Book addresses Aspen’s scandalous side
For all of Aspen’s glorious views and charming appeal, there’s also its sinister and seedy side that journalist and author Jay Cowan tells about in a recently released book.
Cowan, a former editor in chief of Aspen Sojourner, uses his work as a journalist and writer over the years to chronicle the town’s history through the lens of scandal.
A resident of Old Snowmass, Cowan, 66, had plenty of material to draw inspiration for “Scandal Aspen,” a book he shopped around to various publishers but was met with denial.
“They said it was too regional,” Cowan said last week from Montana.
Cowan then turned to Amazon, where his self-published book debuted June 1.
The stories will certainly resonate with those who have followed Aspen news over the years, or studied its history dating back to when it settled in 1879 as Ute City.
“Scandal Aspen” also frames Aspen’s seedy side in a historical context, starting with its former version of a rough-and-tumble mining town in the 1880s, when it boasted brothels, saloons, opium dens and other unsavory venues.
“For anyone alarmed at the numbers of marijuana dispensaries in the valley today, Aspen in the 1880s would have seemed like a back alley in Babylon,” Cowan wrote.
“Scandal Aspen” tackles Aspen’s more recent sensational events that elicited tabloid headlines — including the domestic violence arrest of Charlie Sheen on Christmas Day 2009 and the February 2014 murder of Aspen native and socialite Nancy Pfister.
The Pfister murder, Cowan notes in “Scandal Aspen,” hit home with many residents, even those who were here for Ted Bundy’s escape from a law library in the Pitkin County Courthouse in 1977, or the car-bombing death of cocaine dealer Steve Grabow at the Aspen Club in 1985, or when Jim Blanning threatened to blow up downtown’s banks on New Year’s Eve 2008.
Bundy would end up getting caught before he went on his Florida rampage and was ultimately put to death, while Blanning killed himself on the morning of Jan. 1, 2009.
“On a community level, we had lost another good person and advocate even if some people didn’t recognize that,” Cowan wrote of Pfister. “And it seemed to signal the final end of that safety and security we always had growing up here.”
The book also examines the July 2006 death of embattled Enron exec at one of his Aspen area homes, as well as actor Don Johnson’s local legal issues, and one of the biggest tabloid stories to ever hit Aspen — the March 1976 murder of ski racer Spider Sabich.
A chapter devoted to cyclist Lance Armstrong relates the time the mother of his two children took the blame for a hit-and-run in the West End neighborhood when Armstrong was actually behind the wheel. Armstrong, along with gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who once lived in Woody Creek, “were two of Aspen’s most famous drug users and seem to stand as symbols of their eras and Aspen’s challenging times,” the book says.
Aside from Aspen’s debauchery and decadence and permissive culture toward drug use, the town also has been the site for international events of import — say, for instance, the decision by the U.S. to go to war in Iraq in August 1990.
Known as the Woody Creek Summit, President George H.W. Bush, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Henry Catto, who was the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, signed off on the first invasion of Iraq when they met at Catto’s ranch in Woody Creek.
No Aspen-area event surpasses that in terms of newsworthiness and significance, Cowan said.
“It was an extremely tense situation,” Cowan said, his book noting the visit was exacerbated by writer Thompson’s residence’s close proximity to the Catto property — the Secret Service frowned on that — and other only-in-Aspen concerns.
Donald Trump’s adulterous visit to Aspen also gets the book’s attention, as well as a host of other topics.
“When Ivana Trump and Marla Maples encountered each other on Aspen Mountain during the Christmas holidays of 1990, the story went instantly around the world in at least three or four different versions. … What was known for sure is that both women were in Aspen with future president, Donald Trump, at the same time. And only Ivana was married to him. The rest of the details varied considerably.”