Katherine Thalberg 1935-2006
Ryan Summerlin January 6, 2006
Katherine Thalberg, wife of former Aspen Mayor Bill Stirling who helped lead the “Fur Fight” and proprietor of one of the town’s most cherished businesses, died Friday morning at Aspen Valley Hospital.According to her daughter, Ashley Anderson, Thalberg died after waging “a valiant two-year battle with cancer,” at the age of 70.She leaves behind a grieving family of not only her husband and three daughters, but a good portion of the people in town, who have come to consider her business, Explore Booksellers on Main Street, an extension of their own living rooms.”I’ve lived in this valley for 20-plus years,” said one of her competitors, Fred Durham, manager of the Town Center Booksellers in Basalt. “And for many, many years, Explore Booksellers was like a second home to me.” He said he, his staff and the owners of Town Center were “very saddened to hear of her passing.”Stirling was distraught but sought to assure fans of the bookstore that it would be business as usual at Explore.Thalberg was the daughter of fabled Hollywood mogul Irving Thalberg and actress Norma Shearer.Born in Santa Monica, Calif., on June 14, 1935, and “raised on the beach,” according to Stirling, she learned to ski at the age of 3 in Sun Valley, Idaho. While there, she met some of the people who would later become part of Aspen’s emergence as a ski Mecca – people such as Friedl Pfeiffer, Klaus Obermeyer, Fred and Ellie Iselin, and Hans Gramiger – some of whom would become her friends.
Thalberg attended schools in France and Switzerland for three years, where she learned to speak French fluently enough that she would later be mistaken for a Parisian when the couple would vacation in Europe, Stirling said.She later graduated from West Lake School for Girls in Beverly Hills, Calif., and went on to attend Vassar College in New York and Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., before earning her bachelor’s degree in English literature at the University of California-Los Angeles. A minor in psychology led her to take graduate courses at the University of Southern California, and for a time she considered a career in the field, Stirling said.Thalberg married one of America’s top ski racers, Jack Reddish, when she was 18 and for a time lived with him in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he operated a ski shop. But the couple soon moved to Los Angeles, where he worked in films while she got a job writing scripts and other material for the new medium of television.The couple divorced in the 1960s, and Thalberg then married film actor Richard Anderson, with whom she had three daughters – Ashley, now 43, Brooke, now 41, and Deva, now 39.In 1973, after divorcing Anderson, Thalberg and her daughters moved to Aspen, where she had spent the winter of 1959-60 and already had a number of friends.”Aspen really resonated with her,” Stirling said. “She was one of the most beautiful giant slalom skiers I’ve ever seen, and my favorite skiing partner.”Soon after arriving here, Stirling said, she tried unsuccessfully to buy one of the bookstores in town, and then opened up her own in 1975.”The most incredible accomplishment of her life was to create a bookstore that has become an institution in our town and has become world renowned,” Stirling said. He said the business was a natural for Thalberg, given her lifelong love of reading and books and her keen writing talents.
Aside from the bookstore’s success, he said, Thalberg was “a trailblazing restaurateur.” She decided to remodel the attic of the Explore building and started Aspen’s first vegan eatery, the Explore Bistro, steadfastly resisting pressure to serve meats and other traditional American fare that might have been more immediately commercially successful.Time proved her to be correct, Stirling noted, “so what began as a loss leader is now standing firmly on its own.”Of the many converts and fans her restaurant has won over, one is the man who has worked as her chef for six years, Jilberto Torres.”I have been 20 years in the U.S., and she was my number one boss,” Torres said on Friday. “I never have a boss like her. She was one of the best persons I find in my life.”Thalberg met Stirling here and married him in the mid-1980s. It was not long before her passionately held political beliefs, particularly in the arena of animal rights, brought her briefly into the public spotlight.In 1989, while Stirling was mayor, Thalberg and Stirling were at the forefront of a move to prohibit the sale of fur in Aspen. The proposed ordinance, which went to a public vote, precipitated a pitched battle that drew international attention before voters rejected the idea.Former Mayor John Bennett, who succeeded Stirling, recalled that for years afterward, when he would travel for official speaking engagements, the first thing his hosts would mention would be the “Fur Fight,” as it came to be called.”It was an issue that seized the imagination around the world,” he said.
Bennett, who was a partner in one of the bookstores Thalberg tried to buy in the 1970s, said of his former competitor, “she created a true community treasure in Explore. I am one of those who believes you can measure the soul of a community by what kind of bookstore it has. She did a great deal for Aspen’s soul. She certainly has left a wonderful legacy for the town.”Dr. Phyllis Bronson, a close friend of Thalberg’s for more than 20 years, said, “She was extraordinarily brilliant, as well-read as she wanted the rest of us to be.”While Thalberg was “a reclusive woman” who guarded her privacy and cultivated a rather small circle of close friends, Bronson said, she was “a very good friend” with those who knew her well, as well as “passionate about politics and ideas … just one of those larger-than-life people.”Carolyn Jemison, an Explore employee with long ties to Aspen, said Thalberg was “very loyal and steadfast to people who were loyal to her.””My mother had an incredible strength of spirit that truly distinguished her from anyone that I know,” said Thalberg’s daughter Ashley on Friday afternoon. “And it’s an honor to be her daughter.”Thalberg’s eldest child, Brooke, added, “My mom faced her illness the way she lived her life, with intelligence, strength, courage and most of all, discretion.”John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org