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It Happened to Sun Valley

75 years ago, a wealthy East Coast businessman and an upstart publicist from Indiana had a dream: to create and promote the most luxurious winter sports resort America, and the world, had ever known.
Van Gordon Sauter and Jennifer Tuohy reveal how they did it.

It's the Most Iconic Photo in the History of American Skiing. It depicts a smiling young man, handsome and trim, standing tall in his 1930s snow pants atop boots and skis, his poles elegantly draped as he pauses from his obvious exertions to wipe the hard-earned sweat from his brow. But the focal center of the photo is the skin -the man is bare-chested. Shirtless. Apparently perfectly comfortable- in the snow!

Obviously, he is not suffering in one of those glaciated Northeastern states, where panicky skiers hurtle down steep ice sheets, generally out of control, toward frigid snow huts with clunky transport into priggish Calvinist hamlets with all the amenities of an Inuit village in the Northwest Territory.

Instead, the image conjures up a sophisticated, handsome man in a place of beauty, surrounded by snow, yet warm enough to savor the midday sun.

Gracing the cover of the first Sun Valley Lodge brochure in 1936, and the posters that promoted nationwide what was to become the ultimate American destination ski resort, this shirtless skier quickly became the face of Sun Valley.

In fact, the young man and his sweat-drenched torso never set foot in the snow. The iconic image was shot in a New York studio, the sweat courtesy of a tub of Vaseline. It was the self-professed masterpiece of publicist Steven Hannagan, who had achieved fame by staging the pictures, stunts and stories that transformed the reputation of a once irrelevant, insect-infested island off Miami, Florida, into the incandescent Miami Beach. His successful promotion of that gaudy, expensive playground for thousands of sun lovers and sybarites who spent most of the year in sooty Northern cities shoveling leaden snow and sliding off slick roadways into filthy snow banks, gave Hannagan the building blocks to create Sun Valley.

Averell Harriman, the wealthy, magisterial chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad, knew Hannagan's skills were critical to the success of the ski resort he was plunking down in the seriously cold outback of Idaho.

Idaho and Hannagan-like Harriman and Hannagan-were an implausible couple. Hannagan abhorred the cold, detested snow ("I don't think he skied at all," recalled Harriman), and considered isolated Ketchum a wearisome and bleak outpost at that point where the maps go blank and adjacent space was populated by voracious, fire-snorting dragons.

Harriman was the ultimate patrician, a scion of wealth and privilege, an industrialist and financier who would go on to the highest councils of American leadership and two of the nation's most important ambassadorships (England and Russia).

Hannagan was a no-name native of Indiana, a man with an instinctive and income-generating sense of what engaged and motivated the public. With smarts, an engaging personality and a strong dash of chutzpah, he became a living legend of public relations. A born flack.

And it worked. Before 1936 there was no Sun Valley, only the obscure and isolated former mining towns of Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue. Hannagan immediately realized the resort needed its own name. As he stood in the "godforsaken fields of snow" he was tasked to publicize, he found himself breaking a sweat in spite of his flimsy three-piece tweed suit. Removing first his jacket, then his vest (his shoes still filled with snow), inspiration hit. The image of the stripped-to-the-waist skier danced into his mind and immediately (he claims) he knew the resort would be called Sun Valley and he would sell it to the world as "Winter sports under a summer sun."

Hannagan quickly impressed upon Harriman that his resort had to rise above the perception of being just another ski mountain like those in New Hampshire or Vermont or Massachusetts. It had to have European cachet, smart people, vivacious celebrities and an elegant ease that would motivate people to travel by train across the country in mid winter to an isolated town where flat land vanished and all roads went uphill.

Harriman created his resort to boost passenger traffic on his rail line, which passed east-to-west through Shoshone, connecting north to the Wood River Valley by a branch line originally established to haul ore from the mines. And after the mines went bust, the spur hauled to market the tens of thousands of sheep fattened in mountain pastures. Passengers on the branch line had accommodations only slightly more gracious than those experienced by the sheep. The cars were ramshackle, and during the winter travelers were lucky to be in a car with a wood stove.

Hannagan felt that anything less than first class was no class and set out to upgrade everything, from the transport to the access for the ski mountain, from the quality of the food to the modishness of the Duchin Room repartee.

To detail this, Hannagan sat down on March 28, 1936, two days after first laying eyes on Idaho's mountains, and wrote a remarkably visionary two-page memo to Harriman specifying the elements that could make Sun Valley a successful product for the railroad and a memorable experience for guests. Hannagan's suggestions were embraced by Harriman.

Among them were these concepts, which were transformed into reality and in most cases are with us today:

- "This is one city in which roughing it must be a luxury. It may seem to be isolated, rustic, continental. But it must have every modern convenience."

- "There should be an ice skating rink. There should be a glass walled but open ceiling hot water pool... Imagine swimming pictures and diving pictures with snowcapped mountains as background..."

- "People like to leave the hotel. Nearby there might be a billiard parlor. And a bowling alley. And certainly a motion picture show. Undoubtedly the town of Ketchum will perk up."

- "Mechanical devices must be installed to take people to the top of the mountain. This seems imperative."

- "Undoubtedly someplace nearby will serve unusual food. Perhaps the taxi to this location [which became Trail Creek] will be a sleigh."

- "It will be necessary to make it nationally known quickly... This needs to be done with unusual pictures showing the unusual climate of Idaho ... skiing in shirts skinned to the waist, bathing... in the open. If society people or celebrities are attractive enough and elastic enough to be models in these picture-well, good."

As a biographer of Harriman noted, "Hannagan's gusher of suggestions became the blueprint" for Sun Valley. Indeed, the Union Pacific's engineering department in Omaha transformed American skiing forever by responding to Hannagan's insistence for a device to"lift" skiers to the top of the runs. Their inspiration: the hoist used to load stalks of bananas aboard fruit boats. Only for Sun Valley they imagined suspended chairs that would transport skiers, instead of bananas, along a moving cable. And transport them as gently as ripe fruit from Central America.

Perhaps most important, Hannagan moved Harriman away from the concept of a quaint lodge (tentatively named something like The Ketchum Inn) of 100 rooms. He successfully argued for a million-dollar resort housing 250 guest rooms. He insisted that the facility, while looking traditional, must be invested with the conveniences and sophistication common to the best hotels.

A key ingredient for establishing the chic image was celebrities. And nifty women in bathing suits. And Olympic stars on the slopes. And the monied families of Cincinnati and Denver and Memphis and other second-tier cities across America. Those families would be invited to Sun Valley and photographed cavorting in the pool or on the mountain or bundled in fur on a romantic sleigh trip through the forest. Those photos would then appear in the local newspapers, inspiring every other Park Avenue housewife in town to advise her startled husband, "We're heading to Sun Valley."

"It is my opinion," concluded Hannagan's memo to Harriman,"Sun Valley can be made into an exclusive winter sports resort which will capture the interest of all America, and become the trademark of everything that is winter sports just as Florida has become synonymous with a summer vacation in winter."

With remarkable speed, and fundamentally inexhaustible funds (the final cost of the lodge alone reached $1.5 million), the lodge and related facilities were rushed to completion. It took mere months rather than years. The achievement is even more impressive considering the isolation of Ketchum and the staggering logistics of bringing virtually everything from carpets to ski poles to brandy snifters and fresh shrimp to the innards of Idaho.

All the planning and publicity and construction concluded with a star and celebrity who's who of an opening night dinner. It was said that Clark Gable's bags were carried into the lodge at the same moment the last workman exited the back door (incidentally, a laborer earned 43 cents an hour during construction; a skilled carpenter 75 cents an hour). Everything, everyone, was in place for the opening but one critical component: snow! A few inches had fallen but were quickly washed away by a warm rain. Opening day, December 21, 1936, revealed dry, dusty ski runs and acres of banal sage brush. The initially baffled, then increasingly annoyed guests, began calling the winter resort the Ketchum Con. Harriman promptly declared that guests stayed free (rooms were priced from $8 to $24) and ate free until the first credible snow. Hannagan immediately imported more studio starlets from Hollywood.

Sun Valley got a major publicity boost at the gala opening dinner. The whole crew for the Paramount film, I Met Him In Paris, starring Claudette Colbert and Melvyn Douglas, was on site to shoot some scenes representing Switzerland (the design for the original Challenger Inn, now the Sun Valley Inn, was based on the film's exterior design for the facade of a Swiss Inn).

Colbert, a significant star, was at a table with her husband and famed producer David O. Selznick. At some point a Chicago banker (best known for commissioning a Frank Lloyd Wright house just outside Lake Forest) approached Ms. Colbert for a dance. Something went amiss. And then the assemblage of the rich and famous witnessed a scene more common to Saturday night in a Butte, Montana, miner's bar: a fist fight.

Selznick took umbrage at whatever was said to the elegant Ms. Colbert. And the banker was promptly decked by a punch that produced spurts of blood. The crowd was horrified. Harriman, hearing of the event, was aghast. Hannagan, of course, was ecstatic. His hacks were flogged to the phones to call every paper in America: The grand opening of Sun Valley was a black tie, Idaho version of Dempsey-Tunney. The bloody brawl over a film star's honor was in columns everywhere. There is no evidence Hannagan staged the event.

He certainly didn't stage the reindeer debacle. Harriman and Hannagan decided to import reindeer and an Eskimo handler to add a North Pole ambiance to their scene. Reindeer eat moss, not available in Blaine County. The beasts rejected Idaho alfalfa and were literally starving. Union Pacific dispatched a carload of moss from the frozen north, which arrived just after the surly animals, facing death, reluctantly started downing alfalfa. That escalated their inherently abominable disposition. Nervous and ill-tempered, they would abruptly turn on the guests, and when pulling a sleigh could inexplicably initiate a suicidal stampede toward cliffs and creeks.

Finally, one night a reindeer-powered sleigh delivered St. Nick to the big festive tree in front of the lodge. As Santa descended from the sleigh and delivered his enthusiastic "Ho, ho, ho" for a throng of enraptured guests, a reindeer lowered its antlers and attacked. St. Nick went into full flight, bag and all, pursued by an enraged reindeer and a hapless Eskimo. The reindeer were banished from the Harriman-Hannagan playbook.

But they were an isolated misstep. Sun Valley, under Hannagan's skill and Harriman's management, thrived.

Hannagan went on from Sun Valley to create a major public relations agency with international ties. While he had some terminally pompous blue-chip clients, few things gave him more joy than bathing beauties (even those getting "ice tan"in Sun Valley) and great image campaigns, such as one to convince the American people that heavyweight champ Gene Tunney was a Shakespearean scholar.

He died in 1953 in Nairobi while on a project for Coca-Cola. It was a long way from the snow and success of Sun Valley and the surprisingly productive creative relationship with Averell Harriman. Yet nearly 75 years ago, they brought forth a great American enterprise based on a bare-chested male model, celebrities, engineering innovations, a great ski mountain, a hurricane of home-town photos, a keen sense of class, and, of course, a dab of sweat. Whatever it all was, the 1936 Hannagan memo laid it out. It was the Rosetta Stone. Sun Valley Resort emerged and the Wood River Valley came alive.

Today, Harriman is only vaguely recalled. Hannagan is all but forgotten. The next time you're on the gondola, looking down at one of the most beautiful and comfortable valleys in America, give them a little nod of appreciation.

It's because of them that we are all here.

Click Here for Michael Ames'
Irrationally Devoted to Baldy

Brochure courtesy The Community Library, REGIONAL HISTORY DEPARTMENT, Ketchum, ID

Sun Valley Lodge's first brochure (top), displayed the fine figure of a sweat-drenched skier promoting the unique combination of winter sports under a summer sun. The hugely successful campaign was devised by Steve Hannagan (below in 1951 on Baldy lift #2) who hated the cold, never skied and was a master of manipulative imagery.
Photo courtesy Sun Valley Resort Archives




Gary Cooper & Claudette Colbert in Sun Valley in the 1940s.

Sun Valley Opens with a Bang
...and a Manhattan

The Sun Valley Lodge opening-night banquet took place not only during the Depression but in a rural state where many residents-a significant number of whom gathered their food from the fields and mountains and streams-would have been befuddled by the ostentatious Gallic menu. It included: Beef tea des Viveurs, Paillettes Dorees, Ananas Surprise Union Pacifique and Frivolites Americaines.

Those options certainly would have stumped the “gee whiz? guests from Pocatello (there were 20 in attendance), but also the Hollywood moguls, who numbered 23, and the lay-about trust-funders with their elegant women. Almost everyone, however, would have been familiar with the before-dinner cocktail: The Manhattan.

When a Chicago investment banker was decked by a punch from future Gone With the Wind-producer David O. Selznick, the resort management immediately presumed the grand opening to be a calamity, a dignified soiree reduced to a pathetic barroom brawl by some vulgarians with rented tuxes. Hardly.

The editor of the Hailey Times, the county weekly, never even mentioned the fight. His bubbly account reminded the Blaine County provincials that "seven months ago a small valley lay basking in the sun in peace and quietude ... nameless ... with very little of manmade things to mar its tranquillity. Monday evening, December 21, the whole world heard music, speaking and sounds of revelry, broadcast from a mammoth hotel that now stands majestically in the heart of what is now known to the world as Sun Valley."?

Obviously, the world did not hear the bloodied Chicago investment banker crashing to the floor and women shrieking with horror. Someone called Steve Hannagan with the story of anguish from the presumably besmirched dinner. "What do you mean your party's ruined?"? Hannagan shouted. "Not an editor in the country can resist this story."? Then Hannagan sat down and wrote what became the memorable party headline for the ages: "Sun Valley Opens With a Bang."?

The Hailey Times editor not only missed the story, he made another step into provincial backwater geography. He declared that the hotel was opened by a formal dinner attended by a goodly representation of Idaho people and guests from the "Far East."? The Idaho sense of geography did not imply that the Sun Valley diners were fed rice or the women wore kimonos. To a lot of Idaho residents of the day, Omaha, the center of the Union Pacific Railroad, was decidedly East. And anything east of Omaha, including Chicago and New York, were Far East.

Life Magazine, certainly emanating from the Far, Far East, noted that the lodge opened "with as fancy a crew of rich socialites as have ever been assembled under one roof in the U.S"? They got that right. Harriman and Hannagan had thrown an epic party for their resort. And with the exception of a Chicago banker, it was a joy for all.


Hannagan’s idea to have “mechanical devices... to take people to the top,? takes shape at Union Pacific headquarters in Omaha.



Importing the success of Hannagan’s Miami Beach bathing beauties campaign to a wintery Idaho proved a highly successful, if surprising, ploy.


The ill-tempered and hungry reindeer, which Hannagan and Harriman brought in to add North Pole ambiance, grazing out Trail Creek.



Ski school head Sigi Engl takes Gary Cooper and Clark Gable down Dollar Mountain. Celebrities were key to the publicity plan, and they were game, particularly once Hannagan told them if they posed for pictures, they could write off the trip on their taxes.