Billy Fiske (1911–40) was a two-time Olympian who drove the US bobsled team to gold medals in the 1928 and 1932 Winter Olympics. A founder of Colorado’s ski industry, Fiske saw the potential for the state to rival the great winter resorts of Europe and helped lay the groundwork for Aspen to become a skiing destination. In 1939 Fiske lied about his nationality to join Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF), and became one of the first American combatants to die in World War II.
William “Billy” Meade Lindley Fiske III was born in Chicago on June 4, 1911, to Beulah and William Fiske II. Billy and his sister were taught at home by private tutors. Their father, a partner in the banking firm that became Dillon, Read & Co., encouraged a love of the outdoors. In 1924 he was selected to head up the bank’s European operations, taking the family across the Atlantic. Three years later, the Fiske family vacationed in St. Moritz, Switzerland, home to the sport of bobsledding. Billy took to the sport quickly. In less than two weeks, he held the fastest time of the season on the course. Still a boy, Billy soon won some of the most prestigious medals in the sport.
The second Winter Olympics were slated for St. Moritz in 1928. Just weeks before the games, Fiske, then sixteen, was paired with novices to form the no. 2 US team. Fiske drilled his new crew until they knew instinctively how to move their bodies on each section of track. The team’s hard work paid off, as Fiske drove the sled to victory. His record as the youngest gold-medal winner at the Winter Olympics would stand for sixty-four years. In the autumn of 1928, he started college, studying economics and history at Cambridge.
Four years later, the 1932 Winter Olympics were held at Lake Placid, New York. Although Billy had a gold medal and was selected to carry the American flag in the opening ceremonies, he was still assigned to the second US team, which again included a teammate who had never before been on a bobsled, boxer Eddie Eagan. To practice, Fiske put their sled on wooden blocks and called out the different sections of track until the team moved in unison. After winning gold again, Fiske, then twenty, became the youngest man to win a medal in a second Winter Olympics.
After the 1932 Olympics, Fiske went on a world tour and then headed to California to try his hand at the film industry, with little success. In January 1936, he returned to St. Moritz to train for a third Winter Olympics, which were to be held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Fiske, who had skipped the trials, asked to drive the no. 1 US sled and to pick his team. American Olympic officials refused, in part because of pent-up resentment over his defeat of the hometown Lake Placid team four years earlier, and they cut him from the team.
Founding the Colorado Ski Industry
Back in California, Fiske met Aspen native T. J. Flynn. Flynn was trying to sell mining options near Aspen and showed Fiske photos of the mine’s location. It was the first time that Fiske had seen an American landscape reminiscent of the Swiss Alps. He realized that the Colorado mountains offered a place where he could build a winter sports resort to rival those in Europe. At the time, cross-country skiing was popular across the country, and other types of skiing were gaining adherents, too. Ski jumping had been introduced to Colorado in 1911 and quickly became part of winter carnivals in Hot Sulphur Springs and Steamboat Springs. By the 1920s, Denver’s Ski Club was hosting tournaments. Downhill skiing, however, was hampered by the difficulty of getting back up the mountain. Mechanical ski tows, used in Europe since 1908, did not exist in the United States until 1934.
Fiske came to Colorado in the summer of 1936 to put his plan in motion. Moving fast, he, Flynn and their business partners—financier Ted Ryan and Los Angeles real estate developer Robert Rowan—created the Highland Bavarian Corporation. By fall they had started construction on the Highland Bavarian Lodge at the confluence of Castle and Conundrum Creeks (about five miles south of Aspen). The lodge, which was intended to house both skiers and investors, opened on December 26, 1936, with bunks for sixteen visitors.
Meanwhile, the company brought in ski experts to determine the best sites for its resort. Andre Roch of Switzerland and Gunther Langes of Italy spent nearly a year exploring the area. They settled on Mount Hayden above the ghost town of Ashcroft, another five miles south on Castle Creek, and envisioned a tramway up the mountain. Meanwhile, Roch began teaching Aspen residents to ski and encouraged the formation of a winter sports club, which evolved into today’s Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboarding Club. In 1937 Roch laid out a downhill run above town and convinced volunteers to fell trees, creating Aspen’s signature Roch Run.
Realizing that his planned resort would take years to build, Fiske headed to New York to work with his father’s banking firm. In addition, he wanted to be near Rose Bingham, the countess of Warwick, whom he had met in California. They went to St. Moritz for the winter of 1938. That season, Fiske set a series of records on the Cresta Run, a natural ice-racing toboggan track, recording a time that stood for nearly twenty years. Fiske and Bingham became friends with a group of English athletes, including some who were members of the RAF’s 601 Auxiliary Reserve, nicknamed “The Millionaire’s Club.” The couple married in August 1938 and settled in New York. Before he returned to America, Fiske told his English friends that when war broke out, he wanted to be in it, flying with them.
Fighting in World War II
In late August 1939, Fiske learned that Britain’s RAF would be mobilizing its reserves. Fiske boarded a ship for England. However, because the RAF was prohibited from accepting volunteers from neutral countries, Fiske lied and claimed he was Canadian. After training, Fiske was officially assigned to the 601 Squadron on July 12, 1940. His unit, based at Tangmere in southern Britain, flew Hawker Hurricanes. After a week of training on the Hurricane, Fiske made his first operational sortie on July 20.
The Battle of Britain had begun that month. The Nazi Air Force, the Luftwaffe, initially targeted ports and shipping, but by August it was attacking RAF bases. In just twenty-seven days, Fiske flew in forty-two combat missions. On August 16, a group of German Stuka dive-bombers headed toward Portsmouth. In the ensuing battle, Fiske’s Hurricane was hit. Hoping to save the plane, he chose not to bail out. He landed the aircraft but was badly burned and died the next morning in the hospital. As he had hoped, his aircraft was repaired and was flying again in a few days.
Fiske was buried on the grounds of the nearby Boxgrove Priory Church in West Sussex, England. Nearly a year after his death, on July 4, 1941, a plaque in Fiske’s honor was unveiled in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Emblazoned with RAF wings, it reads: “An American Citizen who died that England might live.” The Billy Fiske Foundation, established in 2016, seeks to reinforce the friendships that are the foundation of the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom.
In Colorado, World War II and its need for steel halted the Highland Bavarian Corporation’s plans for a tramway above Ashcroft, but Aspen residents carried on Fiske’s dream of creating a European-style ski resort in Colorado. In Fiske’s obituary, the Aspen Times noted that without him, Aspen “would still be back in the hills as far as international attention is concerned.” In 1993 Fiske was inducted into the Aspen Hall of Fame.