As TSV undergoes a monumental makeover, Jean Mayer and the St. Bernard are keeping it real
By J.R. Logan
Don’t ask Jean Mayer how old he is. American’s have a funny stigma about age, he says. Over here, age puts you in a box. He’s not fond of boxes.
And don’t tell Mayer he’s a legend. Sure, he was arguably a war hero. And sure, he helped create an iconic hotel and one of the greatest ski resorts in North America. But legends are past their prime. Legends are doomed to relieve their glory days until they die.
Mayer is not. “I don’t really like to go very much over the past. I want to do more and better.”
Mayer — who’s 81 by the way — is short and stocky. He’s built strong like a French bulldog, and with the same amiable temperament. His eyes squeeze into a squint when wearing an almost constant smile, showing off the pronounced gap between his front teeth. His quintessential French accent warms the soul like a glass of good Bordeaux. He is the epitome of charm. Utterly unpretentious and perhaps generous to a fault.
Next ski season will mark 60 years since Jean Mayer stepped off a bus at Taos Plaza, skis slung over his shoulder. Mayer had been personally recruited by Ski Valley founder Ernie Blake, who hired Mayer to get the resort’s fledgling ski school off the ground.
Mayer grew up a ski racer, flying down the slopes of the French Alps as a member of French junior team and a national champion. Mayer was recruited by the U.S. Army to serve with the 10th Mountain Division — an infantry unit on skis. He became head of the ski patrol in Garmisch, Germany, where in 1956, he helped lead Hungarian and Czechoslovakian refugees into Austria and West Germany while the Russians stomped out the Hungarian Revolution.
When his stint with the Army ended, Blake recruited Mayer and convinced him to come to Taos. Mayer says he took immediately to his new home. The terrain was amazing and the snow was deep — sometimes too deep for the heavy wood skis they were on in those days.
Not long after he relocated to Taos, Mayer built the first phase of what has today become the sprawling Hotel St. Bernard.
Named for the patron saint of skiers — St. Bernard de Menthon — the hotel is pressed as close to the mountain’s steep front slope as possible. Mayer says this was intentional — he didn’t want anyone building between him and his beloved mountain.
Hanging on the east wall of the hotel’s exterior, Mayer hung a sign in 1960 that still hangs today. A traditional Bavarian saying written in German, the sign reads: “On the mountain, there is no sin.”
In some ways, it’s at the heart of what Mayer has created over decades in Taos Ski Valley.
Mayer eschews the typical spirit of the American entrepreneur; he’s not out to make as much money as fast as possible. Instead, Mayer’s success at Taos Ski Valley rests on a simple premise: “Don’t try to make money out of the mountain,” he says. “Give to the mountain and share with it.”
From the outset, the business plan for the hotel was modeled on his military experience. At Garmisch, Mayer says soldiers would show up for a week of ski lessons. But off the mountain, they also had to be housed and fed. At Taos, Mayer created the famous learn-to-ski weeks, where guests would pay for an all inclusive vacation including accommodations, gourmet meals and expert instruction.
The lodge itself has a classic Old World feel — thick wood beams, copper pots hanging on the walls and an iconic copper fireplace in the center of it all.
Legendary ski filmmaker Warren Miller once quipped that the St. Bernard is “more European than Europe.”
For generations of families, the St. Bernard is a second home. Mayer has not strayed from the model of all-inclusive, weekly visits. It’s one part of Mayer’s formula of encouraging guests to unplug from the distractions of the modern world and reconnect with family and friends.
Most of the rooms and condos at the St. Bernard complex don’t have TVs, and those that do have screens as small as an iPad.
For meals, Mayer employs a loyal and highly skilled kitchen staff that pumps out three-square meals of gourmet cooking each day. A recently published cookbook based on dishes from the hotel includes recipes for Ratatouille Niçoise and Rack of Lamb Provençale. Everyone sits at long trenchers, and Mayer still waits on everyone, personally delivering food from the kitchen to the table.
His goal: create an atmosphere where people relax and open up with one another.
“I want to recreate the art of conversation between people and families,” Mayer says. “The luxury is the environment. It’s what’s around you. That’s the wealth. That’s more part of the mountain lifestyle.”
In fact, over the course of a 90-minute interview, Mayer says the words “ambiance” and “lifestyle” at least a half-dozen times each. It’s because both are central to what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. The St. Bernard leans on a reliable list of loyal guests who come back year after year, some for multiple generations. It also functions as thanks to the dedication of longtime employees, some of whom are also second-generation staff.
In his nearly 60 years at Taos Ski Valley, Mayer has been there through all of the ups and downs. He’s seen more than one person fly into town proclaiming they’re going to “save” Taos Ski Valley, only to be sent out on a rail.
At the moment, the Ski Valley is in the midst of another transformation. In 2013, the Blake family announced it was selling the resort to billionaire Louis Bacon, a New York hedge fund manager who’s also known as a conservationist and philanthropist. In less than three years, Bacon has poured millions into the Ski Valley, building a new lift up Kachina Peak, and financing a massive base area makeover worth tens of millions of dollars.
Less than 100 yards from the St. Bernard’s front doors, the resort is putting the finishing touches on The Blake — an 80-room, state-of-the-art facility that will include a spa, outdoor hot tubs, outdoor pool and a tapas bar.
It’s hard not to wonder how much of an impact the Ski Valley facelift and shiny new hotel will have on a half-century old mainstay like the St. Bernard. Mayer acknowledges that things are changing, and he’s willing to adapt as long as he doesn’t sacrifice his core values.
In response to that pressure, Mayer has invested in some modest upgrades. He’s most proud of new exterior doors with windows on all the rooms. But it’s about as far as Mayer is willing to budge toward modern standards of luxury.
For the first time, the St. Bernard will also charge a flat rate for guests this coming ski season, regardless of the time of year. Mayer says he never felt like it was fair to charge people more during the peak periods. For some families, that’s the only time they can visit, and he doesn’t want to gouge them just because he can.
There’s no doubt the St. Bernard’s accommodations are nowhere near as sleek as the meticulously designed rooms at The Blake down the hill. But in a way, that’s the point. Mayer is not a fan of the cookie cutter, sterile look on many modern hotels. “There’s no feeling. No emotion. No ambiance,” Mayer says. “You know you’re going to get this, this and that. It’s all very bland.”
His lodge, by contrast, is intentionally homey, intentionally cozy. And perhaps unintentionally, delightfully funky, down to the wood planked hot tub and Wurlitzer jukebox.
“It’s original and organic,” Mayer says proudly, as if nothing could be better than being beside friends in a warm room with a comfortable chair and a good drink.
Mayer is adamantly upbeat about the flurry of activity at the Ski Valley today, though he admits it was emotionally taxing to see the Blake family sell. He speaks highly of Bacon — admires his “go-for-it” attitude and respects Bacon’s reverence for the mountain itself.
For years, Mayer says he’s been approached by buyers offering large amounts of money to buy him out. His is a prime location, and one that investors have been eyeing for years. It’s happened recently, Mayer says, though he credits Bacon for not approaching him personally — something Mayer would consider an insult.
But why not? Why not sell out, take the money and spend the rest of his life in Hawaii, which is already his second home during the summer.
Mayer says it’s simple. He didn’t come all the way from Europe 60 years ago to make a fortune. He came for a lifestyle. And he has created a place that is, at its heart, about friends and family. It’s not an asset to be sold. It’s a part of him. It is him. And the last thing he wants to do is give that up.
“With all the changes that are happening here, there’s one thing that doesn’t change: the mountain,” Mayer says. “It’s good here. It’s a good life.”