MY AUNT MARILYN MONROE AND SUN VALLEY

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Until the age of 10 I thought Marilyn Monroe was my aunt.  Our Uncle Dick had a deep and abiding love for Marilyn.  So much so that he bought a life-size poster of her to hang in the cabin at Lake Tahoe.  As a way to explain why we had a picture of a blonde bombshell in a bikini so prominently displayed, Uncle Dick and my parents tried to sell us kids on the notion that she was our aunt – therefore, it was a family picture.  They didn’t try very hard to sell the idea and my brothers weren’t buying it at all but I wasn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the shed.  I was mesmerized by her and, as you can see from the photo, I tried to emulate her when I could.  When she died in 1962 I was on my way to Girl Scout camp for two weeks in the Sierras.  The morning paper’s headline screamed “MARILYN MONROE DEAD!”.  So while other girls were shrieking with joy about escaping parental supervision for a week, I was bawling my eyes out over the death of my “aunt”.    Of course, with time, I better understood all of her problems and sexual peccadilloes  with the Kennedys but I still admired her glamour and her intelligence (her IQ was 168).  Today I channel her every December when I sing the “Happy Birthday” song to my brother in my best Marilyn-to-JFK impression.  And, truth being stranger than imagination, I discovered a few years ago that Marilyn Monroe is also a descendant of Mayflower passengers John Alden and Priscilla Mullins.  So, she actually IS my aunt – just 15 times removed!

 

But our common ancestry is not the only thing that Marilyn and I have in common.  She filmed the movie Bus Stop in and around Sun Valley, Idaho during the winter of 1956 and frequented The Ram restaurant.  The Ram is our favorite place to hang out and is the oldest operating restaurant in Sun Valley.  Over the years stars from Gary Cooper and Clark Gable to modern media titans Oprah and Mark Zuckerberg have dined there. The photo (right) was taken of Marilyn on the night before the Bus Stop company left Idaho to return to Los Angeles.  As you can see, Marilyn wasn’t afraid to partake in the local cuisine.  No rabbit food for her – she tucked into a steak and baked potato like a truck driver.  Apparently she loved to eat, which is just another reason to adore her.  At the time she was criticized for wearing such a “manly” sweater, as if Marilyn could look “manly” in anything.  But there may have been a good reason for her bundling up – shortly after her return to Los Angeles she was hospitalized for 12 days with pneumonia.  She blamed her illness on having to wear skimpy clothing in the heart of an Idaho winter.  Still, Bus Stop turned out to be one of her best performances.  Today one can drive a bit north of Sun Valley to visit the North Fork Store (named Grace’s Diner for the film) where Marilyn performed her magic.

For the past 29 years, we have traveled to Sun Valley in September and have had dinner at The Ram.  In fact, because our anniversary is at the end of August, we usually save our special celebration dinner for The Ram.  The photo (left) was taken on our 25th anniversary.  The food is always good and they even have a cocktail named after Marilyn.  Whether sitting inside in the old-fashioned booths with the antler chandeliers or outside on the beautiful terrace overlooking the duck pond, The Ram has always provided great atmosphere and a feeling of history.  Larry Harshbarger, who has been playing the piano at The Ram since 1979 always accommodates our requests.  It is an evening we anticipate with joy each year.

 

This year we marked 30 years of marriage in August so for this special occasion we planned on a romantic dinner at The Ram, listening to Larry and enjoying a Marilyn cocktail.  On our first day in Sun Valley we walked up to the restaurant and were greeted with a boarded up façade. The Ram and the adjacent areas are being renovated for the next three months.  According to the information posted on the fence, The Ram’s interior will be gutted and modernized.  The only remnant of the past will be the antler chandeliers.  The “new and improved” Ram will feature an open kitchen.  I hate open kitchens.  Isn’t the whole reason for going out to dinner is so you DON’T see a kitchen?  I want my meal to appear as if by magic, in the arms of a waiter who bursts through swinging doors carrying a tray filled with plated food.  Open kitchens, in my experience, render conversation with your table mates nearly impossible.  The clanging of pans, shouting of sous chefs and the occasional dropped silverware all conspire to make a cacophony of sound with decibel levels near that of a jackhammer.  So I don’t know what I hate more – that The Ram is being renovated or that it will now feature an open kitchen.

All I know is – I’m sure glad Aunt Marilyn isn’t alive to see this.

PEACE IN THE MOUTAINS

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

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Turning leaves in Sun Valley

Fall is my favorite season.  After all, it’s the time of year when you can get a Pumpkin Spiced Latte at Starbucks and Costco offers their manhole-sized pumpkin pies.  This year Dairy Queen in entering the fray by offering a dessert consisting of vanilla ice cream, bits of pumpkin pie, topped with nutmeg and whipped cream.  No wonder I gain weight every October.  I come by my love of fall naturally – 20 years ago I had my colors analyzed and it was determined I’m a “Autumn”, meaning I look best in the colors found this season.  But mostly I love this time of year because this is when we make our annual trek up to Sun Valley, Idaho where the air is fresh and the leaves are turning.  And, not by coincidence, the kids are back in school so it is also quiet.

 

Redfish Lake

Redfish Lake

There is something very peaceful about being in the mountains.  I’ve read some recent articles about how people who reside in the mountains live longer.  The research indicates that it’s because of cleaner air, more outdoor activity, and increased aerobic function due to the altitude.  I don’t know about all that – I suppose if the researchers say it then it must be true.  But this week as we drove up to Redfish Lake, near Stanley, Idaho, I thought back to a study that I read years ago.  I have searched the internet to find it again but it’s probably too old even for Google’s capabilities.  The essence of the thesis was this: people who reside in the mountains live longer because they see themselves in perspective.  It went on to theorize that it is hard to take our human problems and even our very existence too seriously when staring at the magnificence of high-peaked mountains.  In other words, when we view ourselves in relation to nature we gain a greater realization that we are only a small cog in a much larger scheme.

Snow in September

Snow in September

That feeling has certainly been forefront in our trip this year.  We have marveled at the vibrant colors of leaves turning and the first dusting of snow on top of Mount Baldy.  When we are outdoors experiencing this magical place, it seems as if all is right with the world.  When we drove home from Redfish Lake the other day, with no satellite radio and no cell service, we had only the glorious scenery, the Salmon River and some antelope to occupy our thoughts.  We were both filled with an overwhelming feeling of peace.  But then, as we returned to “civilization” reality crashed down on us.  A basket full of deplorable candidates for President, racial strife across the country and more terrorist attacks.  I certainly don’t have the first clue as to what the cure is for our collective problems.  All I do know is that  John Denver had it right when he wrote the following lyrics:

“Now he walks in quiet solitude the forest and the streams
Seeking grace in every step he takes
His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake”

We’ll be leaving Sun Valley this week and I will miss this beautiful place more than ever.  Am I escaping reality here?  Probably.  I am just sorry that the whole world cannot feel the peacefulness of the mountains.  God knows we need it.

A POX UPON OUR HOUSE

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

 

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Gracie Gold…practicing her spins.

Let’s see…where were we before my brother went off into the wilds of Montana, losing both his wi-fi and his dignity as he chased after Sandra Bullock?  Oh yes, my husband and I were just starting a wonderful two month vacation in Sun Valley, Idaho.  We were enjoying the hikes, golf and watching the Olympic skaters who perform there every Saturday night.  We were ignoring the obnoxious people who frequent the town this time of year.  We had BIG plans for the summer.  And then something went terribly wrong.  It started out innocently enough.  My husband discovered a small, red spot on his forehead.  Now, let me just say right here that men react differently to illness than women.  When women get a cold they still have to go to work, cook dinner, take the kids to school, and generally run the household.  When men get the sniffles they take to their beds as if galloping pneumonia was going to carry them of to their great reward at any moment.   Okay, that’s a generalization.  But I’ve found in talking with my girlfriends that it’s got enough basis in fact that I think we can rely on it as “conventional wisdom”.  So I brushed off his complaints as being a bit overly dramatic.

 

Frankly, I was certain that it was a bug bite.  After all, we were in the mountains.  Plus, the wonder dog (who sleeps on our heads) had been running around in the bushes.  The second day, when the spot seemed a bit larger, he was worrying in the mirror over it, and asked me to look at it with the flashlight to see if I could see anything.  I did.  I saw a red spot.  On the third day, when two other spots appeared nearby, I told him to take a Benadryl and slap a little Calamine lotion on it.  But the next morning, he insisted on seeing a doctor, convinced he had the Ebola virus, or something close to it.  So off we trudged to the local clinic.  Usually when he is ill I go in to the exam room with him, figuring that two sets of ears are better than one.  This time, however, I let him go in alone, convinced he would come out chagrined about a bug bite diagnosis.  Besides, I was in the middle of a really good book.  So I stayed in the waiting room.  He came out ten minutes later, looking a bit shell-shocked.  He began to walk over to me, shaking his head.  This was not a good sign.  When he reached me he just said one word: “Shingles”.

We are of an age where several of our friends have had shingles and none of them have one good word to say about it.  We both envisioned large welts and agonizing pain.  Armed with an antiviral prescription, we went to the local pharmacy, where, as luck would have it, the pharmacist told us she had shingles just last year.  Great – an expert!  She assured us that the medicine would reduce the length and severity of the shingles.  I mentioned that I had been tested a couple of years ago and turns out I never had chicken pox, from whence the shingles virus originates.  I caught just the slightest rise of her eyebrow, but then she told us that it is actually pretty hard to transfer the virus.  Luckily, his shingles were a mild case, he never had any pain, and was back hitting golf balls within the week.

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Us…under quarantine

 

However, contrary to our “expert” pharmacist’s opinion, apparently it actually isn’t that hard to transfer the virus.  Sure enough, two weeks later I started getting chills and fever.  After four days, spots began to appear on my body.  I’m no genius but even I could figure out that I was coming down with “the pox”.  So back we went to the clinic.  Chicken pox for children means a week out of school and your mom bringing you endless bowls of ice cream and Jello.  For an adult, however, it is quite a different matter.  The doctor told us that the particular type of pneumonia that is caused by adult chicken pox can come on suddenly and lead to death if not attended to right away.  He said in a week either the medication would do its job or I would be in the hospital.  Alrighty then…that got our attention.

So…we made the decision to leave Sun Valley the next day and drive back to Scottsdale.  I figured if I was going to get really sick, it was going to be in my own bed with my own doctor nearby.  My dear husband earned a lifetime of brownie points by completely packing up our belongings, shipping most of it back to our house via UPS, and then loading up the car.  I think this means I can never say anything bad about him again.  At least for a while.  We took off, spending the night in Ely, Nevada again (see blog of July 7) where, contrary to common sense and a need for rest, I laid awake all night worrying that my fever would spike in Ely and I would never see real civilization again.  Luckily, however, we made it home where I saw my own doctor and am now practically recovered.

As for our summer – well, it hasn’t exactly gone as planned.  But isn’t that just the way life is?  We are loving being back in our own home, I am strategizing a re-decoration of the family room, and we are planning for our trip to California in September.  So it’s all turned out okay.  But I’m not sure we’ll be going back to Sun Valley any time soon – the “bug bites” up there really suck.

SEEING STARS IN SUN VALLEY

Igrid Bergman, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable skiing in Sun Valley

Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable skiing in Sun Valley

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Well, if it’s September, we must be going to Sun Valley. Yep, like lemmings to the sea, each September we migrate to Idaho in search of great hiking, spectacular golf, and cooler air. That last part becomes very important this time of year – our lows in Scottsdale last week averaged 84. The 10 day forecast for Sun Valley has the lows in the 30’s. I may just sit outside in the mornings with a cup of coffee until ice forms on either it or me.

Friends often wonder why we return to Idaho every year. People who haven’t been there usually ask something along the lines of, “Oh, do you have to go see family”? Like it is some obligatory trip that we take to an ugly part of the country to see people we don’t much like who require that we sleep on a hide-a-bed in their basement. But people who have been lucky enough to visit Sun Valley ask us if they can climb into our suitcase. Since its inception it has been the playground for many celebrities – Ernest Hemingway lived (and died) there and Gary Cooper and Clark Gable made regular visits to ski and hunt. Since we’ve been going there for 26 years we’ve also seen our share of modern-day movie stars, although they don’t seem quite as big as Cooper or Gable. Maybe some version of that line from “Sunset Boulevard” applies here – the scenery is the same, it’s the stars who have gotten smaller. My husband spent 30 minutes talking to Arnold Schwarzenegger once about tax policies in California, but even though he’s big, I’m not sure he counts as a “star”. We’ve seen Candice Bergen, Muriel Hemingway and I once ran across Jamie Lee Curtis in a store. I was tempted to tell her that the Activia really wasn’t working for me but then my better angels prevailed.

The Lodge at Sun Valley - made of concrete poured to look like wood

The Lodge at Sun Valley – made of concrete poured to look like wood

From the outset, the Sun Valley resort was marketed as a haven for the rich and famous. It was developed by Averell Harriman, who was chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad in the 30’s. He was an avid skier and after the success of the Lake Placid Olympics in 1932 he correctly assumed that Americans would develop a keen interest in winter sports. Harriman had the idea of building the first destination ski resort in the U.S. in a place so remote that – what a coincidence – the only way to get there was via the Union Pacific Railroad.  In 1935 Harriman hired an Austrian count, Felix Schaffgotsch, to travel across the western United States to find the perfect setting for a ski area. When Schaffgotsch visited Ketchum, Idaho he decided that the combination of good snowfall, sunshine and the perfect ski mountain was where Harriman should build. Harriman started construction immediately and then hired a marketing genius to spread the word. Harriman was afraid that people would not be attracted to the cold climes of Idaho, so he named the resort “Sun Valley” to conjure up images of warmth and coziness. He installed the world’s first round swimming pools to garner more attention and they did.  Sun Valley took off as a locale synonymous with great skiing, fine dining and first-class entertainment.

But the really interesting history of Sun Valley lies in the story of the ski school. Count Schaffgotsch helped Harriman attract the top ski instructors in the world, including Friedl Pfeifer. Pfeifer was Austrian and not only the most famous downhiller in the world, he also managed to carve out time to teach between racing circuits. His pupils ranged from the famous (Claudette Colbert) to the infamous (Rudolph Hess). In 1937 he fled Austria weeks after Hitler’s invasion and was lured to Sun Valley, just in time for the opening of the ski school. As it turns out, Schaffgotsch was a huge admirer of Hitler and among the Austrian instructors he recruited to Sun Valley were several avowed Nazis. From 1937 to the outbreak of the war, they put Sun Valley’s ski school on the map and, despite the instructors’ political leanings, people flocked there by the thousands to learn from the very best.

Friedl Pfeifer as a dashing ski instructor

Friedl Pfeifer as a dashing ski instructor

But the shadow of World War II loomed large. Once the war broke out, Schaffgotsch and several other instructors returned to the “Fatherland” to enlist in Hitler’s army. Schaffgotsch joined the SS and while he was in Italy he received a letter from Harriman letting him know that his duties were complete at Sun Valley but that he was welcome as a guest at any time.  The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed FBI agents from Salt Lake City descended on Sun Valley to investigate reports of Nazi sympathizers among the ski school staff. Three of the most prominent instructors were arrested, including Pfeifer. Pfeifer and several other Austrian instructors enlisted in the U.S. Army and had distinguished war records as part of the 10th Mountain Division.

In 1942, Harriman offered up the Sun Valley Lodge to the Navy to serve as a hospital for both officers and enlisted men. He thought the quiet and solitude of this remote mountain village would sooth their war sufferings. Most of the men enjoyed the peacefulness of the Wood River Valley, but some found the isolation difficult. No matter, the resort remained in service to the Navy until war’s end and did not re-open until the spring of 1946. Most of the instructors came back to Sun Valley after the war and were instrumental in advancing the burgeoning ski industry. Pfeifer returned to the U.S. and settled in Colorado where he helped found the Aspen ski resort.   Ironically, Schaffgotsch was killed in Russia during Harriman’s stint as our ambassador to that country.

In 1995 we were lucky enough to be in Sun Valley when a memorial to the 10th Mountain Division was erected on the Sun Valley grounds. We watched as several elderly men, some in uniform, paid tribute to their fallen comrades. They were a spry and inspiring group, unbowed by the years with their physical prowess still much in evidence. As far as I’m concerned, they were the biggest stars we’ve ever seen in Sun Valley.

And speaking of stars, let me pass along a friendly reminder to ‘Like’ my brother’s video (every 24 hours) at the link below:

http://www.bestjobaroundtheworld.com/submissions/view/4459

Papa Hemingway’s Place

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By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Each year my husband and I think about where to spend our vacation. We gather brochures, drool over pictures of exotic places and then end up going to Sun Valley, Idaho. Each September since 1988, like lemmings to the sea, we return to that idyllic spot. Mad cap adventurers we are not.

We used to beat ourselves up about this – we should see more of the world, yadda, yadda, yadda. But each year when we arrive in Sun Valley a great sense of peace comes over us and we know that we are in the right place.

Sun Valley is in some respects a typical resort town. You can buy lots of cheap t-shirts and baseball caps with bears on them. And the prices? Definitely aimed at tourists. It took Starbucks 10 years to get a permit to open here and it remains the only “chain” in town. If you can’t live without your Big Macs or Whoppers, this is not the place for you.

Celebrities flock here, in part because the locals are totally unimpressed with them. Visits by Tony Hawk and Lindsay Vonn cause more excitement than Bruce Willis or Bill Gates. The celebrities who come here are more relaxed and friendly than you might imagine. My husband once spent 20 minutes talking to Arnold Schwarzenegger about California’s tax problems in the local coffee shop. Obviously that was not a fruitful conversation.

Perhaps the celebrity most closely associated with Sun Valley is Ernest Hemingway. It was there that he relaxed, and wrote, beginning in 1939 until his suicide there in 1961. He holed up in a room at the Sun Valley Lodge to write arguably his best novel, “For Whom The Bell Tolls”. As one walks the hallways of the Lodge, there are numerous pictures of him hunting, fishing and, not surprisingly, drinking. Some of the bars he frequented in town are still in business; they are what would be colloquially known as “shit-kicking” saloons. It’s not hard to imagine him sitting in one of these dark corners, whiskey in hand, observing human behavior. It’s rumored that one night, well into his cups, he staged a mock bullfight down the middle of the bar.

The picture shown at the top of today’s post is of a sign that sits at the busiest corner in town. It is comprised of 10,000 tiny pictures taken of Hemingway during his years in Paris. It overlooks the new town square and gives the impression that “Papa” is still participating in all the local festivities…and gossip. Further down the road is the cemetery where he is buried (pictured below). Aside from the occasional tour it is usually quiet, the only hint of traffic is the occasional flower or note placed on his grave from an admirer.

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Our favorite Hemingway spot is the memorial that was erected in his honor, built just east of the Lodge in 1966. It consists of a tall granite base topped with a bronze bust of his head. It is perched amongst a grove of his beloved Cottonwood trees, overlooking the beautiful Trail Creek with the mountains in the distance. Here is a picture of his “view”:

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It is inscribed with the words that Hemingway spoke at the funeral of a friend, but projects his own feelings as well:

Best of all he loved the fall,
the leaves yellow on cottonwoods
leaves floating on trout streams
and above the hills
the high blue windless skies
…Now he will be a part of them forever.

Whenever I read those words I feel justified in our trip there each September. After all, if it was good enough for Ernest Hemingway, it’s certainly good enough for us.

LIVING ON THE FACE OF THE SUN

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Eight months of the year I live in Paradise, otherwise known as Scottsdale, Arizona.  Contrary to popular belief, it does get cold here in the winter – we’ve had a freak snowfall most every year – but generally we have sunny days and 70 degree temperatures.  It’s what causes some of my jerkier acquaintances to call home to Minnesota every January and taunt their friends who are digging out from an ice storm.

But all that is about to change.  This past weekend we had our first 100 degree temperature of the year.  That’s right – it’s frigging APRIL and we hit the century mark already.  Although it will cool down a bit this week, the fact that we’ve had a 100 degree day means only one thing:  we are once again facing hell on Earth.  Literally.  The average temperature here in July and August is 105.  That would almost be bearable except that the average low is 75.  So it never cools off.  We are God’s warming drawer for four months of the year.

I know that the conventional wisdom is that it’s a dry heat, but then again, so is my microwave oven and you won’t see me living in that.  In the 14 years we’ve lived here I’ve never become used to this “upside down” schedule.  My whole life I was conditioned to love summer – school was out, we looked forward to time at Tahoe, and we had lots of beer parties.  Now summer is something to be dreaded.  Somehow that still seems unnatural to me.

Our strategy since I retired ten years ago is to escape out of here each summer.  We have tried all sorts of combinations for our summer road trips – renting for a month, staying in hotels for a week or two, mooching off some of our friends who have mountain homes.  Two years ago when our house was being remodeled we rented a condo in Sun Valley, Idaho for three months.  Ironically, that was our worst summer.  I have to admit, as nice as it was to get away for the whole summer, I really missed my “stuff” at home.

So once again this summer we will be in and out of Arizona, traveling to California’s central coast, the Bay Area and up to Sun Valley.  That leaves a lot of time to sit at home in the air conditioning and get stuff done.  I’ve already started to compose my list of “summer projects”; really fun stuff like cleaning and organizing drawers, saving computer files to a hard disk, and alphabetizing the spice rack.

But I also have a potential blockbuster to keep me occupied. When I did our family history last year I traced it back to medieval England, and there is some possibility that one of our lines goes back to the Irish kings.  If true, that would go a long way towards explaining Bob’s propensity to enter every Irish pub he sees.   We also might be related to King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, in which case I think we are 16,346 in line to the British throne.  You’d think that should have warranted an invitation to the Royal Wedding last year.

So, as those of you in other states get ready for BBQ’s, planting a garden or just chilling at the beach, I will be putting the cardamom between the caraway seeds and the cayenne pepper.  And, maybe, getting fitted for my tiara.