Guest commentary: Lawbreaking with the U.S. attorney general
On Friday morning Nov. 22, 1963, in Aspen, almost every resident was thinking about the opening of another ski season. No one considered what was about to happen in Dallas. How could they?
We were only expecting happiness. The lifts opened six days later on Thanksgiving. Those of us who craved skiing already had started skiing up at the top of Independence Pass. We’d drive up the 26 miles from Aspen to get to the top where the snow was. The mostly dirt road closed for the winter when the snow got deep. These days it closes late in October, sometimes earlier.
An alpine meadow, green and smooth in the summer, suited us just fine in the autumn. It had the snow we craved. After parking our cars by the roadside, we hiked up with our skis on and skied down, and we did it all day long. Independence Pass, where we skied, was 12,000 feet above sea level. To ski up there at that altitude, one had to be in shape and willing to do a lot of walking up for a little skiing down. Those already in shape could herringbone their way up. Those not at that physical level sidestepped up. We were doing what we wanted. It was both athletic and social.
I was living in a second-story studio apartment in the center of Aspen on Hyman Avenue, sans TV, when the news came up from the street that President Kennedy had been shot. In Aspen it was about 11 a.m. The man that many of us identified with so easily was gone, taken away by bullets in Dallas. There was an immediate what-do-we-do-now miasma clouding our vision and our future.
As I watched events unfold in Dallas, not in my wildest dreams did I ever envision that within a month’s time my path would intersect with three of John F. Kennedy’s siblings in what turned out to be a demonstrably illegal act. And I, naive and willing, was a facilitator, an accomplice, an accessory.
During the day, a half-century back, I had a day job as a bartender at Buttermilk, the least difficult of Aspen’s three ski areas. The bar sat in the middle of an interesting building that was, architecturally, a hyperbolic parabola. I never bothered to look that up. Work was easy and fun, and the small bar attracted an interesting clientele. I remember carding actress Jill St. John and pretending I didn’t know who she was. I managed to serve August Busch III a Budweiser in a waxed paper Coors cup. We didn’t have any Bud cups that day. The Budweiser distributor never left us any, I told Mr. Busch. I could see movie stars, Jimmy Stewart being one, outside on the sundeck having lunch on a sunny day.
The concessionaire, Everett Peirce, gave me carte blanche behind the bar. Normally, back then, Scotch was 75 cents in any form. Chivas Regal brought another dime. If you ordered Chivas Regal on the rocks, or with water or with soda, you paid 85 cents. But if you ordered Chivas Regal and Coke, you paid $1.70. I figured that if a customer from Texas was dumb enough to drink good Scotch whisky that way, he would also be dumb enough to pay for it. Worked for me.
As a perk, I could ski in the mornings for free before I opened the bar. Lunch was gratis. Life was good.
Austrian ski instructor Hubert Erhard and I got to be friends the previous winter during the 1962-1963 ski season. I served good drinks and specialized in a hot buttered rum made with apple cider, did magic tricks behind the bar and had an easy way about me. Hubert liked me. It could have been because I knew how to say, “Don’t eat the yellow snow” in German.
In the fall of 1963, Hubert took over the storied downtown-Aspen restaurant, The Golden Horn. It was just down Cooper Avenue from the legendary Red Onion. As a skier of some passion, I read all the magazines. I felt as if I belonged at The Red Onion. Later, I did. I was familiar with The Golden Horn, too. The ski mags often wrote up the results of what was known as the Saloon Slalom. Employees of both restaurants competed once a year on the lower slopes of Ajax, the big mountain, to see which team was fastest. The winners got free drinks at the loser’s establishment, which also had to put a sign up in the window, with an arrow pointing the direction of the other establishment. It stayed up for a week. The sign said, “Eat next door.”
Before the season started, around when we were all at a loss because our president had been killed and a Texan had replaced him, Hubert asked me if I would like to be his maitre d’ and wine steward for the winter season. The fit seemed as perfect as a tight swimsuit on Heidi Klum. Buttermilk’s bar closed about 4 p.m. The Golden Horn opened a couple of hours later. I told Hubert I’d do it. I lived a half block from his restaurant. But, I admitted, my comprehension of wine was not exactly cutting edge; it was as dull as a butter knife.
“Don’t worry,” Hubert told me. “We’ll have a wine tasting, you and I, and I will tell you how it’s done.” We did exactly that. One afternoon Hubert and I drank a lot of reds and whites. My education began. Hubert showed me the ceremony that goes with serving wine and made certain I was fluid with my technique and my conversation. I came away from the experience slightly over-served but with a feeling that I could pull it off.
As an aside, public wine tastes in this country at that time were at such a low level that it is possible even Colorado’s snakes hung their heads. One of the asked-for combinations on the part of pseudo-sophisticated diners — they probably had Playboy Club keys, too — was “Cold Duck.” One bought two bottles of wine — one a sparkling burgundy and the other a champagne — and they were mixed in the glass by me. Today, were one to order “Cold Duck” at, say, a Waffle House, one might be asked to leave for having no class whatsoever.
Around Thanksgiving, this nation watched the Kennedy funeral. We saw John-John salute the casket of his father. We noted the riderless horse following the caisson, the boots turned backwards in the stirrups. We saw our princess Jacqueline as she stood, mute, while the procession marched past. And we remained to see our president honored at Arlington, the resting place of the great and the ordinary who served this country.
Several weeks later, between Christmas and New Years — it was a Sunday — I went into The Golden Horn to get, as I always did, any last minute instructions from Hubert, who cooked in the kitchen and presented a delicious Austrian repast for his guests. “We have a party of eight by the name of Kennedy,” he said with his Austrian-accented English. “The reservation is for eight o’clock. Keep an eye on the service. Make sure everything is perfect.”
The Kennedy party arrived at The Golden Horn 10 minutes early. Their table was not ready, so they all had vodka martinis in The Golden Horn’s small bar, really not more than a niche off the dining room. They seemed relaxed, confident of themselves but quietly so. The group included Robert F. Kennedy and his wife Ethel; Jean Kennedy Smith and her husband Steve; Edward (Ted) Kennedy and his wife Joan, and Willy Schaeffler, the ski coach at the University of Denver and a local female friend.
Precisely at 8 o’clock the table was ready. Also, precisely at 8 o’clock an on-the-books, Colorado state statute kicked in. No standard alcoholic beverages — beer, wine, mixed drinks — were allowed to be sold by establishments holding a full liquor license such as The Golden Horn. The Kennedy party had not finished their martinis in the closed-off bar. But they could not take them to the table either. They had to leave them behind. By law, the bartender was supposed to remove the drinks from the polished-bar surface and pour them down the drain. To me, that seemed unfriendly and useless. I had an idea. I secured water glasses from the kitchen, took them to the bar, poured the now-illegal drinks into the water glasses and served them to the Kennedy party, now seated at their reserved table. The other diners, all of whom were very much aware of who was in the dining room with them, never knew the difference. The group got water. It tasted just like a vodka martini. Simply amazing!
The waitress took the dinner orders. It was routine procedure that took several minutes. After she left, ever vigilant, I noticed that the level in the attorney general’s water glass was low. I immediately filled it up as Robert Kennedy put his hand out to stop me, saying, “No!” It was too late. I had unmistakably diluted his vodka martini. “I’ll get you another,” I croaked. Kennedy said, “It’s OK.” It may have been OK with him, but I still carry the shame I felt for such a monumental blunder.
I remember the party conversing easily while waiting for dinner to arrive. Though I cannot recall specifics, I am certain others in The Golden Horn felt both curious and slightly honored to be in the same restaurant.
It was during the wait that Steve Smith called me over and told me that they would like some wine with dinner. With the tocsin of Colorado law ringing in my ears, I had made no proffer. I explained the predicament to Smith. I could not bring them so much as a wine list. He asked me to check with the owner. That would be Hubert, working in the kitchen. I agreed. When one is challenged thusly, it is always wise to delegate responsibility.
When I asked Hubert, who sometimes got a little impatient, he said, “Absolutely not.”
I returned to Smith and said, far more diplomatically, that wine could not be served. The owner had said as much. Smith, a hard-nosed financial consultant and also campaign manager for John F. Kennedy’s upcoming re-election bid, was not used to being told that it could not be done. If one was associated with the Kennedys back then, one had an undistorted sense of privilege. After waiting a discrete amount of time, Smith asked me to approach Hubert again. And I did.
This time the going was a little rougher in the kitchen. Hubert had any number of meals working. He was hot, sweating. When I mentioned again what the Kennedy party wanted, Hubert was displeased.
“I don’t give a damn who they are,” he said to me. “It’s my liquor license that is at stake here, and I am not going to violate the law for anyone. You go back out there and tell them that!”
I just did it with a display of humility and obsequiousness that would have made Uriah Heep proud. By this time the need for wine had sprouted at the Kennedy table like mushrooms after a summer rainstorm. Few told the Kennedys “not going to happen.”
At this point, Schaeffler, a fellow Austrian who already knew Hubert, got up from his chair and marched into the kitchen. What followed, though I was there, I did not understand. Messrs. Schaeffler and Erhard had words, but they were German words, heated German words. Umlauts were flying around the kitchen like butterflies. The discussion, if one could call it that, went on for several minutes and I am sure the temperature in the already-hot kitchen went up by several degrees. Then Schaeffler returned to the table in the dining room.
“Morgan,” Hubert said to me, “go down to the wine cellar, find the cheapest bottle of Beaujolais we carry, bring it up here, open it in the kitchen, pour it in the kitchen into coffee cups, serve it to them in coffee cups and don’t charge them for it.”
I did as instructed. When one thinks back on Hubert’s solution, made in a fraction of a second, it glows in its simplicity. The Kennedy party would be happy. Hubert, by making a gift of something that cost him little, would not violate the spirit of the Colorado law. Serving the wine to the party in coffee cups would not alert any other diners that something they absolutely could not get was being served to the eight people at the Kennedy table. Einstein could not think that quickly.
Not being accomplished at carrying a tray with eight full coffee cups on it, I was very careful in the dining room. I pulled a serving stand close, put the tray down and served eight cups of outlaw Beaujolais. As I served the wine, I could see the angst at the table evaporate like pond fog in a summer morning’s sunlight.
I was standing behind and slightly to the right of Robert Francis Kennedy when, just before he took his first sip of Hubert’s cheapest wine, turned to the person on his right and said, “Oh my god. The attorney general of the United States.”
Forget that? Not on your life.
Addendum: Of the entire brood born to Joseph and Rose Kennedy, Jean Ann Kennedy Smith is the only one still alive. Her husband passed away in 1990.
Morgan Stinemetz is a former Aspen resident who now lives in Florida.