens to swallow the town.

During the nationwide recession of the early 1980′s, the City Council loosened its chokehold, and new building erupted. Councilman Stephen S. Crockett blames much of the current overdevelop­ment on that loosening of strictures. “It didn’t work, and they essentially gave away the ranch,” Crockett says. “We could stop granting all con­struction here tomorrow, and there would be enough permits left to allow building for another two and a half years.”Perhaps the growth wouldn’t rankle so much if it weren’t so ostentatious. Take Frederick (Ted) and Suzanne Field—he’s the Marshall Field’s department-store heir—and their $16.3 million house on Aspen Mountain, for example. Reached by a freestanding 50-foot elevator, it boasts 8 bedrooms, 9 baths, and 27 television sets (includ­ing one in the sauna). Cross-valley on Red Mountain, Leslie Wexner, owner of the Limited, has built a $26 million, 25,000-square-foot manse.

Not one to be topped, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, is constructing a 55,000-square-foot palace in nearby Starwood. The producer-actor Michael Douglas and partners are soon to start developing 6,400 acres six miles out of town. Marvin Davis, the oilman who runs the movie studio 20th Century-Fox and whose family owns almost half the Aspen Skiing Company, takes the town’s approach to growth in stride. (Though he’s owned the company since 1981, this Christmas was his first visit to Aspen.)

“Look,” he says by speaker phone from Los Angeles, “everybody’s got a bit of heaven they’d like to protect from the outside world, but they just can’t protect Aspen anymore. I don’t think the town can hold back the growth; it’s going to expand in spite of itself.”I can’t believe what people are paying for real estate. And there’s no reason or
rhyme, other than there’s this desire to be in Aspen.”Among year-rounders, however, there is no such thing as a pro-development stance in Aspen. Everyone is antigrowth -in varying stages from slow-­ to no-.Dick Butera represents one faction of no-growther—the kind that has already gotten a piece of the rock and wouldn’t mind seeing the gate to the valley closed to new development. Onetime president of the Hilton Head Company in South Carolina, he moved to Aspen in 1981 and now owns a fitness club and a real-estate company. His wife, Julie Anthony, who manages their Aspen Club, once explained to Psychology Today why they settled in the Rockies: “…In Aspen clothing stores, the sizes are smaller because the men have narrower waists and the women have better figures. My husband and I were here two weeks before we saw a fat person or a pimple.”

Butera admits there are people in town—”old-timers,” he calls them—who are being passed up by the current boom. But he wonders if the town isn’t really better for the changes. “We’ve got three fabulous health clubs, a first-class hotel, the gondola, high-speed lifts, bike paths all over. The town is cleaner, all the electric wires are buried, the bus system is extensive and free, public swimming pools are fabulous. The school system
is better, Alcoholics Anonymous is packed full. So are the churches. I don’t know what else a society is supposed to do.”

He also insists it is just a small minority who think Aspen’s vaunted “sense of community” is threatened by the influx of the superrich. “Out of the 10 public officials in office in Aspen now, 8 of them were hippies,” he says. “As a result, we’ve had a lot of loony stuff going on. Which was part of our character. Our past two mayors posed nude in calendars. But the town is changing. Not for good, not for bad. It is simply changing.”Councilman Crockett represents the more virulent strain of Aspen’s no-growthers.

He says: “The ski culture, the quality-of-life culture, is being eroded by people capitalizing on the real estate boom—people who think with their wallets and are motivated by a different set of values than those who gave this town its original character and substance.”A 20-year-resident, Crockett was elected last May, running on the “Endangered Species” ticket, and his vision of Aspen’s future is bleak. “The melting-pot aspect of thiscommunity is one thing that made it so unique,” Crockett says. “The new money has nodesire to integrate into the community. They want to be waited on and catered to, they don’t even want to shovel their own walks. It’s the opposite of when in Rome do what the Romans do; it’s more like, buy Rome, and make the Romans wait on you.”

The battle that best exemplifies the struggle for the soul of Aspen is the fight over a five-star hotel to be built at the foot of Aspen Mountain. The subject has dominated public meetings and barrooms for nearly a decade, and a hotel is still nowhere near to being built, despite the fact that there is a gaping, block-long hole in the ground where it is supposed to be. Every weap­on –referendum, lawsuits, populist coalitions, even a recent bomb threat—has been used to combat the project and no end is in sight. The current developer, Washing­ton-based Mohamed Hadid (in conjunction with Ritz­-Carlton), is back in court to get construction approved. Two previous developers went bankrupt. The property was bypassed by some of the country’s biggest developers, reportedly scared off by the town’s reputation for “spirited public debate.”

Hadid swept the property out from underneath the feet of Donald Trump in 1987, paying $42.9 million for a package that in­cludes 80 valuable acres scat­tered around town. (Trump had bid $17.5 million for the hotel site alone.) But, typically, Trump has not conceded. He’s still in litigation with Ha­did, arguing he has first claim on the land. Hadid’s real estate portfolio comprises mostly D.C.­ area office buildings, and he is a partner in three other Ritz hotels. So far the Aspen pur­chase has been nothing but a drain on his pocketbook at a time when it has been reported that his office building em­pire is crumbling. He bought the land after just a couple visits to town.”

He fell in love with the beauty of the place without understanding the process,” says Mayor Stirling. “He’s the kind of guy who just wants to be noticed.”Hadid made himself highly visible in town, buying a big house, throwing lavish par­ties and touring the streets in his Bentley convertible. But his efforts to get a 292-room Ritz-Carlton built have been stymied at every step by the City Council, which is now putting the issue back to the people. One of the issues on a Feb. 13 special ballot will be whether Hadid should be al­lowed to build the hotel as planned, or one 25 percent smaller.

Hadid insists that he won’t build a smaller hotel and has asked the courts to grant him construction approval. He says he’s bent over backward to appease the town and its planners, going through hun­dreds of meetings, a handful of redesigns and promising plen­ty of “bribes,” including build­ing a public ice rink. “I’m tired of spending and I’m tired of giving, ” said a worn-sounding Hadid on New Year’s Eve, two days after his suit against the city was announced. “I’ve al­ready spent $13 million. The problem is that they don’t rule by long­ term plans, they rule by emotion.”Dick Butera offers one rea­son why there has been so much opposition to Hadid. “The untold story is the 21,000-square.foot convention center that is in that hotel,” Butera says. “I don’t want to sound elitist here, but that spells Shriners with hats and beer cans up and down the streets.” Butera, for one, would actually prefer that if anybody were to build a hotel in Aspen it would be Trump.

“I’d build something much more in keeping with the town,” says Trump, who has visited Aspen several times, though he doesn’t yet own any property there. “And they’d love to have me. I’ve been sort of an Aspenite, as much as you can be an Aspenite. I go there with my family ev­ery, uh, every chance. I’m out there a lot.”In the next breath, Trump admits he would “make more in one day in Atlantic City than I can make in 10 years in Aspen.” Then why Aspen? “Because it’s a place I go to. Because I’m there, that’s the only reason.” That’s exactly .the kind of attitude that frightens longtime Aspenites.Hadid laughs at Trump’s in­sistence that he will be Aspen’s newest hotelier and adds that no matter what happens with the Ritz-Carlton project he’s in Aspen for the long run. The pair of superegos bumped into each other during the recent holiday week and had a brief, smiling conversation. “He asked me when I was going to finish that hole in the ground,” relates Hadid. “I said, ‘Donald, at least I have a hole.’ ”

The 800-pound gorilla in the midst of all this is the Aspen Skiing Company, founded in 1946. Composed to­day of three of the valley’s four skiing hills (Aspen Mountain, Snowmass and Buttermilk) and two hotels (the Little NeIl and 50 per­cent of the Snowmass Club), it is the community’s biggest employer (2,000 during peak season) and cash generator (1.2 million skier visits in 1988-89, times an average $30 per lift ticket). No matter how contentious things get, no one ever forgets that 60 percent of the town’s reve­nues are generated during the five-month ski season and that skiing is still the main reason people come to town. Many locals think the ski company is most to blame for fostering the image of a glitzy, elitist Aspen.

“It’s easy to beat up on the ski company,” says Bob Maynard, its fourth president in the last decade. “In people’s minds it’s ‘The Company,’ the bad guy. It’s like being mad at the government.”The latest chapter in the Aspen Skiing Company history began when Marvin Davis bought 20th Century-Fox in 1981; the movie studio had purchased it for $48.6 million in 1978, an invasion that in itself made some locals un­comfortable. It made others very rich. Fox agreed to pay $45 per share to stockholders at a time when the stock was selling for $24.When Davis (and his then-partner Marc Rich, the oil-trader-cum-tax-fugitive) bought the movie company for $722 million, the package included two high-profile resorts, Pebble Beach and As­pen.

The paper chase that fol­lowed is a classic example of how Davis has become a bil­lionaire—by bringing in partners to help pay off lever­aged debt, and using profits from the sale of various as­sets to buy down his own risk. Soon after he bought Fox, he spun off the stock or assets of Pebble Beach, Aspen, Coca ­Cola Bottling Midwest, Hoyt Theaters (an Australian chain), and the real estate un­der the movie-company lot into a joint venture with Ur­ban Diversified Properties Inc., a subsidiary of Aetna Life & Casualty. The bottler and the movie theater chain were then sold off.In December 1983, Davis took on more partners—three real-estate cronies from Chi­cago and Denver—and the limited partnership, dubbed Miller-Klutznick­-Davis-Gray, bought out Aetna’s half-inter­est in Aspen, Pebble Beach and the Century City land op­erations. Then they bought out Fox’s half-interest. Chicagoan Tom Klutznick was named to oversee the resorts.

In 1985, in a final move to raise money and distribute risk, the part­ners sold half of the Aspen Skiing Company to the Crown family of Chicago.When he first became in­volved, says Klutznick, “it was the biggest disaster I’d ever seen at a resort. This was a community that in a sense had made itself kind of a private club and was using the facilities to serve its own interests. They wanted a little utopia and did not really want tourists there, or even outsiders. So we got rid of a lot of employees and managers, and in 1987 brought in Bob Maynard. By then the table had been set—the company, the mountains and the company’s position in the community had all been dramatically improved.”

It was just before Maynard’s arrival that the com­pany made its most disas­trous public-relations gaffe, incurring the most serious community wrath when it announced the nation’s first $35 lift ticket and simulta­neously doubled prices for resident passes. Local agita­tion was so high that Mayor Stirling flew to Washington to complain to Colorado’s Con­gressional delegation.Since then, the company has made several moves to ingratiate locals. Resident passes have returned to their original price. Plus, locals over 70 now ski free at But­termilk, and college students home for the holidays get re­duced lift-ticket prices.

But the most visible change the company made was in the other direction, a high-gloss ad campaign, begun in 1988.The $1.25 million print and radio campaign was a dis­tinct move away from typi­cal ski resort advertising, which, in print at least, tends to be dominated by red ski parkas, gleaming smiles and knee-deep powder. Created by Hal Riney, originator of well-known ads for Perrier and Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers, the campaign focus­es on Aspen’s natural beauty and brags up the valley’s three mountains, 100 bars and restaurants, and 200 shops and boutiques. The ads are beautiful. They also bor­der on the pretentious, lead­ing critics to accuse the company of pandering to the rich.

Klutznick admits having second thoughts about the campaign. “I was willing and supportive of taking the high road, ” he says, meaning a presentation of Aspen as “a gentle, spiritual, warm envi­ronment.”"But at the same time,” he continues, “part of our success in the winter stems from the people we’ve attracted. I can’t apologize for the fact that we attract jet-setters and Holly­wood stars. Should I tell Ru­pert Murdoch not to come next year? You want me to stop the direct flights from Los Ange­les? Those people are part of the image of Aspen. ”

Bob Maynard adds that while glitz is an inherent part of Aspen, it is a smaller part than most make it. “If a writ­er comes into town for a day, that’s what he writes about, ” Maynard says. “It’s easy. Ski­ing with Jack Nicholson—­everyone’s going to read that. In the long run, that probably helps us; I don’t mind it. But some of us feel very strongly about pushing other aspects of Aspen, so that there’s a balance. It’s not that we’re antiglitz, let’s just not leave out the other parts. Some peo­ple actually come here be­cause the fishing is good.”Ultimately what got Aspen’s civic leaders—if not yet its visitors—quaking in their ski boots is not the current glory days, but the years that stretch ahead. Several complicated roadblocks stand between the town and future serenity.

Lack of affordable housing may be the town’s biggest headache of the 90′s. It has made it extremely difficult for the booming boutiques, restaurants, hotels and even the ski company to attract help. The new $35 million Little Nell Hotel—and other employers—are busing help from as far as 70 miles down the valley, from Silt and Parachute, Rifle and Basalt. (In a Robin Hood-meets-the-80′s tale, some employees living in housing set aside for them have illegally rented bedrooms to tourists, a kind of take-from-the-rich, rent-to-the-rich parable.)

Several plans are on the boards to build employee housing; the county has a goal of building 100 affordable units in 1990 and at least that many in 1991. Some want to see that doubled. At the same time, taxpayers are revolting at the idea of their dollars being spent for the benefit of the profitable businesses in town. And it’s not just the minimum-wage employee who is suffering. The last director of the town’s art museum, for example, left in part because she couldn’t find a two-bedroom apartment for less than $2,000 a month.

Transportation in and out of the valley—especially since so much of the town’s employment base must now commute—is the other big concern. Highway 82—known locally as “Killer 82,” for the myriad car wrecks that claim lives each winter—is a two-lane road that winds southeast for 40 miles from Glenwood Springs, alongside roaring rivers and between close canyon walls. Because of congestion, during a winter storm it can take two and a half hours to travel. Along its narrowest stretches, expansion to four lanes will cost an estimated $2 million per mile. Plus, the increased commuting is causing more air pollution and the county is wrestling with a clean air bill that could cost $500,000.Forecasts for slowing growth are bleak: the Colorado Department of Highways Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Highway 82 pre­dicts 34 percent commercial growth in Aspen by 2010, 80 percent commercial and popu­lation growth in Snowmass Village, and 56 percent more cars entering the valley.

But perhaps the most im­mediate threat is that the nonprofit organizations that are the base of the town’s cultural heritage are getting fed up. The International De­sign Conference in Aspen, Music Associates of Aspen (sponsors of the Aspen Mu­sic Festival) and the Aspen Institute have all considered moving to other communi­ties, largely because the city has grown too expensive to house visitors, faculty and students. Last winter, the Aspen Snowmass Repertory Theater had to cancel its sea­son because no affordable lodging could be found for employees. (Included in the Feb. 13 referendum that will decide whether Hadid’s hotel should be approved as de­signed, whether to ban fur sales and which Highway 82 segment should be expanded, is the fate of a bond issue that would fund student and faculty housing for several nonprofit groups.)David T. McLaughlin is president of the Aspen Insti­tute, which sponsors interna­tional conferences on politi­cal philosophy and policy issues. Though its year­-round base is in Queenstown, Md., it operates in Aspen from mid-June to Labor Day and holds a couple of semi­nars in January and March.

This summer the institute celebrates its 40th anniver­sary with a major sympo­sium to be attended by na­tional and world leaders. “It’s a rather significant event and here we’re sitting not knowing if we’ll have fa­cilities to house it,” says Mc­Laughlin. The institute’s cur­rent residential facilities are worn, and badly in need of renovation. But that won’t happen anytime soon be­cause of the struggle be­tween the City Council and Hadid. Hadid owns the land, but he’s not going to put any money into renovation as long as his dispute with the town over the Ritz drags on. McLaughlin insists the problem is one of priorities, that the Council has been so absorbed fighting developers that it has ignored the town’s roots. “It’s not like any politi­cal process I’ve ever wit­nessed,” he says. “The Aspen Institute convenes leaders from all over the world. We discuss monumental prob­lems like arms control. Yet we can’t seem to use our con­vening power to get anything done in Aspen.”

He maintains that the Institute, as well as the other not-for-profits, are committed to remaining where they are ”as long as we can have facilities there that meet our minimum require­ments.” But he adds: ” Are the facilities adequate today? No they are not.” And without improvements, he says, “we have a very limited future in Aspen.”There is some sentiment that the town’s very feistiness—at one time an attraction—is starting to wear thin. The endless battles have taken their toll. Longtime residents are moving on. Newcomers growing increasingly agitat­ed. And if the town didn’t have enough squabbling on its plate, in early December a band of locals under the banners of the Citizens Re­call Coalition and the People’s Rights Organization ­began collecting signatures on petitions to recall Mayor Stirling and three of four councilmen.

Tom Klutznick thinks if matters are left completely to the current crop of elected officials, things may take a grave turn. “I think they would like to see a very for­midable gate put up across Highway 82 entering the com­munity,” he says, “with rep­resentatives of the extreme left as the gatekeepers, deter­mining who can come in and cannot and under what cir­cumstances. They would probably issue visas of very short-term duration.”Councilman Crockett would no doubt supervise the construction of such a barri­cade. As added fuel for his political stance, the small downtown house he has rent­ed for 17 years was recently sold to a couple from Los An­geles for $500,000. He’s not sure where he’s going to move. “You know, I get ac­cused as a politician of trying to make war, not peace,” Crockett says. “That’s be­cause I don’t think there is room for peace here. Go back in history. Ask the Apaches or the Utes how successful they were in protecting their culture by compromising, by making peace. Their advice today, I’m sure, would be, ‘It’s war. Kill.’”