July 04, 2020
GSTAAD—A friend of mine who lives here wants to start a literary festival and asked me if I had some advice for him. He’s a nice fellow and very friendly with my daughter, but he’s also the type that, had he been on board, would have thought the Titanic had stopped engines in order to take on some ice. In other words, he’s a naive man who believes in literature and writers and doesn’t realize that both commodities are unknown and probably deemed dangerous up here among the glitterati.
Perhaps I exaggerate, but I have yet to see anyone reading among the new arrivals: pushy, hungry bankers from Geneva, newly minted Brits who can’t pronounce the letter h, vulgar, short, and stubby types from the Gulf, and woman-abusing Saudis. Nor is my friend’s idea as original as it sounds. Yours truly had the same one twenty years ago—it was called the Gstaad Symposium—and it hit pay dirt right off the bat, as they say in the now lawless and burning US of A. My first three guests were Alistair Horne, Lady Thatcher, and Andrew Roberts, not a bad bunch for starters. All three packed them to the rafters, then a childhood friend—an ex–beer magnate and at the time my fund manager—Charles Fix (recently departed) had a very bad idea: invite speakers who lectured on money matters. “People are far more interested in making money than in dead men who made history,” said Fix. I was partly distracted back then—woman troubles—and allowed him to run it, and after a while came Madoff and that was that.
My problem is that I get easily bored, and running the symposium took up a lot of my time. Incidentally, one of the men involved in the Madoff scandal is now behind a new club being built up the Eggli mountain, called by local wits a club for losers, a play on words because it’s called the Luge Club. It is rumored that some have paid up to 400,000 Swiss francs for membership, others only a couple of hundred thousand. The members, I am told, are not exactly St. James’ rolls, but apparently the community is delighted because the club has paid for a new ski lift and a toboggan (luge) run.
But let’s get back to books and writers. The man behind the move is Thomas Gommes, and he hopes to hold the first symposium next June. My advice to him is to start small, as he will be financing it himself. About 25 people will be billeted in the Posthotel, a place Papa Hemingway spent time in and wrote about. Actually I would really like it to work because this town could use more brains and less new money, but I am not so sure I’ll be around next June. If alive I’ll be in London partying, otherwise I will be on a boat and cruising around the Greek isles. I will never isolate again no matter how good it has been for my health. As they say in the land of pasta, basta!
Once upon a time, rejecting the notion of the rat race and retreating to a small community was the “in” thing to do. The sort of utopianism that Gstaad represented was real. We all knew each other, and showing off one’s money was a no-no, with people driving tiny Volkswagens and living in chalets that were cozy and comfortable. Now without a mega-chalet and an indoor mega-pool and cinema you are nobody, a nonperson, a poor sap that Bernie Ecclestone’s ex-son-in-law James Blunt wouldn’t borrow from. People are now more likely to be judged by their possessions than their backgrounds or manners, which means the barbarians have breached the gates and are calling the shots. (Mind you, two very good friends of mine have mega-chalets and I’ve spent lotsa time in them, but one does make exceptions for oneself, n’est-ce pas?)
Did the old guard surrender without firing a shot? Yes and no. It died away. American, Belgian, British, Greek, Italian, and Spanish upper classes were the main denizens of the village, and the Swiss locals delighted to share their lives and offer their services to us. Slowly but surely the place became known and celebrities began to drop in. Whereas the three famous inhabitants—David Niven, Roger Moore, and Julie Andrews—kept a very low profile, when Liz Taylor and Larry the lorry driver descended upon us, along with her horrible children by Michael Wilding, it was the beginning of you-know-what. Even the ghastly Madonna arrived with her entourage. A Canadian slob billionaire who used to sell clothes had bodyguards patrolling his street, forbidding cows and sheep to cross on his side. Almost.
Anti-intellectualism, anti-spiritualism, and philistinism are now the order of the day. The simple sporting life we all came here to find so long ago is given short shrift. The apotheosis of this consciousness is, of course, money. Needless to say it’s not all bad. There are still young people who do not spend all their time in the town bars but take forced hikes across glaciers, trek through miles of deep snow, and bike up mountains in the summer, people like my son and some of his friends. Mind you, it’s a losing battle, the sports people versus the glitzy types. But it sure was fun while it lasted, fifty years ago.