The last installment in the true-life saga of Alexander Cochrane Cushing took our hero through the 1960 Winter Olympics. Everybody remembers it as splendid drama, written and perpetrated by Cushing himself. With only one double chair lift, a modest ski lodge and rooms for, oh, say, 100 guests in some converted Army barracks, he called on the International Olympic Committee meeting in Paris one day in 1955 and coolly asked it to bring the Games to his little Squaw Valley resort hidden up there among the noblest slopes of the Sierra Nevada. And what stunned the world at the time was that the IOC accepted.
Dramatically, the home folks in California rallied to the cause. The somewhat shaken financiers of San Francisco raised more than $13 million—with generous help from the state treasury—and before you could say "cérémonie olympique protocolaire" there was little old Squaw Valley looking like a Swiss postcard. There were flags, a fancy ice arena for skating and hockey, ski jumps, three more chair lifts to the excellent downhill and slalom runs, an Olympic Village, the works. There are those who still insist today that the Squaw Valley Olympics were the best run, gayest Winter Games to date—better than Grenoble, grander than Cortina or anyplace else. And as the curtain descended, Cushing was standing quietly in the wings plotting again.
A number of Cushing's old friends expected him to turn in his skis at that point. He had, after all, spent more than 10 years away from his old pals and youthful playgrounds in New York, Newport and Boston. The old friends are still waiting; Cushing is still in Squaw Valley, and he is concocting the biggest ski resort in the world.
Not that Cushing is any better suited for the role now than he was then. He still does not have the temperament and inclinations of your everyday boniface, greeting customers by their names and making them feel welcome. That sort of thing is not at one with his Bourbonesque style. Not only that, but Cushing has never forgotten some early advice from his friend Michael Romanoff, the distinguished restaurateur. "Cushing," Romanoff intoned in his imperial way, "avoid your customers at all costs. If they get used to your being around, they will ruin you."
And, carefully avoiding his customers, Cushing stuck it out at Squaw Valley. Building things. Installing new ski lifts; it seems like a new ski lift goes up every week at Squaw—there are now more than 26 of them in all shapes and colors. Then came last spring, when Cushing staged his happening, a sort of Squaw Valley Revisited.
From Palm Beach, Boston, San Francisco and Hollywood came this covey of fashionable people, the ladies wrapped in something like a $3,000 iridescent, four-color, reversible mink coat or an Emba Jasmine mink jacket with leopard trim or just plain old sable. By evening the guests were assembled, some 100 strong, in an enormous five-story concrete blockhouse. Drinking booze out of plastic cups, they shouted hello, kissed, jostled and talked over the metallic roar of a rock combo while a 40-mph blizzard hissed and groaned outside. Over the heads of all could be seen the quizzical face of the host, a wool hat covering his shaggy crop of reddish-blond hair and a 19th century mink coat (inherited from his grandfather) reaching some six feet from his shoulders to his ankles.
Cushing had assembled his friends to attend the christening of his latest super thing, something suitable to match his Squaw Valley dream—the most capacious aerial tramway in the world. Each of its giant gondolas, running alternately up and down the thick cables, can whisk 120 skiers at a time from the 6,200-foot level of Squaw Valley Lodge to the 8,120-foot level of the middle slopes—a distance of almost 1½ miles—in a matter of five minutes. That adds up to 1,400 skiers an hour, and nothing else on earth can move that many of them that far in such a short time.
One of Cushing's assets is a wry humor that makes it possible for him to laugh at the more frustrating aspects of his life, such as high finance. So it was not surprising that when it came time to smash some champagne across the prow of the first gondola, one found it had been christened The Connecticut General, not in honor of Nathan Hale but of the insurance company that had put up a big hunk of the money for the $3 million outfit. Fittingly, the bottle was swung by Mrs. Dorothy Earl Laughlin, a sparkling member of the Long Island-to-Santa Barbara set and also a pioneer investor in Squaw Valley. Ann Miller, the willowy dancer of 10,000 M-G-M musicals, who served as the original Miss Squaw Valley at that first weekend in 1949, named the other car A. P. Giannini. That is a local joke. Whenever Cushing has needed serious money for one of his major projects he has always found it at the late Mr. Giannini's well-known Bank of America.
The blockhouse, where everyone was drinking, is another Cushing touch. At first glance it would appear that Cushing had brought back one of Hitler's Festung Europa fortifications. Wrong. The blockhouse, rising 82 feet above the road at the entrance to Squaw Valley Lodge, doubles as the lower terminus of the new tramway. It was designed by Boston Architect Joseph Richardson, Harvard '35, a schoolmate of Cushing's, and it is a fat, functional creation. Despite its 16-inch-thick walls and blocklike appendages, everything in the building flows—from the machinery in the basement that drives the tramway, up through the automated main floor where the riders are processed and sent by elevator to the loading platform, and on up to the portals where the gondolas leave and enter, barely clearing the roof of one wing of the lodge.
The new tramway is the latest item in Alec Cushing's long-term grand design for Squaw Valley. At first, during the years that followed the excitement of the Olympics, Cushing had often felt like a trapped man. Most of the major Olympic facilities—notably the Blyth Arena for ice skating, the 300-room Olympic Village and the new Red Dog chair lift—had been built by the Olympic organizing committee on land that did not belong to Cushing. Their ownership reverted to the state of California, and there was always the immediate threat that the state might lease them to a rival operator. "For 18 months, five days a week, I spent all my time going from one state agency to another in Sacramento—and talking to lawyers. I was just about ready to shoot myself," Cushing says now. "If I could've, I would have left and done something else, but I had to stay and straighten things out. I owed it to my stockholders."