Sun valley, the most fabled and still the most wonderfully different ski resort in the United States, lies in a sparkling mountain snow bowl about 64 miles north of a Union Pacific depot in Shoshone, Idaho. It is the only ski resort in the country generally familiar to people who 1) have never seen snow, and 2) have seen snow but don't like it.
This is because Sun Valley was conceived in an almost playful public relations mood by the Union Pacific Railroad, and as a result has been continuously and successfully impressed on the public mind.
It has been on exhibition ever since its first season back in 1937, when Claudette Colbert brought a movie company here for the Swiss sequence of She Met Him in Paris. Then Sonja Henie made Sun Valley Serenade in 1940, and she was followed by others like Joan Crawford (A Woman's Face, 1941), Van Johnson and Esther Williams (The Duchess of Idaho, 1950), Stewart Granger and Cyd Charisse (The Wild North, 1952), Jane Powell (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, 1954), Marilyn Monroe (Bus Stop, 1956). In all, it has been the location for 19 film epics. And in keeping with the new era, last winter Desilu Productions with Lucille Ball brought the valley to TV.
In the 21 years between Colbert and Ball, only a very few newspaper-reading American adults escaped exposure to one of the 10,000 printed pictures and stories on Sun Valley, dutifully recording the arrival of specially important guests, or another 12 inches of new snow, or a bevy of girl skiers who were caught in their bathing suits, fortunately, relaxing beside a Sun Valley swimming pool.
The image thus created has its fascinations and is certainly an asset to the establishment. It is definitely part of that which makes Sun Valley different. However, from a skier's point of view there are things more exciting, believe it or not, than the prospect of meeting Lucille Ball in stretch pants. For instance, a skier is more excited to learn that the wall of skiable mountain at Sun Valley rises 3,000 vertical feet over the floor of the valley; that several mountains have been bulldozed smooth and planted with grass seed to make a flat undercarpet for the 50 miles of trail running down into the valley, and that there are four miles of lifts running back up—in other words, that Sun Valley is a good place to ski.
He would be equally pleased by the little resort village itself spotted on the valley floor. Here Sun Valley is different: from ski lift to soda fountain, it's all in the company. The skier needs nothing but his room number as credit in a ski empire that includes Sun Valley Lodge holding 288 skiers, Challenger Inn holding 370, five Swiss chalets holding 248, a line of stores, a movie theater, two steam-heated swimming pools, an ice rink, a bowling alley, a nightclub, a dance bistro, a beer hall and the busiest night life north of Denver. In other words, Sun Valley, in its different and delightful way, is a good place for after-ski too.
All this goes right back to an Austrian fellow named Count Felix Schaffgotsch and the days of the valley's founding. Count Felix was a scion of an old Austrian family, an avid skier and, around 1934, clerk in the firm of Brown Brothers, Harriman in New York. When Averell Harriman, a partner who was also an avid skier, left the firm for the presidency of Union Pacific, he got the count to undertake a search to find the perfect ski area, somewhere along the Union Pacific tracks. The count went 5,000 miles more or less, scanning mountains from UP coach windows. He finally settled on an unnamed dent in the Sawtooth section of the northwest Rockies, which had been known principally for its sheep-grazing land. The only inhabited place there was Ketchum, a sheep-shipping town.
As a beginning Harriman hired what he considered the world's finest public relations man, Steve Hannagan, the man who created Miami Beach "starting with a sand dune," as he put it. Hannagan went up to the valley immediately. He later described his trip as follows: "We went up there in a hand car. Then we got on a sled. After that we had to walk. All I had on was a light tweed suit. We got there and looked around and all I could see was just a lousy field of snow. It was colder than hell."
Hannagan was never one to let an impression interfere with a good phrase, however. "I always believed in a good name," said Hannagan. "We had a lot of trouble that way with Miami Beach, being so near Miami. I always said if I ever started another town down there I would call it Sunshine, Florida." Hannagan called this place Sun Valley.
Ground was broken in June 1936. By Christmastime Harriman had put in Sun Valley Lodge, the attached swimming pool, and some lifts—an investment of $1 million. For the grand Christmas Day opening, Hannagan got Claudette Colbert, Tommy Hitchcock, Robert Young and Sam Goldwyn. The only thing Hannagan couldn't bring in was snow. Unhappily, on the eve of December 24, with newsmen waiting on every hand, the ground was bare.