I was going to title this post “Queen Elizabeth”, but thought it might be too confusing to those who don’t know her.
Besides her name is spelled with an s not a z but Queen of the Mountain not only suits her, it fits like a glove.
Elisabeth Brownell arrived in Taos in 1962, shortly after meeting Taos Ski Valley founder Ernie Blake at a Chicago Ski Convention, where she’d come from Milwaukee to work at the German Consulate. In an attempt to find a winter job at a Western Ski Resort, she’d gone to the convention, hoping to meet people from various resorts. She’d come through Chicago once before in 1960, a young German women with “wunderlust”, and found a job, working with the Girl Scouts in Wisconsin, but winter was on the way and this Bavarian native longed to ski in the American Rockies.
She heard about the Ski Convention, met Ernie Blake, and the rest as they say, is history.
“He told me he’d give me a job as his secretary and as a ski-instructor,” she remembers, “but he also said there was very little money to pay me, but he’d give me room and board.”
“We have great food (at the St. Bernard), a great mountain, lots of sunshine and great skiing,” he said and that was that, I came to Taos for the winter.”
Bill Curry and I visited Elisabeth and her son, Christof Brownell at her apartment in the Brownell Chalet at Taos Ski Valley one morning last week. The village was quiet, but the snow blowers were busy on the slopes and real snow, albeit only a dusting, had fallen overnight. Winter was on the way
We had met the Brownells at the Taos Cow in Arroyo Seco, where we had stopped for a coffee for me, and hot chocolate for Bill. They were driving up from Santa Fe where Elisabeth told us, she’d “danced till 2am.” Still an avid skier, her other passion is the Tango, one she indulges in frequently.
Looking (twenty years younger than her actual age), none the worse for wear, and clearly in no need of caffeine, she smiled brightly as we were introduced, and didn’t bat an eye when I informed her I’d brought Bill along to take photographs, but simply bid us to follow them to Taos Ski Valley, and her home at number 1 Thunderbird Road.
“This is where I live,” she said inviting us into her famed Chalet on the Mountain. “We’ll start at the “Bird’s Nest,” she informed us as she beckoned us to follow her up the narrow spiral staircase that seemed to go on forever, “my apartment is being cleaned.” The sound of a vacuum cleaner followed us upstairs.
“Ah this is why you look the way you do,” observed Billy, as we struggled to keep up with the petite woman, who charged ahead of us like a nimble mountain goat. “You climb these stairs every day!”
We reached the top floor, and Elisabeth opened a door that led us into a charming, wood lined, light filled space that made me feel as if I’d entered a Narnia-esque wardrobe, into another fairytale world, in the Alps, in some other time outside of time.
Books (some rare first editions), filled the shelves of this cosy suite with its balcony overlooking the Mountain (and Al’s Run), the rooms so spotless, one could eat off the floors, and comfortably appointed with cosy touches reminiscent of Old World, European hospitality.
I was charmed, and clearly her guests are as well. Many return year after year, to stay here at the Brownell Chalet.
Soon enough, the noise below died down and Elisabeth invited us to follow her downstairs to the middle floor of the Chalet where she’s resided since 1971.
“Welcome, ” she said as we entered. Like the guest quarters we’d just seen, her home too is a light, art filled, book-lined haven; a retreat from the world outside her door as well as a window onto that world. Cosy and comfortable, it’s very European, very cosmopolitan without being pretentious. This is the home of someone who has and continues to live life well. It’s the home of a well-traveled woman, a mother, former wife and chatelaine of one of Taos Ski Valley’s most popular lodges, the Thunderbird, who continues to live her life as if it is an adventure.
This may in fact be the secret to her youthful energy.
Filled with bibilots; treasures brought home from her travels to far-flung places – another passion is cooking and her recipe books are documented – from Asia to Africa and all points in-between, a carved wooden chandelier from Bali looks not a bit out-of-place hanging above the fireplace mantle, covered with more memories of places she’s visited. But for the past fifty years, she has returned here, to the Mountain that is her home.
“After that first winter,” she recalled, “Fred Fair (a long time Taos resident), invited me to go with him to Mexico for the summer.”
“He had a plane and I was a bit nervous so I asked a few people whether I should go.”
“I was told by everyone that although he was a terrible driver, he was a fine pilot, so I went!”
She had a great time and remembers that Fred knew people all along the way.
“We even landed on a beach once,” she recalls.” It was a great adventure.”
She returned to Taos for one more winter season, which is where she met her future husband, Tom Brownell, but it wasn’t until after she’d returned to Germany and a long distance courtship, that they were married in Munich in 1966. They moved to Chicago, and in 1968, bought the Thunderbird Lodge in Taos Ski Valley.
Their son, Christof was born that same year, and that year too, they built the Brownell Chalet.
In 1970 they came to Taos to manage the Thunderbird Lodge after their manager had left. Their second child, Marcus was born and they moved into their newly built home with their two children. Except for trips abroad, she would never leave again.
“This is home.” She smiled as she sat across from me at the large table in her open kitchen/den. A collection of copper pots gleamed in the wintry light, and as we talked, Elisabeth brought out photographs to show me, while Bill took photographs of her.
“This is of Jimmy Carter and his family.” She placed a framed picture of the former President on the table in front of me. “He is a lovely man.” She said.
“They stayed with us (at the Thunderbird), one winter and although he was no longer President, he had four Secret Service guys with him, I remember.””They’d check out the room, then sit off to the side unobtrusively.”
“When I met him, I asked him how I should address him,” Elisabeth told me, “he replied, “Oh please call me Jimmy.”
“He was such a humble man.”
Another famous guest who stands out in her mind (and she hosted many over the years) was the son of a President. The late John Kennedy (JFK Jnr.) who stayed at the Thunderbird with a couple of friends right before passing his Bar Exams.
“He was totally real and unpretentious.” She said. “One night they sat down at a communal table, and I asked if they’d prefer a private one,” she told me, “but he declined and stayed right where he was.”
“Our guests were all so wonderfully discreet as well,” she recalled. “No one paid them any attention.”
“Neither Tom nor I had any experience running a ski lodge,” she told me, “and we learned by trail and error, but hard work and cooperation with other lodgings in the Ski Valley helped create a spirit of community that carried over to our guests and employees.” She explained. “We did it for 35 years and I think our warm hospitality, great food and entertainment kept people coming back year after year.”
The food at the Thunderbird Lodge was fabulous enough that people would make the trip from town in a storm to eat there. The Brownells had brought Chuck Lamandola from Chicago to be their Chef. They wound up buying the Brett House Restaurant so Chuck would have a seasonal alternative during the months when TSV shut down. The partnership continued for a time, but “then he didn’t want to come back up here in the winter,” Elisabeth laughed, “so all good things come to an end.”
Lamandola is currently the Chef at Martina’s Hall in Ranchos de Taos.
The couple also started a Jazz Festival, bringing world-class Jazz legends to Taos Ski Valley for many years until Tom’s health began to fail, and they decided to sell the Thunderbird.
“It took ten years.” Elisabeth recalled.
Elisabeth’s memories of the early years at Taos Ski Valley are precious reminders of how fast time speeds by, of the changes we are seeing up on the Mountain daily since the resort has been sold, remodelled and reinvented. Bill Whaley’s book Gringo Lessons is a must read for anyone wanting to know more about the history of the resort, and I cannot think of a better place to turn those pages, but in the Bird’s Nest at Brownell Chalet.
These days Elisabeth, with the help of her son Christof (whom I’ll be featuring here in the next few weeks), hosts many of the same guests that used to stay at the Thunderbird, at the Brownell Chalet.
“They have become like family.” She said. “But I also very much enjoy the younger guests who have started to come.”
And they in turn, must be delighted to find themselves in the company of this truly extraordinary woman, this one of a kind, totally divine, undisputed Queen of the Mountain!
For more information on (and/or to make a reservation at), Brownell Chalet (and Elisabeth), please visit their site below.
Photographs by Bill Curry