Alex Cushing: An Unusual Ski Pioneer

Alex Cushing featured on the Feb. 9, 1959, cover of Time magazine.

When Alexander C. Cushing, president of Squaw Valley Development Corp., came out of nowhere to boldly snatch the 1960 Winter Olympics away from Innsbruck, Austria, the news generated shock and disbelief. Cushing had employed savvy marketing tools and marshaled strong public and political support to perform a minor miracle that steered the VIII Winter Games to a little known alpine valley near Lake Tahoe.

Cushing didn’t look like your typical ski industry pioneer. Well over 6-feet-tall with an angular physique, curly red hair and a patrician’s demeanor, Cushing appeared more like an office-bound executive. It was his sense of adventure and interest in skiing that led him from Wall Street to find his future in the West.

Cushing was no great skier, but he certainly was spirited and willing to try anything. He got his first taste of the sport after he left a Manhattan debutante ball and boarded a train with one of the young female guests who was on her way to a ski vacation in the Laurentian Mountains in eastern Canada. Cushing had never skied before, but he was game enough to enter a race organized by the Marquis della Albizzi, a noted ski instructor who had taught skiing in New Hampshire and at Lake Placid.

Cushing “borrowed” a pair of the Marquis’ skis, and still wearing the evening clothes from the dance in New York City, pushed off from the starting line. Cushing later told the author John Fry, “I’d never skied before, but I sneaked a pair of the Marquis’ skis and went out on the hill in my dinner pants. In the race I went so fast I was too scared to fall down. I crossed the finish line in the air. The Marquis was furious. Just before I crashed, I heard him cry, ‘Cushing, you’re disqualified!’ I landed in a crumbled heap, his skis broken.”

Cushing was born in New York City on Nov. 28, 1913, the son of the well-known fine-art painter Howard Gardiner Cushing, and his wife, Ethel. Cushing’s grandfather, Robert M. Cushing, had made a fortune in the Boston-China tea trade and established the family’s wealth. Cushing matriculated at Groton, about 25 miles northwest of Boston, attended Harvard and then Harvard Law School. In 1939, he took a job with a New York law firm and worked for the U.S. Department of Justice.

During World War II, Cushing worked in Naval intelligence as a troubleshooter for the Naval Air Transport Service. Cushing’s duties were based in South America and the Pacific. At one point, he was dispatched to a U.S. Naval station in Brazil to solve an equipment issue. The solution was obvious, but Cushing would need a change in U.S. law to commandeer the needed equipment.

To make it happen, he flew back to Washington and over two days with no sleep, helped write the necessary legislation. After the bill passed, he collapsed from exhaustion and later woke up in Bethesda Naval Hospital, his face paralyzed. Doctors did what they could, but when Lt. Commander Cushing was discharged from the hospital he was left with a partial paralysis of the left side of his face. The condition gave him a permanent scowl for the rest of his life, no matter what his mood.

After World War II ended, Cushing came west on a ski trip. At one point Cushing met Wayne Poulsen, who told him about his plan to develop Squaw Valley into a European-style ski resort. Poulsen, who owned most of the valley’s acreage, mentioned that he was looking for investors, so Cushing took him up on an invitation to visit the valley. Once he saw Squaw Valley, Cushing was convinced that this was the opportunity he was looking for. They decided to form a partnership, the Squaw Valley Development Corp. Due to sharp business and philosophical differences between Poulsen and Cushing, however, the partnership broke up in 1949 and Cushing took control of the company.

Shortly after the breakup, Cushing opened his Squaw Valley ski area on Thanksgiving Day 1949. Due to a work stoppage by union workmen, Cushing had to hire strikebreakers to try and finish construction on his Squaw Valley Lodge. He had to hook up the plumbing himself. A decade later Cushing recalled the opening weekend in a Time Magazine interview: “That night everything went wrong. There was no dinner until 10 p.m. Only one toilet was working, and the waiting line for it snaked out into the lobby.” To add to the misery, one of Cushing’s daughters tripped and broke her leg, and a guest ran over one of his dogs.

Despite Cushing’s personal nightmare, the opening was generally well received by guests and the media. Few knew, however, that Cushing’s company had spent all its money and was broke. Despite the impressive array of craggy mountain peaks and slopes pitch-perfect for skiing, the crowds that Cushing had hoped for were not forthcoming in the months ahead and his company floundered financially. Revenue from the first year of operation was just $28,000.

In December 1954, Cushing read a newspaper article describing how Reno and other U.S. locations were petitioning to host the upcoming 1960 Winter Olympics. Cushing’s Squaw Valley operation was on the brink of financial ruin when he decided to gamble $40,000 in a bid to host the Winter Games, but he knew that if he was successful, the state of California would guarantee the financial backing he needed to develop the resort he had always dreamed of.

In his marketing pitch to promote Squaw Valley, Cushing promised that the Americans would build a private village for the athletes, an Olympic first, along with the modern infrastructure required for each event. His campaign promoted a return to “the Olympic ideals of simplicity with a focus on athleticism and diversity.”

Cushing’s persistent and persuasive efforts to host the Games were finally rewarded when the International Olympic Committee chose Squaw Valley over favored Innsbruck by a slim two-ballot margin. The 1960 Winter Olympics would change Squaw Valley forever and catapult the Lake Tahoe region into an internationally recognized winter sports destination.

There’s no doubt that Cushing was a maverick ski resort operator with a management style many described as brusque, but his commitment, intensity and foresight were unwavering. Cushing’s father and sister were both accomplished artists, but Alex chose the mountains as his canvas and claimed that Squaw Valley was his own work of art.