Van Gordon Sauter is a man with a view, many views in fact. And he’s not one to mince words. So when I heard that this “respected journalist, distinguished television executive, and renowned raconteur” was going to be talking at the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference about his new book The Sun Valley Story, I pulled every string I could to secure myself a spot (not an easy task, as any journalist who has tried to infiltrate the hallowed halls of the conference without publishing their own book will tell you). The fact I have known and worked with Van for the last five years, and that I contributed (in a very small way) to the book he was talking about, undoubtedly weighed in my favor.
The Wood River Valley is very lucky to call Van one of its own. He has had a second home here for many years, and he takes an active interest in the community, beyond just how it will impact his own property. A broadcast journalist and author with a storied career, he is one of the original founders of the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, and has shared his love of this valley by writing numerous articles on it for the local press (including the Sun Valley Guide, of which I’m editor). Of his many areas of interest, history ranks the highest, so it seemed a natural fit for him to bring his engaging writing style to the entertaining story of the birth of Sun Valley Resort.
The Sun Valley Story is the result of a collaboration between Sun Valley Resort and Mandala Media. Published last year in honor of the resort’s 75th anniversary, the book is described by Van as “an anecdotal history,” one that captures the individual stories and events of Sun Valley’s singular history with his signature flair.
And if anyone can recount a good anecdote it’s Van. His “Break-out session” at the conference on Saturday was full of fascinating tidbits, both from the book and his own experiences in the valley. Including the one time he tried to buy a bar in Hailey that turned out to be insulated by miners clothing, or the story from Peter Duchin’s childhood in the Harriman mansion in New York, where – because his room was so far from the breakfast parlor – he had to hop on a bicycle every morning just to get his cereal. To get them all you’ll have to pick up the book, or corner Van at Cristina’s Restaurant any summer morning, but here are a few choice morsels about the major characters of the book that he divulged at the conference:
Van on Averell Harriman [the founder of Sun Valley]
“In 1935, when Harriman said ‘I want a ski resort in the West,’ that put into motion a project that by today’s standards is incomprehensible. This was and is, if you’ve tried to fly into here recently, one of the most unreachable places in America. At that point nothing came here expect the little train primarily used for hauling sheep. But Harriman said ‘I want it up and I want it up now,’ and low and behold, Union Pacific (and it’s hard to imagine a corporation of that capability today) put up this resort in 11 months. There was no zoning, no politicians, no litigation over environment, they just put it up. From bowling balls to beds to bourbon, the railroad got it here. And 11 months after he made that decision, the front doors open and the customers came.
Van on Eastwood [Clint Eastwood wrote the introduction to The Sun Valley Story]
“Clint Eastwood produced and directed and starred in a movie called Pale Rider, which was shot just north of here in the Boulder Mountains. It was for him a marvelous experience because he could go shoot on location for most of the day and then drive home – he’s had a home here forever – and play golf in the late afternoon. It was just the epitome of an ideal movie-making experience for him, and it was a heck of a good movie.”
Van on Ernest Hemingway
“Hemingway came and stayed in room 206 of the Sun Valley Lodge, a great place to spend the night, a lovely, small suite. It was there he finished his book For Whom The Bell Tolls. He loved it here, his times here were good and he developed an incredibly strong relationship with Gary Cooper. Many of his good times involved being in this town. But ultimately, it ended tragically.”
Van on Ernest Hemingway’s Ketchum home
“[After his suicide in Ketchum] the home he and Mary had bought here was given to The Nature Conservancy, which has been both a good landlord and a useless landlord (it’s currently in one of its good phases). The house is in pretty good shape. A lot of the Hemingway material that was left behind has been pilfered, the best of Hemingway in the house was given to the Kennedy Library at Harvard. At one time, I headed an ill-advised committee, of which I was the premier ill advising person, and we worked with The Nature Conservancy to try and open the house for limited public access. The neighbors, and I can understand their motivation, said no, we don’t want outsiders traipsing through here. So the house is marooned and fundamentally inaccessible to the public.”
Van on Bill Janss [Sun Valley Resort's second owner]
“Bill Janss was a marvelous human being. He was generous, he was kind. He was an Olympic skier, who was unable to compete in the Olympics due to the war, and he really got that mountain into remarkable shape. He turned it into the best ski mountain in the country. Unfortunately, he never could learn how to rent rooms, sell food, run retail establishments or sell condos, he had none of those skills.”
Van on Earl and Carol Holding [Current owners of the resort]
“The Holdings have been generous caring owners of this facility, the improvements they have made, from the snow-making to that gorgeous pavilion, have been remarkable. They made it work. Now we have a good valley, we have a great business here, and we need new hotels. The Holding family want to put a big hotel out at River Run, a ‘ski in, ski out’ establishment. But they can’t do that without a better airport. If any of you have tried to fly in here recently you’ll understand. This city, this valley is at a point now where it has to determine whether it has the courage and the capacity to fix the airport or move the airport, so that there can be direct flights from around the country to bring people in here. The Holdings are very old, no one knows what their children want to do, but their children are highly regarded – fundamentally the jury’s out on where all of this will go.”
Van on the future of Sun Valley [in response to the question "Where do you see the valley in 10 years time?"]
“I would say it’s all up to the airport. It’s a double edged sword. If we get the airport so it works here and the airline starts to have direct flights from Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles wherever, we’ll see a dramatic influx of tourists. On the one hand that’s good, but it’s going to change the ambiance of where we live. There’s no doubt about it. My bottom line is, this is a beautiful place even tourists can’t destroy it, and it will be a better and better place if we do make it easier to get here. It’s impossible to get here now, it’s impossible to sell it to a large swath of the public because it’s so hard to get here.”
Van on the airport [in response to a question on the politics of the airport]
“I have been cautioned never to raise politics at this event… . There is a division in the community. Those who want an airport are trying to find ways to either change the airport runway or to move the airport down beyond highways 20 and 75. But their first choice has frigging grouse on it. Here’s a community of 25,000 people, desperately needs an airport and there’s mating grouse there. Can’t these grouse mate somewhere else? Whatever, that site is a long way from the resort, the construction expense would have been enormous. But without an airport that accommodates small commercial jets, this valley will wither and become non-competitive.”
(aka Mrs. Sun)
Details: Sun Valley Story, written by Van Gordon Sauter, with a foreword by Clint Eastwood, this glamorous coffee table book contains previously unpublished vintage images, as well as lavish four-color photographs from the last decade, including the Castle Rock Fire, the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, Allen & Co. Conference and the personalities that define Sun Valley today. See some excerpts from the book here, and buy a copy here.