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Summer in Sun Valley, Idaho

The exclusive resort city is an insiders’ club that aims to stay that way.

Am I too late to get a seat for columnist David Brooks? It’s August, high season in the Sun Valley summer and the opening night of the celebrated Sun Valley Writers Conference, a gathering so select that I have been asked not to write much about it. “We don’t like publicity here,” one of the organizers says without a hint of self-consciousness. At first, it seems I have come upon a Valhalla in the zone of the discreet. From my balcony at the storied Sun Valley Lodge (rooms, from $200; 1 Sun Valley Rd.; 800-786-8259; sunvalley.com), I look at the knock-your-eyes-out view. The pink skies of a southern Idaho sunset light the low chocolate foothills of the Sawtooth range. Olympic skaters pirouette to a Strauss waltz in a rink just below. Near the open-air pavilion, a crowd gathers to picnic on the lawn. There’s no question that this is a gathering of the liberal elite: You can count the blondes in Fair Isle sweaters, pastel cashmeres. I can’t help but notice the only non-Caucasian faces around seem to belong to Pulitzer Prize–winning authors.

Just off a plane from Kenya, the ebullient Brooks rolls into a perfect riff on the bobo elites who have gathered to cheer him. He could have been talking about a hike I had taken that very morning: “…and there they were rushing past me, the women with legs like two wands fused together, weighing less than their children, pulling into the parking lot in luxury foreign cars made by companies hostile to American foreign policy…” I paraphrase Brooks, who authored A Social Animal (Random House, March 2011). The crowd bubbles with self-congratulation. I spot a few of the conference organizers: novelist John Burnham Schwartz, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Liaquat Ahamed, the poet W. S. Merwin and Stanford University’s medical visionary and novelist Abraham Verghese, the author of Cutting for Stone (Knopf, 2009). Along with the late author David Halberstam, Merwin and Schwartz helped start the conference 17 years ago. They immediately understood its future appeal: Sun Valley is an insiders’ club that is very determined to stay as it is.

This resort city has long had the reputation of being slightly out of reach, as well as inconvenient to get to. Flights in and out are frequently canceled. And sometimes you have to bus in from Boise, a good three hours away. That just adds to the cachet: The shah of Iran and the Kennedys learned to ski here. In July, the G7s line up at the small airport in nearby Hailey for the Allen & Co. media and technology conference, where reporters wait outside the lodge hoping to get a glimpse of Rupert Murdoch or Bill Gates. How can any place be discreet when it has Maria Shriver, Jamie Lee Curtis, Carole King and Tom Hanks hidden in its houses in the hills? Just let one of them suggest something bold like a decent airport, as Bruce Willis did a few years ago, and watch the old guard turn savage—the town was rocked by headlines for months. The locals even seem to court the reputation of being a closed world—a Tuxedo Park with Olympic ski slopes. In the winter, there are never long lines for the lifts. “Sun Valley in the summer? Why are you going there? It’s so twee. You will hate it,” one friend e-mails as I head west.

Down a long corridor of the Salt Lake City International Airport, a small platoon of crinkled blondes waits for a Delta prop plane that connects to Sun Valley. I take in the scuffed T. Anthony monogrammed luggage, the seersucker Bermudas, the coltish twentysomethings on their way home to the family preserve. Uh-oh. Maybe my friend has it right. Is there anyone on the way to Sun Valley who doesn’t look like they are just off a Ralph Lauren photo shoot?

After I landed in the tiny airport of nearby Hailey, my first thought was, Where is everybody? Not that far away, Aspen is a throng of celebrities and Jackson Hole is mobbed with Harleys headed for Yellowstone National Park. By comparison, Sun Valley seems a zen retreat of treeless, gentle-rounded mountains, vast green meadows dotted with lupines and hollyhocks, the great blue dome of the Idaho sky. If the search for silence is the new ultimate luxury, we may have come upon the rarest pashmina.

Driving out of the airport onto Highway 75, it is almost impossible to get lost on the short drive to the resort, but somehow we do. Ahead is the towering Bald Mountain—called Baldy by one and all. At 9,150 feet, it lures hikers and skiers from all over the country with its Olympic-caliber runs, state-of-the-art jumps and The Roundhouse (208-622-2800), a hamburger heaven located near the top that was a favorite of Clark Gable.

We pass through Hailey, restored as a personal fiefdom by Willis a decade ago. Here is the Company of Fools (110 N. Main St.; companyoffools.org), a theater that draws world-class actors. The window boxes of marigolds and geraniums are in bloom at CK’s (320 S. Main St.; 208-788-1223; ckrealfood.com)—one of the best tables in the area, which serves a Kobe steak worth the drive. Then it’s just a short stretch into Ketchum, which still, in some parts, has the look of a miners’ town, with sporting goods stores like Silver Creek Outfitters (500 N. Main St.; silver-creek.com) and Ketchum on the Fly (680 Sun Valley Rd.; ketchumonthefly.com). I would pay dearly not to stand in a stream wearing wellies and mosquito repellent playing catch and release with a perfectly good fish, but my husband insists on booking a trip. I stop at Chapter One Bookstore (340 E. 2nd St.; chapteronebookstore.com)—one of the sponsors of the writers conference, which happens every other year. Here I encounter Joyce—not James from Dublin—an immense tattooed spiritual guide reading tarot cards in the back room. While I wait for my turn, I browse Chapter One’s Ernest Hemingway first editions. “You should go hear Calvin Trillin at the conference,” I overhear the owner tell a local resident. “He’s really funny.” I pick up a copy of Sun Valley Property News, a thick real-estate glossy, and stare at the former bungalow of actress Ann Sothern advertised on Main Street. Like Hemingway 73 years earlier, when he first arrived in Ketchum, I think I am beginning to like it here.

The Sun Valley Lodge is not easy to find: There is no obvious road sign. Inside, the lodge has the feel of flinty old money: The towels are summer-camp-worn; the chairs are overdue for new upholstery. Waiters set up a buffet that features prime rib and a pastel mystery aspic that looks to be from Eisenhower’s America. Testing the TV in our room, we discover one channel that plays only Sun Valley Serenade, the 1941 Sonja Henie classic. I feel as if we have time-traveled to another America. The demographic skews toward the silver-panther brigade. There’s even a free bus to take resort guests on the short ride into Ketchum, when they tire of strolling through the lodge’s ersatz Bavarian village.

On our first morning, we are out early on our bikes circling Saddle Path, a side road near the lodge, heading for Ketchum. A herd of goats greets us as we come closer to town. Ahead is the vast emptiness of Idaho, which has one of the highest percentages of federal land in the United States. Old-money power has kept Sun Valley as one of the last great preserves. There is, however, a downside. With no decent airport, businesses come and go like nightshade. A sign for a local art show draws us toward a collection of craft booths, where I find an unusual display of noir dreamscapes of Hemingway haunts shot in Paris. “I came here from the East 25 years ago and never wanted to leave,” photographer Sue Dumke says—a line I will hear again and again. She began shooting Hemingway locales two years ago.

In fact, I’ve come to Sun Valley to learn more about a moment in time. Imagine this: In 1935, William Averell Harriman, the heir to Union Pacific, set off with the wily new CBS radio president William Paley. Their mission was desperate: Union Pacific was about to go bankrupt. Advised that Ketchum—by all accounts a dump in the middle of nowhere—might just be the spot to erect a ski resort that would out-swank and outdraw St. Moritz, Harriman had a scheme to bet the bank one last time. I find the Ketchum Junction, the train spur that Harriman pulled into. Incredibly, the view is more or less the same: a vast valley bowl with no trees on the mountains to muck up the ski runs.

Harriman took one look at the scenery and the winter sunshine and immediately ordered up a million-dollar ski resort with 100 rooms, the first chairlifts in the country, skating rinks, a bowling alley and heated pools. He envisioned crowds flocking to Union Pacific streamliners headed for what he predicted to be its irresistible draw: Winter Sports Under a Summer Sun. The PR campaign would be dreamed up by the publicity guru who helped invent Miami Beach. His occupation was so new that the term “public relations” had just been coined.

The lodge’s first brochure is on display at The Community Library (415 Spruce Ave.; thecommunitylibrary.org), a popular cultural center just off Spruce Street that was founded by a group of Ketchum women in the Eisenhower years and has since become a national draw for its lecture series. On the day I arrived, former Time photographer and part-time local resident Diana Walker had just mounted an exhibition of her portraits of presidents—many of them taken on Air Force One. In the regional history room, I find the black-and-white still of a blond Adonis grinning on what seems to be an Idaho ski slope. Shirtless and wearing wooden skis, he mops his brow and smiles festively. In fact, the photograph was tricked up in New York at the end of the Depression. The Adonis’ grin on the phony slope was plastered on a billboard in Times Square with the slogans: Ski Stripped to the Waist; Ice Tan in the Sun Room Igloos; Ride to Mountaintops in Moving Chairs. The campaign caught the wave of America’s first interest in the new sport as New Yorkers were learning to ski on a Borax-covered slide at Saks Fifth Avenue. By 1937, Life was in Sun Valley to shoot an Art Deco image of the Harriman ski lift for the cover. Union Pacific Railroad was saved. Harriman would go on to glory in wartime Britain. He became Roosevelt’s liaison to Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, then ambassador to the Soviet Union. Home after the war, Harriman became the governor of New York and ran for president.

“Where are you?” my husband texts. He’s trying to tempt me out of the library by describing the wonders at Sister, a vintage-couture boutique. “Let’s eat!” He’s already on the deck at Cristina’s Restaurant (520 2nd St.; 208-726-4499; cristinasofsunvalley.com)—the salmon-colored cottage eatery that is a Sun Valley shrine. Here you find owner Cristina Ceccatelli Cook’s exquisite breakfast omelettes and tomatoes. Ceccatelli Cook, a gorgeous Florentine, found her way to Sun Valley and reinvented its WASP country-club food with her Italian flair.

“I’ll be there soon,” I lie. I’m still in 1936, when a flurry of opening invitations were pushed out to Hollywood’s kings and queens: Selznicks, Zanucks, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford and Claudette Colbert. All they had to do was pose for publicity stills and they could write off their stay as a business expense.

A cherished local story is that there was no snow for the opener and the Hollywood set was snappish: A furious David O. Selznick smacked a crasher who had moved on to his table to make time with Claudette Colbert. “Sun Valley Opens with a Bang,” the delighted press agent Steven Hannagan spread on the wires. Three days later, it finally snowed, and the delicate powder has since never lost its allure. By 1939, Hannagan had managed to entice Hemingway, who moved into room 206, putting the finishing touches on For Whom the Bell Tolls. On the Harriman tab, Hemingway settled in with his then-wife, writer Martha Gellhorn, and stayed for years. The fact of this freebie keeps me riveted for days.

Ever since, Ketchum and Sun Valley have worked their Hemingway connection into a brand that, let’s admit it, has passed its moment. How many images do we need to see of Hemingway’s old fishing boots placed on the trunk stamped “Cuba” at the end of the bed? Hemingway eventually bought a house off of Canyon Run, a suburban street just west of town. It’s easy to find: The redwood house has a deck that cantilevers over the valley. The windows remain oddly sealed, as they were in Hemingway’s day. All this gorgeous air, and he couldn’t open a window? Who wouldn’t drink themselves into a stupor? Closed to the public, a visit to Hemingway’s house requires a call to the local Nature Conservancy (116 N. 1st Ave.; nature.org). Inside, the sofas are still covered in Mamie Eisenhower colors: pink and green. Low coffee tables of maple and pine could have come from a tag sale. Hemingway’s zebra-skin rugs are long gone, to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, as are his books and manuscripts.

By the time Hemingway moved to Canyon Run, he had left Gellhorn and married Mary Welsh, a star Life reporter based in London during the Blitz. I’ve read her stunning war dispatches for years but know her, as well, from the many references the Harriman family made of her in letters written by youngest daughter Kathleen.

A few days remain, and I visit the former house of the actor Steve McQueen, who spent his last years building a dream home just up Highway 75. On this August morning McQueen’s field is a riot of wildflowers. Inside, the house has been kept very much intact by its owners, Los Angeles entrepreneur Jerry Chamales and his wife, Kathleen, a willowy activist who has dedicated years to help those fighting addiction.

I follow Kathleen up a staircase carved from a single tree trunk. On the landing are framed butterflies under glass—McQueen’s collection. “Don’t miss this,” she says, pointing to a post where McQueen carved his initials. And here they are: S. M. McQueen’s house is, in fact, a cabin on a river, but a place of such perfection you see yourself, like Hemingway, never wanting to leave. “We fell in love with it from the road 26 years ago and could not afford it,” Kathleen tells me. “We didn’t even come down the driveway. Then they lowered the price and we bought it, sight unseen. We love it here so much that we come often without a return ticket.”

That’s all I had to hear. I make a quick decision: Why not stay in Sun Valley another week or maybe two? I have yet to experience one of Kathleen’s favorite hikes, called Stairway to Heaven, which takes you past the first ski lift on Dollar Mountain. Or Red Fish Lake, a cluster of low cabins around a small-town resort an hour away: America as it was—and could be again.

I drive north on Highway 75, into the perfect emptiness of a southern Idaho summer. I’ve put my e-mail on automatic answer: I’m away indefinitely. Oh, how I wish.

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