Originally published in November 2001 issue of SKI Magazine.
It was 1963, the second ski season for l’Oeuf, the gondola in Chamonix at La Flégère. Each gondola car was painted a different primary color and, from a distance, they looked like Easter eggs gliding up and down the mountain in the spring sunshine. I had named them “The Dangling Easter Eggs” in my 1962 film. The lift went up the sunny side of the valley, to one of the best views of one of the most spectacular mountains anywhere in the world, the massive tumbling icefalls of the north face of 15,000-foot Mt. Blanc.
I had extensively filmed “The Eggs” the winter before and had shown the film in theaters all over America. I had now returned to rendezvous and ski with my new friend, the president of the resort. We met at La Chapeau restaurant for the standard four-hour French lunch. Pommes frites, steak, salad-and introductions all around the table.
“Warren, I’d like you to meet the Governor.”
“Hello Governor,” I replied.
Lots of people are called governor. No big deal. He was tall, dark-haired, handsome and had a very beautiful wife. Unfortunately, neither could speak English, and my French language skills consisted of being able to order an omelet. I would find out, after a very long lunch and half a dozen runs in great corn snow, that they were also excellent skiers.
It was late spring and, because of its southern exposure, the lower section of La Flégère was without snow. So I rode down in the gondola with the Governor, his wife and the president of the resort. 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.”
“Sure, why not,” I replied.
“How about Wednesday night?”
Three days later, after a long day of filming, I took a shower, slathered my face and the top of my head with sunburn grease to ease the pain, and started the long, winding drive down to Annecy through Megeve.
Two hours later, in a pouring rainstorm, I arrived on the outskirts of Annecy. There, I located a petrol station that was still open and, with the Governor’s address clutched in my hand, I used my expert sign language to converse. Ten minutes of arm waving later, I was given directions with what appeared to be a certain amount of reverence.
Soon, in my dim headlights through the slanting rain, loomed a big iron gate, probably 40-feet wide and 10-feet high. To its right was a sentry box that resembled a phone booth with a peaked roof and no windows. Standing out of the rain was a soldier wearing a gold-buttoned coat with epaulettes. He was holding a heavy rifle with a fixed bayonet. Professionals were guarding this house!
I knew I was in trouble because I was driving a Volkswagen with German plates and I couldn’t speak but a few words of junior-high French. “S’il vous plait? Le mansion Monsieur Governor?”
“Monsieur Miller. Le Guest.”
Marching stiffly to the far side of the gate, he leaned into it and it swung slowly open. I was now staring down 600-feet of gravel driveway, flanked on either side by immaculately trimmed shrubbery and trees. The house in the distance resembled a 47-room luxury hotel I once stayed in at Zermatt.
As I coasted my “Rent-a-Wreck” to a stop behind a long line of limousines, I knew I was in real trouble. It was dawning on me that this guy really was the Governor, and I might be under-dressed.
Let’s see: I’m wearing a red-and-yellow ski parka over a brown-and-beige tweed suit, a red bow tie with white polka dots and a nylon wash-and-wear shirt that is sort of pressed. I guess I shouldn’t have worn my après-ski boots. The sheepskin lining is going to get awfully sweaty in there at dinner.
I knocked on the massive wrought-iron-and-cut-glass front door. When it swung open, it revealed a highly polished marble-floored foyer with a pair of gently curving stairs that were 12-feet wide, going up each side of the foyer.
The butler, clad in tails and white gloves, was visibbly shaken by my appearance. He started talking rapidly in very hushed tones of what sounded like Norwegian with a French accent. He probably thought I had made a wrong turn and belonged in the youth hostel down by the lake. I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. All I knew was that he wanted me out of there-and quickly.
“Meester Miller!” a voice shouted from the top of the stairs. It was the Governor, and with him was my friend, the president of the ski lift company. I think they would have both slid down the banister to greet me, if they had not been wearing tails.
The ski resort president spoke his junior-high English and it was then that I learned the dinner party was in my honor. It was a payback for all the American skiers I sent to Chamonix with my films.
“Yes, your host really is the Governor of the Haute Savoie Province,” the president said.
“Yes, this is the Governor’s mansion.”
“Yes, everyone except you is wearing a tuxedo or tails.”
“Don’t worry, Warren, you are a movie producer from California, so the other guests expect you to be a little weird.”
“Your clothes are no problem. The Governor has an idea.”
I followed the two of them into a large library off the reception area, where the Governor lifted the lid to a small walnut and sterling silver chest that was resting prominently on an antique table. Inside the chest were half-a-dozen sashes similar to the one that the Governor was already wearing. They were, however, all different colors: Red, green, blue and white. Alongside the neatly folded sashes were at least two-dozen assorted medals.
The Governor picked out a red sash to go with my red bow tie and ceremoniously draped it over my head and let it rest on one shoulder. Then he rummaged around among his many medals, picked out four or five different ones and, one by one, pinned them on my red sash, starting with the most important medal at the top.
Together we began climbing 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 après-ski boots and fell flat on my chest full of medals.
In a few moments, I would be dining with nine tuxedo-clad men and nine elegantly gowned and beautifully coiffed women. I began to walk very carefully in my tall after-ski boots, holding my sunburned head high, and wearing my tweed suit with dignity. An incredible, gastronomic, seven-course dinner was served and enjoyed by all, during which, I had to assume, most of the laughter was at my expense.
The drive back to Chamonix was long on icy roads and I didn’t arrive until about 3 a.m. By previous arrangement, I had to meet three skiers at the Dangling Easter Egg lift at 8 the next morning. The rainstorm in Annecy also hit Mt. Blanc, and it created good powder snow skiing that morning in La Flégère.
The Governor and his wife missed those first dozen or so powder snow runs with us. It turned out that they had spent another hour and a half after I left drinking champagne and laughing at the appearance of the crazy American from Hollywood with his weird tweed suit and polka-dot bow tie.