The Elan Vital of Jean Mayer: (1935-2020)

By: Bill Whaley
16 October, 2020

Allez, à l’attaque!

A Personal Note

On a cool, clear day in November of1966, not unlike today, a bedraggled and depressed college drop-out slipped into the St Bernard, interrupting Jean Mayer, who was busily preparing his hotel for the upcoming ski season. Jean said he didn’t have any openings but “I think we need somebody in the parking lot.”

He called up Ernie Blake and discussed hiring an attendant to keep holiday and weekend skiers from invading the environs around base camp at the Hondo, St. Bernard, TSV. So Jean, Ernie, and Ed Pratt agreed to hire this ski bum: free lift ticket from Ernie, lunch from Jean, and Ed Pratt said he’d match Jean’s cost and contribute “Two-dollars a day.”

Before I left, Jean told me about an adobe in Valdez that rented for fifteen dollars a month. Though I still tasted the ashes of rejection from Colorado College, the sun shone on me that day, and I saw hope in the modest dream of living a life for a month or two before Uncle Sam’s draft board said, “I want you” for the body trade in Vietnam.

Christmas was crowded but in January the day skiers appeared only on weekends. I got to ski during the week, and dine at the St. B.There I enjoyed my bar tab but Ed Pratt cut me off except for weekends. Since my rent was $15, I couldn’t survive on the equivalent of about $32 a month. I quit the parking lot to start working at the St. Bernard (thanks to Virginia, Jean’s secretary, who interceded). But Ernie objected and told me if I crossed the Maginot line I had to buy a lift ticket for $60.00. Jean gave me the money. Meanwhile Ernie gave my girlfriend, Susie, free lift tickets when she visited. (Ernie had much in common with King David in the Hebrew testament.)

I had skied Taos on a day during spring break the previous March, 1965, when Jean set the marathon record, 60 runs, top to bottom, while riding up the four-minute Poma Lift on Al’s. He flew down Al’s or cut into Rhoda’s and Upper Inferno, down Showdown, curving over Snakedance like a mythical half-bird half-man. “Who is that man,” I wondered. Years later Paco came close to the record at 58 runs.

In January of 1967, at the St. Bernard Jean asked me, “Do you have fun the way you ski?” Humbled, I hastened to attend ski school, a privilege accorded ski bums. During the three years I worked at the St. Bernard, I took countless classes with Dadou or Jean among the top guests and the occasional drop-in instructor or ski patrolman from other ski areas.

When we arrived at a slope with uncut powder, Jean would say in an exaggerated Gallic accent, “I want you to get an idea, an image of how I ski, so that you can feel what I do, how I seduce the mountain.” Then he would turn to me. “Bill, on me. Allez, à l’attaque.”

Off we’d go down Al’s Run, the paying customers floundering behind.
On the way up the mountain, Jean taught the scattered members of his class
from the lift. “George, a little more weight on the inside foot. La merde, Frank, look, look where you’re going. Ben, please, not like that; like this.” (He’d turn and demonstrate while seated on the lift). “Susan, don’t lean on your poles. Bend your ankles. Oui, c’est bien.”

At dry-land clinics behind the bar at the St. Bernard, Jean and
Dadou discussed and demonstrated Le Technique, how this foot or that knee should adjust itself to the ski, saying, “Ici, mais pas ici” (here, but not here)—how this hand or that leg should move ever so slightly this way.

Ernie referred to the Mayers’ passion for technique as “an affectation” and sometimes refused to let them teach their subversive ideas, lest they infect instructors or guests. After Jean-Claude Killy won three Olympic gold medals in Grenoble, 1968, he turned the other cheek. Ernie himself skied stolidly with a slight stem, hinting that stability was superior to style.

A ski movie made by Warren Miller, The Outer Limits, 1968, became an organizing principle. Among others, the film featured Dadou dancing down the slopes like a bird and Jean blasting through the snow with the powerful leg and arm strokes of a human dynamo. Though I tried to ski the mountain in the purest and most stylish manner, Dadou frequently reminded me that I merely skied from “recovery to recovery” (the story of my life).

During the first twenty years I skied in Taos, whether as ski bum, ski instructor, or season pass-holder, Jean intervened multiple times to either get me rehired or recover my pass from Ernie, whose minions claimed I violated the yellow ropes or speed limits on catwalks. Jean always said, “Don’t ever let anybody tell you how fast you can ski.” Then he’d ask the chef to prepare one of Ernie’s favorite desserts and go see the Mayordomo.

Later in Taos, summer of 1969, after a day-long madcap dash from El Paso, via bus, plane, and hitchhiking with vatos locos, the bank clock said 4:15 when J.P. turned me and my partners down for a loan of $3750 to buy the Plaza Theatre. No collateral, no books, no security. I had borrowed the other half of $7000 from my folks. To this day I don’t know where that idea came from but I said, “What about a co-signer?”

J.P. nodded, “Who?”
“Jean Mayer?”
J.P. said that it was a fine idea. I dialed the phone.
“’Allo. ’otel st. Bernard.”
“Boss. it’s Bill.”
“Hey, Bill.”
“What are you doing right now?”
“Cooking coq au vin.”
“Can you do me a favor?
“What ?”
“Co-sign a note at the First state Bank? I’ve got until five o’clock here or I lose my earnest money. Koch and I are trying to buy the movie theatre.”
“Quelle heure est-il?”
“Bon. I’ll be right there.”

Jean arrived at five minutes to five on his 750 Harley sportster. Perched on the bike, he looked like a tiny grizzly with his thick, muscled torso. He wore neither a shirt nor did he ask how much the loan was. After signing, he said, “I’ve got dinner on the stove.” He was gone. I headed back to National Guard summer camp at Fort Bliss, where the cook, Steve White asked what happened. I mentioned Mayer’s heroic rescue.

Whitey, shaking his head, knowingly, said, “Fucking Mayer!” The prior St. B. man talked me into joining the life-saving national guard in Taos. Then there was Rickie, Taos, Switzerland, Aspen, who filled my ear with forbidden tales, and Koch, mountain man bar none, the one man ski and bomber patrol. Bobby, a forest service flower child, among others, filled out a generation of unruly lads, all of whom benefitted from Jean’s generosity and protection (Don’t forget Amizette Walt of Espanola).

Jean inspired us to lead a life of joie de vivre, embrace elan vital and the spirit of the mountain. When it came to the more attractive sex, we could no more keep up with the legend, than we could keep up with the dynamic hurdler on the slopes. See the little guy dance in the Rathskeller and you knew corn could sell.

A guest once complained about my rude behavior behind the bar, saying to Jean, “You’d make more money with a professional.” Jean retorted, “We’re interested in a way of life here. If you don’t like it, you can go down to the Hondo.” That first year he walked up to me, handed me $20 and said, “Go buy a shirt.”

Literally and figuratively, I learned to teach, not only skiing but writing from Jean, which has served me for better or worse as I continue at UNM in Taos. Jean zeroed in on each student’s strengths and weaknesses, pushing, pulling, using the carrot or the stick, seduction or bravado to try and touch the best in students. He knew how a smile, frown, wink or a twinkle in the eye could tweak your spirit in the most intimate way. He saw something, certainly, in me I didn’t see in myself.

And he introduced me to the best of Taosenos, Frances, Gloria, Elias, and I met Jake in the fedora and one-eyed Lee Varos. From him I learned how to deal with eccentric Taosenos, whether La Gente or Los Politicos. We got the liquor inspectors or tax and rev guys mucho borracho when they appeared.

A few years ago, after a twenty-five year lay-off, I returned to ski at the valley as driver and coach for my eight-year old granddaughter, Lilli. I am an enthusiast for the new Bacon lifts and love the way the terrain has been liberated from the yellow nylon ropes and grateful to purchase a season pass in the time of Covid. I no longer suffer from Ernie anxiety or worry about suspicious looks from the patrol, nor do I hear affectionate Mayer catcalls from the chair lifts: “Do you have fun the way you ski?”

Thanks the mountain, Dadou and Jean for the identifying and exploiting the experience of going from “recovery to recovery,” I recognize the technique that has saved my seventy-something ass from colliding with trees and rocks and helps me keep up with Lili, who now “attacks the bumps.”

When I occasionally make a real turn or carve a line though the bumps that works, I think of how Jean “made love to the mountain.” I still hear ghostly voices mutter from the rafters at the St. Bernard as the muse sings praises above the trees on Jean’s Glade about the best man I ever knew.

He’s up there still.