James Salter’s Aspen
As the literary world mourned James Salter over the weekend as a great American novelist and short-story writer, Aspenites recalled him as a friend, a strong skier and a legendary dinner-party host.
Salter, author of influential novels such as “Light Years” and “A Sport and a Pastime,” called Aspen home — at least part time — for more than 50 years.
He began visiting Aspen in 1959, after a chance meeting with Aspen Ski School director Lefty Brinkman in New York, and moved here full time in 1968. He settled in a mining-era Victorian on North Street in the West End a few years later. In recent years, he split his time between Aspen and Bridgehampton, New York, near where he died Friday at 90.
“In memory, no town could be more beautiful than Aspen when I first saw it almost 25 years ago in the winter dusk,” Salter wrote in a 1981 essay in The New York Times. “Suddenly the road made a couple of turns and became a wide, faded street lined with old houses and trees. At the end of it stood a solid relic of a hotel, its windows blazing with light. It was the Jerome. We dined there that night in the darkness of the Rockies surrounded by an unseen wilderness I could not even imagine.”
He wrote of attempting Aspen Mountain’s steeps for the first time, of navigating the backcountry hut system, of cross-country skiing to Ashcroft, of watching Stein Eriksen and Andre Molterer “skiing gracefully but with the hidden power of medal winners,” and of afternoons gathered in the J-Bar and nights waiting for tables at the Golden Horn, the Mother Lode and the Chart House.
He portrayed Aspen, in those days, as a romantic place of secret pleasures, not unlike his sumptuous portrait of provincial France in “A Sport and a Pastime.”
“It possesses, in addition to great skiing, the things Boswell loved about London, brightly lit rooms, lively talk, women, drink,” he wrote. “The busy streets are filled with distractions.”
The ski town, for Salter, who skied into his late 80s, was a refuge from the New York literary establishment.
“Aspen was a place where he had a real community of friends,” said Dexter Cirillo, who befriended Salter when she moved to Aspen in the early 1990s. “He was a famous author, but for all of us, he soon became just Jim because of his incredible ability to make everyone around him comfortable.”
His fiction was economical and painstaking, often heralded for its sentence-for-sentence beauty. It earned him a place as one of the world’s most revered prose stylists of the past half century along with a PEN/Faulkner Award, a PEN/Malaumud Award and the Clifton Fadiman Medal, among other accolades.
Salter’s enduring interest in skiing and climbing occasionally made its way into his fiction, especially in his 1979 novel “Solo Faces” about rock climbers and in the 1969 ski-racing film “Downhill Racer,” starring Robert Redford, for which he wrote the screenplay.
Salter was often referred to as a “writer’s writer,” a tag he resisted.
“It’s one of those things somebody wrote once, somebody saw it, it got repeated,” Salter told The Aspen Times in 2013. “So it might be what you call a phony fact — like a mistaken birth date. What I took it to mean, among other things, is that writers admire me. Some writers do.”
Salter attended West Point and flew more than 100 missions as a fighter pilot during the Korean War. He left the Air Force in 1957, a year after he published his debut novel, “The Hunters,” and shortly before he discovered Aspen.
Over the decades that followed, dinner parties at the Salter home became an Aspen institution. Around the small table in the family kitchen, six guests — often a mix of writers, artists and mountaineers — would share a meal prepared by Salter and his wife, Kay.
“It was an art form for them,” recalled architect Harry Teague, a frequent guest.
The Salters kept a brown, leather notebook of recipes that went over particularly well, along with memories of guests, conversations and incidents. The notebook served as fodder for their 2006 joint memoir/cookbook “Life Is Meals,” a tender homage to the civilizing force of a shared meal and a chronicle of many Aspen parties. The Salters wrote of screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, a close friend and neighbor, stopping by and eating an entire batch of their rice pudding (“Serves eight or Lorenzo”), of an errant candle starting a fire and of a guest complimenting their roast beef by throwing it on the floor.
In a journal entry from winter 1993, when a group of movie stars came to town to open the short-lived Planet Hollywood restaurant downtown, Salter offered a pithy take on Aspen’s increasingly superficial complexion, comparing it to the Krzysztof Kieslowski film “Blue,” which he watched after a meal with Semple and others.
“Stunning images, limited content — very Aspen.”
Teague recalled gatherings in the Salter home as an easygoing mix that would often include locals alongside literary lions such as Saul Bellow, Peter Mathiessen, John Irving and Tobias Wolff and conversations that rarely touched on writing.
Teague formed a friendship with Salter in the early 1970s, when Salter enlisted him to help move a handful of mining cabins from Lenado to Missouri Heights, where the author had bought a tract of land. They spent a summer working on the project together, hauling the cabins down Highway 82 and positioning them in the midvalley.
“It was an unbelievable summer,” Teague recalled. “Just work, hang out. Work, hang out.”
The cabins soon burned in a wildfire, but the two remained close.
“I learned a lot of things from Jim,” Teague said, “particularly in architecture — about how a building feels warm and such. … (The Salters) weren’t here because it was the place to be. It was the place to get away from everything else.”
Tragedy struck in the West End home in 1980, when Salter’s 10-year-old daughter, Allan, was electrocuted and died in the shower. Salter is survived by Kay and four children from two marriages.
In the late 1990s, Salter quietly helped resuscitate the Aspen Writers’ Foundation after a period of financial difficulty threatened the literary nonprofit’s existence. Salter, recalled former Writers’ Foundation Director Julie Comins Pickrell, helped the organization land top-tier authors at the time.
“They all came to Aspen not because we asked them, not because they loved skiing, which they did, but because Jim was here,” she said. “They came for the rich conversation over good food around the table of their good friend, their mentor and hero. And they, in turn, agreed to appear publicly.”
Cirillo said Salter used to joke that the Writers’ Foundation — now known as Aspen Words — wouldn’t host him for a reading because not enough people had heard of him. Salter’s critical acclaim outpaced his book sales throughout his career, and he was self-deprecating about his success.
“I think he loved his position in the world, but he was always brushing it off,” Cirillo said. “You’d ask him about his latest award, and he’d brush it off and say, ‘Oh, what a surprise that was.’”
Salter did give a Writers’ Foundation reading in late 2013, when he published his last novel, “All That Is.” The event filled Paepcke Auditorium. Salter, at 88, read from a characteristically frank and erotic chapter, in which his protagonist has an affair with a married English woman on a trip across Spain.
At the reading, Salter said he hadn’t begun a new book after finishing “All That Is” but suggested he had more work to do.
“Do I have an idea?” he said. “Yes, I have a couple ideas. So perhaps I’ll get to them.”
Friends said Salter had been working on a memoir since then. He will be buried in Sag Harbor, N.Y.
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