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Resorts: Baroness Mimi and Mont d'Arbois



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Resorts: Baroness Mimi and Mont d'Arbois

By Bob Soden

Megève celebrates 100 years as the first purpose-built ski resort in France.

Megève, the posh ski resort just off the main road between Geneva and Chamonix, has been managed by the Rothschild banking family for the past century. In fact, the Alpine skiing tradition at Megève owes its origin to the family.

Photo above: The Hotel Mont d'Arbois in the 1930s.

Noémie Halphen in 1909, the year she
married Maurice de Rothschild. Photo:
Manzi, Joyant et Cie, Bibliotheque
National de France.

During the First World War, Noémie de Rothschild, wife of financier Baron Maurice de Rothschild, converted her family’s grand home in Paris into a military hospital and worked there for the Red Cross. In 1916 she traveled to St. Moritz, Switzerland, for a ski vacation at Badrutt’s Palace Hotel. The Palace had a distinctly English atmosphere, dating from 1856, which was when proprietor Johannes Badrutt allegedly invited his upper-class British guests to spend the winter.

Ugly encounter in St. Moritz

Because of that tradition, the baroness did not expect to see any Germans during her holiday. Instead, St. Moritz was packed with them. She was horrified to encounter Gustav Krupp, who built artillery and U-boats for the Kaiser (and was a notorious anti-Semite). She stormed out, determined to create a French ski resort—a “Saint-Moritz à la française.”

Maurice de Rothschild in 1914. Agence
Merisse, BNF.

War won, de Rothschild went exploring with her Norwegian ski instructor from St. Moritz, Trygve Smith (who was also an Olympic tennis player). After a good deal of leg- and survey-work, they settled on the Mont d’Arbois region above Megève, a medieval village in the Haute-Savoie, as the ideal location. In 1920, with the assistance of her father-in-law, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, she set up the Société Française des Hôtels de Montagne (SFHM). Baron Edmond kicked in 100,000 francs, and Noémie bought a family pension. With the help of Parisian architect Jacques-Marcel Auburtin and others, she transformed it into the Hôtel Prima (also affectionally known as the Palace of Snows, or Palais des Neiges), which opened in December 1921.

Skiing tradition

Megève already had something of a skiing tradition. Before the war, the sport had become popular in neighboring Chamonix, just 10 miles away as the crow flies. Megève held its first recorded cross-country ski race in 1914. With the opening of the Hôtel Prima, the town needed a Sports Club, which held its first meetings in 1923. One of the beneficiaries was 11-year-old Emile Allais.

Royal guests

Early guests at the hotel included King Albert and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, with their children. Albert and Elisabeth vacationed there in 1922 and 1923. They shared Noémie’s values: Albert had personally led the Belgian

Rochebrune tram opened in 1933, the Mont
d'Arbois tram a year later.

Army against the Germans during the war, and Elisabeth had worked as a nurse at the front. Albert was also a keen sportsman–his climbing partner was the St. Moritz skiing pioneer Walter Amstutz (Albert would die in a solo climbing accident in 1934). More royals followed, with predictable benefit for the hotel’s reputation. Noémie reached back to another St. Moritz friend, the Hotel Badrutt’s concierge and 1918 Swiss Nordic Combined champion François Parodi. Parodi was tasked with teaching Noémie ‘s husband to ski. More sportsman than banker, Maurice caught on quickly.

In 1926 the SFHM acquired more property, again with Baron Edmond’s help. Noémie engaged Henry-Jacques Le Even, a young French architect, to build what would become the Hotel Mont d’Arbois. Le Even had very strong design guidelines: stone foundation, structure of Combloux granite, ground floor in Tyrolean plaster, second story in stained fir, southwest alignment, steep roofs and wooden stairs. A skating rink went in in 1929. By then, Noémie was known to locals, fondly, as Baroness Mimi.

Local boy Emile Allais got a hero's
welcome on returning with all three
gold medals from the 1937 FIS Alpine
Championships in Chamonix.

First cable-car, 1933

A signal event occurred in 1933 with the opening of Megève’s Rochebrune cable-car. Mont d’Arbois got its own cable-car in 1934. Alpine skiing was becoming a hugely popular sport, and Emile Allais was just two years away from a bronze medal at the Garmisch-Partenkirchen Olympics. He would follow that up with triple gold at the Alpine World Championships at Chamonix in 1937. Meanwhile, another dynasty came into being: Adrien Duvillard, future downhill world champion, was born in 1934. His younger brother and son would become top skiers, too.

When Germany occupied France in the summer of 1940, the Rothschilds fled—Maurice to New York, Noémie to Geneva. The high Alps bordering Switzerland and Italy became hideouts for the Resistance; the people of Megève hosted about 2,000 displaced children, a quarter of them Jews. With Liberation, by August 1944 American forces began using Megève’s hotels as rest-and-recreation centers for recuperating airmen. A year later, Parisians were ready to resume the custom of winter holidays in the Alps. Ski racing restarted and a new downhill course, named for Emile Allais, became one of the highlights of the FIS Alpine season. It proved wickedly dangerous, however, and was dropped from the World Cup schedule in 1975, after the 1970 death of 19-year-old Michel Bozon.

Megève in 1953.

In 1955, at age 67, the Baroness turned over management of the hotels to her only son, Edmond. Baron Maurice died in 1957, and Edmond assumed the title. Instead of royalty, the new Baron focused on bringing in the newly emerging “jet set” of film stars and tycoons (Boeing 707s entered commercial service in 1958). In addition to throwing up many new lifts, Edmond established an altiport at the foot of the Radaz lift. His wealthy guests could then fly from Paris straight to the snow. He also established a golf course and renovated a dozen more chalets.

Baroness Noémie passed away in 1968 at age 79. On the death of Baron Edmond in 1997, leadership of the Domain du Mont d’Arbois passed to his wife, Nadine.

Today the resort is operated by Baron Benjamin de Rothschild, the only son of Nadine and Edmond, and his wife, Ariane. The complex of 88 lifts serves three peaks, with a gondola to the town of St. Gervais. The hotels and restaurants are as stylish as ever, the skiing nonthreatening and below tree line, and there’s a gorgeous view of Mont Blanc. 

Author Bob Soden, of Montreal, wrote about the Laurentian Ski Museum in the September-October 2021 issue. He serves as ISHA’s treasurer.

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