I first discovered Gstaad, the Swiss mountain resort, just before World War II, as a weedy English schoolboy sent to recover from asthma and learn French. I didn't learn French, because my English prep school had taught me that was effeminate; I disliked my roommates, because they wore lederhosen and spoke German; I didn't learn to ski, simply because it terrified me (nobody had thought of telling me that I was shortsighted).
Just after the war, I passed through Gstaad again, playing ice hockey for Cambridge, and suddenly realized how beautiful -- and unspoiled -- it all was. Ten years later almost by chance I found myself sharing a simple chalet with a fellow writer, a young American named William F. Buckley Jr., up above the hamlet of Saanenmo ser. It could be reached only by horse and sled. Looking out upon a sunny plateau -- high over Gstaad -- to the Rhone mountains on the right, and on the left to the Jungfrau range, tinted pink each evening . . . it was a demi-paradise.
Planning to stay a month, I stayed a year -- one of the best in my life. My American chalet mate has returned to Gstaad every year since to write, staying now in the more palatial confines of the Chateau de Rougemont. I learned to ski, have been at it ever since and (though it's certainly not the world's best skiing) can't quite keep away from Gstaad either.
What is Gstaad? Basically it's just an overgrown village in a hollow in southwestern Switzerland, surrounded by low (too low) mountains that grew up around Le Rosey, Switzerland's most famous private school. Because of geography and the way winter residents and ski networks have spread, the concept of Gstaad has come to embrace most of the Saanenland (patois for "Sunny-land") and the French-speaking Vaudois village Rougemont.
At Rougemont, the medieval chateau was a last bastion against the Germanic tribes pushing down from the mountains. By the middle of the last century, the "Sunny-land" numbered little more than 5,000 natives -- a number that has remained surprisingly constant, if one deducts the 2,000 hotel beds and the 1,500 chalet incumbents who provide Gstaad both its reputation and its wealth. In 1905, the MOB, one of the earliest Swiss mountain railways, came through, linking Montreux with Bern -- although at first it was designed to bypass Gstaad on grounds of the village's insignificance.
Suddenly there was a vast spate of hotel building, with the Palace -- whose pinnacled towers dominate Gstaad -- opening its doors in 1913.
In 1917, the ski school started classes; in 1934 the first primitive cable-drawn sled was run up to the top of the Wispile mountain. Meanwhile chic schools, led by Le Rosey, were taking root, and with the parents came the forerunners of the jet set. As with the various migrations that have swept over Switzerland in the past, one lot dislodged another. First came the English upper class (the adventurous Byron evidently made his way to Gstaad). As the pound shriveled, however, Americans replaced the British. Then came the international bankers, Greek shipowners, wealthy Germans and now the oil-rich Arabs.
From an early date, film stars and celebrities flowed to Gstaad. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford were trend-setters. They were followed by the Richard Burtons, David Niven, Julie Andrews, Roger Moore. Some, like Princess Grace of Monaco, kept a low profile; others, like Roman Polanski, found it hard to keep out of the spotlights.
Then there are the artists: Pablo Casals came during the war, and violinist Yehudi Menuhin still gives an annual concert here. Bill Buckley comes to write his annual novel in two months, and still finds time to ski every afternoon, paint every evening (with an expertise that once provoked the octogenarian Marc Chagall to wail "Oh, the poor paint!") and joust with his friend and political opponent, John Kenneth Galbraith.
Madame Kokoschka once lived in Gstaad in a chalet surrounded by the paintings of her late husband, the great Austrian expressionist Oskar Kokoschka. The private art collections in chalets are breath-taking, although some owners seem to know more of their market values than artistic worth, while others keep them in the (obligatory by Swiss law) fallout shelter, where they are never seen. And there are chalets that are priceless works of art in themselves, like that of Valentino the designer.
The price of chalets -- if you can find one -- in the Gstaad area is now astronomic. The "Ba rgsunne" at Saanemo ser, where I once lived so happily, originally changed hands at 5,000 British pounds; now 250,000 pounds probably would not buy it. And it is not in the hotels but in the private chalets -- a special "social directory" of which is published each year -- where "life" with a capital "L" goes on. (For lodging information: Swiss National Tourist Office, 608 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10020, 212-757-5944.)
To the fringe visitor, the parties mostly seem boringly repetitious: same people, same food, same aimless conversation. Only the clothes change: Overheard at a garde-robe this winter, a blase' escort collecting a coat for his lady -- "Which are you wearing tonight? Is it the black mink?"
It has been said, unkindly, of Gstaad that there are many who come to stare at the really smart people who actually left for St. Moritz last year.
It is through the natives that the remarkable continuum of life at Gstaad really exists. In my year at Saanemo ser, I got to know them well. They were very conservative. The minute ski school was riven with argument, like the Reformation, as to whether the newfangled wedel (a style of skiing) should be taught or not. One family that had come up from the next valley a generation ago were still dubbed "foreigners."
Many of the natives have done well as a result of the foreign invasions. Freddie Hauswirth, the 2-year-old of our neighbor who owned one dilapidated barn, has risen to be a successful architect, the pump no doubt primed by fees earned in the twice-daily transportation of Mrs. William F. Buckley to the "Chalet Ba rgsunne" by horse and sled.
Relationships between the two worlds can be delicate. One is frequently appalled by the condescension, or downright rudeness, of the jet set to the natives. They turn the other cheek, smile or pretend not to hear; but they don't forget. For time is always on their side. The jet-setters come and go, but the eternal life of the "Sunny-land" goes on unchanged -- the curling in the winter and gossip in smoky taverns, the unlimited paradise of the upland pastures in summer.
Gstaad remains deeply conservative. The ancient yellow and black Rolls Royce still fetches Palace guests from the train station and the original cable-drawn sled still trundles up the Hornberg, while -- because of resistance by the farmers -- one of the world's smartest and most expensive clubs, the "Eagle" atop the Wasserngrat, can still be reached only by one of Europe's most primitive lifts.
Nevertheless, over the years the skiing has improved and expanded most wondrously. Now you can ski on a network of some 70 lifts, reaching all the way from Cha teau d'Oex to Zweisimmen to the Diablerets. One recently built lift takes you from Saanenmo ser over to St. Stephan in the Lenk Valley, and it is only a matter of time before the whole Lenk complex is linked to Gstaad.
There is more variety than the ski snobs allow. Saanenmo ser's gentle Hornberg is probably one of Europe's best grounds for beginners and children, while Rougemont's Vidlemanette, whose peak stands up out of the valley like a small Matterhorn, has plenty to offer the advanced skier.
For buffs who complain that runs are too short or too low (most lie below the 6,000-foot level), there is always the 9,000-foot Diablerets. The Diablerets, which stands on the corner of the Rhone Valley and is thus all too often closed by wind (locals talk about the Devil playing bowls on its peak when a storm rages), also has one of the most superb panoramas in Switzerland. I seldom have skied on it without scaring myself.
The area also has opened up some excellent cross-country tracks. The late David Niven used to hop and shuffle regularly from Chateau d'Oex to Gstaad, pausing for a "beaker" at a series of select pubs en route.
When the deadly Foehn blows, depressing you to death, and the snow turns (all too often) to rain, one grumbles that Gstaad is too low. On the other hand, I know of no place where you spend less time waiting in lift lines -- even on weekends when, as at most other European resorts these days, the hordes terrorize the slopes with their aggressive skiing. Another plus is the number of delightful eating places adjacent to the slopes.
But for me, most of all, it is the sheer, perhaps rather low-key beauty that keeps dragging me back to Gstaad: the sun setting behind the rumpled contours of the Gummfluh and the Rublihorn; the mist freezing on the willows along the River Saanen; the sharp wooden spires of Gsteig and Saanen churches; the sun-drenched plateau of Saanenmo ser, with the MOB tooting in the distance; the Christmas fairy lights of Gstaad, and the Rougemont brass band playing in the courtyard of the Cha teau.
As someone once remarked, perhaps Gstaad's mystique is that, like certain cars, it just goes on.