Sounding out the Fantasy of the Greenbrier Resort
by Douglas Imbrogno | I will confess to never quite feeling completely comfortable at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. I always feel like at any moment there’s going to be a strong tap on my shoulder. I turn and a man is standing there with a crinkled brow. It’s a security guard except he’s dressed in a blinding lime-green Polo shirt and white seersucker pants. He says: “I’m sorry, sir. Can I see some ID? You don’t look particularly well-to-do and, well… the Ladies Who Croquet were complaining that some visual riff-raff was spoiling the experience of their mojitos.”
I’m quite aware the resort’s clientelle is not just people who helicopter ski or who dispatch the maid to the market in the Mercedes after running out of bitters for their Bloody Molly. Really, some of my best friends are Greenbrier guests (as well as artists whose work is found for sale there). And I do appreciate the proletarian price cuts Jim Justice, homeboy saviour of the resort, has offered now and then. I’ve not taken him up on one of these deals for us hoi polloi, but maybe I will. Part of the problem is I can’t wear white for very long before a spot of V-8, cabernet or the Appetizer of the Day lands on my outfit (if I am wearing an outfit that day, which is unlikely). So, I’m reminded once again to eat slower or wear a lobster bib.
Yet the Greenbrier fascinates me, if at least from an anthropological angle. It’s true that the rich are not like you and me. For one, they have a lot more money – and fewer stains on their shirts because they have more of them and can send them out to be dry cleaned. (The full F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, rarely seen, comes from his 1926 short story, “The Rich Boy”: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft, where we are hard, cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.”)
Much mischief and malice is being done in the country these days by the very rich and the lockstep, elephantine political party that ably represents their serpentine interests in Washington. The party of the donkey is not much better, but they are certainly better than the nihilism of the radical right. Still, America in 2011 seems less a republic and more like a ‘corporatocracy,’ a useful word a friend recently posted to Facebook:
“Corporatocracy.. denotes a system of government that serves the interest of, and may be run by, corporations and involves ties between government and business. Where corporations, conglomerates, and/or government entities with private components, control the direction and governance of a country, including carrying out economic planning notwithstanding the ‘free market’ label.”
No doubt, some of the most powerful titans of morality-free capitalism and high princes of slash-and-burn politics have polished strategies and set their minions in motion after $500-plus meals at the Greenbrier, followed by real Cohibos on the patio overlooking the Old White. We can only hope that more moral capitalists (one prays the phrase is not a non sequitur) and other socially-responsible political princes are also hobnobbing and scheming at the Greenbrier on behalf of the less well-to-do. Right or left of the political spectrum, at the Greenbrier all sip their drinks amid the over-the-top, hallucinogenic decor found everywhere at the resort, wrought by designers Dorothy Draper and Carlton Varney.
So, I come not to praise – or bury – the Greenbrier, but with the debut of “SoundTrips” to offer this multimedia experience of its strangeness, Technicolor decor and complexity. By complexity, I mean that this audio and visual tour is also a homage of sorts to the working-class grunts who could hardly afford one of the high-end meals at the resort’s high-end restaurants. But it is exactly their job to make the place seem seamless, a fantasy experience of idle, at-call pleasure, available with a nod and Platinum American Express. I do not mean to propose that these are downtrodden workers – I am sure the Latino gardeners seen in an early clip are happy to have a grounds to keep and a paycheck to receive at the end of the week. Or perhaps they are downtrodden and the fact will be revealed someday by an intrepid investigative reporter.
That reporter, alas, is not I, although I support and will point out all pertinent investigations of the downtrodden, bullied and exploited. I am afflicted – or wired – to look at the world through the prism of image and word. It is through art and aesthetics, through imagery and creativity, that I sort through my experience of this world, hoping to glean some insights and truths that way. Not to claim too much for what looks on the surface to be merely a pleasant audio-visual experience, but at least here is a little visual evidence of who really makes the fantasy world of the Greenbrier so fantastic. And let’s defer to the full-bore connotations of ‘fantastic’ when considering the resort:
1. Unrestrainedly fanciful; extravagant. 2. Bizarre, as in form or appearance; strange. 3. Based on or existing only in fantasy; unreal.
I shot the footage for this “SoundTrips” in 2010. For an historic taste of high-end Greenbrier life, here’s a classic video below a friend passed on earlier this week (which inspired this post). Produced in 1948 by the CBS series “The March of Time,” the video captures a moment in time when the Ladies Who Croquet and other high society and high-important folk (including the Duke of Windsor, caught on camera) began to re-flock to the resort after its service during World War II.
It may be the writer and reporter in me, but the Greenbrier’s World War II service was more interesting to learn:
During the Second World War, the United States government enlisted The Greenbrier for two very different uses. First, the State Department leased the hotel for seven months immediately after the U.S. entry into the war. It was used to relocate hundreds of German, Japanese, and Italian diplomats and their families from Washington, D.C. until their exchange for American diplomats similarly stranded overseas was completed. Following that, in September 1942 the U.S. Army purchased The Greenbrier estate, converted the hotel into a two thousand-bed hospital and renamed the facility Ashford General Hospital. In four years 24,148 soldiers were admitted and treated, while the resort served the war effort as a surgical and rehabilitation center. Soldiers were encouraged to use the resort’s entire range of sports and recreation facilities as part of their recuperation process. At the war’s conclusion, the Army closed the hospital.
The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway reacquired the property from the government in 1946. The company immediately commissioned a comprehensive interior redecoration by the noted designer Dorothy Draper. The origin of The Greenbrier’s distinctive décor goes back to this much-publicized redecoration, at a period when Dorothy Draper was at the peak of her fame. As Architectural Digest described her, she was “a true artist of the design world [who] became a celebrity in the modern sense of the word, virtually creating the image of the decorator in the popular mind.” She remained the resort’s decorator into the 1960s. Upon her retirement, her protégé Carleton Varney purchased the firm and he continues today as The Greenbrier’s decorating consultant.