Tony Vagneur: Hey, hey Paula … we want to celebrate you
In 1952, it was a long way from San Francisco to Aspen, but Paulina Bertolino, a courageous woman of youthful determination made the journey, not knowing what was in store, and in the end, stuck to this place like glue. In a town known for women of toughness, intelligence, striking beauty, and motivation, she stands out. You know her today as Paula Mayer.
Awakened from her afternoon nap by this writer, she immediately sat up straight with that wonderful smile and welcomed me as a long-lost friend. I handed her a copy of my book and without aid of glasses or prompting, she quickly read my scribbled inscription inside the cover. “Oh Tony, I used to come to your office every month to pay the trash bill.” Yes, you did, and we always looked forward to your visits.
Her hair done up with a tortoise shell comb, in Paula style, she was still the same lively, ebullient, unique person I knew more than 25 years ago. And the stories started to flow.
You’ve heard it said that “back when” people all got along as one group; there was no idea of class separation. Paula tells it a little differently; there were two classes of people in Aspen in the early 1950s, the wealthier and the less so, but they all got along together rather well. That was one of the things that made her decide to stay. The other was the neighborliness in the community; people knew one another and looked out for each other. Paula was a celebrated dancer, but she didn’t want anyone to know that — she just wanted to blend in with the people that so intrigued her.
In getting started with her Aspen life, Alex Betemps (how many remember him) sold her a lot in Oklahoma Flats; she’s been a property owner there ever since. Others in that neighborhood were the likes of Pope Rowland and Hoofy and Antonia Sandstrom, people who are unforgettable to anyone who’s ever listened to stories about them. Local fishermen passing through would always leave a trout or two on the Mayer’s doorstep.
As a young woman in San Francisco, she was a flamenco dancer, a bailaora, used to castanets on her fingers which she still plays today. Her dance instructor always told her to solidly stamp her feet, to feel it in her knees and kidneys, to know she did it correctly. The dance instructor was Elisa Cansino, Rita Hayworth’s aunt. Professionally, Paula danced with the Jose Greco troupe, billed as Paulina.
In Aspen, Paula taught Spanish dance in the Brand Building; she and Marta Brucker teamed up teaching ballroom dancing, from youngsters to adults. She says her knees bother her a little now from all that flamenco dancing in the early days. Not the skiing.
Speaking of skiing, she married Howie Mayer not too long after arriving in Aspen. You remember Howie, came here in 1948, long-time ski patroller, now deceased, whose nickname, Uncle Wiggly, is forever attached to a trail through the trees under the gondola on Aspen Mountain. Every year, I wistfully look for his unfailing and memorable squiggly tracks through the closed area above the pump at the bottom of Pumphouse, and think of Howie. Back then, he would sometimes buzz the patrol shack on his days off, showing off his private plane. Paula and Howie were married for 55 years and had five exceptional children.
Early in their marriage, Howie asked Paula if she’d like to go to a ski patrol party, being hosted by Charlie Bolte at the Red Mountain house he’d built, hanging off the side of the mountain. A patrol party, especially in those days of all men patrolmen, took a bit of getting used to for any outsider, but especially a young, recently married woman.
She says that all of a sudden, one of the patrolmen came charging out of the bathroom, clad only in his jockey shorts, holding a flaming ski over his head, burning at both ends, and singing a Hawaiian war chant. She says the ever-charming Dick Bird, another now-retired, long-time patrolman, helped explain some of the craziness.
On June 1, Paula will be 92 years old. She and Marilyn Monroe share the same birthday, and both of them knew Joe DiMaggio. I have a hunch she and Marilyn shared a few escapades together.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that Paula would like to thank the many families in Aspen who were her friends and who helped each other through the hard times, but wow, the list would be too long for this short column.
In closing, may I say this is just a small taste of the stories that roll off the tongue of Paula Mayer. As her daughter Nannette suggested, I should come back for a longer session, bringing a tape recorder. Excellent idea!
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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