Martie Sterling remembered as loyal friend, ‘damn funny’
October 15, 2010
ASPEN – A lot of Aspenites will say a final good-bye Saturday to a woman known throughout her life for constantly looking after her friends.
Martie Sterling is being remembered as a fun-loving woman who spent a lot of her time promoting the town she adored and attending to the many residents she befriended. Sterling died Sept. 29 at age 85. Her memorial service will be held Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Hotel Jerome ballroom.
“Martie was so smart and so damn funny,” said Sara Garton, her longtime friend and occasional employee years ago. But most of all, Garton said, she will remember Sterling as a loyal friend.
“Once you had Martie for a friend, you had a friend forever,” Garton said.
It was impossible to have a passing friendship with Sterling. She kept in constant contact with her vast circle of friends to make sure they were doing all right.
Skill and a stroke of good luck helped her and her husband Ken fulfill their dream of moving to a western ski town. Martie was selected in 1958 as a contestant on the television game show “Tic Tac Dough,” which the Syracuse University graduate parlayed into a $18,600 payday. The Sterlings moved to Aspen and used her winnings to build the Heatherbed Lodge near the base of Aspen Highlands. Herbert Bayer designed the lodge, which was originally 12 beds.
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Their daughter, Gwen Sterling, said she and her siblings lived at the Heatherbed and helped out from an early age with various chores. They made the beds, cleaned toilets, shoveled snow, cleaned laundry and got up at 4 a.m. to help their dad prepare breakfast.
The lodging industry was tough at the time, Gwen said, because there was only business during ski season. Her mom, along with a lot of residents of the small town back then, got involved in a variety of community activities designed to benefit the town and help them prosper.
“What I am most proud of is what she did for the town,” Gwen said. “She was always trying to promote Aspen.”
To help spur summer business, her mom created a dinner theater that was performed in a tent at the base of Highlands. Martie wrote and directed the performances.
That was a different era in Aspen. There was no high-end lodging and virtually no second homes. Folks of all socio-economic classes mingled together, and a good time was had by all at bars and restaurants like the Red Onion, Golden Horn and Crystal Palace. The Sterlings befriended many of their guests, who included everyone from wealthy industrialists to the writer Leon Uris. They sold the Heatherbed in 1969. Gwen said Uris inspired her mom to pursue her love for writing, which she more or less put aside to run a lodge and raise a family of five.
Martie went on to write four books, including a novel from Aspen’s mining era called “Pearly Everlasting.” Gwen said her mom was enthralled with Aspen’s mining history. She visited some of the shafts sunk around town and explored the ruins of the backcountry.
“We spent our teen-age years in the back of a Jeep visiting old mining towns all through Colorado,” Gwen said.
Martie’s fascination with the mining era was spiced by the fact that her great-great aunt was one of the first women to cross Independence Pass into the silver camp that turned into Aspen. Her ancestor married a Judge Watson, the eventual namesake of Watson Divide.
Sterling also wrote a book detailing life at the Heatherbed and in Aspen in the 1960s called “Days of Stein and Roses.”
“It’s absolutely priceless,” Georgia Hanson, executive director of the Aspen Historical Society. “It shows the camaraderie and the spirit of the blossoming age of Aspen.”
Sterling also kept Aspen at the forefront of an important part of the ski world by writing a column called “Last Run” at the back of SKI Magazine. Dick Needham, then editor at SKI, said he loved Martie’s column because ski publications at the time in the 1980s and ’90s were tending to take themselves too seriously.
“She added a sense of levity – let’s not take ourselves too seriously,” Needham said. “She added a great deal of warmth and humor to the ski magazine.”
Sterling was also prolific as a writer of magazine articles on travel, humor and history, as well as skiing. She and Ken traveled the world extensively, and Martie successfully marketed her pieces about their adventures.
Just as Uris encouraged Sterling to get back to writing, she, in turn, used her success to help other writers in Aspen.
“What I remember best about Martie is how she nurtured up-and-coming writers,” said Garton. “She was so giving of her time.”
Garton said Sterling and Karen Chamberlain created an organization that was the genesis of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation in 1983. By happenstance, Chamberlain will also be remembered in a memorial service in Aspen on Sunday.
The Sterlings left Aspen in 1991 for the warmer climate of Tucson, Ariz. They returned to Emma in 2009 to live out their last days closer to their kids and grandchildren. Ken preceded Martie in death. Donations in Martie’s name can be given to The Hospice of the Valley.