Find out why Gary Cooper loved skiing in Aspen
The scenery takes their breath away… the skiing goes to their heads. The Coopers have found the place where they belong.
by Tom Carlile – Modern Screen magazine (1949)
While attending the press preview of “The Fountainhead” in Hollywood last summer, I ran into Gary Cooper.
That night, he looked about 15 years younger than the character he plays in the film; he’s one actor who always looks younger in person than on the screen. After greetings were exchanged, I asked him how he does it.
“Well,” he said with a grin, “maybe it’s the healthy life I lead. I’ve just been up to Aspen, Colorado. Caught some of the biggest trout you ever saw. Prettiest place in western America.”
My information about Aspen was limited, but Gary told me more about it.
Surrounded by 14,000-foot mountains, Aspen was, in the 1880s and early 1890s, one of the world’s greatest silver-mining centers, with a population of 15,000. But in 1893, when the price of silver collapsed, it became virtually a ghost town.
About three years ago, however, Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke, struck by the majestic beauty of the place, determined to establish it as a year-round resort. He formed the Aspen Company and got to work building ski runs, and bringing in small businesses and cultural facilities.
Today, Aspen is a skier’s paradise in winter, and a fisherman’s heaven in the spring and summer — there are 1,000 well-stocked streams in the vicinity.
“It’s a great place,” said Gary. “From now on, Mrs. Cooper and I are going to spend as much time in Aspen as we possibly can, winter and summer.
“We’re building a house there, you know. We bought 15 acres. The house won’t be too fancy, but comfortable enough.
“It’ll be right by a lake, a frame house with an aluminum roof. Five bedrooms, four baths, kitchen, an 18-by-38 living room.”
We talked some more about the house, and fishing, and the Colorado scenery. And before we said goodbye, he’d invited me to come up to Aspen for a weekend.
Thus it was that, a few weeks later, your correspondent and photographer Bob Beerman pulled up in a bus before the Jerome Hotel in Aspen.
It was 10 degrees below zero, but the Aspen inhabitants didn’t seem to mind a bit as, skis over shoulders, they plodded along in the deep, crusty snow, happily blowing up clouds of warm breath as if they had lots of it to waste.
The Jerome Hotel is a big rambling structure that was built during the town’s mining boom days. Now restored, it still looks exactly like those false-fronted Victorian buildings you see in every Western movie, and is the sort of place you’d expect to find Gary Cooper.
And that’s where we did find him — lounging against a weathered column on the veranda, in his shirt-sleeves.
As we shivered out of the bus, Cooper ambled over with a warm smile on his face. “Glad you boys could make it,” he said pleasantly. “It snowed last night. And the weather is just perfect for skiing.”
“How can you stand to walk around in just that shirt?” I had to ask, pulling my overcoat collar tighter.
“Oh, I’ve been up on a ski run all afternoon,” he said. “Got overheated.”
We followed him into the hotel and sat down in the cocktail lounge, in front of a big window which offered a view of the whole snow-covered mountain across the valley.
It seemed busier than an excited ant-hill. Dozens of skiers were plummeting down its slopes, and I suppose I shivered again rather noticeably.
“Cold?” Cooper asked. “They have a fine cure for that here in Aspen.” He called over the waitress and said something to her. When she came back, she had three milkshakes on her tray.
“Aspen Specials” explained Cooper. “Drink them and I’ll show you around.”
We did, and the cold disappeared almost magically. It must have been the stout portion of rum in the drinks. It was still working fine five minutes later when we found ourselves pacing eagerly through the snow at Cooper’s side.
Walking around Aspen with Cooper, you feel that the history of the colorful town has a deep meaning for him.
When we came to the 58-year-old Wheeler Opera House, Cooper stopped before the three-story brick structure and said, “An amazing building. In the old days, Lillian Russell, E. H. Sothern and Julia Marlowe, and dozens of other famous people in the theater appeared here.
“It’s been burned out twice and it’s still usable. It was reopened a year ago with a concert by Burl Ives, and it’s been going strong ever since.”
The rest of the afternoon we spent tramping around the town. We saw the antiquated town bell, now used to call skiing classes. We walked down to look at the ruins of Aspen’s railroad station, now dead for 33 years. (Bus service nowadays connects with coast-to-coast trains at Glenwood Springs, some 40 miles away.)
We looked down the main street on which, 40 years ago, horse-drawn street-cars ran on a 10-minute schedule.
Last of all, we climbed up a small back, road to Gary’s 15-acre property which overlooks the entire city and the ski slopes across the valley. (The house was still incomplete, and the Coopers were staying at the hotel.)
The view from the knoll which comprises his front yard was as pretty as any winter scene ever painted.
“When Rocky and I first came up here and looked out across that valley,” Gary said, “we knew that we’d found the hideaway where, above all other places, we wanted to spend our tree time.”
We got back to the hotel just in time to meet Mrs. Cooper and Maria, their 12-year-old daughter, who had just come down the long, winding Ruthie’s Run for the seventh and final time of the day. Both were wearing identical knit caps, and their faces were equally tanned from the hours already spent on the ski slopes.
As they dashed upstairs to dress for dinner, Cooper said proudly, “They’re the real skiers in the family, excellent form. But I’m the headlong type — I just make up my mind and come down the hill.”
The next morning, Gary met us for breakfast at 7:30 and then walked us down to Mike Magnifico’s Sport Shop to be measured up for skis.
Mike is a merry-faced man in his early forties who is one of the pioneers in the new Aspen, and one of the more difficult ski runs is named after him. He came to Aspen in the 1930s, opened a small shoe-repair store, and waited for the town to be reborn.
“He’s a patient man,” Cooper explained. “He worked, and waited it out, and now he has the biggest ski shop in town to show for it.”
Cooper left us to be outfitted and walked back to the hotel to meet Rocky and Maria. Thirty minutes later, we met them at the bottom of the hill.
When we trudged up, Gary was helping Rocky buckle on her skis. Maria could hardly wait for her mother and kept looking anxiously as each empty chair went by on the lift that carries the skiers to the top of the run.
Aspen’s chair lift, built at a cost of $250,000, is the longest in the world. It carries skiers three miles up the mountainside in less than half an hour. The first section passes over the rooftops of the city and rises over thousands of aspen trees to Midway, at an elevation of 10,000.
The second section rises another 5,600 feet to the Sundeck, a modern octagonal building which offers on every side some of the most commanding scenery in the world. From there, the skier has more than a dozen unbelievably beautiful trails to choose from.
When we reached the Sundeck, Rocky and Maria waved a quick goodbye and poled over to the start of Spar Gulch Run.
“We’ll see you at lunch,” Rocky yelled, as they disappeared over the hill.
“See what I mean?” Cooper laughed, leading us into the building for coffee. “They’re the real skiers of the family. Me, I have to think about what I’m going to do before I shove off. They’ll be back up for a second go at it before I make up my mind to try it the first time.”
Cooper gave up worrying about Maria, on even the toughest runs, some time ago. For two years, she has been skiing with Elli Iselin, one of Aspen’s, and America’s, leading instructors.
Last year, Maria surprised no one by placing first in her class during the downhill races. She has better form than most adult skiers and the kind of driving self-confidence that makes champions.
After coffee, I decided to go back to Midway to wait while Bob Beerman skied down with Cooper to get pictures. I was surprised when, a few minutes later, Cooper came gliding in alone.
I had a vision of Beerman’s broken body lying in the snow — until Cooper assured me that Bob was making it down all right. Just taking it easy. Half an hour later, Bob finally slid in, his clothes completely covered with snow.
“I have just joined the ski crowd,” he remarked grimly.
A ski-patrol man told me that evening that he had counted 39 of Bob’s sitzmarks (the jocularly technical term for marks made when a skier tumbles, or sits), each one distinguished by a five-point impression in the snow.
We beat the Coopers back to the hotel that afternoon and, after a hot shower, had a chance to talk to Meg Bronski, who operates the ski desk in the Jerome Hotel lobby.
“No one up here thinks of Gary Cooper as a movie star,” she told us. “He, Rocky and Maria are as regular as anyone on the mountain, and they all three would rather ski than eat.”
This will be the third winter the Coopers have spent at Aspen. The first winter, they came up briefly from Sun Valley, which used to be their favorite winter resort, to try the fine skiing that a few pioneers were raving about.
The second winter, they bought their 15-acre home site, and began plans to build.
This winter, they will spend every free moment away from Hollywood in Aspen, as they did most of the summer. By now, their. home is completed, and frequently will be filled with friends who share their enthusiasm for winter sports. (Their next-door neighbors will soon be the Charles Lindberghs, who bought an adjoining lot on Red Mountain during the Goethe Festival this July.)
That night, our last in Aspen, Bob and I met the Coopers in the cocktail lounge for a goodbye drink — one final Aspen Special. Across the valley, the moonlight reflected on the ski slopes made it seem like day.
“When I leave this place,” Gary said, “I go back to work in Hollywood, refreshed and ready for anything. Aspen is a perfect hideaway — a hideaway where you can really relax and live.”
Then Gary walked with us to the bus outside the hotel and said goodbye. The thermometer was dropping down below zero again.
As we drove off, the driver remarked, “They always say that those tall fellows have snow on their shoulders six months out of the year. But I think Cooper’s got it in his blood.”