Elizabeth Nitze Paepcke, philanthropist and promoter of Aspen, Colorado, was born outside Baltimore, the daughter of William Albert Nitze, a professor of Romance languages, and Anna Sophia Hilken.
As a child, Elizabeth was raised among artists and intellectuals, the friends of her parents. Her appreciation for education and meaningful dialogue was instilled early in life, and she never strayed from those cultured underpinnings. When she was six, Elizabeth moved with her parents and her younger brother, Paul, when her father was appointed chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago. Elizabeth was enrolled in the university's school for faculty children, which she attended until she was sent, at age fourteen, to a boarding school for girls in Virginia.
Love of Arts and Ideas
Elizabeth first met her future husband, Walter Paepcke, during a vacation at Fish Creek, Wisconsin, in 1911. Walter, the son of a German American businessman in Chicago, was an aesthete with whom Elizabeth discovered a mutual love of arts and ideas. As a young woman, Elizabeth worked as an interior designer in Chicago and studied painting at the Art Institute, forming her artistic tastes. During the 1930s she designed windows and interiors for Marshall Field's. She and Walter were married in 1922, in Sante Fe, New Mexico, a location that reflected their love for sere western landscapes and affinity for small, cloistered hubs of art and culture.
The intellectual component to the young couple's lives was manifest at the University of Chicago, then under the chancellorship of the erudite Robert Maynard Hutchins. The Paepckes latched onto philosophical pursuits through the Great Books of Western Civilization, a series of courses with a focus on humanism. Walter Paepcke took over his father's company, then called the Chicago Wood and Lumber Company, in 1922, when his father died. Walter had been trained in the business starting at an early age; during the Depression, he converted the company into the Container Corporation of America. The new firm made cardboard boxes for myriad applications, including the World War II war effort. Walter, with Elizabeth's guidance, applied fine arts to his company's marketing campaign by commissioning Bauhaus artists for promotional artwork. Many of those works are installed in the American Collection of the Smithsonian.
Elizabeth discovered Aspen in 1939, when she traveled to what was then a mostly deserted and dilapidated mining town, for a ski vacation. Reflecting on her view of the town from an aerie-like perch atop Aspen Mountain, she later told her husband, "Walter, you simply must see it. It's the most beautifully untouched place in the world" (Allen, p. 121).
In 1946 Elizabeth brought Walter to Aspen, and he, too, was touched by this quaint relic of the silver mining boom of the late 1880s. Walter, when encouraged to help underwrite a celebration of the two hundredth birthday of the German poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in 1949, chose Aspen because it was beyond the urban distractions of Chicago, a place where people would come specifically for the purpose at hand.
The Goethe Bicentennial of 1949, organized by Paepcke and a group of literati from the University of Chicago, was designed to remind the world that Germany had rich cultural offerings that were better represented by Goethe than by Hitler. The organizers hoped the Bicentennial would heal the wounds of World War II by bringing Germany back into the fold of Western civilization and by imbuing participants with the concept of humanism through a celebration of the universal human spirit. The event would take place in Aspen, a remote, relatively pristine mountain setting where natural beauty was overpowering and uplifting.
Elizabeth Paepcke hosted Albert Schweitzer, the keynote speaker, in her Victorian Aspen home, but when Schweitzer, whom the media had nicknamed "The Living Saint," knocked on her door, he was greeted by a woman in the midst of a plumbing crisis. Schweitzer, who had mistakenly assumed Aspen to be a suburb of Chicago, presided over three weeks of lectures, symphony performances, and general conviviality--his only visit to the United States.
The Aspen Institute
The Bicentennial was so highly acclaimed by participants that Walter, in 1950, formed the Aspen Institute to create a cultural and intellectual venue that would target American businessmen by reintroducing them to the humanities. This was a need extolled by the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, who designed the Institute's "Executive Seminar," based on readings from Britannica's sixty-volume Great Books of the Western World, the canon of Western culture he had edited.
The Institute promoted "The Aspen Idea," a symbiosis of body, mind, and spirit that would nurture the whole person. This unifying theory became Elizabeth's raison d'être (New York Times Magazine, 1 Jan. 1995). Elizabeth's brother, Paul Nitze, a longtime U.S. arms negotiator, arrived in the early years of the Institute and partnered with Walter in forming the Aspen Skiing Corporation. The Paepckes also initiated the Aspen Music Festival and School, the International Design Conference in Aspen, and the Aspen Center for Theoretical Physics, all of which lend cultural depth to Aspen today.
After Walter's death in 1960 at age sixty-three, Elizabeth founded the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. She made possible the Given Biomedical Institute and contributed to the Aspen Art Museum, the Anderson Ranch Arts Center, Aspen Filmfest, the Aspen Historical Society, and DanceAspen. Her financial support was always matched by her unflagging personal involvement and enthusiasm.
As Aspen developed into a world-famous, year-round resort, replete with the trappings of conspicuous consumption, Elizabeth condemned displays of excess as an aberration of the original idea she and Walter had conspired for Aspen. Here, she opined, at eight thousand feet, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, was a bastion of culture and human nobility founded on intellectual and aesthetic pursuits, not gross material acquisition. In this she reflected her husband's conclusion that the Aspen Institute provided "an opportunity to stimulate thinking and discussion about the ideas at the roots of what the philosophers call 'the good life': ideas that are infinitely more important to the preservation of our society and our liberties than the pursuit of material gain".
Elizabeth celebrated Aspen's cultural richness, but she watched with sorrow as Aspen succumbed to the tawdry displays that undermined the very heart and soul of her beloved community. In an interview during her later years, she summed up her feelings: "Aspen can't be swallowed by the avariciousness of those who don't understand the reason for its existence". She died in Aspen.