Mountains have been a recurring theme in my life, sometimes physical, sometimes psychological, always evocative and emotional, as they were that Friday afternoon, December 13, 1968. It was sunset and I was standing on a snow-covered mountain watching pink neon peaks emerge through clouds in the valley.
The cold air stung my cheeks; I saw my breath appear and vanish. A melody ran around in my head, a song my father used to whistle. I hummed it out loud, and tapped out waltz beats with my big toe: “Oh, two-three-one, how we danced, two-three-one, on the night, two-three-one, we were wed…” I changed words, like we did as kids: “I nee, two-three-one, ded a wife, two-three-one, like a hole, two-three-one, in the head…” The song filled my mind, pushed unwanted images away; it became an electrified fence that kept unwelcome thoughts from wandering in.
I was thirty-two years old, married, mother of two boys, lived in a mansion, had two cars, three servants, money to buy whatever I want, and I was miserable. The only thing I could do was try not to think. I turned my attention to the events of the day. That morning, after breakfast, I drove into town to pick up the fur hat I’d ordered the previous week. Shops in the downtown district of Geneva sparkled with Christmas decorations, and prosperous Swiss, carrying bags of gifts, animated the streets.
I was in a hurry. Eli, my husband, would leave his office early that day. We’d drive up to a ski resort in Megéve, high in the mountains, in a village on the French side of the Alps, where he would preside over the first annual IOS German Sales-Managers Conference. It was being held in an exclusive five-star hotel, high in the Alps, which I’d seen in a movie with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. The event was carefully planned; there’d be talks, meetings, dinners and lunches, a fashion show for the wives, and a closing black-tie celebration, with extravagant gifts for participants. A Cartier representative would be on hand. Best of all, Bernie had promised to come.
I drove around the block twice. Finding nowhere to park I steered the Mercedes onto the sidewalk in front of the boutique. A police car sped down the street but didn’t stop. I had to get that hat.
The shop owner, who’d been watching through the front window, held up the silver-fox cloque trimmed with black mink. “Just give it to me, Antoine,” I said. I’ll settle the bill next week.”
Antoine stuffed the hat with tissue-paper, placed it in a round white box, and handed it over. I returned to my car and eased back into the flow of traffic. Relieved and pleased, I drove home to pack and wait for Eli.
A light snow was falling. Sitting next to Eli in the silver hard-top convertible I felt like a movie star in my new hat, but as usual, he made no mention of it. I scrutinized his glassy green eyeballs staring straight ahead at the road, trying hard not to notice me. I knew he didn’t want me to dress flashy, didn’t like me to stand out, but that made no sense to me. I wanted him to be proud of me and appreciate how I looked. He could at least say something. I hated the way he brooded, deep in his own thoughts, as though I didn’t exist. When I’d ask him what he was thinking, he always said, “nothing.”
The road zigzagged sharply uphill, past boarded-up barns, electric wires and branches heavy with snow. When we reached the hotel the sky was deep blue, and the sun sent long shadows over the pines. Bellboys took our luggage, and we entered the great lobby pungent with the aroma of burning wood. There was a mammoth fireplace, rough stone floors, fur rugs, chandeliers, Chinese urns, oil paintings, baroque music. On the far side, a glass wall overlooked the famous outdoor heated swimming pool featured in that Hepburn movie, and behind it the infamous co-ed sauna I’d read about in a French magazine. I’d never been naked in front of anyone but my husband, never seen grown-ups undressed, but reading about it had piqued my curiosity and aroused me. I couldn’t imagine myself lying exposed in a hot room with bare-assed men and women.
The manager came forward to greet us. Eli signed the register and tipped the bellboys who scurried away with our bags. The hotel owner, a Rothschild, came over to us. He was tall and elegant in a dark blazer, with a real flower in his lapel. He shook Eli’s hand, bowed and touched mine with his waxed mustache.
The hat framed my face, and made my dark eyes, outlined in black, appear larger. I pulled it off my head, shook out long black curly hair just as I’d practiced in front of the mirror at home that morning. I noticed the effect on the Frenchman at the same time as I felt the sting of my husband’s eyes. I ran fingers through my hair, loosened curls, let my eyelids become heavy, and took out a cigarette.
I imagined Eli’s jealousy would make him appreciate me more. The owner lit my cigarette with his gold lighter. As our eyes met I wondered if he used the sauna in his hotel. “I didn’t notice your skis, Madame,” he said. “Will you rent them?”
“I don’t ski,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t ask the reason.
“What a pity. The view from the top of the mountain is magnificent at sunset. You could ride on the ski-lift but it won’t take you down.” After a moment he said, “I’ll be happy to drive you in my private snowmobile. Up and down. Would that please you, Madame?” His mustaches spread wide with his smile.
I laugh at myself now, believing I deserved the bowing, fawning, treatment that had nothing to do with me, my hat, or the Audrey Hepburn I was trying to be. Monsieur Rothschild would personally escort me up the mountain because I was married to a top executive and member of the board of directors of Investors Overseas Services, the mighty, international financial sales organization that was spending a fortune in his hotel this weekend. For a bonus Bernie Cornfeld, notorious playboy, founder and president of the company, was expected to show up; an event that was always good for publicity.
It was strictly business, but I didn’t let that spoil my illusion. I was an important person, married to an important man, and had important friends, the French aristocrat—soon to be on a first name basis with me—among them, and believed I was entitled to all the privileges and favors I could get.
A commotion at the front door captured our attention. It was Bernie, looking like a mad Russian, shaking and stamping snow off of his bearskin coat, hat, and matching boots, followed by three pretty girls draped in white mink, head to foot. One of the girls was holding Bernie’s Great Dane on a leash. The dog was agitated, and pulled the girl off balance. Bernie caught her, slapped the dog’s face and ordered him to sit. The dog sat.
Eli and I were relieved to see Bernie. One could never be sure he’d show up, and it meant so much to the Germans’ morale to see their leader, the famous Herr Cornfeld, in person, and think that he cared for them. We waved, and the owner and manager rushed forward to greet him, followed by the bellboys.
The snow-mobile made a horrible racket. We rode to the summit where the handsome Frenchman let me off to enjoy the view, while he went to the ski shelter about some business. Silent skiers slithered by.
I walked to the top of the ridge; there was only me, the sky and mountains. I heard a shrill cry, and looked up to see a large blackbird cut a sharp turn, dive quickly, slicing the air. I realized I was alone and desperately lonely. The pain was unbearable. I looked at the blazing mountain, took a deep breath, and tuned in to the music in my head.
Based on appearances, I was the happiest person in the world. But underneath, something always bothered me, like a soft angora sweater whose thin hairs itched and made you want to shake it off. That feeling persevered and I didn’t recognize its source. It felt like impending doom, as though at any moment the ground would slip away and I would fall. There was nothing I could do but hum silly tunes while waiting for it to happen; it was only a matter of time.
It wasn’t easy to hide pain, maintain pretense, and block out the frustration that colored everything in my life. I was too afraid to think about it, or change anything that would jeopardize my status quo. I was holding on for dear life, while the man I loved was running away.
The sky turned purple, the mountains luminous pink. A man’s voice made me turn. The aristocrat was speaking, the tips of his mustache tinged with ice. “Come now, Carol. We should get back before dark.” I walked toward him. “Oui, François, I’m ready.” Skiers whooshed past in colorful streaks. He took my hand and led me back to the snow-mobile. I gave him my warmest smile to show how pleased I was.
As we began the descent I looked back at the mountains; a pale moon rose over a distant peak. There was that familiar feeling of foreboding. I laughed out loud and hummed some popular Frank Sinatra tune.
Back in the lobby Bernie was installed in a comfortable armchair in front of the fireplace, his girls gathered around, one on his lap, one on the arm of his seat, and one brushing the dog on the carpet at his feet. He beckoned for me to join, calling me gorgeous. He complimented my hat, held out a tray of snacks and insisted I taste the olives. Just then a bellboy handed me a message from the operator: my husband was tied up in a meeting and would not be free until dinner.
I sat in a soft-cushioned corner of a sofa, a cup of hot tea in my hands, and watched German managers come over to greet Bernie, shake his hand, then back away, awkward, as they found nothing more to say. Bernie wore his usual benign smile and sad, empty eyes; he made no effort to converse with them but carried on his discourse with the girls, explaining the proper way to train a dog.
I was mesmerized by the girl at his feet: her lips stretched, twitched, pouted, smiled; she bared her teeth, licked her lips, and pursed them like a kiss; her mouth reacting wordlessly as she watched Bernie. I was glad Eli wasn’t there to see that. I thought about him stuck in a meeting, and made the momentous decision to have a sauna before getting dressed for dinner.
I gaze back now at these moments in my life, and the remarkable journey that led up to them. They’ve played in my mind for a long time, like the tunes that wouldn’t go away that day on the mountain. I see how unaware I was, how unprepared to deal with all that came to pass. For so many years I closed my eyes to what I knew to be true, and looked away from the pretense going on around me. Only later did I begin to examine painful events and allow myself to see what really happened, and what I found were the lies and deceptions that tainted the story of my life.