February 26, 2007

St Moritz—The lack of snow drove me to the Engadine valley and the queen of ski resorts, St Moritz. Mind you, the queen is no longer what she once was. In the beginning of the last century, St Moritz was the indisputable numero uno winter spot.   European aristocracy flocked there for amusement and sport. Downhill skiing had not as yet been invented, but there was curling, toboganning, and following the latter,  the bob and cresta runs which saw brave young blades risking their necks after a night spent dancing and pursuing the fairer sex.

In between the wars St Moritz reached its zenith. And even after the second world war, St Moritz managed to draw the best of what was left of the old aristocracy, combined with the smoothest of the newly rich. No longer. The Russkies have arrived with their bodyguards en masse, and no resort or watering hole can withstand such a battering. The physical side first. Every brand name you have ever heard of now has a boutique in the main streets, and ubiquitous tarts prowl the place the way once upon a time German U-boats prowled the Atlantic. Needless to say, the great hotels and nightspots are now Stalingranised, with goons, their shaven heads glaring under the spotlights, setting the tone.  But there is also good news. The old guard, as tradition demands, never surrenders. Adversity, after all, requires ingenuity, and there are three places left which have turned into enclaves for those who believe in manners over money. These three private clubs keep out the rabble and make it possible to rub shoulders with one’s own types.

Mind you, the only thing I rubbed shoulders with was the snow.  I fell head first in the third gate of a Corviglia club giant slalom, making a fool of myself to the great amusement of Tim Hoare, who amidst loud guffaws described me as a Messerschmitt shot down by a Spitfire plunging nose down in the English channel. Some Messerschmitt. I was going slower than a Soviet-era Skoda. Two days later, back in Gstaad, I was given the privilege of being the first runner for the Eagle club’s gold cup and fiftieth anniversary. I wore my lederhosen but was advised the last minute by Prince Nikolaos of Greece to refrain from wearing a vintage WW II helmet. (Actually I followed a friend’s sound advice not out of good taste, but fear. If one tumbles at speed the steel could cut one’s throat.)

I took off like a speeding bullet and thundered down through the gates,  my mind already busy with the speech I was going to give as I received the gold cup. Somewhere towards the end I decided to cut down on the speed as victory was assured. Alas there was something wrong with my calculations. The only people I had beaten were couple of old timers who died natural deaths during the race, three or four girls who had taken up skiing that morning, and a fat Greek gentleman who stopped halfway to eat a souvlaki kebab. Such are the pleasures of old age. The mind is willing but the old body says nyet.

I did make it up that night, at the Eagle’s 50th anniversary ball. The president of the club, Urs Hodler, had kindly asked me to do the commentary of a slide show called The Way We Were.  I was in my cups, was standing on a large stage in front of 550 people, had the mike in my hand, but for once I did not make a total fool of myself. My friend John Sutin had prepared me with good one-liners, and Jeffrey Moore had told me to keep my cheap jokes for the end. It worked. No one was offended but not for lack of trying. The English, of course, laughed the loudest at my joke: When an Italian finishes making love he looks at the mirror, flexes his muscles and tells himself, Magnifico!  When a Frenchman is through, he tells the lady that she may have captured his body but not his soul. When an Englishman finally manages it he asks, “Was it good for you too, George?”

I must say it was a very good week. In St Moritz I went to a dinner for Tassilo Bismarck’s 18th birthday given by his parents at the Dracula club, one of the enclaves among the three left, and the night before, at princess Chantal Hanover’s flat,  Tim Hoare, Nick Scott, Leopold Bismarck and I voted in three more members to the world’s most exclusive private club, Pug’s. We are now seven, the three new ones being prince Heinrich von Furstenberg, Arki Busson and Prince Pavlos of Greece. Pug’s clubhouse is located on my boat Bushido, and in a moment of drunken folly I pledged to leave the boat to Pug’s. After my demise, that is. The motion was carried unanimously, Arki Busson already trying to figure out how much the boat would sell for and where to place the assets for maximum return.

As I said, it was a wonderful week, although I was a bit sad to realise fifty years have gone by since I set foot inside the Eagle as a twenty-year old, bowed deeply to Lord Warwick, the then president, and was made a life member immediately because of my obsequiousness.  A Russian oligarch would have head-butted him and then try and buy the place.

Spectator, Feb. 24.


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