Legends & Legacies: Fast times with Elli Iselin | AspenTimes.com

Legends & Legacies: Fast times with Elli Iselin

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Historical Society photo

The recent account of a 100-plus mph speeder in Glenwood Canyon reminded me of a similar story from the 1960s, a tale of one of Aspen’s favorite retailers.

When he was the head of the Sun Valley ski school in the 1930s, Friedl Pfeifer recruited Elli Stiller as a ski instructor. Pfeifer, a recent immigrant from Austria, tagged fellow European racers who wanted to escape Adolph Hitler’s expanding influence and teach Americans to ski. After the war, Pfeifer opened his Aspen Ski School. He talked Stiller and Fred Iselin, her fiance, into moving to Aspen.

After a few years as an instructor, Elli Iselin opened a ski boutique across the street from the Jerome. From there she introduced skiers to Bogner ski clothing and other European imports.

Doris Willoughby, my aunt, kept Iselin’s books. I lived with my aunt during the 1960s, in a house where the bookkeeping business occupied the living room. I eavesdropped on conversations between the two women. Iselin’s German accent sounded shriller than her character, but no one ever wondered where she stood on any subject.

Iselin became one of my aunt’s favorite clients because my aunt admired her business savvy. Iselin’s simple philosophy brought success to a business where many failed. Rather than focus on trendy garb, she sold the highest quality classic items. Her customers recognized quality and were willing to pay more for it. This way, she did not get stuck with unsold items. Iselin’s reputation for offering the best quality imports attracted repeat customers.

One day, Iselin came into the house and tore into a rant about her most recent “worst experience.” A young man had dressed her down, behaved with indignation toward her, disrespected her age and challenged her veracity. Eventually she filled in the details. A highway patrolman had pulled her over for speeding in two-lane, twisty Glenwood Canyon.

Before immigrating to America, Iselin had skied as a top racer on the Austrian Ski Team. She won the national championship six years and became an Olympian. During the summer she raced sports cars, one of the first women to do so. She loved skis and cars because she adored speeding.

Fred Iselin bought Elli a Corvette Stingray. According to Elli, the patrolman ticketed her for hitting 100 mph. But he had clocked her at an even higher speed. She said she told him, “I couldn’t have been going that fast.”

A few weeks later she dropped by my aunt’s house. She said Fred had persuaded her to sell the Corvette because he feared she would lose her license. She had deployed the full power of her vehicle on roads beyond those of Glenwood Canyon.

Problem solved, we thought. My aunt and I expected to see Iselin sail along in a large and slower Impala. Instead, we felt shocked when she showed off her new car: a red Pontiac Firebird with the max horsepower motor and four-on-the-floor. Any patrolman would follow that muscle car.

In her Corvette, Iselin’s head reached window level. In the Pontiac, her head rose barely above the steering wheel. “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena,” a popular song at the time, perfectly described one of Aspen’s favorite characters.

“She’s gonna get a ticket now, sooner or later,

‘Cause she can’t keep her foot off the accelerator.”

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.