Community July 29, 2008

My Sunny Valentine

August, 1942. My mother, sister and I were spending the summer in Roscoe, New York, at Gitlin’s Beaver Cottage. I never knew why it was called that. It was not a cottage and I never saw a beaver or Gitlin.

In 1942, it was typical of financially almost-middle-class Jewish families to send the mother and kids to The Mountains (Catskills), where they would spend July and August and the father would drive up from The City (New York) or Jersey (New) to be with them on weekends.

For me, those weekends were wonderful. We were a full family again with a car and could drive into Livingston Manor, the big town nearby where there was a five-and-dime (Woolworth’s) with a toy department, an ice cream store and a movie theater.

Then one Saturday, for the first time in my life, Pop took us all to the movies. At night! I had never started to go anywhere at night, and that night, 3,000 linear miles and one million cultural miles from Ketchum, Idaho, I saw the movie, Sun Valley Serenade. Skiing. Skating. Horse-drawn sleighs. Music. Funny people. Sonja Henie. And for me, It Happened in The Catskills. I made up my 10-year-old mind that I had to see Sun Valley and, 12 years later, in 1954, the summer after I graduated from Columbia College, I did.


My first view of Sun Valley was through the window of a snub-nosed yellow bus which I first saw in Shoshone through the window of a yellow and red Union Pacific railroad car which I had boarded 26 hours earlier in Omaha, Nebraska. While Easterners easily imagine being one day in Los Angeles or San Francisco, and may dream of seeing Sun Valley, Idaho, they never think they will ever be in Omaha, Nebraska. More accurately, they always think they will never be in Omaha, Nebraska.

The image of Omaha to a New Jerseyite who never got farther west than Philadelphia is that of the Wild West, while the image of Los Angeles, which is over a thousand miles closer to the Pacific Ocean, is neither wild nor west.

I was in Omaha because that is where my train ride to Shoshone started. Sun Valley, in 1954, was owned by Union Pacific Railroad, and employees coming to work were given free transportation to it from any place on the line. For me, that meant I paid for transportation from New York to the start of the line in Omaha, slept there overnight and took the train over a second night to Shoshone. (The Union Pacific had terminated using its spur from Shoshone to Ketchum).
The 57-mile bus ride to Sun Valley was exciting. I knew I was an hour away from fulfilling a fantasy. I knew I was not going to see the same Sun Valley I saw in Sun Valley Serenade. That was a winter Sun Valley and I was headed to a summer Sun Valley, but the scenery, nonetheless, was beautiful and new to me.
Scrubby sage, black lava rock, green bales of hay, golden fields, and animals, cows and/or bulls, and horses. Mostly the whole area was covered with distance. More than I had ever seen between the Hudson and Hackensack rivers.

As we drove through Ketchum on unpaved roads bordered by saloons, cafés, and sports shops, and the driver made a right at Slavey’s (now The Roosevelt Tavern and Grille) onto Sun Valley Road, I took out a piece of paper with two names on it, Winston and Thomas McCrea. Winston was the director of Sun Valley and Tom was in charge of the lodge. Their father was the dean of one of the schools at Columbia University and when one of my professors happened to mention he was from Boise, Idaho, I rushed to catch him after class and ask him if he had ever been to Sun Valley. He had and I told him of my lifelong dream to see it. He smiled, took me to his office, called Dean McCrea, spoke with him, hung up the phone and within five minutes I had a job as a busboy at the Sun Valley Lodge. I was so elated I never thought to ask, “How much does it pay?” I would be starting Columbia Law School in the fall and the tuition books and expenses would cost me more than $1,200. >>>



My welcome to Sun Valley was somewhat less than warm. Somewhere I had lost track of the fact that Sun Valley did not have a fantasy about seeing me all these years. The bus deposited me in what is now the mall and the driver pointed out the personnel office where I was told how much money I would make and how much of it would be taken out of my check for membership in the railroad workers union. That would leave me with just enough money to buy a tin cup and pay for begging lessons. That same person told me where to get my sheets, and busboy uniform, and then told me where my room would be. I then asked where I could find the McCreas. I thought they would appreciate me thanking them. They were cordial. I think one of them nodded and the other grunted. Neither did both. I went to my dorm, named “Boise”, (still there) and met my roommate, who mumbled “Hello,” or a word that meant the same thing. He told me his name was Bill, when he realized there was no way of avoiding it, and never said another word to me in the eight weeks we roomed together. (This attitude even before I mistakenly used his toothbrush several weeks later). I lay down in my upper bed, fell asleep and woke up the next morning at 10, having missed dinner and breakfast. Luckily, I was not due to report to the lodge until lunch.

The lodge was easy to find. From my dorm I walked south, past “Idaho,” the girl’s dorm, the “rec” hall and staff dining room, which is now the Quonset hut housing the Sun Valley Company laundry, past the post office, which was where the gift shop now sits, past three tennis courts, which is where Pete Lane’s store now stands, and into the lodge. I walked through the lobby and finally saw the Sun Valley I was looking for, the outdoor ice skating rink and across from it, horses and a stable. That view made up for the night in Omaha and half the night on the train. I met my fellow busboys, one of whom I remain friendly with to this day. His name is Jack Brown and he is the director of the Water Department in Ketchum. “Do we get any tips?” I asked. “We get 20 percent of what the waitresses get,” he answered. At the end of the summer I took home $250. I was just going to have to borrow the difference to pay for law school and sock it to my first client after I graduated.

Between the lodge terrace where I would be busing and the ice rink, there were three small houses and nothing else in sight. No homes, no condos, no Elkhorn, no Dollar Road, no Jewish girls.

My background was traditional Jewish and I had never dated a non-Jewish girl. When I took the job in Idaho I didn’t expect to find a kibbutz in Ketchum, but I thought there might be one or two Jewish girls in the neighborhood. None. For weeks I scanned the names and faces of fellow employees and guests for help. No luck. Then finally one night at dinner a new family sat down at one of my tables with a Jewish last name, Marx, and a non-Jewish first name, Groucho, and two Jewish daughters. One was 10 and one was a 10.

The 10-year-old was Melinda and the perfectly beautiful 20-year-old was Eden. I heard their names during the course of the evening as I put butter on their plates and refilled their water glasses after every sip. We were, happily for me, in a must conversation situation like people exchanging licenses after an automobile accident. “More water? More butter? Finished with your plate?” “Yes.” “No.” Eden was, therefore, given every opportunity to expand the conversation if she felt any attraction to me. She chose to contain her emotions. Perhaps she didn’t know I was Jewish. Groucho looked up from the menu, “What’s Milanese soup?” he asked. I started my snappy reply, “Soup, with…” “Milanese in it,” he interrupted, not only beating me to my punch line but letting me know it wasn’t that clever. But I was only starting.

I was sure they would go to the Duchin room that night as it was the only nightly entertainment in the Lodge. The Duchin Room had cocktails and music for dancing. I would get permission to go, ask Eden to dance, and dazzle her with my wits and my dips. I asked Frederick Bleckman, the assistant head waiter, for permission and he granted it.

After I cleaned up my station I rushed back to my room and cleaned up me, put on the one jacket and tie I brought and returned to the Duchin room. It was approximately 10:30 as I stepped into the world of high society dressed like Li’l Abner—black shoes, brown and white jacket with elbow patches and red paisley tie. Luckily the room was as dimly lit as I was.

I immediately saw Eden and Groucho sitting at a booth and I strolled up to the bar feeling like a spy who knew his cover was about to be blown. The band was playing the cha-cha and I decided to wait for the one rhythm I knew, the fox-trot. And three minutes later, there it was, “Embraceable You.” I walked toward Eden, but had not taken two steps when she and Groucho got up and headed for the door. I momentarily considered interrupting their exit but wisely thought better of it. Tomorrow would have another night and she hadn’t seen my outfit yet.

The next morning I came to the terrace prepared to make my conquest. If I was unable to impress her that night with my fox-trotting, I would surely knock her out with the napkin tricks I would perform for her little sister. Melinda was the first to arrive but Eden and Groucho, whom I assumed were right behind her, weren’t. Minutes later, after I wowed her with my napkin bunny rabbit, I asked Melinda when daddy and Eden would be down. Her answer: “They’re sleeping late. They got married last night.”

Eden was never Groucho’s daughter, and I learned shortly after that, she was never Jewish, either. My disappointment was quickly overcome by my sense of humor, as it struck me that my job had been saved the night before by the cha-cha. And I still had the beautiful lady that brought me to the party, Sun Valley.

The rest of that summer was easily worth the thousand dollars it would cost me. I made many friends of my fellow workers who included ‘Magoo,’ Myrna Beatty, Grace Laughlin, Pat Lee and Tom Larson, and began long-term friendships with Archie Levitan, who was the night comptroller at the inn, and Andy Spiegel, who was working that summer on the trail crew. And while I wouldn’t presume to say I became a “Westerner,” I did ride a horse and went camping overnight at Redfish Lake when it still had red fish in it.

In March of 1978 I returned to a winter Sun Valley with my wife and children. They fell in love with it, too, and we bought a condo. In 1999, we traded it in for a house which our two grandchildren can’t wait to visit each winter and summer.

Am I still in love with Sun Valley? I’ve been counting the days and decided that by mid-September I will have spent six months here this year, and no matter who likes it or not I will then proudly declare myself A LOCAL.


This article appears in the Winter 2008 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.