Aspen Times Weekly — Safe at Home: Charlie Paterson |

Aspen Times Weekly — Safe at Home: Charlie Paterson

by Stewart Oksenhorn

Charlie Paterson describes himself as a reticent man. “Not to my family, but to the exterior world,” Paterson said on a recent afternoon in the house he designed in the 1970s on an unusually secluded street a few blocks from the base of Aspen Mountain. “It’s hard for me to express myself on feelings and the deeper stuff. When I’ve gone to meetings, I never tended to expound on things. I formed my opinions and kept them to myself.”

The source of Paterson’s reserve isn’t a shortage of thoughts, stories or things to say, but the very opposite. He has lived on three continents, experienced privilege and deprivation, studied architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright, fled from the Nazis, and was separated from his parents at a young age. He came to Aspen in 1949, in time to participate in the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation — as an usher and stagehand — and stands as one of the last remaining Aspenites to have witnessed the birth of modern Aspen. Here, his life has encompassed the widest range of activities: He has been a ski bum and ski instructor, an architectural designer and a lodge owner, a board member for various organizations, including the Aspen Music Festival and School for 40 years. Perhaps of greatest significance, he has been a family man — not only raising two daughters with Fonda, his wife of 44 years, but also reuniting his family and his family history after both were nearly decimated by two World Wars centered in Europe. It has all overwhelmed him some.

“There was so much to the story — too much to tell,” Paterson said about his quiet nature. “It was better not to say anything than to start in on it.”

In 2005, Paterson sold his Boomerang Lodge, in Aspen’s Shadow Mountain neighborhood, retired, and found himself with time to start in on that history. And he was right; there was much to be told. “Escape Home,” the memoir he wrote with his daughter Carrie, runs more than 500 pages, and represents a spilling out of the sorts of things — a family tree, photos dating back a century, stories of heartache and adventure, recipes — that a more voluble personality might have been disclosing in bits and chunks over the decades.

“There was so much to the story — too much to tell,” Paterson said about his quiet nature. “It was better not to say anything than to start in on it.”

Paterson, who speaks in a clipped, thoughtful manner with a bit of an Old World accent, is also going to do some talking about his 84 years. “Escape Home,” whose subtitle is “Rebuilding a Life after the Anschluss — A Family Memoir,” will be introduced with a book event at 4:30 on Thursday, Aug. 8. Paterson — along with Carrie, a writer and artist who lives in Los Angeles — will present a slide lecture, “An Émigré’s Vision for Post-War Aspen and an Emerging Modern Architecture,” and sign copies of the book. A second event, with the slide show and book signing, is set for Tuesday, Aug. 13 at the Basalt Public Library, at 5:30.

Acts of courage

Throughout his life, Paterson had been a busy person, and retirement was simply a time to move on to the next set of projects. On that list was the file of papers that Steven Shanzer, Paterson’s father, had compiled over the years. The files had existed in the Boomerang Lodge from 1952, when Shanzer joined his son in Aspen; in August of 1977, when the Paterson family moved to the house closer to the base of Aspen Mountain, the files and the wooden cabinet in which they were stored came with them.

In all that time, Paterson never looked through the contents of the file. He knew some of what he would find: Going back to the middle of the 20th century, his father, part of a well-to-do and cultured Jewish family in Vienna, had kept documents regarding the family’s property, in the hope that some of what had been taken by the Nazis would be returned. But Paterson also had some inkling that there would be papers of an even more personal nature, that told a story he wasn’t sure he wanted to resurrect.

“I went through my life ignoring the situation,” Paterson said of his past, which included persecution by the Germans, his mother’s suicide, and an eight-year separation from his beloved father. “There was no sense in making points about it. It was something I didn’t talk about. I didn’t talk about my Jewish background for years. That was the simplest way out.”

But it was a story that wanted to be told. One early winter soon after his retirement, Paterson opened the files to find photographs, maps, recipes, and correspondence, including the entire mass of letters between Paterson and his father.

“Like puzzle pieces, these letters, many written in German and French, have provided the key to remembrances of a lost time that remain with me still and bring this memoir live,” Paterson writes in the introduction to “Escape Home.” And in the next paragraph: “The adventures we told each other through the years lay before me undiluted and unedited by memory.”

“My father kept every letter I ever wrote him since 1939, when we were at times separated — in Czechoslovakia, then France, Australia,” Paterson told me. “And when I came to Aspen and he lived in New York, I wrote him all the time. So my whole memory was at my disposal, my whole life was there. I spent days reading each letter. The discovery became the book.”

In fact, the opening of the cabinet became the start of a large-scale family project. With Carrie as co-writer and researcher, and Fonda, who had the clearest recollection of the stories Steven told, as historian, the Patersons began assembling their family history. They traveled through Europe multiple times to find traces of where they had come from — relatives, including the prominent Austrian architect Adolf Loos; the house in Werkbundsiedlung, the progressive experimental Viennese neighborhood where Charlie spent his early childhood; the textile and banking businesses built by their ancestors; the gravesite of Paterson’s grandfather, Otto Beck, and mother, Eva Schanzer, in the Jewish cemetery in the Czech city of Pilsen.

It is a tragedy that unfolds in the first half of “Escape Home,” going back to Steve Shanzer’s time as a World War I prisoner in Siberia, to the separation of Paterson and his sister Doris from their family, to a difficult time that Paterson and Doris spent as foster children with an emotionally distant family near Brisbane, on Australia’s east coast. (It was from this family that Charlie took his last name.)

“I think it’s an important witness document, a child’s witness document,” Fonda said of the book. “Having the courage to tell the story was a huge step for Charlie. And all of us, really. The willingness to accept, celebrate one’s past is tremendous.”

“If you’re a reticent person and value you privacy, it’s courageous to lay everything out on the table, your whole life.”

A place to call home

Possibly an even bigger act of courage is how Paterson, like many other displaced European Jews, put a horrific past behind them and started new lives elsewhere. “Escape Home” is ultimately a story of triumph, even an American Dream-type story — how a kid with nothing becomes a productive, significant member of a community.

Asked how he sees his story, Paterson says, “I had in mind showing how someone with adversity could come out on top and make a life in another country. It would show young people they could do anything they wanted to do if they put their mind to it. And you had to have a lot of luck.”

The ascendant part of Paterson’s life began in September of 1947, when Charlie, still a teenager, and his sister, 21 at the time, sailed from Sydney, landed in San Francisco, and arrived by train in New York City. There they reunited with their father, who had made a miraculous escape, by bicycle, foot and train, through Nazi-occupied France over the course of the summer of 1940. It had been eight years since they had seen Steve, and even then, Paterson was showing his ability to slough off the past.

“My father had not changed a bit and did not seem to look a year older than when we last saw him. All that time we were apart just seemed to slip away,” Paterson wrote of the reunion. Of himself, he wrote: “I had transformed from boy to man, not any longer ‘European’ or ‘foreigner,’ but someone from the young country of Australia, and now America, who could see a bright future ahead.”

In New York, Paterson went to high school, studied some engineering at New York City College, and took construction jobs. But perhaps the most momentous activity took place on a small hill in Central Park. Paterson and Doris would take their skis and slide down the hill. Eventually, each Sunday they had a crowd of people learning to ski, just off Fifth Avenue; that evolved into leading ski trips to New England.

In February of 1949, Paterson, seeking something more like the Alps he knew from childhood, headed to Colorado, planning to visit as many ski areas as his $35 would allow. At Arapahoe Basin, his mind open to adventure, he asked a woman about the green leaf on her sleeve. “Oh, it’s this fabulous new place called Aspen,” he was told. The following weekend, Paterson hitchhiked to the top of the Roaring Fork Valley, witnessed the North American Ski Championships on Aspen Mountain, scored free lift tickets by helping pack the race course, and landed a job as a bellhop at the Hotel Jerome. That summer, he worked as a stagehand for the Goethe Bicentennial, and witnessed the arrival in town of Dr. Albert Schweitzer, writer Thornton Wilder and the Minneapolis Symphony. Also, with the help of a barber named Jim Moore, he began looking for land to buy.

Paterson adored the mountains, the culture, the diversity of the population, and the fact that he was seeing celebrities like the movie star Gary Cooper. But what really made him feel at home was the idea of Aspen as a starting point — not just for him, but for everyone, it seemed.

“One reason I like it here is that everybody is from somewhere else,” he said. “I had always been trying to fit into different situations. Here, I was one of many.”

“I find that so telling and self-aware,” Fonda responded. “He wasn’t an outsider. Everyone was an outsider.”

With money earned working on the set of “Devil’s Doorway,” a Hollywood Western being filmed near Maroon Lake, Paterson bought land near Shadow Mountain and began building a cabin. In 1952, one of his greatest dreams came true when Steve moved to Aspen and settled in the cabin with him. “When I came to Aspen, I saw an opportunity to get our family back together,” Paterson said, noting that his sister Doris lived much of her later life in Boulder.

Paterson’s recollections of his early years in Aspen — being caught squatting in the Hotel Jerome; taking jobs in restaurants, in construction and as a ski instructor; using all means and materials available to slowly expand his property from a cabin to a small lodge; living the bachelor life with his father — is an invaluable addition to the literature on the birth of modern Aspen.

“I described my everyday life. You put it on a personal note, you get a different perspective,” he said. “There was a sense of discovery and a sense of pioneering. Here I am, this bellhop kid from the Hotel Jerome, rubbing elbows with multimillionaires, and we’ve become friends. That’s what the early days were. Most of us were in a similar situation, starting a new life with very little.”

Setting down roots

Paterson’s early adulthood also took place outside Aspen. There was a two-year stint in the Army; it was the quiet time between the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and Paterson spent much of his time training in the mountains around Colorado. More significant, Paterson trained in the late 1950s at Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural training grounds near Madison, Wisc. Chapters of “Escape Home” are devoted to the uncommon but valuable education — in architectural design, but also in music, movies, dining, philosophy and community — Paterson received at Wright’s modernist estate.

Back in Aspen, Paterson used his training to design the Boomerang Lodge, a distinctive 36-room hotel with a hexagonal pool that was built in stages between 1961 and 1970. The Boomerang was designed for maximum interaction between guests and staff, and became the sort of place visitors would return to year after year. Among the main attractions was Steve and his wealth of stories from Siberia and his escape from Europe. In 1968, a woman who had just graduated from the University of Iowa applied for a job at the Boomerang; soon after, Fonda married the boss.

Paterson designed a handful of houses in the Aspen area, including the handsome home along the Roaring Fork where he has lived in for 36 years, and remodeled several others. But the business of running the Boomerang (which he sold in 2005; it has been an abandoned site awaiting redevelopment since) kept him from pursuing more of a career in architecture.

The last several years have been devoted to getting a grasp on what those first 75 years or so contained, and what sense Paterson can make of them. Creating the book has been a satisfying chapter on its own. “Escape Home” was a family project that brought the Patersons — Charlie and Fonda, Carrie and her sister Jenny — closer, and brought them in touch with their ancestral history. (A set of family trees included in the book goes back to the 17th century.)

Another thing Paterson discovered in the process of writing the book is a newfound gratitude. Of his grandmother, who he had always thought of as stern, he said, “I didn’t realize how much she did for us and how much she loved us. She was a taskmaster, hard on us with our manners. But reading her letters, I realized how much more there was that I wasn’t aware of.”

A life fulfilled

In a life filled with more optimism and achievement than bitterness, “Escape Home” is the capping effort at finding meaning in a life that has included hardship, heartache, success and home.

“How do you say it — déjà vu? All of a sudden, your whole youth, your experiences as a 10-year-old boy, is in front of you,” Paterson said. “I had some trepidations about laying my whole life out in public. But if you want to relive your life and get a sense of who you are, writing a memoir is a good way to do it. The book gives me a feeling of having a fulfilled life.”

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