Don’t dwell on the dead, but remember the living — what they did while they were here and who they were as people.
That was one of the collective sentiments Tuesday afternoon in Aspen’s Glory Hole Park, where about 50 people gathered to remember Michael Solheim, an influential political and social figure who ran the Hotel Jerome’s J-Bar in the 1970s. During that time, friends remembered, Solheim used his wit and charisma to ensure that the hotel was full of interesting individuals. His bar served as Aspen’s hub for political thought, activism and late-night revelry, frequented by celebrities and well-known locals alike.
Solheim, who spent more than 60 years in Aspen, died at age 79 in April at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“I tried and tried to think of something that might be a little more derogatory about Michael,” said Dick Fitzgerald, who knew Solheim for 72 years through school and while living in Sun Valley, Idaho, and in Aspen. “I can’t think of anything he was really bad about. He just was a friend, a buddy and somebody that never had an enemy that I know of.”
Former Aspen Mayor Bill Stirling said there was something about the way Solheim ran the bar — “a certain kind of elegance, that welcoming way he had about him.” Stirling remembered one night at the J-Bar when Jack Nicholson stopped by looking for help with a flat tire. It was a frigid night in January, and Solheim turned to Stirling, who was sitting at the bar. Stirling changed the tire while Nicholson coached him from the curb.
“It was the one time Michael treated me to a drink,” Stirling said.
Stirling also remembered Solheim — who served as campaign manager for Hunter S. Thompson in Thompson’s failed bid for Pitkin County sheriff in 1970 — arguing with the gonzo journalist about music. Solheim sided with The Rolling Stones as the greatest group of all time, while Thompson sided with Bob Dylan. After the bar closed, they listened to records by both Dylan and the Stones late into the night. Five or six nights later, they switched sides, with Solheim arguing for Dylan and Thompson arguing for the Stones.
Tuesday’s gathering was organized by Solheim’s longtime companion, Barbara Koval, who was joined by her son John Koval. Spending time with Solheim in the past 15 years or so, John Koval said he and his children were fortunate to know him, making note of his legacy in Aspen.
Sam Brown, a friend of Solheim’s for nearly 50 years, said Solheim had “the patience of a saint,” evidenced by his effort to teach Brown’s wife how to ski.
“He was the only person — she keeps reminding me — who ever understood that if you skied down the hill and waited for the slowest person to get there, you couldn’t immediately start skiing again. But they also were entitled to some time to wait,” Brown said. “And Michael is the only person I know who actually recognized that fact.”
One of Brown’s favorite things about Solheim was that he indiscriminately referred to each J-Bar waitress as “a little darling.”
“Sometimes it meant they were a little darling, and sometimes it meant they were the biggest pain in the ass he had ever met,” Brown said. “And you just sort of had to listen to the tone to know which of those things was true.”