Leon Vart is a ski bum who says of himself: "Because I am poor, I must live among the rich." At 73, he can afford such candor. It's about all he can afford, since ski bumming is a hand-to-mouth life. People who see him on his daily walks in a fashionable part of New York's East Side might mistake him for a Russian aristocrat. They wouldn't be far wrong. He's not an aristocrat but he is Russian—and he's impoverished of everything except the joy he takes in being a ski bum.
Vart has skied every skiable mountain range in the world except the Andes. He relies on ingenuity (the next best thing to money) to get around and stay comfortably lodged. His lean, tall figure moves with ease and grace, though his blue eyes are faded from the glare of snow and sky. Traveling with little more than his "treasure chest" (healthy lungs and heart, strong body and legs), he has bartered his services as a painter, translator, correspondent, waiter, baby-and dog-sitter and ski instructor for the privilege of skiing in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand and across the United States and Canada.
Vart's enthusiasm for skiing started 60 years ago in Moscow when he found a hunting ski. With this, he became expert first at falling, then at balancing. Finding another hunting ski (this one with a broken tip), he spent the winters hanging on to every passing droshky, whatever its destination might be. As rides back were less available, this proved ideal training for cross-country skiing.
At 17, tired of coping with dilapidated hunting skis, Vart entered a club competition and won a new pair of skis for finishing first in a five-mile race. The next day he used those skis to come in second in a Moscow cross-country championship. In both events, he recalls, "I waited several hours in the snow prior to the race. When your feet are very cold, on the point of freezing, you get that extra push to hurry and get them warm again."
Vart, in between sessions as an art student, continued to ski in Russia and the Scandinavian countries until 1917, when the Kerensky government sent him to China and Japan on a commercial mission to buy 300,000 pairs of boots for the Russian workers. Before he was in Japan a week he was skiing Fujiyama. He might have lost his official post if a picture that appeared in a Japanese newspaper had found its way back to Russia. It showed Vart, in his underwear, skiing frantically down the mountain. A friend had broken a leg and Vart had shed most of his clothes to keep the friend warm before skiing down for help.
A year later Vart was on his way to the United States via Alaska and the Canadian ski areas. He decided he would like to live in the United States, and he took up fitful residence in New York.
Vart's residence anywhere is fitful, for he loves to travel, even when he isn't ski bumming. He has been to 10 summer and eight winter Olympics, covering these events from the press box. Some of the publications he represented were obscure and impermanent; but he sometimes worked for bona fide American, Greek, Turkish, Armenian, Russian and Spanish newspapers. His dispatches often were translated by students in exchange for one of his paintings (he paints as he lives—fitfully) or for his press seat while he was away skiing.
At St. Moritz in 1928, after the Olympics were over, he began to teach his own brand of skiing. "I'd get a group of beginners together, take them up a hill and make them fall down by the hour. You can't teach anyone to ski without first making him into an expert in falling down safely."
At Lake Placid in 1932 Vart was on Army trucks helping to haul in snow from the forests. In 1936 his passage from the U.S. to Garmisch-Partenkirchen was paid by the He de France in exchange for shipboard services as master of ceremonies. At the 1948 Olympics—once again at St. Moritz—Vart paid his expenses by directing a newsreel for a French company. In 1952, during the summer Games at Helsinki, Vart painted a mural in his boarding house—less sordid than the payment of rent money.