When Sun Valley Celebrated Celebrities

John Fry

Photo: Gary Cooper (center) with Clark Gable (right) on Dollar Mountain, with their instructor, Sun Valley’s Sigi Engl. Sun Valley photo.

Imagine a small-size ski area with a 200-room hotel and a crowd of week-long guests hanging around – say, Robert Redford, Bruce Willis, Tom Hanks, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stephen Spielberg, Bill Gates. Okay, you can only imagine it. But seven decades ago, such a place really existed.

It was Sun Valley. The Idaho resort brilliantly exploited the public’s fascination with celebrities to promote an exotic new kind of American vacation — skiing with chairlifts. Averell Harriman, the resort’s founder, hired New York-based publicist Steve Hannagan to prod Hollywood stars to go to Sun Valley. Pictures of them mastering the slopes on seven-foot skis appeared in millions of copies of newspapers and magazines. Gary (Sergeant York) Cooper and Clark (Gone with the Wind) Gable skied, along with Ingrid Bergman, Claudette Colbert, Tyrone Power, Jane Russell, Van Johnson, Ray Milland, movie producer Darryl Zanuck, and automobile mogul Henry Ford.

The better skiers were Lex Barker (Tarzan), Norma Shearer (The Divorcee), and Janet Leigh, the mother of Jamie Lee Curtis. Ann Sothern even wrote into her MGM contract that she was not available on the set during the winter. After skiing, the rich and famous danced in the Sun Valley Lodge to the music of Eddie Duchin, and drank with local resident Ernest Hemingway.

Sun Valley eerily anticipated the 21st Century’s celebration of celebrity . . .and took it to the bank.