By J.R. Logan
Don’t ask Jean Mayer how old he is. American’s have a funny stigma about age, he said. 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 84 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.
It’s been more than 60 years since Jean Mayer stepped off a bus at Taos Plaza, skis slung over his shoulder. Mayer had been personally recruited by Taos 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 said 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 used 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. Except for exterior doors and windows that were replaced a few years ago, not much has changed at the landmark lodge.
Mayer is not a fan of the cookie cutter, sterile look of many modern hotels. “There’s no feeling. No emotion. No ambiance,” Mayer said. “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 stated proudly, as if nothing could be better than being beside friends in a warm room with a comfortable chair and a good drink.
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 said 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.”
Of his favorite run at Taos Ski Valley Mayer — a New Mexico Ski Hall of Fame inductee — said, “I cannot think — for obvious reasons — of another run but Jean’s Glade.”