The world cup match between England and the USA has just ended in a tie Saturday at a packed watering hole called Whiskey Jacques and between the boisterous crowd and the din of the many TVs, I can hardly hear myself think.
I had just met up with Kevin Stuessi, the former vice president for food and beverage at Wynn Resorts, who a few years ago abandoned Las Vegas to live here in Sun Valley, Idaho, the rustic retreat of choice for so many of Sin City’s movers and shakers.
As I mentioned, it is quite noisy, so I do that nod-and-smile thing that people with hearing disabilities do when we can’t hear in social situations and don’t want to admit it. Stuessi introduces me to the woman he is with but I don’t catch it, of course, so I assume this is his wife.
Kevin tells his companion that I’m visiting from Vegas, and I explain that I am in Sun Valley to write a magazine profile on Parry Thomas, the legendary Nevada banker whose willingness to loan money to casino projects in the 1960s weaned the city off the mob and provided the capital for growth. Thomas, now 88, summers on his horse ranch here with his wife, Peggy; their only daughter, Jane, is a full-timer in Sun Valley who occupies a home of her own on their farm.
When I mention the Thomases, the woman lights up.
“We’ve been family friends my whole life,” she tells me. “Jane used to babysit for me and my sister.”
“Really?” I say to her. “Do you know them from Las Vegas?”
The woman nods.
“Oh, cool,” I say. “What do your parents do?”
Stuessi and his friend, Kevyn Wynn, exchange a priceless look and bust out giggling.
“They’re Steve and Elaine Wynn,” she replies.
It was, to say the least, undeniably my most awkward and embarrassing moment as a Vegas journalist. And yet the moment went a very, very long way to answering the question I’ve long wondered: What is the hold that this odd nook of the Sawtooth Mountains has over some of the bold-faced names of Las Vegas? The answer, it would seem, is buried somewhere in the fact that the daughters of Steve and Elaine Wynn—or their parents, for that matter—do not go out casually to sports bars in Vegas to drink and watch the World Cup. They do it 600 miles away in this insulated but wildly unpretentious burg.
“The difference is they’re able to be regular people here,” said Stuessi, who moved to Vegas in 1992 to help Wolfgang Puck open Spago and then from 1997 to 2006 helped Wynn select chefs and create restaurants for Bellagio, Mirage, Wynn and Encore. “You’ll see Schwarzenegger in the grocery store, buying his own coffee or riding his own bike. Or the Wynns, or Tom Hanks. You go to the movies and sit right next to them in the movie theater, eating the same popcorn you’re eating.”
It doesn’t surprise anyone to hear about the Vegas jet-setters yachting off of La Jolla or hopscotching through Europe. But when the see-and-be-seen crowd goes skiing, don’t they head to Aspen and Vail?
In fact, no. The trend was set back in the 1960s by Parry Thomas, whose wife worked at the Sun Valley Lodge when she was 16. They made this collection of communities—Sun Valley is really four small cities: Sun Valley, Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue—their place to go. After Thomas all but adopted a fatherless newcomer named Steve Wynn as his fifth son, the Wynns followed suit with homes of their own. Steve Wynn, in fact, worked as a ski instructor one summer after he sold his small share of the Frontier and contemplated his next move.
Since then, this is where a long list of the Vegas elite have joined the Sun Valley club—attorneys Don Campbell and Colby Williams, plastic surgeon Terry Higgins, restaurant consultant Elizabeth Blau, Wynn Resorts chief operating officer Marc Schorr and many others. Here they chill with other gold-plated society names like Dell, Kerry-Heinz and Drexel, as well as movie stars like Demi Moore, Clint Eastwood and Mariel Hemingway. (Ernest Hemingway killed himself in Sun Valley.)
For those of us without megabucks, it may sound odd to hear that these folks come here to be “regular.” But there is, as I can attest from my weekend there, a transformative calm that takes hold in a place with crisp, clean air and looming mountains capped with snow all year round. It’s not easy to get to—Sun Valley is a four-hour drive from Salt Lake City or a 2.5-hour drive from Boise if your private jet is unavailable—but also not terribly expensive once you’re there.
The small-town, Main Street aesthetic is exemplified by the fact that after an all-day interview with the Thomases, I ran into them again that evening as they headed to the nearby brew pub for dinner. There are no gated communities here, people don’t lock their doors, and when you have a dog in your car picking up someone at the airport, the lady who takes your money gives you a dog biscuit.
Stuessi is an interesting case study because, unlike so many Vegas people, he vacated Vegas altogether. The public schools spend $19,000 per pupil and have a 16-to-1 student-teacher ratio, he said, and his daughters get to enjoy all manner of outdoorsy activities that would be complicated to arrange in Vegas when the weather even tolerates it. He operates his restaurant consulting business from up here and last year convinced another Wolfgang Puck alum from Vegas, Taite Pearson, to move up with his family to helm the absolutely stellar Sego Restaurant. (Stuessi’s partner in that venture is Edgar Bronfman Sr., the former chairman of Seagrams; Pearson just came off being David Geffen’s private chef.)
“People come here to escape,” Stuessi says. “Aspen’s a very flashy place, you wear your fur coats and wear your jewelry and drive a nice car. Here, these people drive Jeep Cherokees, Smart Cars, Volkswagens. It’s considered ostentatious to do otherwise.”
Still, these are extremely wealthy people and that inevitably emerges anyway. At the foot of one set of popular ski slopes, there’s a homely row of apartments called the Edelweiss. Parking is difficult around that lift, so somewhere along the line it dawned on Steve Wynn to buy a few of these crappy units just so he could park there. Thomas followed suit by buying one, too, as did Rolling Stone king Jann Wenner and a few others.
So, okay, to live the way these people live up here isn’t cheap. But I also know that when I’ve interviewed Vegas sources when they’re up here, they’ve always been calmer, more patient, slower to irk.
“It’s a special group of people that react to Sun Valley and love that natural beauty and that it’s not a scene,” Blau said. “It’s real. They may be the elite of Las Vegas, but Sun Valley is about as real a place as you go.”