Community July 2, 2019

An Enduring Green Thumb

Clara Spiegel's legacies live on

Clara Spiegel loved to grow things. She and her friends planted the seed for The Community Library then grew it into one of the finest private libraries in the Northwest. She grew relationships between people, introducing friends to other friends she thought they ought to know at dinner parties she threw a couple times a week. And she planted and cultivated what is still thought of as one of the most beautiful gardens in Ketchum, while throwing garden parties in that garden to help raise funds for her library.

“It’s fabulous—I feel like I’m living in Monet’s garden,” said Ketchum architect Susan Scovell, who lives in Clara Spiegel’s old home at 6th and Walnut streets. “It’s an absolutely fabulous garden—just one block from City Hall. People say I’m so lucky to live here, and I agree.” Scovell traipsed along old stones winding through a carpet of flowers to a shade garden underneath aspens.

Clara Spiegel did all the work, selecting the pink cosmos, purple spirea, Johnny Jumpups, orange poppies, columbine, elegant lupine and pink and magenta peonies that carpet the hill that slopes down from her home towards Bald Mountain.

The current garden at the “Spiegel house.” Photo courtesy Susan Scovell.

“She was know for her peonies,” Scovell said.

Spiegel also planted crabapple trees, apple trees and a row of magnificent lilac bushes that herald the bloom to come in June. “She planted all these trees,” Scovell said, looking up at Douglas fir and pines towering into the royal blue sky. “Look how much they’ve grown in 60 years.”

Planting and caring for something like a Douglas fir must have been a new and exciting adventure for Clara Spiegel, since they were something she had not been familiar with growing up. She was born on Dec. 6, 1904, in Chicago where her father—a
German immigrant—had a clothing business. She attended Vassar College and served in the U.S. Motor Corps during World War II.

She first visited Sun Valley just three weeks after the resort opened as America’s first destination ski resort in 1936. And she returned to live permanently in 1951 following her divorce from Fred Spiegel, who oversaw the Spiegel catalog.

“I had seen the ads for Sun Valley—the gorgeous, half-naked man standing on a snow slope and I thought, well … I love to go ski. And after three days I didn’t have a headache for the first time in 20 years,” she told Michael Engl in an oral history interview done for The Community Library’s Regional History Department.

Spiegel settled into a home that served as an early example of modern architecture with a living room that merged with her dining room and an open kitchen—a perfect fit for the entertaining she liked to do.

“Clara took me under her wing when I came to town in the early ‘60s and she’d invite me to dinner. And it was always fascinating because seated around the table would be some interesting people like Pamela Churchill, the Olympian Hannah Fisk, Mary Fisk, and Kathleen Mortimer—Averell Harriman’s daughters,” said Terry Ring, owner of Silver Creek Outfitters, who, as a fishing guide at the time, shared Spiegel’s love of fishing.

“She maintained what she called ‘the pants list,’ said longtime Valley resident Norma Douglas. “It included any man in town who had a tie and knew how to pick up his fork in the right hand. If some woman needed someone to escort her to something, she’d call Clara and ask who was on the pants list.”

Dinner parties often started with a stroll through the garden, and large windows allowed dinner guests to look out onto it.

“She was extremely proud of that garden,” said Douglas. “She wasn’t the sort of person to get down on her hands and knees and dig in the dirt by the time I came to know her. But she had definite ideas about the colors and types of flowers she planted.”

All these years later, Spiegel’s garden takes very little maintenance, said Scovell. “Oh, I do a little weeding for sure. But, really, I’ve done nothing except maybe supplement them with hanging geraniums, and plant a few daffodils along the driveway. Mostly, I just pick the flowers and put them in a vase.”

Scovell crossed the lawn and headed into an 836-square-foot cabin on Spiegel’s property, built from squared railroad ties that had been discarded by Union Pacific Railroad. Inside, she pointed out a miniature painting that Tisa McCombs had painted of “Clara’s Garden.”

Then she retraced her steps from the cabin through the garden to the front lawn. She paused in front of a berm offering her house some privacy from the street. “This berm was actually created from a mound of stones. Clara and, perhaps a friend or worker, went up to the hills and came back with all these stones.”

But the berm doesn’t stop peekers, she said.

“People say it’s a very special garden—the best in town. I get stopped all the time with people saying how nice things are. But it’s really Clara who did it.”

This article appears in the Summer 2019 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.