St Moritz: Top of The World
In its heyday in the 1960s and '70s, St. Moritz was the hedonistic winter escape of the international jet set, and the Badrutt's Palace Hotel, also fondly known as 'The Palace', was where they held court. Originally featured in Issue 37 of The Rake, Nick Foulkes unearths many brilliant anecdotes from the era.
During the ’60s and ’70s, British television benefited from the films of Alan Whicker. Whicker was a genius. He loved the good life and those who led it. He knew, just like F. Scott Fitzgerald, that the rich were different and that they warranted just as much anthropological study as any tribe of blowpipe-toting, penis-sheath-wearing rainforest pygmies. Just as those who make films for the Discovery Channel or National Geographic do now, Whicker travelled to see the rich in their natural surroundings — and come the first decent snowfall of the year, that meant one place: as Peter Sarstedt put it in his wistful ballad ‘Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?’, “When the snow falls you’re found in St. Moritz / With the others of the jetset”. The programme is framed as a sort of jet-set fairytale — the narration even begins with the words “once upon a time”, before explaining how “one day, a rich baron — a very rich baron — swept down out of the mountains to claim her as his third bride and carry her off to a place at the end of the rainbow where rich people go to be happy: St. Moritz”. We first meet the Baroness, former model Fiona Campbell-Walter, in a leopard-skin coat driving her open-top silver-blue BMW 507 at speed along the valley to the airstrip at Samedan where her husband has just landed in a light aircraft. If you are a reader of 19th-century novels, you will know that Switzerland was once a summer resort and that snow — far from being an attraction — was an inconvenience, blocking mountain passes, trapping unwary travellers in blizzards and so forth. But towards the close of the Victorian era, the Badrutt family began promoting St. Moritz as a ‘winter health resort’, and it was a scion of that dynasty, Caspar Badrutt, who bought the Hotel Beau Rivage. Business was good and so, by the 1890s, he had decided to expand the Beau Rivage, creating a hotel of fortress-like demeanour so impressive that it needed a new name that would express its grandeur. Henceforward, the Beau Rivage was to be known as ‘The Palace’. Winter tourism had taken off, but winter sports had yet to catch on. Instead, the emphasis was on the medical benefits of the high altitude and the busy calendar of social events enjoyed by guests at The Palace. However, that changed in 1928 when the resort was chosen as the venue for the Winter Olympics. Although the scale of the event — 464 competing athletes from 25 countries — was considerably smaller than the Winter Games of later years, it bequeathed the town a reputation as the home of winter sports, a fact attested to by the use of the Cresta Run, the natural ice toboggan track of (quite literally) lethal rapidity dating from the 19th century, for the skeleton racing event.
On 19 February 1930, a group of enthusiasts met in the Palace Hotel to discuss the formation of a club “in order to assist skiers to arrange competitions et cetera”. Minutes of that meeting survive and record that “it was furthermore discussed to build a hut for the new Club as soon as possible”. One of the resolutions of this meeting was “that the name of the Club be ‘Ski-Club Corviglia’”. Thus, one of the world’s most exclusive clubs was founded. The list of founder members throws up a polyglot crowd of internationalities united by their love of wintersports. There were industrialists — Gianni Agnelli was one name on the list; daredevil sportsmen such as the former owner of Bentley Motors, Woolf Barnato; various Rothschilds; and even Mademoiselle Chanel. The sombre years of World War II saw the resort become a haven for rich refugees and spies, with The Palace acting as a sort of grand, luxe, snow-covered Rick’s Bar. But almost immediately after the war was over, the glamour began to return to St. Moritz. In Life magazine on 10 March 1947, the same issue that carried a picture of the jagged ruins of the cathedral of Caen standing amidst the rubble of a city flattened by war, there were nine pages of photographs of beautiful people enjoying themselves under the headline: “Swiss Ski Resort Retains Prewar Elegance”.“The exiled royalty, minor princes, beauties, near beauties, sportsmen and bankers of the International Set consider St. Moritz the place to spend a winter holiday,” trilled the article gaily, before referring to St. Moritz as “the most fashionable village in Europe”. While Austerity Europe, prostrate after the horrors of war, shivered its way through the coldest winter in living memory, a bewildering kaleidoscope of dethroned royalty — including the sister-in-law of the last Empress of Austria, sundry princes of Egypt, Romania, Hesse and heaven knows where else — were seen living it up at parties where the recent hostilities were forgotten. The leader of the royal set in St. Moritz at this time was the glamorous ex-King Peter of Yugoslavia. King Peter had spent World War II at The Palace in St. Moritz rather than his own palace in Belgrade, and he was not envisaging a return to the Balkans anytime soon. The resort received a further fillip the following year when it was selected — again — to host the 1948 Winter Olympics. And by the early ’50s, it was a fully functioning winter paradise for international society, whose lives revolved around the terrifyingly fast Cresta Run, the Corviglia Ski Club — the initial ‘hut’ rebuilt in 1951 to re-emerge as a handsome clubhouse-restaurant with breathtaking views — and the Chesa Veglia, a charming farmhouse that had been built in the 17th century and upgraded in the 20th to become a ‘rustic’ après-ski location,with a bowling alley in what had been the cowshed. At the centre of it all was the Palace Hotel. “The great luck for St. Moritz and for The Palace was that the young Andrea Badrutt, the eldest son of Mr. Hans Badrutt, was such a genius,” recalls Count Rudi Schönburg, who had been a child guest at the hotel before the war, and returned to work there as a young man after the war. “He kept a superb style in the hotel. For example, from 7:30pm onwards, only dinner jackets were allowed, with ladies in long dresses. Every evening at 7:30, he himself was in the lobby, in front of his office, in the most perfectly tailored dinner jacket.”
Count Rudi was on first-name terms with most of the European guests, and was even related to a number of them, but he also identified a new group. “The whole Greek thing had just started, and they were beginning to be seen around St. Moritz.” By the start of the ’50s, the socially ambitious Stavros Niarchos had learnt that St. Moritz was a good thing. Niarchos joined the Corviglia Club and made it his business to become a champion skier — so good, in fact, that one of the fastest runs at St. Moritz is still called the Niarchos run. Niarchos wanted to be accepted in the highest social circles, and he knew that skiing was a necessary accomplishment. Not to be outdone, Agnelli would sometimes fly into St.Moritz just for the day from Turin. Instead of wasting precious time on chairlifts, he became a pioneer of what would one day become known as heli-skiing. “One year,” recalled Marbella Club founder Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe, “Gianni would ring me every morning during the high season: ‘Ski with me at six tomorrow,’ he would say. I was the only one more or less awake at this time. So he arrived in his plane at Samedan and took me straight up the mountain in his helicopter. We skied till midday, the most beautiful runs of my life. To be a sportsman — to shoot, to play polo, to ski, to waterski, to do the Cresta — was an important part of being a member of the jet set. It gave a pretext for going to resorts such as St. Moritz, and the photo albums of the Corviglia Club brim with pictures of Niarchos, sometimes larking about in fancy dress with chums, including Gianni Agnelli; at other times, the debonair man of action in polo neck and ski-pants, flanked by beautiful women, including, on occasion, his wife.” One season, Niarchos broke his leg, but determined not to miss the winter fun and social opportunities, he took over one floor of The Palace for the rest of the season, running his business from the hotel, communicating from 6,000 feet above sea level by phone, telegram, cable and courier. The atmosphere of St. Moritz and its foremost hotel was that of an elite private club. There was a sense of abandon and freedom about life there for the international set. What happened in St. Moritz, stayed in St. Moritz. “All the ambience was at The Palace,” recalls Jacqueline de Ribes, the 1951 winner of the annual Corviglia Club Glamour Girl competition. “It was like a huge private party where everybody had fun. You had a nightclub downstairs, you had a bar upstairs, you had music upstairs, music downstairs. Everybody used to give private parties in the ballroom, in the bar,in the grill, in the whole hotel. Gianni Agnelli, Arturo Lopez[-Willshaw], Alexis de Redé, Theo Rossi — all wonderful names. We all filled this hotel and we had fun because we knew that we could behave crazily, because nobody [outside] would know about it. We danced on the tables, we dressed up. Everything. You had costume parties all the time.” One particularly memorable party began with the hosts’ valet — it was a time when some people, including Alexis de Redé, the Agnellis and Guy de Rothschild, still travelled with their own servants — going round the hotel at 6:30am, waking guests up and inviting people to ‘come just as you are’ to a party in the Chesa Veglia. Those who were roused from their beds came in pyjamas, nightdresses and dressing gowns. Others returning from a night’s revels were still in evening dress, while the avid sportsmen and women turned up in their skiwear. They found the American ketchup tycoons, the Heinzes, lying in a double bed that had been brought into the restaurant and greeting their guests as if at a royal levée in the age of the absolute monarchy.“It was very, very entertaining,” recalls one socialite of St.Moritz in those days. “It was before the paparazzi, otherwise I don’t think we would have got away with it. Every couple of weeks, someone gave a massive party, and it was always fancy dress. It was insane — a time for private wealth and indulgence. You went there because it was a holiday place; you had all the facilities for these huge lavish parties. Marlene Dietrich came, she sang. There were famous actresses. Empress Soraya [her husband, the Shah, was a St. Moritz regular], who was a darling person, was there. You could not have done it with the paparazzi.”
The Palace swarms with Italian titles,” recorded another guest breathlessly. “Greek tycoons, American tourists, English lords and ladies, Spanish gentlemen, Chilean aristocracy. Young people, old people, eager social climbers, assured throne sitters, they are all there. They have only one thing in common at The Palace — their economic standard.” And it was the effective social levelling of The Palace that accounted for St. Moritz’s popularity with the newly rich, as Claus von Bülow, a veteran of many winters in St. Moritz explains: “It’s comparatively difficult for the new rich to break into the established order in a major city like Paris and London, but not in a luxury hotel in the Alps, provided you take over the Chesa Veglia every two weeks for a caviar party, or do it in the kegelbahn where you’ve got grown up multimillionaires thinking it’s absolutely hilariousto throw a bowling ball at 10 pins.” (Bowling alleys became very much in vogue during this period.) Here, the industrial barons of the new world order mixed on equal terms with the old aristocracy, and given that Heini Thyssen embodied both worlds — being a noble Baron by birth and an industrial baron by profession — it was he and his Baroness who set the tone. By now, Heini was onto his third wife, the devastatingly beautiful former fashion model Fiona Campbell Walter, described by one of the most dashing members of the international set, Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe, as “the uncrowned Queen of St. Moritz”: an uncrowned queen whose state landau was her convertible BMW. She was very upset when the car was written off in February 1966 after a collision with the Bentley belonging to the Hon. Richard Wrottesley, the playboy scion of a British aristocratic dynasty. Shortly afterwards, she was in the nightclub of the Palace Hotel where she bumped into Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe, who would recall the evening fondly many decades later. “Do you really love me?” she asked flirtatiously.“I adore you.” came the reply. “Do you see that man sitting in the corner of the bar with those three thugs? That is Lord [sic] Wrottesley the one who smashed up my beloved BMW. I want my revenge! On the road outside is his huge grey Bentley. Do something. ”Accompanied by a couple of burly ski instructors, he went upstairs where the elegant pearl-grey Bentley was looking particularly beautiful, parked amidst freshly fallen snow. After some energetic heaving and pulling, Prince Alfonso stood back to admire his handiwork: the Bentley was now roof-down in the snow, its wheels in the air. Brushing the snow from is clothes after his exertion, Prince Alfonso returned to the nightclub and told Fiona to go upstairs and take a look. She returned, he said, “with a smile the size of a sunrise”. Wrottesley became a laughing stock. The prank made headlines in the London papers and showed that while he might be a big deal in the British capital, no one upset Fiona Thyssen in St. Moritz and got away with it. And then one day, as she was walking through the lobby of the Palace Hotel, Jacqueline de Ribes spotted someone she never thought she would see in St. Moritz, and certainly not at The Palace: Hebe Dorsey. “She was la journaliste du fashion of the New York Herald Tribune. She was very famous, but she was nevertheless a journalist, and I said, ‘Hebe... c’est la fin du... du Palace.’ It was the first time in the life of The Palace [that a journalist was on its premises].”It was perhaps not the end of The Palace as such, but it was certainly the beginning of a new phase in the life of the resort. Instead of staying at The Palace, St. Moritz regulars built houses, and what began relatively modestly soon spiralled as chalets became progressively grander. One of the most impressive of them was the triptych of chalets built by the Livanos family — one occupied by Stavros’s widow, another for her daughter Tina, and a third for her son George. According to one source, these were linked by a large subterranean drawing room in which they entertained or watched films. And so began a new way of being rich, one that, in time, would become the elite world we know today: a place of gated communities, gigamansions and mega-yachts, all bodyguards and high security... Certainly more private, but, one could argue, rather less stylish. This article originally appeared in Issue 37 of The Rake.