St. Moritz’ Jet Set Playboy Gunter Sachs
St. Moritz’ Jet Set Playboy Gunter Sachs
Scions of the Sachs dynasty talk snow, society, 1970s sex appeal and St. Moritz.
Story by Leslie Wait
Remember Richard Gere in Pretty Woman? It is 1990. Gere’s character, Edward Lewis, is suave, successful… and scared of heights. When a guileless Julia Roberts asks why he picks the penthouse of the Beverly Wilshire if he can’t step onto the balcony, his answer is quick. “The penthouse? It’s the best.”
Rewind further to 1967. St. Moritz: winter home of kings, queens, and gentleman playboy Gunter Sachs. The penthouse tower of Badrutt’s Palace Hotel is under Sachs’ lease. The bathtub is by Lichtenstein, the doors by Pistoletto. An entire wall is by New Realist Arman. The entranceway is dominated by sculptures from César and Wesselmann. The kitchen décor features all 10 Warhol Marilyn Monroes.
But this isn’t a Hollywood set, it is real life. The artists themselves circulate behind tall, well-polished picture windows. Sachs’ third wife, stunning 26-year-old Swedish model Mirja Larsson, is in residence—his amicable divorce from actress Brigitte Bardot has recently been finalized. And Gunter? He’s not afraid of anything. Sure, he’s had bullet proof glass installed—for amusement purposes only.
“Father stood behind the glass and put his finger where he wanted the shot to be,” says Rolf Sachs, eldest of Gunter. “Next to the shot glass door was a plaque with signatures of participants—César, Armand, Warren Beatty, Guy de Rothschild, the Parisien-ers. In the middle of the living room stood a beautiful herd of Lalanne sheep. Its positioning was very unique.”
Many like to think they have amusing memories of parties, pranks, and misspent
moments in the mountains. But it’s a game few will win playing with anyone named Sachs. A master gamesman, was patriarch Gunter Sachs—heir of the Opel dynasty, spawn of nobility, looks, charisma, and money to spend. Art collector and sportsman, filmmaker and photographer, worldly womaniser and snappy dresser. Sachs was at the epicenter of the newly minted “Jet set.” Possibly, he was the epicenter. While he and his brother ran Fichtel & Sachs—one of Germany’s largest automobile suppliers—Gunter Sachs certainly never worked at having fun. Joyful, artful, visceral abandon: it was his gift
Owning the room. Living large. Going big, long before that doleful phrase was invented. In summer, it was open-necked shirts and no socks in St. Tropez, where Sachs famously proposed to Bardot by dropping roses from a helipcopter over her villa before he dove into the Med, emerging as Eros from the blue sea to seal the deal. In winter, Sachs moved his glittering demimonde to St. Moritz, then later Gstaad. It was in Gstaad, in 2011 at the age of 78, Sachs died by his own hand in his 12-bedroom chalet. Some believe the suicide was Sachs’ pre-emptive attack on Alzheimer’s. Not with a whimper indeed
Life has moved on apace from the jetsetters of the 1960s and ‘70s. Gunter had three sons—Rolf, Gunnar, and Alexander. Today, in their own ways, the boys’ name carries on Gunter’s torch, manifesting their father’s love of the classy life at altitude. Gunnar, owner of Aspen’s star-studded and sleek restaurant Elevation for the last 13 years, is traveling between the Caribbean, Gstaad, and Aspen.
Alexander splits his time between Munich and Gstaad. Eldest son Rolf, domiciled in London, is an elemental feature of St. Moritz society.
Welcoming select visitors with open arms into his London design studio— filled with impressive photographic and architectural projects, sculptural installations, intriguing wooden sleds, an amusing spade with a hole through its vital parts—today Rolf is handsome, charming, a commanding presence blessed with that characteristic glittering family trait: Incredible Sachs Appeal.
“I skied my whole youth until I was 20 when I went off to study in London and California,” Rolf says. “I played a lot of ice hockey.” A self-confessed mountain man, he was educated in Gstaad and at the prestigious Lyceum Alpinum in Zuoz in the Engadine. He gripped his alpine upbringing with both hands. “Today I prefer the Cresta and bobsleighing,” he explains. “Wintersports are part of my DNA.”
Genes are powerful things, of course. Inside his father’s Badrutt’s bachelor pad, Rolf’s boarding-school weekend getaways would have been formative manna. “I tried to charm all the girlfriends up to the (Badrutt’s) tower,” he admits with the same heart-fluttering twinkle in his eyes that his lineage seems to warrant. “There were a lot of people up there: Papa’s great friend and heir to the Fiat fortune, Gianni Agnelli; George Harrison and Ringo Starr from The Beatles; world-famous conductor Herbert von Karajan. One probably didn’t really comprehend how exceptional it was. Today it seems something that was unbelievable.”
Or, what is a boy’s life like at play? Full-speed games on snow and ice by day? Free-spirited parties and beautiful women ‘til dawn? Was money everything?
Money probably was necessary, but certainly not the most important ingredient. Real ‘70s playboys had taste, nobility, discretion, and wealth. Style trumped fashion. Panache beat arrogance. And a gentleman’s pursuits reflected it. The Sachs’ contribution to St. Moritz’ mythological institutions are the stuff of legend.
Take the town’s storied Olympic Bobsleigh Run. With typical aplomb, Sachs regularly sped down its icy track. Lucky Turn 13 is named Gunter Sachs Corner. The Gunter Sachs Lodge— open for long boozy lunches—guards the track’s starting gate like a grim Cereberus. With typical discretion, Sachs Sr. also stewarded the track’s health. He is quietly credited with financing its expensive infrastructure for many years. “At the end of the year,” said local editor Gian Andreossi to swissinfo.ch, “when the bobsleigh club checked its balance and saw the deficit, it was Gunter Sachs who paid it.”
The tradition continues, and evolves. In addition to racing the bob, Rolf and his friends are fond of riding it in the dark of night—on trays.
One village over from St. Moritz lies Celerina, its signature 14th-century San Gian church a stony symbol of permanence. Nearby, another symbol of the hamlet’s immutability: one of the oldest wintersports clubs in the world. The Cresta Run is an ice track established in 1885 as a highwater point for Queen and Empire; it remains practically unchanged 130 years to the day. An epic, natural-ice-lined, bone-busting test of masculinity and bravado, the Cresta Run delivers 80-plus miles per hour from a prone, head-first perspective. It’s a right of passage and way of life for generations of posh Brits and tony Euros, including Gunter and Rolf Sachs. Wrote the first Lord Brabazon of Tara: “The Cresta is like a woman with this cynical difference—to love her once is to love her always.” Tweeds and plus-fours are not out of place, though those out to really split tenths of seconds favor sleek speedsuits—those aerodynamic catsuits of the modern era. At the Cresta, the Gunter Sachs Cup is up for the taking—if, that is, you have what it takes.
“You need the stomach for it,” explains Rolf, an habitué of the course, and current Cresta Vice President. “The Cresta is a gentlemen’s club. Some are very competitive, others take it easy. Basically it is an agglomeration of wonderful friends—a vast array of people, from the local butcher to dukes and royals from many nationalities.”
Guests (male only, apart from one Ladies Day per season) are admitted to race. But to join its 1,300-strong membership, Rolf invokes Gentlemen’s Rules: “Fun, charm, good behavior. The only thing that would make sure you won’t get in is arrogance.”
His father, of course, was a fixture, though Rolf modestly claims both he and paterfamilias achieved only “middle” ground. “Like every sport, you need to practice, practice, practice,” he says with the passion of a dedicated sportsman. “It’s the old Olympic maxim: The important thing is to participate.”
In 1974, with prescient magic that would foretell the opening of New York’s Studio 54 (Sachs was there, too, alongside Mick, Bianca and Andy), Gunter founded a special place with and for his friends. Then as now, the most exclusive members’ meeting place in St. Moritz is The Dracula Club.
Its launch was an apt achievement for a social nighthawk like Gunter Sachs. To this day, under full moons real and imagined, Draculians drink from their own goblets, mix with friends, break out of what Rolf calls “the alltag” (translation: the everyday). For more than 40 years, every night in the winter season, the Dracula—not far from the elegant, old-world Kulm Hotel—this is where the party is.
“At The Dracula Club we have a very similar spirit to the Cresta,” Rolf says. “People have a certain panache, a certain style, a certain sense of humor—with a little bit of oomph”.
Considering joining The Dracula Club? Contact Rolf, he’s president there, too. But that key fact you should already know, as it’s imperative you’re on first-name basis with 50 per cent of the people in the room. “That’s the purpose,” Rolf insists. “Everyone should feel at ease with one another.”
The seductivity, the nimbus, the fantasy… this is how Rolf Sachs characterizes The Dracula’s appeal. Much the same could be said for the enduring fascination of his late father, who earned the affectionately apt pet name “Sachsy” for much of his glittering life.
Was his father’s playboy moniker accurate? “To tell you the truth I never saw it that much,” Rolf replies gently. “That was a pure press label that doesn’t really translate into real life. I think he had playboy years—probably eight years—where he just had fun like a lot of other people. It was, of course, fantastic ẃthat he was able to afford to have such an extraordinary life and had the character for it. He was one
who enjoyed life, did the most with it, and gave a lot of joy to a lot of people. If you want to call that playboy…?”
A generation on, Rolf Sachs has a tower of his own. One poetically suited to the man, the times, the mountains that surround.
One snow-dappled evening, Rolf and his Iranian-born wife, Maryam, slid smoothly through a St. Moritz meadow in a horsedrawn sleigh. They came upon it: a ghostly, long-abandoned Bauhaus edifice—the 1928 St. Moritz Winter Olympics stadium. Says Rolf: “I saw the building and said, ‘I think that’s going to be our next home.’”
Twice, this angular, sleek structure hosted Olympic events: first in 1928 and again in 1948 when St. Moritz held its second Games. It was during that winter the recently introduced ‘eternal flame’ burned bright atop its tower. Home of opening and closing ceremonies, ice hockey and speed skating events, some 80 years on, and after seven years of planning permissions and two years of renovations—employing his rich skill set as artist-designer to make both a mark of creative innovation and to save an historically important building from eventual collapse—Rolf and Maryam moved in.
St. Moritz, 21st century. Plus ca change… A heady mix of the social, the artistic, and the sportif. The elite milieu of Gunter’s era has become more democratic, of course, though tradition dies hard at altitude. Still, the cliché of glitz and ostentation that surrounds St. Moritz bothers Rolf. Requests from local media are met with good grace and firm conditions for photo ops: “No fur coats, poodles, caviar or champagne glasses.” (Note: the true insider’s drink in this town is the Bullshot, favored tipple of the Cresta Run. It’s a health-giving dose of consommé laced with vodka and lemon.) “The real St. Moritz,” according to Rolf, “is about spirit and sports, style and joy.”
And, like a terrific cocktail that’s part Olympic hope, part Carnegie Hall effort, with a lashing of good fortune, life in the Engadine heights is evidently also about participating, practicing… and parties.
A penthouse made of mountains? It’s the best.