To understand Sun Valley one must first appreciate that it is a ski resort where skiing ranks second, maybe even third. The valley is a lot of other things: a Swiss village hidden up there somewhere in Idaho, a feeling, a mood, girls in tight pants, sleigh bells, Sonja Henie and an old concrete lodge. It is part of the American subconscious, and anyone who has never been there knows deep inside that one day he must see Sun Valley, just as he must see the Washington Monument or Greenwich Village. The valley is a glamorous playground, the iced Riviera of all U.S. resorts. Beautiful people cavort there. It has movie stars and those who look like movie stars, Austrian ski instructors with white teeth and burnt umber faces, and pine trees with soft snow clinging to them.
For 28 years Sun Valley has been a very special place. The Union Pacific Railroad built it, and Steve Hannagan, the flack of all flacks, made it a dream. He moved the sheep out and the celebrities in. Ernest Hemingway came, bought a home and did a lot of hunting, practically no skiing and an awful lot of drinking there. The valley became the backdrop for some of the most scenic and least dramatic movies ever released. Claudette Colbert made it fashionable by coming there to shoot She Met Him in Paris
, and Glenn Miller came with the band and played It Happened in Sun Valley
while young Sonja pranced around the rink in that fluffy little costume and those Nordic dimples. There were rich heiresses and poor heiresses and the Miami Beach girls who came to gamble and get divorced. When Sun Valley opened in December 1936, David O. Selznick belted Banker Charles F. Glore in the eye, and Hannagan saw that it made all the wires. Newspapers were big on that sort of thing, and the valley produced copy for years. June Allyson and Burt Lancaster and Sam Goldwyn and Louis Armstrong played there. So did Robert Young, Tommy Hitchcock, the Studebakers and Clark Gable. Norma Shearer stayed on to marry Ski Instructor Marty Arroug�, the first of many such international matches. Party girl Virginia Hill came and paid for everything with $100 bills she carried around in a shoe box. The Shah of Iran skied at Sun Valley, accompanied by a bodyguard who toted a gun and fell down a lot. Eventually everybody who read papers or sang songs or went to movies somehow ended up with a piece of Sun Valley in his heart.
Everything was serene at this snowbound stage setting until early last fall, when stories began going around that the Union Pacific—still the losing landlord of all this Gem�tlichkeit—was getting out. The first rumor was that Walt Disney was buying the place and in no time Sun Valley would be transformed into Disneyland North. Residents shivered. Then it was announced, officially, that the Janss Corporation, a monster southern California land-developing outfit, had bought the valley, and the residents froze with fear. "The queen is dead," one Northwest ski writer penned in despair. An epidemic of property-value stomach developed around Ketchum, the little town in the valley. Movie Actress Ann Sothern, one of the area's scenic wonders, got right on the phone and called the Janss people to demand assurance they were not going to install a slum next to her almost-Austrian chalet. Sun Valley fanciers protested that theirs was a well-established emotional institution and that you can't just buy that sort of thing, even if you are a monster from Los Angeles.
But that was in the autumn. Now, with the fresh snow falling and the stretch pants stretching, it is clear that the old queen of winter resorts is going to survive her rather unregal change of hands. The snug, all-enclosed atmosphere of the valley has not diminished. The food is good. The bellboys at the Sun Valley Lodge are in new uniforms, but as quick as ever. Lovely women still sweep through the lobby in cerise and mauve pants, trailing a trace of Chanel. There is still hot spiced tea in the afternoon, the ski instructors still make feminine hearts go clippety-glump and there still is music and dancing all night. So rewarding is the outlook, in fact, that some Sun Valley property owners have even begun talking in sweeping terms about this wonderful new company ("We were never really worried there. Nope. Not for a minute") that is channeling more than $30 million into the resort and the Idaho economy. The estimates of the local residents may be a little high—that much money would probably buy every fireplug, house, picket fence, building and pump handle in all of Ketchum—but such is the talk of a town so long turned inward from the rest of the world.
What has set the worries of Sun Valley to rest is a confrontation with the California monster that bought it and the discovery that Janss Corp. is really two craggy-faced men, Edwin and Bill Janss, who have both the means and the intention to care for the place dearly. The Janss brothers already have considerable third-generation wealth, which they are building into a fourth-generation fortune. They own properties all over the place: a new resort spread in Hawaii; a city, some ranches, golf courses and another resort in California; a mountain in Aspen, Colo. They regard themselves as "forward-thrust" businessmen, and tough ones, too. This is the first time they have ever bought a mood.
One crisp, clear day last month Ed Janss flew into Hailey, Idaho in his $60,000 Cessna 310, and Bill Janss arrived from another direction in his own Cessna. They sloughed through the new snow to Sun Valley and looked around at Baldy Mountain with its spider web of ski runs, the tight little village, the grand old lodge. "All this," said Ed, "is something wonderfully mysterious. I'm not quite sure we bought the resort, really. I can't escape the feeling we are holding it in trust. This whole place has somehow been woven into the fabric of American life. It's a unique thing. Give a thought-association test. Say 'ski resort' and people will answer ' Sun Valley.' We can all feel it. Sometimes it snows pure nostalgia up here."
"There is a mood," says Bill Janss, who has been hooked on Sun Valley since he raced for the Harriman Cup and honeymooned there in 1940. "We bought a cluster of buildings and a flair, and we inherited old Steve Hannagan's legacy of sunshine on the snow and everybody standing around in shorts all tanned and glistening. We started out a year ago to do an in-depth study on this place. We were consultants for Union Pacific. Then one day we realized the place was so perfect and had so much potential that we ought to buy it."
Others had tried to buy Sun Valley and had been turned aside by the railroad, which seemed to be content with the resort as a guaranteed money-loser and tax write-off. One Janss official swears that Union Pacific board meetings were always opened with the words, "Well, gentlemen, how much shall we budget for our Sun Valley losses this year?" When the railroad unexpectedly suggested the Janss brothers take it over, there was no hesitation. "We had already sold ourselves on the deal," says Ed Janss.
Together Ed and Bill Janss blend into the Sawtooth Mountain backdrop and semisweet Swiss architecture better than anybody since the mid-1930s, when a young, slick-haired Averell Harriman began to make things happen in Sun Valley. Ed Janss, 50, has the look an advertising agency would build a campaign around—an air of relaxed authority. His face is permanently tanned and weather-creased, his hair close-cropped and worn as though someone had just walked through it. His shirts are monogrammed at both chest and cuff, and his suits are clearly expensive but so ingeniously rumpled that he always manages to look as if he just stepped out of a train wreck. Bill is four years younger and will achieve the full mountain-country look in time. But already he is pretty potent stuff. When he first arrived at the valley as co-owner the staff was understandably solicitous and eager to make a good impression. Dorice Taylor, chief of the publicity bureau, stepped up to say something appropriate and murmured instead, "Why, he has the bluest eyes I have ever seen in my life."
Thus suited by nature to the Sun Valley mood and manner, the brothers began moving in on the main problem, how to pick the place up and point it in a new, moneymaking direction, yet make it appear as though not much had happened. This amounts to high-level financial plastic surgery. Sun Valley has plenty of land (4,800 acres) in its mountain notch. The sun pours into it most of the time, and there are days, as Publicist Hannagan promised, when everybody stands around in shorts and glistens. Baldy Mountain is already well served by lifts and has wide-sweeping ski runs for intermediates and experts, while the hackers have a smaller mountain all to themselves. But many of the main trails get lumpy in heavy traffic, and by midafternoon on busy days the effect can be one of skiing off the side of a gigantic golf ball. Powder snow has always been in short supply at the valley—Baldy faces the wrong way—but starting next season skiers are going to get this kind of snow. The powder-snow fields, some 1,000 acres of them, lie thick behind Baldy on the Warm Springs Run. Janss path-finders have surveyed the section and mapped new ski trails. "The trees will be carefully trimmed out—not in the old time slash-a-trail style," says Bill Janss. "We will leave clusters of trees to add the element of seclusion and mystery for skiers." In the spring a $400,000 lift will link top and bottom. Other lifts and trails will interconnect the entire mountain area and, in seasons to come, skiers will be riding up to newly opened sections that fan out from all sides of the meadow floor.