He built the house in 2000, he tells me while showing me around, and plans to build another on an adjacent plot of land and then sell it. He met some potential Russian buyers who wanted both houses—this one and the yet-to-be-built property next door. Bassani doesn’t say what the offer was, but laughs at the memory of the astronomical sum. "They also asked if it would be possible to install bulletproof glass." He told the Russians he wasn’t selling.
But of course, they’re buying anyway, and they’re not all Russians. Lakshmi Mittal, the London-based Indian industrialist, recently built what is said to be the most expensive villa in town. He had to arrange for 24-hour security at the construction site to protect the house’s gold-plated radiators.
My thought is to leave the hotel in good hands when we die," says Hansjürg Badrutt, owner of the Palace, explaining why he and his wife recently announced they were bequeathing the hotel to its general manager, Hans Wiedemann. I’m sitting in the lobby with the two men, who, after only four years of working together, have a father-and-son-style relationship that seems warm and absolutely genuine. The Badrutts have no children, and the backstory to their unusual act of generosity is an estranged cousin’s sale of his shares in the hotel to an Italian real-estate speculator; leaving their large ownership majority to Wiedemann is an act of legacy preservation.
Hansjürg Badrutt’s grandfather Caspar opened the hotel in 1896; the family’s roots in St. Moritz go back even further, to the hotelier’s great-grandfather Johannes, who founded the nearby Kulm Hotel (now owned by the Niarchos family) and by all accounts originated the very idea of the Alpine winter resort. Hansjürg has run the hotel since the 1950’s (much of that time with his late older brother), and he reminisces with pleasure about notable guests—Alfred Hitchcock telling him the idea for a scene in Strangers on a Train, Erich Kästner writing best sellers in the lobby, all the legendary playboys. "In the 60’s," he says, "everyone wore a tuxedo to dinner. And if you didn’t, other guests would complain."
There is a great store of nostalgia for the old days—the days of tuxedos at dinner and season-long visits. "People used to come for a month," says Horst Edenhofer, former head of Cartier Switzerland. "Now they come for a week." Cartier opened one of its first shops in Switzerland in St. Moritz, and sponsors an annual winter polo event on the frozen lake. Edenhofer has an air of wry bemusement about him. "You have to be a little crazy to be in St. Moritz," he says knowingly. But is that still true? "The good old ’sporting spirit’ is not there anymore," says Max Keller, who was the Palace general manager from 1980 to 1991. "Today it’s about the love of money—these are the times we live in."
"Look, the world is always changing," Wiedemann says. "January used to be a slow month for us, but now it’s the best month of the year. Why? Because of the Russians." Early in the month Orthodox Christmas and new year draw a celebratory crowd. "At first," he says, "it was not so comfortable—we had men lighting cigars in the lobby with 100 franc bills." Recently, though, things have gotten better. "We need to be open!" he says emphatically. "The Russians are here, and the Indians are coming, and so are the Chinese—like it or not. We are a small country, and there’s a big wide world out there."
Not all local hoteliers are as international-minded: at Suvretta House, one of the top hotels in town, Russians were nowhere to be seen until just this year. (Not that the hotel had an official anti-Russian policy, but I hear from numerous people that the staff feared their long-standing, very conservative clientele would complain about garish outsiders.) I spend a number of days at Suvretta House: it’s the most traditional of the luxury hotels in St. Moritz—which is another way of saying it’s the most Swiss. The lobby is grand but low-key. The wide hallways are hung with oil paintings, dark and mysterious. The main restaurant requires black tie at dinnertime. There’s a swank, understated austerity about the place, and whatever its unseemly policy of guest profiling may have been, I must say that I love the hotel. My room has a large terrace where I watch the moon rising over the Alps.