When I was 16 I wanted to buy a car. You can't live in LA without a car, so my Grandfather suggested that he fly me out for the summer and that I work for my great Aunt Steph at her Inn in the Berkshires. You bet! I was ready for an adventure.
Aunt Steph was one of my all time favorite relatives, big hats, big personality, huge heart and a love for life that made Auntie Mame look weak. My cousins Chip and Hilary who are a bit younger than I am, also worked at the Inn. They were and are scary brilliant and seemed so adventurous. They viewed me as a goody two-shoes (ok so some things never changed).. we seemed to have a magical time anyway.
Wheatleigh Inn is in Lenox, Massachusetts and today is one of country's leading inns. It was elegant and lovely back in the 70's as well. You never knew who you would meet. There was a jazz club in the basement where my Aunt Steph would sing La Vie en Rose and other ballads and many musicians joined her. One night I went to the Club and met two young conductors, one of whom turned out to be Seiji Ozawa..
Another afternoon I was off work and went to the pool where I met Leonard Bernstein and a young friend of his. We talked and laughed and I became a favorite of Lennie's so much so that he gave me tickets to attend Tanglewood in his box to see and hear him conduct. He also had a family party that he interrupted to make sure that I was introduced to each and every member of his family. Yes of course I was tongue tied around him - this was Leonard Bernstein! And yet he was also Lennie, absolutely charming.
Another conductor was also charming and he invited me to his room for a drink. I asked for a coke and he was quite surprised when I resisted his charms. Steph was absolutely hysterical (and not in a good way) when she heard that I had gone up to his room. What can I say, I was amazingly naive.. I assured her he had behaved well when I caught on to what he had been angling for and certainly became wiser from the experience.
Another evening Aunt Steph and Uncle Phil were out and it was raining cats and dogs and guests were hanging out in the beautiful lobby. They were bored. I was bored. So I organized Israeli folk dancing with everyone. When Aunt Steph came back and heard what had happened I thought she was going to pass out - you have to understand that Wheatleigh Inn was and is known for its elegance. She got a few too many rave reviews to be upset however.
This trip back to the Berkshires was to be an excuse to see the changing leaves and visit old haunts. It turned into more of a tribute to my Aunt Steph. Steph and Phil Barber didn't just create an amazing inn but they were the founders of Music Inn, the first integrated music venue and inn for jazz musicians in the very white Berkshires of the 1950s. This turned into a jazz school where many greats studied and taught. Her worldly and sophisticated outlook not only was an inspiration to my mother but also to me who began looking on world travel, art and music as a global pathway that would enrich my world. It has and does.
So thank you Aunt Steph.. for the mentor and inspiration you were to my Mom and for the loving creative influence you were for me both through my Mom and directly as well.
Tracy Salkowitz is a Consultant,activist and the former CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona.