A Conversation with Peter Duchin
By Van Gordon Sauter
"People say the resort has changed. Of course it has. Everything has changed. Sun Valley still is wonderful."
The Duchin Room is an iconic element of the Sun Valley experience, a name inextricably linked to Sun Valley and its founding. Contrary to popular belief, however, it was not named for Eddy Duchin, premiere band leader of the 1930s and '40s. In fact, he never performed there. Instead, it was named for his wife, Marjorie.
Marjorie Oelrichs Duchin was the best friend of Marie Harriman, whose husband, Averell, founded Sun Valley Resort. Hired as Sun Valley Lodge's interior designer, Marjorie's intimate involvement in the birth of Averell's grand, destination ski resort prompted him to honor her with the eponymous room.
However, in 1937, mere months after the lodge opened, tragedy struck the Duchin family. Marjorie died five days after giving birth to their son, Peter. The Harrimans, godparents to the child, became his surrogate parents, and the subsequent relationship between Peter and the Harrimans was lasting and of great importance to all involved.
Peter, a successful musician in his own right, is one of very few people remaining with such close links to the Harrimans and Sun Valley's early days. He lived a remarkable life in the Harriman orbit, and now resides in New York and Connecticut. He still plays piano and leads his band at social occasions across the country. Gracious and unpretentious, he is a delightful raconteur and a superb fly-fisherman.
Peter, do you recall your first visit to Sun Valley?
Sure. I was about 4 or 5. I remember getting off the train and being picked up by a horse-drawn sleigh. With lots of blankets, fur blankets. It was warm and cozy and I guess I was a bit too young to find it sexy. The resort was then like an alpine village. And no matter where you looked you could not see a hedge fund manager.
Good memories of your times at Sun Valley?
I learned how to ski there. Went shooting and fishing with Joe Burgy (an early Sun Valley sports director) and Beartracks Taylor (an accomplished valley tracker). I now get out there to fish almost every year. I have a daughter living in Bozeman (Montana), so I drive over to visit friends. And Silver Creek has always been a great favorite.
At one point you actually worked in Sun Valley.
For two summers during high school I worked on the trail crew-told everyone I was in college. The place had 300 women employees and 200 male employees. How about those odds? In those days none of the big houses had been built. The whole place was very informal. No casual loafers or cocktail dresses.
Was Averell Harriman involved in the management of the resort?
Not much. It was there to benefit the railroad. He simply enjoyed being there and seeing people having a good time. And of course he was an accomplished skier.
Did you know Ernest Hemingway?
In my imagination he was almost as big as DiMaggio. He was a round, bearded man with a gruff manner. We fished and shot dove together with Burgy and Beartracks. He liked being with an awestruck kid to whom he could tell stories about the Spanish Revolution and deep-sea fishing off Cuba.
Most people presume the Duchin Room is named after your father. But that’s wrong?
Totally. My mother, Marjorie, was the best friend of Marie Harriman, Ave's wife, and a great friend of his, too. She was somewhat of a decorator. Ave asked them if they would like to come out and give some decorating suggestions. They of course thought the idea of being around all those young Austrian ski instructors was terrific. But it was my mother who came up with the idea of using molds to create cement logs for the lodge structure, rather than wooden logs. Cement doesn't rot. Averell liked the idea and was so appreciative he named the room after my mother. Of course, my father was furious. He thought it should be named after him. The resort was incredibly classy. It had all sorts of wonderful ingredients.
What do you think of Sun Valley today?
People say the resort has changed. Of course it has. Everything has changed. Sun Valley still is wonderful. The Holdings have done a superb job. I absolutely love being there. You can't be a stick-in-the-mud. Great people still go there.
Do you ever hear a song and suddenly think of Sun Valley?
Obviously, anything from Sun Valley Serenade does that. And around Christmas, if I'm playing a song of some kind that mentions winter, Sun Valley suddenly comes to my mind in a wonderful way.
You are still deeply involved with music, quite busy with your band.
Well, I've got to make a living. But my life is a lot more private now. And life is just different. I'm sitting in New York, and there is not one place here which plays live music you can dance to. Nightspots where you can have dinner and dance are gone. There's not much out there except the discotheques. When I was playing in the '60s at the Maisonette in the St. Regis, there were at least 20 other places where you could have dinner and dancing.
Born into a different time, Peter is clearly wistful for days gone by, as he notes in his strikingly frank and engaging memoir, Ghost of a Chance. One particularly choice morsel from the book has a charming connection to Sun Valley.
Peter recounts how he took off his junior year at Yale to study music in Paris, living on a barge on the Seine. He wanted to stay longer and resisted Averell's suggestions to return home, as expected, for his senior year in New Haven. Averell's resolution to the situation is a credit to their closeness and a testament to the Harriman get-it-done attitude that formed the foundation blocks of Sun Valley.
"The end came one day in the first week of June, at about 11 in the morning," Peter writes."I'd been up most of the night with a beautiful young woman who was now lying next to me. Both of us were naked and asleep when a rap on the hatch jolted me awake. I jumped out of bed and slid back the cover.
"The first thing I saw was a pair of black wing-tip shoes; the next thing, a pair of pin-striped, blue trouser legs. Finally, the face of Ave in his gray fedora, squinting down at me in my nakedness.
"How are you doing, Petey?" he asked.
"Ave!" I said, grabbing a towel."What are you doing here?"
"I'm here for some meetings. Thought I'd stop by to see when you're planning to go back to Yale."
"For a moment, I blinked. Then Ave reached into his pocket and said, 'I've got a prepaid plane ticket for you, right here.'"