Patron Saint of Taos Ski Valley

Passing Date: 
Saturday, October 10, 2020

Jean Marie Mayer, the 1953 French junior champion who became founding director of the Taos ski school and owner of the Hotel St. Bernard, died October 10 at a hospital in Santa Fe, attended by his life-partner Elise Waters Olonia and his daughter Monique Jacobsen. Jean was 85, and suffering from multiple myeloma.

Born in Paris in 1936, Jean belonged to that generation of French youth whose parents fled the German occupation of Paris. His father, Charles Jean, settled the family at Cap d’Antibes on the Mediterranean. With his wife Nicole he opened a restaurant in Nice, largely to get the food allocations needed to feed their kids. At age 5, Jean was already training to be a restaurateur.

After the war Jean went to school in Combleux, near Megeve. At 17, in 1953, he became national junior champion. Then he headed to New York to work in the kitchen at the Hotel Pierre on Fifth Avenue, but didn’t stay – instead, he graduated from the School of Hotel Management at Cornell.

In the spring of 1954 Jean broke a leg at a ski race in Stowe. Hobbling around New York with a fresh diploma and fresh cast, he couldn’t find a job. So he enlisted for a three-year hitch in the U.S. Army. Assigned to lead the ski patrol at the Armed Forces Recreation Center in Garmisch, Sergeant Mayer was stationed there in November 1956 when Russian forces crushed the Hungarian Revolution. Working with Special Forces, Jean guided refugees across the Hungarian and Czech borders into Austria and Hungary. He was decorated for the work.

Jean wanted to return to the United States permanently, and the Army made it happen by putting him in touch with Bill Judd, head of the National Ski Patrol. Judd worked his contacts and produced job offers from Pete Seibert at Loveland Basin and Ernie Blake at Taos. Both men were interested in a hot skier who could cook and run hotels. In 1957, Seibert was busy raising money to found Vail, but Blake already had a lift running and an operating lodge.

Jean arrived in Taos on Christmas Eve, 1957 and went straight to work. He organized a ski school around the ski week concept he’d seen in the AFRC ski school at Garmisch. Taos also needed a restaurant. Blake offered a steep piece of land just above the bottom of Lift 1, where skiers were forced to glide right past the deck. Jean already had a name for the place: St. Bernard, for the patron saint of alpinists and skiers.

Jean wrote home to Nice, saying “Come over and bring money.” The family – Mama, Papa and younger son Dadou, sold everything and arrived in the spring of 1958 ready to help build the restaurant. They brought along their chef, Yvon Silvé.

After the 1960 Olympics at Squaw Valley, Jean’s old friends from the French team began showing up. With Jean as technical director, the Taos Ski School became a shrine for pilgrims of the French technique, then becoming dominant on the race circuit. Taos-trained instructors took the new racing-based thinking off to ski resorts in Colorado.

By 1962 Jean was ready to add hotel rooms, but had no money left. Chilton Anderson, his top instructor in the ski school, offered to invest and subsidized construction of the hotel annex eastward from the restaurant. In 1964 brother Dadou opened his own hotel, the Edelweiss, whose guests also dined at the St. Bernard. Jean's eight children – Michael, Sacha, Ryan Monique, Kihei, Krizia, Kai Lani and Kody – all grew up working in the restaurant.

After Ernie Blake died, Jean became the heart and soul of Taos Ski Valley. He continued teaching the top ski school class into his seventies, and a loyal following of hotel guests jockeyed to get into that class. He always based lessons on the latest developments in World Cup racing. “That’s where you see the most efficient way to ski,” he once told me. He skied, and lived, with great joy.  –Seth Masia

For the complete story of Jean Mayer and the St. Bernard, see the September 2003 issue of Skiing Heritage.


Submitted by Ken Gallard (not verified) on

What you couldn't deny and miss was his incredible passion for all things skiing and the mountains. That in great measure is a key legacy of his to this community and a big part of the experience here in Taos. Even last season when he wasn't putting boots on anymore or coming up to the mountain and hotel much, he was still avidly following World Cup skiing on the tube. Passion and enthusiasm--Jean had that in abundance. A life well lived and
to the max. And a hard working guy, always.

Submitted by Lisa Dendahl (not verified) on

I grew up skiing at Taos & the St. Bernard was a staple.  Aprés ski:  hot chocolate and a snickers & over to the fusbal table to watch the big kids hammer it out.  Jean was always very kind.  Hope you Meyer kids are able to keep it up & running!

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