Arriving in Aspen as an awestruck teenager, I took the place for an accidental marvel without questioning what brought it about. It was a 19th-century mining town that had been discovered by skiers, and I let it go at that. When I dropped out of graduate school, hoping to study more interesting material, I found my life gravitating to Aspen. There was the town, waiting to be understood. Somewhat randomly, I started taking in the wider picture. Venturing outward, particularly through the western part of the state, I realized that a number of small towns – Silverton, Ouray, Telluride – had natural settings far more spectacular than Aspen, but looked like less interesting places to live. Despite a postgraduate cynicism that found the human race overrated, I decided that man must have intervened in some way to make Aspen different.
It wasn’t man in general, I learned, but one man – Walter Paepcke, husband of the woman who had dispatched my half-sister to Aspen – who started the town down its singular new path. Like my father, Paepcke was a Chicago German, but born into wealth and culture. Paepcke was only 26 when his father died, leaving him in charge of the family business, a lumber company that he gradually transformed into a major packaging operation, Container Corporation of America. Able to quote Goethe at length during free time, Paepcke was a classic driven businessman on the job until, with some urging from his wife Elizabeth, he fell under the influence of the German design group, the Bauhaus.
Meaning “house of construction,” the Bauhaus was founded in Germany after World War I to purge architecture and industrial products of their neo-Victorian excesses and leave them clean, essential, elegant. But the Bauhaus had more messianic goals. In its early mystical phase, the Bauhaus’ embrace of abstract design in construction, manufacture and the fine arts was the common thread that would create “whole personalities” who would, in turn, renew civilization. It was as if members of the Bauhaus had read in advance – and taken seriously – W. H. Auden’s line from the late 1930s, “New styles of a change of heart.” Harassed by Nazis, many Bauhaus members migrated to the United States and a New Bauhaus opened in Chicago in 1937. Under Bauhaus influence, the Container Corporation became the first American company to redesign itself to project a unified corporate image. Its products, its logos, its stationery, the painting of its trucks, even office furniture unseen by the public conformed to precepts of stripped-down contemporary abstraction. Best known was its long-running advertising series, Great Ideas of Western Man, which combined pungent literary quotes with images commissioned from prominent artists. There was no mention of Container Corporation’s actual product – boxes – and its own name had to be ferreted out of the fine print at the bottom. Because the ads were so unusual, readers did exactly that.The design revolutions of the Bauhaus softened Paepcke for the cultural impact of the University of Chicago during the early ’40s. Under the leadership of its charismatic young president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, the university had banished athletics and made science courses – those purveyors of mere fact – subsidiary to the humanities, particularly to philosophy and literature. Hutchins’ close associate, the philosopher Mortimer Adler, was engaged in collecting and publishing an encyclopedia-like set of volumes called Great Books of the Western World, together with a reference book tracing common themes among the highly disparate works. Critics complained that the Great Books tried to deliver culture in one indigestible horse pill, but the aims – to elevate common reading, to stimulate intelligent discussion and to unify culture through diffused knowledge of its highest expressions – were admirable enough. When the University of Chicago offered seminars in the Great Books, Paepcke was among its first and most enthusiastic participants. Uncoincidentally, most of the Great Ideas in the ad campaign could be found in the Great Books. In 1945, at the conclusion of World War II, the restless Paepcke, stimulated by the Bauhaus and the Great Books program, was looking for some haven from postwar vulgarity where he could foment an American cultural renaissance. Foremost on his agenda was creation of a well-rounded environment for the nurturing of the Whole Man, an ideal fusion of “body, mind and spirit.” The Paepckes had vacationed numerous summers in Estes Park, had bought a ranch near Colorado Springs, and in 1939 Elizabeth had visited Aspen and extolled its charms to Walter. In 1945 she encouraged her husband to visit. Unbeknownst to Elizabeth, Walter had already selected Aspen, sight unseen, for his center of cultural operations. He went so far as to assign employees to investigate the real estate market and to make contact with influential locals, concealing whom they represented so as not to inflate the price of real estate.
When Paepcke arrived, he found a town that had shrunk from some 12,000 inhabitants in 1893 to a mere 900, leaving empty Victorian houses, a hotel from the 1880s that offered rooms for a dollar a night and a burned-out opera house: an American Pompeii without lava. Paepcke immediately began buying houses and property, consummating deals prepared in advance. Elizabeth, aware that this change of focus meant forsaking their beloved ranch outside Colorado Springs, was heart-stricken that she had oversold Walter on Aspen, but Walter was unconcerned; however resistant at first, women eventually applauded what men did. During his first summers in residence Paepcke recruited a few Chicago cronies, including fellow Great Books seminarians, to estivate with him in style. He imported musicians, held chamber concerts at home and staged a few events in the charred hull of the opera house. But this culture was low-key and lacked momentum until Hutchins, planning a celebration of the 200th birthday of Goethe at the University of Chicago, suggested moving the event to Aspen. Paepcke, seeing just the opportunity to launch his cultural program on a national stage, set off a publicity campaign that has been vividly reconstructed by cultural historian James Sloan Allen in his 1983 book, “The Romance of Commerce and Culture” Behind the event’s celebration of a great poet, dramatist, scientist, statesman and political theorist was the goal of rescuing for Americans the best of German culture, rejected after the fascist holocaust.
A stellar intellectual cast that included the University of Chicago crowd, Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, English poet Stephen Spender, Italian cultural critic Giuseppe Antonio Borgese and American novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder agreed to deliver papers and participate in panels on Goethe and his relevance to the contemporary world. Such musicians as pianist Artur Rubinstein, violinist Nathan Milstein, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and the Minneapolis Symphony under Dimitri Mitropoulos were engaged to play a largely Germanic repertoire. It was Elizabeth Paepcke’s idea to invite the celebration’s grand star, Bach scholar, doctor to the African impoverished and de facto living saint, Albert Schweitzer, who had never before visited the Western Hemisphere. An enormous tent designed by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen enclosed the cerebral circus. Goethe, as a student of the material world who was anti-materialist in values, was a perfect oracle to ring in the new Aspen, allowing each speaker to present his own Goethe – tortured romantic, empiricist, nature worshipper, one-worlder, Olympian sage – a golden blank on which the celebrants could project themselves. Lasting three weeks and drawing some 2,000 people, the Goethe Bicentennial, largely because of the presence of Schweitzer, was the event that inscribed Aspen in the American psyche.For Aspen, the three Goethean weeks proved the cultural Big Bang from which the arts separated out. Musicians insisted on returning and – with Paepcke’s blessing and, at first, his financial support – created an annual summer-long music festival. Literature and philosophy proved harder to organize. Paepcke immediately wrote to all the Goethe participants to thank them and to solicit suggestions for future summers. Most replied with a few lines of encouragement but Ortega submitted a 4,000-word proposal for a college without walls and an approach highly similar to Hutchins’ program at the University of Chicago: Dispense with athletics, career training, the mongering after degrees and creature comforts; cultivate the inner life through philosophy, the arts, the humanities, the great themes from classic works of literature. Students should become knowing generalists, equipped to do battle both with specialists and the ignorant mass man. Paepcke was greatly taken with Ortega’s proposal, but it was long-range and meanwhile the next summer was impending.
In his first stab at verbal culture, Paepcke offered panel discussions of classic texts, open to the public. But members of the public hadn’t read the texts in question and the dialogue proved too abstract for a tiny local audience reinforced by stray tourists. Among those Paepcke asked for a solution was publishing mogul Henry Luce, who pointed out that the participants were mostly academics talking to each other. Seminars should target “the great unwashed American businessman,” abetted by representatives from government, labor, education and the arts. Persuaded, Paepcke organized the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, offering basically the kind of seminars Adler offered in Chicago, often led by Adler himself – and now closed to the public. The summer intellectual program was preceded by an annual design conference, a Bauhaus-inspired gathering of architects, product designers, city planners, advertisers and artists. Somewhat later, the Aspen Center for Physics sprang up nearby. Arriving for the first time to ski with my half-sister less than three years after the Goethe Bicentennial, I became intoxicated with a town already drunk on itself. Paepcke and associates had financed the first lift, but skiing for Paepcke was merely a moneymaker, useful for staking some of the backup people he brought to town and keeping summer culture in the black. Aspen had already attracted pioneer skiers back in the ’30s, fanatics willing to climb laboriously for every nanosecond of downhill bliss. Beginning in 1942, members of America’s ski troops, the 10th Mountain Division, trained in a camp near Leadville, came to Aspen to ski and even cut trails in their spare time. Some of those troops were natives of the Alps, where skiing was more advanced. Recruited to instruct soldiers, they returned to Aspen after the war to train recreational civilians. Generally uninterested in the cultural programs, the Alpine skiers nonetheless turned the town into an outpost of Europe with, among other charms, gloriously un-American cuisine.Of the Paepcke creations, my own abiding love was the music festival, which welcomed all comers and which I attended as if roll were taken. The Aspen Institute, on the other hand, having briefly tried to engage the public, folded inward until it seemed hermetically sealed. Its business-oriented seminarians arrived for two-week discussions that were off-limits to outsiders, and they had little contact with the town. The cinderblock buildings that eventually comprised the small Institute campus, fashioned by Bauhaus designer-turned-architect Herbert Bayer, looked like squared-off gray matter, and the official photographer, Franz Berko, a Hungarian whom Paepcke lured to Aspen, posed all participants with their chins resting on their hands, creating walls of solemn black-and-white heads whose brains appeared too weighty for their necks to support. The Institute programs seemed as remote as Paepcke himself, who was so exalted in my sister Ellie’s paeans to his greatness that I never attempted to see him as a human being on the rare occasions we met – and who died quite humanly of cancer in 1960, while my visits to Aspen were still confined to school vacations.
What I responded to in Aspen, beyond skiing, music and the wild outdoors in all directions, was the vivid society of individualists who had been drawn by Paepcke’s transplanted culture. The woman who owned the bookstore, as well as the woodshed where Ellie stayed during the first winter I visited, had been brought in as publicist for the Goethe Bicentennial. Ellie’s neighbor across the street, a former art director for the New York school system, had retired to Aspen to paint watercolors. A poet from Iowa, James Hearst, gave summer writing classes in a mining barn full of ore carts, an operation wholly unconnected to Paepcke. Many of the Germans, Austrians and Swiss turned from one-season ski instructing to entrepreneurship, and even though the sporting sometimes lost to the mercenary, their continued graciousness gave an otherworldly cast to the Western town. Along with Fritz Benedict, architect of my house, there were two other alumni of Frank Lloyd Wright’s school for architects, the Taliesin Fellowship. Members of the Fellowship were required to cook, play instruments, participate in theatricals and become not just architects but Wrightian versions of the Whole Man. The similarities between the ideas for social transformation in the Bauhaus and those of Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship – which Wright carried much farther in practice – were symbolized by the marriage of Paepcke’s Bauhaus architect, Herbert Bayer, and Wrightian Fritz Benedict, to half-sisters. It seemed an almost gratuitously Aspen touch that the mother of these women was the surrealist poet Mina Loy, who spent the creative period of her life in Paris, then passed her old age in Aspen, making collages from scavenged junk.Paepcke and his associates from the University of Chicago and the Bauhaus were, themselves, ambitious and driven, but they created a haven for talents who were more relaxed, more open and genial. Emigrants in the wake of Paepcke had the sense of making a new beginning, of inventing a novel society based on spontaneity, egalitarianism, love of culture, love of athletics, love of nature. Most of the rich people the town attracted hid their wealth to blend with those who were just getting by. Aspen, it seemed to me, was starting over, reconfiguring how to live. I had gone to supposedly good schools all the way into graduate work without learning a thing about the development of my own country, and felt a gap in basic information. I asked one of my Aspen hiking friends, who was still in high school, whether I could borrow his American history textbook now that the school year was over. Regarding me as if I were mad, he said I could if I promised never to return it. I soon realized what had provoked my friend’s disgust, but I plowed through the moldy chronicle, retaining what I could, supplementing it with other books that gave shape to the attic of facts. Without referring to Aspen, these books made it clear that Aspen’s reinvention of life was actually not so new.
Edmund Wilson, in “To the Finland Station,” reports that there are records of some 178 experimental communities during the 19th century in the United States. They came in all flavors: religious, vegetarian, celibate, promiscuous. Some were organized as stock companies, some abolished money and private property, some harbored runaway slaves. Between 1840 and 1860 there were more than 50 Fourierist communities that combined paradisiac socialism and free love. The Oneida Community in New York began by experimenting in eugenics and promising salvation on earth, and survived by accepting manufacturing and revoking its ban on personal property. Most interesting for an Aspenite was Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Mass., where intellectual dropouts formed an agricultural community, working the fields by day and presenting theatricals and tableaux vivants – wherein they posed as characters in famous paintings – by night. Visitors included Emerson, Bronson Alcott, feminist Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who based his satirical novel “The Blithedale Romance” on a stay in Brook Farm in 1841. Hawthorne called his characters “a knot of dreamers” and “amateurs in a pastoral.” Most of these experiments, with vague ideals and little grip on human nature, succumbed to infighting within a couple of years, and those that endured an entire decade might be proclaimed, in retrospect, successful. It is doubtful that Paepcke, or his friends at the University of Chicago, or members of the Bauhaus diaspora, had the least notion of their long line of idealist predecessors, and the fact that they grafted their renaissance onto an actual town, while diluting their vision’s purity, also improved its chances of survival. But after reading of the long procession of American communal fresh starts, it was impossible not to see Aspen as a new manifestation of a long strain in our history.
Since Goethe seemed to be the presiding spirit over this community to which I had staked my future, I duly read his declared masterpiece, “Faust,” in an old translation I inherited from my father’s library. I have since lost that sumptuous volume, but it must have been a wretched version, for it left me as cold as it had left Mortimer Adler, who “never figured what the fuss over Goethe was about.” To isolate a single figure rather than an experimental community as a predecessor, it seemed to me there was no need to cross the Atlantic, for one had lived in the midst of his own splendid architecture at Monticello. Jefferson’s version of the ideal future American may have been the honest husbandman, an innocent rustic safeguarded by his own piece of land, but Jefferson, in his personal outpost, relished literature, music, foreign languages, nicely spiced meals, good wines – all the trappings of the civilization he strategically kept at a distance, then rejoined when it was time to assume positions of power. Throw in a little tennis and you had the Paepckean Whole Man.But to see Aspen in a historical trajectory rather than isolation, it was finally in the pastoral tradition that I found the real correspondence. During my first years in town, Aspen even had classic pastoral props in its sheep drives – though guarding lawns and preventing dogfights are not to be found in Theocritus or Virgil. At the allegorical level, flute-playing shepherds could be said to represent culture in general and the music festival in particular, surrounded by nature. But the version of pastoral I had in mind was not the classical world of Arcadia or suburban Rome but the comedies and late romances of Shakespeare, whose urban sophisticates – displaced kings, dukes out of favor, princes wooing beneath their status, some of them with motley retinues – found themselves in a Forest of Arden or a rustic Bohemian village or on an imaginary island. Installed behind a cottonwood grove in the only house on Main Street still in the county, I thought of myself in terms of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” living in “a wood near Aspen.” Closer to the Aspen spirit, however, is “As You Like It,” whose highborn characters one by one leave the court and its “painted pomp” to populate a forest where a duke reads the book of nature, a lover leaves poems on trees, philosophers deliver disquisitions on travel, love and the Fate of Man like visiting seminarians and nothing is sacred, not even the return to nature itself. Aspen even had its debunking Jaques in novelist John P. Marquand, who spent caustic summers in a studio over Hallam Lake and liked to drawl, “I’m tired of fraudulent intellectuals, of Mortimer Adler, of the spirit of Goethe and of ski instructors in Tyrolean hats. I fought these people for two world wars. Why do I have to be polite now?”Paepcke has been likened to numerous figures, from his wife’s “Prince Charming who kissed sleeping Aspen awake” to, less cloyingly, a Medici prince, but to me the most suggestive analogy is to Prospero, protagonist of Shakespeare’s romance “The Tempest.” Marooned on a nearly uninhabited island after giving up his dukedom to pursue “liberal arts” and “the bettering of my mind,” Prospero draws less-enlightened leaders of society into the spell of his kingdom, to work their own betterment. His obedient spirit Ariel summons music at his command, magic entities serve banquets and put on pageants, and Prospero teaches speech to the island’s representative inhabitant. In amusing parallels to the play, the local Calibans that Paepcke tried to acculturate often wound up cursing him, while the musicians sought and won control over the festival from Paepcke, just as music-making Ariel gained his freedom from Prospero after doing his bidding. Prospero’s library may not have included Adler’s Great Books, but Paepcke and Prospero were both benign literary autocrats, scripting the communities around them by all means available, putting powerful contemporaries through fresh paces so that they had changes of heart – or at least improvements of mind – then sending them back to decree some brave new world after their crash course in transformation. Admitting much that doesn’t fit, the pastoral ideal of Paepcke’s Aspen can be seen as an unwitting parody of Shakespeare’s last play.
Plays, of course, end. Aspen’s Prospero died an early death, to be replaced, too often, by the merely prosperous. The pastoral tradition, furthermore, is a literary construct, not a plan of action to be lived out in the flesh. But Aspen was, for a brief span, a surprisingly close embodiment of the pastoral ideal, a time of relative innocence when the assorted arts and the great outdoors were accessible to an easygoing and diverse community, open to all who cared to partake. One man, himself imperfect, had intervened in Aspen, leaving a legacy of arts and intellectual organizations that multiplied in the hands of others, along with some ski lifts. To launch his Aspen renaissance and keep it in the black, Paepcke also set unstoppable economic forces into motion so that, too soon, the Aspen Whole Man needed to balance mind, body, spirit and money. Aspen is currently studied from the outside, but in investigations of tourism, not of utopias. Its history is usually divided into the mining era, followed by the so-called Quiet Years between the collapse of silver and the arrival of Walter Paepcke, followed by – what? I would divide the post-Paepcke era into the Bohemian Years and whatever we are living in now. For a blessed decade or two, Aspen experienced a kind of pastoral balance between adventuresome surroundings and human culture. Outsiders could show up, find adequate jobs and places to live in town, enjoy its setting and its offerings, and merge with the social fabric. The Bohemian Years did not end with any singular event but simply dropped away as Aspen, the notorious phenomenon, became overripe.
It is easy to be nostalgic now about a golden age that seems as remote as Aspen’s age of silver. Idyllic times are only fully recognized after the fact, and any place that lays claim to the pastoral tradition locates it just where Aspen does – in the past.Bruce Berger’s books include “The Telling Distance,” winner of the Western States Book Award, and “Music in the Mountains,” a history of the Aspen Music Festival. This essay is from the forthcoming “The Complete Half-Aspenite,” to be released at the end of the summer.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.