Since 1960, it’s good to be on the Chamonix mailing list just to keep up with its development. In the early 1960s with my well-honed French language skills, I was reduced to eating Le Omelet three meals a day, and that was about it.
In my second ski season of skiing and filming Le Oueff at La Flegere in Chamonix, I had named the gondola cars the Dangling Easter Eggs when they appeared in my ski film. I was still cranking out my feature-length ski films on my hand-wind $265 Bell and Howell camera. Each gondola carried three passengers and was shaped just like an egg. Painted different bright colors, in the spring sunshine they did look like dangling Easter eggs on a string gliding up and down the mountain.
I returned to rendezvous and ski with my new friend, the president of the resort. We met at La Chapeau restaurant for a standard two-hour French lunch. “Warren, I’d like you to meet the Governor.” Lots of people in the world are called governor, so I thought it was no big deal.
It was late in the spring, and because of its southern exposure, the lower section of La Flegere was completely without snow, so we were forced to ride down in the gondola. I got to ride with the governor and the president of La Flegere. As we neared the bottom, the president said,
“The Governor would like you to come to dinner at his home while you are here in Chamonix.”
Three days later, after a long day of filming good skiers in corn snow, I took a shower and slathered my face and the top of my baldhead with moisturizer to ease the sunburn pain. Then, I started the long drive on a narrow, icy and winding road down through Megeve to Annecy.
I was surprised at what I saw when the property I was looking for appeared through the slanting rain and the intermittent squeaky scrape of my tired, rent-a-wreck type windshield wipers. In my dim headlights loomed a big iron gate that was 10 meters wide and 3 meters high.
To the right was a sentry wearing a gold-buttoned coat with epaulettes and holding a heavy rifle with a fixed bayonet. Marching stiffly to the far side of the gate, he leaned heavily against it and swung it slowly open. The brightly lit house, off in the distance, resembled a 47-room hotel I had once stayed at in Geneva. I knew I was in real trouble as I coasted my rent-a-wreck to a stop behind a long line of nine Citroen limousines, three Mercedes and a Rolls Royce; all with chauffeurs.
I was wearing the brown and white tweed suit and red polka dot bowtie I had worn on opening night for a lot of years. I realized that I shouldn’t have worn my $2 Army surplus, sheepskin-lined flight boots. My wrinkled, wash and wear, nylon, sort-of-white shirt had been in my duffle bag for at least a week, and the wrinkles showed it.
I knocked on the massive wood, wrought iron and cut-glass front door, and when it swung open the butler, clad in tails and wearing white gloves, was visibly shaken by my appearance and started talking rapidly. He probably thought I had gotten lost and belonged in the youth hostel. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, but I could understand by his body language that he didn’t want me in his governor’s mansion.
“Meester Millar” a voice shouted from the top of the stairs. It was the Governor and the president of the ski lift company. The Governor was wearing a full set of tails, and draped over one of his shoulders was a handsome red sash full of large gold medals.
The ski resort president spoke his junior high school English, and it wasn’t until then that he told me that the formal dinner party was in my honor. My host was the Governor of the Haute Savoie Province.
I followed the two of them into a library off the reception area where the Governor lifted the lid to a walnut and silver chest with a half a dozen sashes similar to the one that the Governor was wearing. The Governor picked out a red sash to go with my red bow tie and ceremoniously draped it on my shoulder and then pinned five medals on it.
Then we started climbing up the winding marble stairway to the Grand Ballroom. On the first landing, I glanced at myself in a full-length mirror and, as I did, I tripped in my Army-surplus, after-ski boots and fell flat on my chest full of medals.
I now began to walk carefully in my tall, sheepskin lined after-ski boots, holding my sunburned head high, and wearing my tweed suit with dignity. My hand-tied red bow tie rested about 12 degrees off the horizontal, and I was proudly wearing my sash with the Order of Napoleon and my other medals. An incredible gastronomic seven-course dinner was served and enjoyed by all, during which I assumed that most of the laughter was at my expense.
The drive back to Chamonix was long on winding ice and snow-covered roads, so I didn’t get to my hotel until about 3 a.m. I had to be in the line for the Dangling Easter Egg lift at 8 with my windup camera and three skiers. I knew the rainstorm in Annecy would hit Mount Blanc and create good powder skiing that morning in La Flegere.
I found out at lunch that the Governor and his guests had spent another hour and a half after I left drinking champagne and laughing at the crazy American with his brown and beige tweed suit and polka dot bow tie.
Warren Miller is history’s most prolific and enduring ski filmmaker. Visit warrenmiller.net or visit his Facebook page at facebook.com/warrenmiller.