On major holidays, a private plane lands or takes off at the Aspen airport every six minutes. The average Aspen house costs $2.7 million. Just what has made this Colorado mountain town so irresistible to Kevin Costner, Robert McNamara, Jack Nicholson, Goldie Hawn, Michael Eisner, and Prince Bandar, to name just a few of its A-list homeowners, as well as a cultural mecca for artists and intellectuals? Talking with everyone from anti-growth activist Hunter Thompson to go-go entrepreneur Harley Baldwin, Mark Seal surveys the legends of Aspen’s past, the eye-popping wealth of its present, and the battle for its future.
BY MARK SEAL
‘This is the place I dreamed about when I was little,” says Kevin Costner, sitting down to chili dogs and a glass of milk in his log house on a huge piece of land right outside Aspen, Colorado. Just in from Los Angeles on his G III, he is wearing jeans and a cowboy hat. Costner’s house, made of weathered wood, is crackle-painted and faux-finished. It’s golden autumn outside, and with Costner’s girlfriend, model Christine Baumgartner, and his four matching white Labs in the picture, the place, which overlooks a lake, is a Ralph Lauren ad sprung to life.
“I grew up in Compton, California,” Costner says. “When we went on vacation, we never stayed in motels. We couldn’t afford them. My earliest experiences were with canvas tents and a Coleman stove, and I found something in that that spoke to me.” With the success of his 1990 Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves, he began searching for the place of his childhood dreams. “I looked in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana,” he remembers, “and I found places that were so beautiful, but they were always isolated. Interestingly enough, I had been coming here for six years and didn’t even know that this really existed.”
All his time in Aspen had been spent in the Warner House, where Warner Bros. sends its stars and executives for R&R. “I loved the town, but I didn’t find a place where I could go fish and not be disturbed,” says Costner. Then one day he escaped the mansion and took a drive. “I was going to go to the Continental Divide, to see where the rivers run to the Mississippi.” When the two-lane road opened into a pass, he saw a perfect little valley spreading out between walls of mountains. “I looked down and saw that lake, and that was it,” he says.
Costner had experienced the same jaw-dropping sense of wonder shared by everyone from Aspen’s first residents, the Ute Indians, to the silver miners of the 1880s, to the hordes of hippies and celebrities of the 1970s and 80s, to the current crop of billionaires. The land Costner saw was the old Tagert Lakes Ranch, once a potato farm and a Pony Express changing station, with a mile and a half of Roaring Fork River frontage. Costner launched what would eventually be 12 years of negotiations with the owner, director-writer-producer Lee Lacy, who had been Costner’s boss when he first went to L.A. to work as a stage manager. Lacy sold Costner 35 acres and, two weeks before my visit, the rest of the ranch, a total of 165 acres. “I want my ashes scattered here,” Costner says.
Five miles down the highway from Costner’s house sits the town of Aspen. “It’s not what everybody thinks, just a glitzy town—it’s much more than that,” says former secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara, a veteran of 55 ski seasons here. What Aspen has become—and what it should be—is a matter of intense debate. But every Aspenite agrees on one thing: there’s no better place.
“I go to sleep at night in New York with my window open and I can hear buses, cars, boom boxes, alarms,” says 60 Minutes co-host Ed Bradley. “I go to sleep in Woody Creek with my window open and all I hear is the river.”
“It’s so beautiful, compared to Los Angeles with all the rushing around and the nastiness,” says Melanie Griffith. It took her seven years to get her husband, Antonio Banderas, to Aspen, but once she did, for Christmas 2001, he fell so hard for the skiing that they bought two houses and a cabin on the back of Aspen Mountain, where, in deep snow, the only way into town is via snowmobile.
“There’s something ethereal about Aspen, sort of a magnetic energy,” says Jill St. John, who came here in 1959, when she was married to Lance Reventlow, the son of Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth heiress, and who now shares a magnificent house on a large tract of land with her current husband, Robert Wagner. “In the last 50 years so many people have come here who are involved in music, art, literature, government, and culture. We have our own ballet, our own opera, and a world-class symphony.” She looks over at Wagner, who first came here in 1949, and then out at the wall-to-wall view of Hayden Peak and the area’s four ski mountains. “We open the sliding screen doors to our bedroom when there’s bad weather coming, and we lie on the bed and hold hands and watch the rain come in,” she says. “And we say how lucky we are to be here.” Robert Wagner adds wryly, “We had to put on a lot of makeup to pay for this motherfucker.”
‘What would you do if the engine stopped now?” flight instructor J. P. Hutter asks Domenico De Sole, who is at the controls of the small plane in which we are skimming the tops of 10,000-foot peaks on a summer flight into Aspen. A part-time resident for a decade, De Sole, the president, C.E.O., and chairman of Gucci Group N.V. and a student pilot, wearing shorts, deck shoes, and a T-shirt, sits grinning beside Hutter. Every morning during the summer, he leaves his wife and two daughters at their modern residence in Snowmass, where Tom Ford is a regular visitor, to fly.
“Look for a place to land,” De Sole responds to Hutter’s question, banking the plane sharply, following the Roaring Fork Valley toward town. From this altitude, Aspen looks like a tiny dot nestled in 2.5 million acres of the White River National Forest. Now we’re over Aspen Mountain, once described by writer Spaulding Gray as “an 11,000-foot giant frozen tsunami about to crash down on the town.” We can see details of the village of 6,500 full-time residents—which swells to 30,000 in peak seasons—laid out in an orderly grid. Its four-lane Main Street is a reminder of the old settlers’ grand aspirations, when Aspen was the richest silver-mining town in the world.
De Sole parks the plane at Aspen’s private airport, called Aspen Base Operations. The summer season is in full swing, and the tarmac is wingtip to wingtip with G IIIs, G IVs, G Vs, Challengers, Hawkers, Citations, and everyday Lears. A private plane lands or takes off every six minutes on the airport’s 17 “monster days,” which include July 4, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. The jets disgorge a stream of leaders in film, sports, business, finance, and politics, all seeking to be humbled by something greater than themselves. They’re here to hike, bike, fly-fish, picnic, camp out, ski, and party, but Aspen’s most precious commodities are peace and privacy.
You see them and you don’t, the bigs who call Aspen their first, second, or third home: Don Johnson in blue jeans and sunglasses, pushing his baby in a buggy in town; Texas billionaire Sid Bass and his wife, Mercedes, strolling hand in hand to a summer concert at the Aspen Music Festival and School; Jack Nicholson, skiing with his kids every day from Christmas through New Year’s; Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S.—whose 32-room, 55,965-square-foot Aspen palace, valued at $36.6 million, takes the local prize for size—riding a packhorse on a trail with one of the venerable judges of Colorado; Disney chief Michael Eisner, who lives in a landmark Robert Stern—designed log cabin in Snowmass, braving the altitude despite having suffered a heart attack here several years ago; Martina Navratilova, playing tennis at the Aspen Club and Spa; Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, and their kids, cross-country skiing for lunch at the Pine Creek Cookhouse, near the old ghost town of Ashcroft. “Under the radar, always under the radar,” says Jimmy Buffett as he slips on a hat and goggles with his layers of ski clothes and disappears.
There’s also every stripe of corporate C.E.O., from Leonard Lauder of Estée Lauder to Michael Dell of Dell Computer to Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. “Hike through this place and it’s like God has created candy for your eyes,” says producer Peter Guber, whose 1,000-acre Mandalay Ranch is home to a herd of elk. “It’s a tiny little town, six square blocks, with 105 restaurants, nine movie theaters, 13 venues of live entertainment every single night of the week. But the best thing about it is being left alone.”
“Aspen is an island in the sky, at 7,945 feet,” says professional skier and real-estate broker Tim Mooney. “Jack Nicholson comes in on whatever studio corporate jet he can hitchhike a ride on, and as soon as he gets on the plane he calls me and says, ‘What’s shakin’ in Aspen?’ Everybody wants to leave the corporate jungle behind, to shed their armor, go native. Teddy Forstmann [of the Forstmann Little & Co. buyout firm, whose annual Aspen conference brought everyone from Tom Brokaw to Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and the Eagles to town last summer] will get on his G V, and he can’t wait to put on a flannel shirt and cowboy boots and disappear into the anonymity of a local.”
‘The story of Aspen is all about real estate,” says Dennis Scholl, a Miami real-estate investor and art collector, who has a condominium in town. “It’s all everybody talks about. Who has what? Doctors and lawyers are eligible for affordable housing. If you earn less than $133,000, you’re eligible.”
Aspen is America’s fourth-most-expensive residential real-estate market, with a median home price last year of $2.7 million, just behind Jupiter Island, Florida, and Montecito and Atherton, California. The other three are bedroom communities for Miami, Los Angeles, and Silicon Valley, respectively, but Aspen is “a suburb of every metropolitan area in the U.S.,” according to veteran contractor Steve Hansen, who has built everything from the new Prada store to Prince Bandar’s palace.
Aspen’s real-estate boom, if it continues the pattern of the last three decades, will eclipse even the silver boom, when Aspen was blessed with a vein of ore 30 miles long. Between 1888 and 1894, $51 million worth of silver was extracted from the mountain, and Aspen’s population swelled to 12,000. Miners paraded the world’s largest silver nugget—carved down to 1,842 pounds so that it would fit in a wagon—through the streets.
“It’s careening out of control!” says Aspen Times society columnist Mary Eshbaugh Hayes of the current climate of nonstop charity events and private parties. She is sitting in the converted miner’s cabin she has shared with her silversmith husband, Jim, since 1954. “We bought it for $7,500 in ’56,” she says. “It’s easily worth $2 million now.”
“Buying real estate in Aspen is like buying in London,” says Gerald Hines. “You get on the ladder and the ladder goes up every year, but you’ve got to get on the ladder.” The developer of Aspen’s massive new base village at the Aspen Highlands, designed by Robert Stern, Hines has been climbing the ladder since 1958, when he bought a condominium in town for $100,000 and sold it seven years later for $500,000. His great-uncle, a miner here in the 1860s, had returned to his native Nova Scotia and said, “I’ve been to the prettiest place in the world, and I think we should name our village Aspen.” Hines’s mother was born in Aspen, Nova Scotia, and told him tales of the glorious Aspen, Colorado, before he began developing shopping centers and office complexes in Houston and other cities.
We’re sitting on the terrace at his Charles Moore—designed home on four prime acres at the convergence of Hunter Creek and the Roaring Fork River. He bought the land for $500,000 in 1975. The cottage next door, former home of embattled Enron chairman Ken Lay, on the ironically named Shady Lane, just sold for $10 million, and it has only three acres of riverfront property. “Ken called me, because I’d helped him get the property [five years ago, for $1.7 million],” says Hines. “He told me it was $10 million and asked, ‘Would you like to buy it, Gerry?’ I said no.”
Lay sold the property to Bradley Bell, the producer and writer of the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful, who immediately turned down two chances to sell it at a substantial profit. “It’s the Roaring Fork River, and it’s a limited commodity,” says Bell. “I’d been waiting for riverfront property that’s a walk to town for 10 years.”
‘Aspen goes through the same cycles as new money: oil, high tech, mergers and acquisitions,” says real-estate agent Heidi Houston of the Houston & Gorog Company as we ride the Silver Queen Gondola up to the Aspen Mountain Club, whose members pay an $80,000 initiation fee, basically for a place to have lunch during ski season. “I don’t know what our next money will be, but we’ll soon see. Whenever there’s new money, the first thing they do is flock to where other money is. Aspen is one of those places.”
Aspen has 564 licensed agents and brokers, including Carol Dopkin, who shows real estate on horseback, all-around athlete Gayle Morgan, who takes clients with her on ski slopes, hiking trails, and mountain-bike terrain, and Joshua Saslove, president of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, who is Ken Lay’s broker and was once quoted in USA Today as saying, “We don’t sell houses. We sell ego, sex and fun.” Commissions on sales—often shared by agents within an agency—run as high as $600,000.
As we rise in the lift, we can see the mansions on Red Mountain, opposite the ski mountain, where most buyers prefer their second homes to be “toothbrush-ready,” meaning with everything already in place, from furniture to washcloths to bath soap. Houston recently sold the Peak House, a 23,000-square-foot mountain lair atop Red Mountain, to Priceline.com C.E.O. Rick Braddock for $22 million. Rentals here range from $15,000 to $175,000 a month, she says, and for some places, like the Peak House, they can go to $18,000 a day.
“The first law of Aspen real estate is never prejudge anybody,” Houston continues. “They’ll say, ‘I’m not going to spend a penny more than . . . ’—well, let’s say $3 million. You show them exactly what they’re going to get for their $3 million. Since 9/11, prices have dropped off as much as 35 percent in some areas, so you get a little more for your money, but usually it’s an older home that needs to have work done on it. Anyplace else, that home would sell for no more than probably $400,000. They’ll say, ‘Well, no, we really wanted at least 7,000 square feet, with land!’ The next thing you show them is the $4 million house, slightly bigger, a little bit better finishes. By the time they’re done, they’ve spent $8 million.
“One of the things people don’t realize is we are completely surrounded by national forest, so there’s no land left,” Houston explains. “Because of the new land-code issues [limiting house sizes to 5,750 square feet in some areas], you can’t build any more big houses. We sold more houses that are over 10,000 square feet in the last eight months than in the last five years.”
Harold Ross, the founding editor of The New Yorker, was born in Aspen, and his ashes were scattered over the mountains here. Steve Martin performed his early stand-up comedy here, and his first film, The Jerk, was produced by the Aspen Film Society. Claudine Longet, former showgirl and ex-wife of Andy Williams, shot and killed ski champion Vladimir “Spider” Sabich here, and she still lives in Aspen, married to her attorney from the murder case. In 1989, Marla Maples and Ivana Trump got in their famous catfight over Donald on Ajax Mountain. Dewi Sukarno, former First Lady of Indonesia, slashed the face of socialite Minnie Osmena with a champagne flute here in 1991. Kato Kaelin met Nicole Brown Simpson outside the Ritz Carlton (now the St. Regis) on New Year’s Eve in 1992. Ethel Kennedy and her relatives, who regularly included J.F.K. Jr. and Teddy, liked to take a day’s-end group run down Aspen Mountain, until Michael Kennedy, catching a football while skiing backward there, fatally crashed into a tree on December 31, 1997.
“I was flying with a friend in his new plane with two very attractive girls,” says George Hamilton of his first trip here. “We had come from Mexico and were en route to Chicago, and we started to have engine trouble over Rifle, Colorado. I said, ‘Put into Aspen. If I’m going to die, I think that would sound better.’ I decided that I’d go into town and see what it was like. I felt I was in Shangri-la or in an old Western. I kept wandering around, thinking, Is this real? Then I went and bought blue jeans and a pair of boots and said, ‘I’m going to stay here.’ Two weeks later I bought a house with a swimming pool, a firing range, and a disco—proper for the 1970s. It was $700,000, I think.”
I myself became a part-time resident in 1990, splitting time between Dallas and Aspen. My wife, Laura, and I built a small house off Cemetery Lane. Now I think of Aspen as home and the city as a time clock I have to punch.
‘Talk to Dick Durrance,” I was told by Maria Cooper Janis, daughter of Gary Cooper, Aspen’s pioneer celebrity, who built one of the first houses on Red Mountain. Durrance, now 89, was America’s first Olympic skier and also the first vice president of the Aspen Ski Company, which operates the four Aspen-Snowmass ski mountains. I visit him in an assisted-living center 30 minutes down valley in Carbondale. He puts a tape of Aspen Snow Carnival, a short film he produced and directed in the late 1940s, in his VCR, and suddenly there he is, flying through untracked powder over Aspen Mountain. “Watch him go!,” Gary Cooper exclaims on the voice-over. “There’s quite a history about this place,” Cooper adds. The screen fills with pictures of Aspen as boomtown, with four schools, 30 saloons, and its own opera house (built by Jerome B. Wheeler, a Macy’s-department-store partner turned silver miner, who snowshoed into town and changed its name from Ute City to Aspen). “But the silver market crashed, and almost a ghost town was left,” Cooper says. “Until they found new riches here! Yep. Snow!”
But it wasn’t just snow; it also took a man, Walter Paepcke, without whom Aspen might have become just another pretty ski resort. “One hell of a businessman” is all Durrance can say about Paepcke. A third-generation German-American intellectual who graduated from Yale and built an empire out of his family’s business, the Chicago-based Container Corporation of America, Walter Paepcke was a visionary. In 1939 his wife, Elizabeth, whom everyone called Pussy, took some houseguests to Aspen for a ski weekend. It was a dusty little town then, with drunks in the streets; the Victorian houses from the silver bust were boarded up. She and her guests rode in a miner’s truck to the top of Aspen Mountain. “And as she looked toward the slumbering town, she thought to herself, ‘If ever a place looked like Sleeping Beauty, awaiting Prince Charming’s kiss, this is it,’” James Sloan Allen wrote in The Romance of Commerce and Culture: Capitalism, Modernism, and the Chicago-Aspen Crusade for Cultural Reform.
By the early 50s, Paepcke had founded the Aspen Institute (now an international think tank and leadership organization with offices in the Washington, D.C., area and satellite campuses around the world), the Aspen Music Festival and School, and the International Design Conference. In 1949, to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Goethe, the German poet, he hired Chicago architect Eero Saarinen to design a music tent with seating for 2,000, engaged the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (with pianist Arthur Rubinstein) to perform, and arranged for author Thornton Wilder, theologian Martin Buber, and Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset to speak. He even lured Albert Schweitzer from Africa to receive the $5,000 Goethe Prize—Schweitzer’s only visit to the United States. Aspen was soon on the map, not only as a winter ski resort but also as a year-round cultural center, attracting business leaders, intellectuals, and celebrities ranging from Lana Turner and Lex Barker, Norma Shearer, and Ethel Merman to Andy Warhol, Clint Eastwood, and Jacqueline Kennedy.
Philosopher Mortimer Adler, who spent more than 30 summers here, once wrote that the Aspen experience is proof “that, in the scale of values, the Platonic Triad of the true, the good, and the beautiful takes precedence over the Machiavellian triad of money, fame, and power.”
In 1960, the year of Paepcke’s death, a new force blew into town, invited not by the Aspen Institute but by an interior designer, who had paid the individual $50 to drive a car full of bamboo birdcages from San Francisco. He needed the money; he was down to his last $2 and arrived in Aspen “drunk as a loon.” His name was Hunter Thompson.
You get the feeling that the 60s and early 70s were so wild in Aspen that those who lived through them have spent the rest of their lives trying to recapture the old atmosphere. As spiritual leader, Hunter Thompson has not let his constituency down, either as a hell-raiser or as an environmentalist, leading the charge against growth in all forms, from the proposed expansion of the Aspen airport runway to accommodate larger jets to the much-debated plan to create a straighter highway route into town. “I’m against any alterations,” he says.
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