March 11, 2007

David Niven and I used to play a word game back in the Sixties. He was a new arrival in Gstaad—actually his chalet was at nearby Chateau d’Oex—whom I’d introduced to cross country skiing, and that wonderfully charming man had fallen head over heels in love with the region. So every day we’d meet for lunch at the Eagle club, or in some gemütlich peasant restaurant after some hard skiing, and we would try and find the corniest words to describe our favourite place. “Mecca of the rich” was one of mine, as was “an alpine jewel” and “the igloo even a non-Eskimo can love.”

Back then even those corny descriptions were almost true. Gstaad and its environs were true jewels, unknown to the nouveaux riche and vulgar, reserved only for those of discerning tastes and traditions.  The south of France, where David and his wife Yordis had a beautiful house, was getting crowded and overbuilt and full of the wrong people. As was St Moritz and the French Alpine stations like Megeve and Valdisere. Gstaad was a family place first written about by Ernest Hemingway himself, when he spent a winter there in the early Twenties writing A Farewell to Arms.

Although the Palace hotel—the pre-eminent inn of the Bernese Oberland and an edifice that looks as if the mad king Ludwig of Bavaria had designed it—was built around 1906, Gstaad did not become prominent among those in the know until Le Rosey school decided to move its winter campus to Gstaad somewhere around the very early thirties. Le Rosey was known as the school of kings, as the Shah of Iran, Rainier of Monaco, the Duke of Kent, Alexander of Yugoslavia,  Prince Victor Emanuel of Savoy and King Fouad Farouk of Egypt had all matriculated there, along with a smattering of Hohenlohes, Metternichs, Borgheses, Radziwills and even a Winston Churchill, grandson of the British wartime prime minister.

Needless to say, as the dynasties crumbled after World War II, royalty and aristocracy at Rosey were replaced by sons and daughters of Bahama-based bankers, Middle Eastern entrepreneurs, Greek shipowners and African civil servants. Now there are mostly children of Russian kleptocrats—or to be more polite, “oligarchs.” As Le Rosey’s fortunes went, so did Gstaad’s. Just as the school’s student body deteriorated, so did Gstaad’s.  I first decamped here in 1956, and have been coming back ever since. The thing that strikes one upon arrival is the utter beauty of the place. This is due to strict zoning laws which forbid high risers; all buildings, houses, offices even hospitals strictly adhere to the Siebenthaler (chalet-style) architecture. The architectural integrity of Gstaad is what has preserved the charming remnants of a bygone era like nowhere else. 

Back in the Fifties, Gstaad was a tiny alpine village without supermarkets nor boutiques. There were a few chairlifts and sledge trains—funicular railways—which crept up its gentle slopes. All in all there were about 2,000 beds, a few inns, three or four picturesque restaurants which served good but simple food, and the Palace hotel. The town was pure heaven. There were very few private chalets, the rest belonging to the local population. Most of my friends lived at the Palace and life at the Palace resembled one long private house party. Or, better yet, life on board a luxury liner.  Everyone had an assigned table at the hall, and everyone mixed nightly at the bar. In 1957 the Eagle club was built for about 85 founder members, and after that the Eagle became the hub of all the action during daytime.

Inevitably, of course, the worst kept secret of Switzerland got out, and sometime during the seventies, people began to arrive in droves. The rich bought plots of land and built chalets which dwarfed those of the locals. Mind you, they had to stick to the style of the region, but only from the outside. The interiors became more and more posh, with swimming pools, bowling alleys, private gyms and underground garages for ten cars being the norm. Worse was the disappearance of the town stores which once lined main street. The local vegetable shop, the ski shop, the bakery, all were replaced by luxury item boutiques starting with jewelry and other items the very newly rich cannot do without. The local bookstore, run by an eccentric Englishman, was the first to go. Rich people may know how to count up to ten billion, but they’re mostly illiterate.

Losing a bookstore is almost like losing a very old friend. Sometime during the Seventies I had my book on Greek history proudly displayed in the window, flanked by a best seller David Niven had written, a book on American politics by William Buckley, one on economics by Kenneth Galbraith, a memoir by the great Yehudi Menuhin, and a history of the Algerian war by Alistair Horne. All of us, needless to say, were old Gstaad hands, and all lived in Gstaad during the winters. The bookstore gave a party for us and we all met outside in the snow, had a flumli or two, or three, and went on with our merry lives. It was unique.

Which brings me as to why I chose to live in Gstaad and continue to do so. The reason is the people. When I first arrived, the place was full of young Greek friends of mine who did absolutely nothing in life but chase women and the good life, some Americans who had discovered the place during the war while serving in the OSS in Geneva, young Italian noblemen and women who preferred the Swiss to the envious and Communist-inclined Italians back home, plus—and a very important plus it was—an art colony of sorts comprised of writers like those mentioned above, the violinist Nathan Millstein, the flutist Helen Shaeffer, the essayist Natasha Stewart, the painter Balthus and so on. There was also Roger Moore, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Julie Andrews and other lesser known Hollywood stars, plus Curt Jurgens, the wonderfully cynical German actor who lived in a beautiful chalet in Gruben, one mile outside of Gstaad, and who would get uproariously drunk and amuse the locals with film stories.

We lived a simple life back then, as funny as it may sound. We got up early to ski, met at the Eagle club for lunch, skied some more and then went to the Palace where we played cards. At night we either went to a small local restaurant or had a more formal dinner at the Palace. That was it. There were no nightclubs and no drugs. We were young and could hold our liquor and start early the next day. But that was then, and this is now. The one thing that has remained constant is the lack of people on the slopes. There are times even today that I ski a slope and see perhaps ten people at the most. This is unique anywhere in Europe.

Gstaad has been built up to an unacceptable size in order to accommodate the people who want to come and live here. Everyone, even those who don’t know the difference between Rimbaud and Rambo, wants a good quality of life, and Gstaad offers it to them. But for how long? This Christmas it took me twenty minutes by car to go somewhere which I could walk to in ten. The gemütlich old town was full of Russian hookers and people from Eastern Europe. In order to keep the vulgarians satisfied, even a brothel opened about five years ago, in the guise of a late night bar. There is also a mini gambling casino. In other words, we have gone the way of Las Vegas, with customers who can match those fat Americans in Vegas as far as crudeness is concerned.

When the jet-set started coming in the mid-Seventies, the Flick brothers, Roman Polanski, Sheik Yamani, even the queen of the night, Regine, I thought it quaint and lots of fun. When the Palace opened the GreenGo, a terrific nightclub in its basement, which drew the kind of people who only Apre skied rather than do the real thing, the writing was on the wall, so to speak. I now live in fear of the new Russian invasion, which for the moment has taken place in Courchevel. If the mega-rich Russkies decide to come, it will mean the end of the kind of life I and many of my old friends have been used to these last fifty years.

It will be a pity, but this is now called progress, and who am I to tell the locals to refuse to sell their land to the new interlopers? After all, we took full advantage of the local hospitality, so what goes around comes around. The only good thing about being old is that I will not be around to see it. In the meantime, this is still a damn good place to live and have fun in, for however long it might last.


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