Aspen novelist, Downhill Racer screenwriter

Passing Date: 
Friday, June 19, 2015

James Salter, 90, the “writer’s writer” who penned the screenplay for the film “Downhill Racer,” died June 19 in Sag Harbor, N.Y.

Born James A. Horowitz in Passaic, N.J., he graduated West Point in 1945 and became an Air Force pilot. In Korea, he flew 100 combat missions in F-86 fighters, earning a Bronze Star. He turned that experience into two novels, The Hunters and The Arm of Flesh (later revised as Cassada), exploring the tension between valor and status anxiety among men in danger. To avoid having to seek approval from the Air Force, he published under the pseudonym James Salter. In 1957, after service in Europe, he left the Air Force and, changing his legal name, moved his young family to Aspen. He spent winters there for the rest of his life, summering in New York’s Hamptons.

Revered among novelists as a consummate stylist, Salter is best known for his 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime. He was commissioned in 1967 to write the screenplay for the 1969 Robert Redford film Downhill Racer. To research the atmosphere of ski racing, Redford and Salter accompanied the U.S. Ski Team to the 1968 Olympics at Grenoble. Salter created the lead character, Dave Chappelet, as a loose hybrid of Buddy Werner, Billy Kidd and Spider Sabich. Like his Air Force novels, the script describes a hero unable to articulate, or repressing, the emotions arising from danger and love.

Much of the film was shot at World Cup downhill events in Europe, during the 1969 season. American downhiller Joe Jay Jalbert stood in for Redford in skiing scenes, and after carrying a camera down a race course, determined to become a film-maker.

Salter went on to direct the Irwin Shaw screenplay Three, starring Charlotte Rampling and Sam Waterston. He published four more novels, plus memoirs, poetry and collections of short stories.

Salter is survived by wife Kay Eldredge and their son, Theo Salter; by three children from his first marriage to Ann Altemus, Nina, Claude, and James Salter; and four grandchildren. A daughter, Allan Salter, died in 1980. --Seth Masia

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