Postcards from Aspen’s Rich & Famous Tour |

Postcards from Aspen’s Rich & Famous Tour

Naomi Havlen

RICH & FAMOUS! screams the brochure in bold, black and red lettering. A fellow reporter at The Aspen Times had spotted this brazen piece of advertising at the Rubey Park bus station, and suggested someone take Aspens lifestyles of the Rich & Famous Tour to see what its all about.It took all of a split second for me to volunteer.Im neither rich nor famous, but my friends in other places all assume that I live the Aspen life of spa treatments and caviar hors doeuvres. Year-round residents know, however, that life in Aspen can mean working hard often two or three jobs to play hard.Who among us isnt curious about how the other half (or half of 1 percent) lives? And what do these tour guides tell our visitors about the high life?I know, I know in Aspen we pretend not to recognize celebrities, for fear of losing our veneer of cool. But locals also know that the super-rich are easily spotted women with their faces pulled tighter than the Benedict Music Tent, and men in fur boots accompanied by grim nannies and Hummers.So whats wrong with getting some definitive answers on where these people live? Nothing, I say. My four friends didnt know what to expect from the tour, but we all secretly hoped it would be shamelessly voyeuristic.When we booked our reservations, things were looking up. We were told that April is a great time for the tour, because sometimes the stars are in town, and theyll be outside when you drive by.Right as if the gardener called in sick. I assure you, we didnt see any green-thumbed celebs. We didnt see any celebs at all.In fact, we realized quickly it should be called Aspens Rich and/or Famous Tour. The rich, we discovered, arent necessarily famous. Some of the people who own these homes invented things like the bar code and made millions. Others are more on the infamous side, like Enrons former president and CEO, Kenneth Lay. Plus, we were told later, Aspens rich arent all famous because Aspen has been taken over by billionaires, leaving the mere millionaires (movie stars, you see, dont make the really big bucks) to move downvalley to low-rent spots like Wildcat Ranch and Starwood. But I digress. First, lets get some things straight about us. Im a reporter, which should tell you all you need to know about my net worth. My tour companions included Ross, a professional photographer and graphic designer; Jamie, who works for the Aspen Writers Foundation; and Heather and Stephanie, who both work for the Aspen Music Festival and School.All of us live in affordable housing. Four of us were about to head to Grand Junction for some weekend shopping, since we cant afford Aspens boutiques. One of us admits to having a 99-cent Cup o Noodles before donning shades for the Rich and Famous Tour.The golden elevatorSo, one recent Friday we were whisked from Rubey Park in a nondescript white SUV by Mark, our tour guide from Five Star Adventures (based in Palm Springs, Calif.). He learned our names and kept things chatty, but he wasnt quite prepared for a carload of locals who knew the answers to all of his questions.Does anyone know Aspens original name? Ute City.Why did silver mining go bust? Because the Sherman Silver Act was repealed.Who owns that green Victorian in the West End? Jack Nicholson.Of course, there were things we didnt know fun facts I wont reveal since I dont want to ruin Marks shtick. But lets be honest we were in it for the outrageously large homes, not the history.Within 20 minutes we were squinting through the SUV windows to see Aspen Mountains first ski in/ski out home the highest place on the ski hill, built in 1984 for $3 million. It was mostly hidden by a row of pine trees, but the piece de resistance isnt really the house at all its the elevator access. On Durant Avenue, in an area of town none of us had ever ventured into, Mark pointed out the elevator tower, with golden doors that slid open as an apparent staff member wandered out, heading toward the bus station.It was our first glimpse at the good life, the really, REALLY good life.At this point Mark told us that the cost of the average single-family home in Aspen is $4 million, or roughly $7,000 to $8,000 per square foot.Stephanie looked back at the rest of us from her shotgun seat, stuck out her hands and pantomimed the size of a square foot.Its small. Sometimes its hard to believe we breathe this high-priced alpine air. We may not live in the rough-hewn timber mansions with subzero freezers, but we all have Aspen survival strategies. My fiance and I occasionally try what we can afford at Takah Sushi before heading to New York Pizza. Ross eats where he wants to, but keeps his eyes on the left side of every menu; Jamie swears by bar menus and has learned to cook. Stephanie shared a bedroom (a literal roommate) for her first two years in town.And, as Heather noted, when was the last time any of us paid full price for activities, considering all of our small-town connections? My friends were only too happy to join the Rich & Famous Tour when they learned The Aspen Times was footing the bill.Oops forgot the binoculars!Moving along, we were driven past The Little Nell hotel, where the rich and famous enjoy five-star service, and according to Mark the last hotel in Aspen and maybe Colorado where the Kennedy family is still allowed to stay. The family is known for trashing hotel rooms, he said.Farther down Durant Avenue, Mark paused at a large Victorian and asked us to guess the date of its construction. Its a dead ringer for a home from Aspens silver boom, but according to Mark, it was built in the 1990s. A century-old miners shack was torn down to build this $6 million mansion, Mark said, and its only occupied for four weeks a year.Many of the homes we ogled sit empty for most of the year, Mark noted, and yet this Rich & Famous Tour was full of locals struggling to afford rental apartments.Oh, the injustice of it all!All five of us groaned as Mark proceeded up Red Mountain for an as-close-as-you-can-get-without-heading-down-the-driveway look at the homes that loom over Aspen.Mark stopped the SUV occasionally, and we hopped out of the car to gaze up a hill or over a cliff at palatial estates owned by CEOs of companies that produce greeting cards or send overnight packages.The house that intrigued us the most, however, was the one we couldnt see at all.At 35,000 square feet, its the second largest home in Colorado. But this Godzilla of monster homes is tucked deep inside 300 acres of property. Mark said billionaire owner Les Wexner, founder of The Limited, Express, etc., had contractors build a $1 million foundation in one spot, then flew to Aspen in his jet and decided the site didnt have the best possible view of Aspen Mountain. The $90 million property now features a pond where the foundation once stood.It looks like quite the drive from Wexners fence to his home, completely hidden behind rows of trees, but we werent allowed to make the trip. Instead of gawking at a mansion, we gawked at rolling fields of green, a $1 million accidental pond and what Mark claimed are $1.5 million worth of imported Canadian pine trees at the driveway entrance.Of course, Wexners place isnt Colorados largest. That distinction belongs to a compound just west of Aspen, inside the gated community of Starwood, owned by Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia.Sadly, Bandars digs werent on Marks tour.On the outside looking inWhat kept us intrigued were the details that people include in their homes a mailbox allegedly worth $15,000, and Aspens only heated alley, which looks more like a manicured suburban street than a neglected Dumpster hideaway.Mark gets a lot of requests to spin by the modular home in the Smuggler Mountain trailer court that was once appraised at almost $1 million. We did drop by this home, relishing an only in Aspen moment although we had to redirect Mark when he initially pointed out the wrong home.We also cruised through Aspens West End, taking a look at former homes of stars. Cult siren Lynda Carter, of Wonder Woman fame, once renovated a pink Victorian, and the founders of Macys department store owned the house next door. George Hamiltons former home isnt too far away. The only real famous person who still owns a home we saw in the West End is Jack Nicholson. And sadly he wasnt out in front, trimming his star-power shrubbery.We didnt cruise up Independence Pass for a birds-eye view of Kevin Costners retreat, and there was no stop in Old Snowmass to peer at the ranch owned by Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn. John Denvers former home? Nope. And doesnt Don Johnson own a place in Woody Creek? Didnt see it.But, as the two-and-a-half-hour tour concluded, none of us regretted the not-so-rich lives weve chosen here in chic, posh Aspen. The views from Red Mountain may be terrific, but at one point we all looked wistfully at one of the greatest backyard barbecue spots in town, connected to a rundown skiers shack where Ross once lived on Park Circle.There are still mismatched lawn chairs there, and a view of the sunset over Mount Sopris. This spot wasnt on Marks tour, but without a doubt, its a piece of the good life in Aspen.Naomi Havlens e-mail address is