Friday, December 23, 2011

A new take on an old story

Q&A with the author of ‘The Sun Valley Story’

Express Staff Writer

Courtesy photo “The Sun Valley” story offers a colorful history of Sun Valley Resort’s 75 years in operation.

Published in honor of Sun Valley Resort's 75th birthday this week, "The Sun Valley Story" is a new book by journalist and former television executive Van Gordon Sauter. The lavishly illustrated book presents a lively, anecdotal history of the resort from its beginnings in 1936 to the present day.

Idaho Mountain Express: Where did the idea for the book come from?

Van Gordon Sauter: It struck me there should be a new, accessible book celebrating the 75th anniversary of Sun Valley. I had no desire to write it. Indeed, was horrified at making a commitment that might intrude on my usual Sun Valley diversions. Which is to say, indulgences.

IME: You mention in the book that your wife, Kathleen Brown, talked you into doing it.

VGS: My wife couldn't fathom that catching more fish or lounging in bars or doing yet another nonsensical road trip would trump writing a fun book. So I compromised, and did it her way. Thank goodness.

IME: What was your vision for the book?

VGS: There is a lot of material on the history of Sun Valley. It is relatively easy to ferret out. There are still some interviews than can be done. What has really survived are the stories—the anecdotes. So this is an anecdotal history.

It is also the story of two men and a couple who between them created, enhanced and ultimately preserved Sun Valley as the iconic heritage resort in America.

Averell Harriman had the idea, the tenacity, the wisdom and a railroad company. The Union Pacific was indispensable. As he said, you probably could not have created Sun Valley without a railroad. Bill Janss, an Olympic-quality skier, loved the mountain. He made it dramatically better. He brought the town behind it. His wife, Glenn, started the cultural endeavors and attitudes that to this day make our valley so unique and livable. But Bill abhorred running a lodge, kitchens, retail, etc. To him, the mountain was everything. The Holdings, well, they've changed the character, the focus, the strength and the identity of Sun Valley—to the surprise of the local community, who were uneasy with their faith and their belief in capitalism. They gave it management, profit imperative and objects of great beauty and utility. Imagine that mountain today without them so dramatically expanding the initial efforts of Janss. The lodge is now both traditional and contemporary.

IME: There is already one, some would say seminal work on the history of the resort—Wendolyn Holland's "Sun Valley: An Extraordinary History." How would you address comparisons between the two books?

VGS: Wendolyn Holland has written the magisterial history book of not just Sun Valley, but the Wood River Valley, if not Idaho. Hers is a serious, academic history, though quite readable if you can invest the time. My book is far shorter and more focused on "infotainment." After all, I came out of television. I mean no disrespect to her when I say my book is to read and hers is to study. Which I have done. Few cities and states have as comprehensive and thorough a history as the one she wrote on this little valley.

IME: What is your personal connection to Sun Valley? What brought you here first and when?

VGS: When I got thrown out of CBS during a boardroom battle in the late '80s, I went to look for a small ranch in Montana. My wife went to look for a town that had traces of civilization, skiing and interesting people. We compromised again. I said, yes, let's go to Sun Valley. It was another wise decision on her part.

IME: What is your favorite thing about Sun Valley?

VGS: I love Sun Valley for its civility, its people, its beauty and Cristina (owner of Cristina's Restaurant in Ketchum). Also, because the place is so damned hard to get to. By the time the local growth fiends have organized direct daily jet service from Green Bay and Baton Rouge, I will be long gone.

IME: What's next for you?

VGS: I am now going to write a book on the first dog of California, a native of Idaho who through his cunning and manipulative powers now occupies the statehouse with my brother-in-law, the governor. That is if I don't have to pay the damned dog too much for his rights.

"The Sun Valley Story" is available at local bookstores for $49.95.

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