ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Born in 1935 in Paris, Jean-Marie Henri Louis Mayer spent his youth in Nice on France’s Mediterranean coast, where his family had moved and opened a restaurant to feed the community during the war.
Mayer spent countless hours in the kitchen learning to cook and in the dining room, where he easily engaged with the guests. He also spent his youth propelling himself down the French Alps and becoming a top-ranked ski racing champion and member of the French Junior Ski Team.
Those talents merged years later when he moved to the United States and built the legendary Hotel St. Bernard in Taos Ski Valley, which he operated for 60 years.
Mayer, often called the ski area’s patron saint of skiers, died Oct. 10 at Christus St. Vincent Hospital in Santa Fe from multiple myeloma. He was 85.
“My dad was the most extraordinary, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known,” said his daughter, Monique Jacobson, the former state secretary of the Tourism Department and the Children, Youth and Families Department.
Her father, she said, was the inspiration for the New Mexico True campaign, initiated while she headed state tourism.
“His adventurous spirit and thirst for authenticity really laid the groundwork for New Mexico True, in terms of his approach to hospitality at the Hotel St. Bernard, and what I grew up learning about the types of experiences that really feed your soul,” Jacobson said.
“Growing up, he’d drive us all around the state and taught us how to appreciate what New Mexico has to offer. The people he connected with and the places we would go really focused on adventures steeped in culture, which ended up being right at the heart of the New Mexico True brand.”
After attending the Hotelier School in Nice, Mayer moved to the United States in the early 1950s for a job in the kitchen of the Hotel Pierre in New York City, his first experience in the American hospitality industry. He also attended Cornell University and studied hotel administration.
He subsequently enlisted in the U.S. Army and was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division, where he was based in Garmisch, Germany, and helped lead refugees fleeing the Russian-quashed Hungarian Revolution across the Alps to safety in Austria and West Germany.
After his stint in the Army, Mayer returned to the United States, and through his contacts in the National Ski Patrol was put in touch with Ernie Blake, who had recently established Taos Ski Valley and was looking for someone to run his ski school, said Christine Rademeyer, the Hotel St. Bernard’s longtime office manager and Mayer’s personal assistant and close friend.
Blake and Mayer became good friends and Blake offered Mayer some sound advice, reminding him that there is not much money in running a ski school, “and he should use his entrepreneurial spirit and indulge his passion for hotel work,” Rademeyer said.
“So Jean bought a little strip of land right on the edge of the ski slope, at the base of what was then the single ski lift,” she said. Mayer also wrote to his parents and brother in France and “told them to sell everything, come over and bring money.”
They did, and together “they cut logs from the mountain above the site, rolled them downhill and began building the Hotel St. Bernard,” Rademeyer said.
The hotel, which opened in 1960, has since been expanded and updated. Today it consists of 28 rooms in three separate buildings and the original lodge and renowned dining hall.
Rademeyer said Mayer often referred to his family “as his greatest wealth.” He was also humble, gracious and warm, she said.
Another longtime friend and employee, Evan Blish, worked at the Hotel St. Bernard for 40 years, mostly tending bar, before retiring.
“There is no other person I’ve met in this world who impacted my life more than he did,” Blish said. “He was just larger than life, a man of great wit and the consummate host. What he created at the Hotel St. Bernard was magical.”
In addition to his family and his hotel, a main source of Mayer’s unbounded energy and passion was the mountain itself, Blish said. “He was such a beautiful and fantastic skier, as well as a student of skiing. To the end he studied technique and was absorbed in all the nuances.”
Mayer is survived by eight children, Michael Mayer, Sacha Mayer, Ryan Mayer, Monique Jacobson, Kihei Mayer, Krizia Shelton, KaiLani Mayer and Kody Mayer; brother Bernard “Dadou” Mayer and sister Christine “Tiki” Morel; seven grandchildren; and his life partner, Elise Waters Olonia.
A virtual public memorial service will be held at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18. For more information go to the Hotel Bernard website at stbernardtaos.com, or to the Hotel St. Bernard Facebook page.
Donations may be made to the “Ski New Mexico Jean Mayer Fund” for children learning to ski. Checks can be mailed to: Ski New Mexico, PO Box 90037 Albuquerque, NM 87199.