The Art of Life

June 13, 2018  • Gitta Schneider-Sickert, Alison Decker & Sacha Zimmerman

Elizabeth Paepcke brought art, music, mind, and spirit to Aspen, making it the international destination it is today. She also helped found the Institute.

Before Aspen, Colorado, became an American cultural and intellectual Mecca, its raw beauty captured the imaginations of Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke. The couple singlehandedly put the town on the map and visualized its animating principle: the Aspen idea. But while much has been written about Walter Paepcke, the businessman who dreamed up the Aspen Institute, the other half of this vibrant duo, Elizabeth, is not as well studied—though she played an equal and powerful part in the founding of both the Institute and the town as an international capital.

Elizabeth Paepcke grew up surrounded by artists and intellectuals. Her father, William Albert Nitze, was the chairman of the department of romance languages at the University of Chicago. Her mother, Anna Sophia Hilken, cultivated a circle of friends and arts supporters that allowed Elizabeth and her brother, Paul, to grow up surrounded by debates over the biggest ideas of the day. Paul Nitze would later become one of America’s most notable statesmen and a chief architect of its Cold War defense policy.

Elizabeth, or “Pussy,” as everyone called her, was known for her passion and her willpower. She attended Foxcroft, a girls’ boarding school in Virginia, before returning to the Midwest to study painting and interior design at the Art Institute of Chicago. She first met Walter Paepcke in 1911 during a vacation in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, and married him in 1922. The couple shared a love of art and ideas, and became important figures in Chicago’s cultural and social scenes. “Her style was to hold strong opinions and to raise expectations to her standard,” David McLaughlin, a former Institute chairman, once wrote. Among other organizations, Elizabeth was involved with the Art Institute of Chicago, the Goodman Theatre, the Lyric Opera, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She also collected modern art, including works by groundbreaking artists like Pablo Picasso, Herbert Bayer, Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, and Paul Klee. She herself designed projects for Marshall Field’s and the University of Chicago International House.

It was a 1939 ski vacation to a remote village in Colorado that would come to define Elizabeth Paepcke’s legacy. Aspen was a deserted and unassuming mining town. But Elizabeth saw the potential for much more: the ideal location, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, for aesthetic and intellectual pursuits far from the everyday stresses of city life. “Walter,” she told her husband, “You simply must see it. It’s the most beautifully untouched place in the world.”

Walter waited until 1946 to make a trip to Aspen. But when he did, he was just as moved by the pristine mountain town. In 1949, he planned a festival in Aspen to celebrate the 200th birthday of German poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Away from urban distractions, Walter reasoned, people would come together and focus on the life of the mind. The Goethe Bicentennial was more than a celebration of a single artist and philosopher. It was also a chance to focus on humanism and the human goodness and reason it emphasizes. Prominent contemporary artists and thinkers including Thornton Wilder, José Ortega y Gasset, and Albert Schweitzer came from across the globe for a celebration filled with performances, lectures, and debates that lasted more than three weeks.

The festivities were such a success that the next year Walter Paepcke founded the Aspen Institute to continue the conversations he and Elizabeth had started at the Goethe event. Through the Institute, the Paepckes hoped to promote the ideals of a Good Society, in which the synchronicity of body, mind, and spirit can nurture a whole person, community, country, and planet.

Advancing the Good Society became Elizabeth’s life’s work. Even leisure “should concern itself with those things we do to replenish the spirit,” she wrote, such as “taking part in discussions of politics and ideas. It is the opposite of killing time.” To this end, Elizabeth founded many of the cultural landmarks still on offer in Aspen today, including the Aspen Music Festival and School and the International Design Conference. Later in life, she became interested in environmental programs as well, joining and contributing to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.

After Walter died, in 1960, Elizabeth continued to devote the majority of her time in Aspen to the many projects she had launched. Before her own death, in 1994, Elizabeth came to be known as “the Grand Dame of Aspen,” renowned for her devotion to the town and her passion for preserving its historic buildings, fostering its expansion, and nurturing its politics.

To those who knew her, Elizabeth’s mere presence could make ordinary life extraordinary. According to The New York Times Magazine, Elizabeth was celebrated for “her hospitality, her ability to listen, for her love of a good bawdy joke.” Friends say she ascended a ladder every Christmas to light the candles on her tree and shoveled her own walk every winter well into her eighties. On hikes in the countryside, she packed a little sipping whisky—and a pair of gloves so that she could pull thistles and weeds. Caring for the town was a job that was never done.