The epic, never-before-told story behind possibly the greatest fashion emergency in history and a daring, near-deadly escape.
The SUV came to an abrupt stop.
It was July of 1977. A crew from Neiman Marcus had come to the Andes mountains, near the border of Chile and Argentina, to scout locations for a fur catalog shoot. As the SUV climbed farther and farther up the mountain, snow started to fall, blanketing the road. The passengers, including a young Jerry Hall—sitting in the backseat, draped in a fur coat and fresh off her first runway show in Paris—began to panic. A Neiman Marcus executive peered out the window, trying to get his bearings. Visibility was close to zero when the driver threw the car into reverse, desperately trying to turn around. What he didn’t know was that the SUV’s rear wheels had stopped just two inches from the edge of the cliff.
The SUV now dangled precariously off the side of the mountain.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
WELCOME TO NEW YORK
Before the 13-hour flight to Santiago, before the models and the fur coats and the biblical snowstorm that left her stranded in the Andes Mountains, Julie Christman was just another bored St. Louis teenager trying to figure out what to do for the summer. She’d graduated from Catholic prep school in June and was considering community college, but she didn’t have a clue as to what she’d study. What she did know was that her mother wanted her out of the house.
“My mom called my sister Pat in New York and said, ‘Why doesn‘t Julie come and stay with you?'” Julie recalls. Pat was 11 years older than Julie and had left home after winning second runner-up in a modeling contest. She was still working as a model, but she’d also started a boutique advertising group with her boyfriend, an up-and-coming photographer named Les Goldberg, who’d shot one of Ralph Lauren’s first campaigns. Julie had expressed some interest in photography. Perhaps she could come to New York for the summer and learn something from Les?
It was the summer of 1977 and the Son of Sam killer was still on the loose in New York, but whatever. It’s possible Julie’s mom wasn’t even aware of this. Besides, she knew Pat would take care of her kid sister. So Julie flew to New York alone and settled into the brownstone Pat and Les were renting on East 72nd Street between Second and Third Avenues.
Talk about culture shock. Julie was a midwest girl whose biggest problem up until then had been a post-graduation falling out with her best girlfriend. Now she was suddenly in Manhattan, being driven around by Les’s private driver, a guy everyone called Big John, and assisting on set, “holding the foam board to bounce the lights off,” she says. (When asked what Julie looked like that summer, Pat says simply: “She was petite. She was maybe five-foot-two. She reminded me of Peter Pan.”) Julie found the glamour all a little hard to believe. “I was just like, Oh my God. I’m in New York and I’m sitting here in front of these models.”
Julie had been in New York only for a few weeks when David Wolfe, an executive from Neiman Marcus, called Les. He’d seen Les’s work for Ralph Lauren, liked the feel of it, and wanted Les to shoot their catalog, The Fabulous Furs of Neiman Marcus—an annual publication sent out to some 100,000 valued customers.
Les, Pat, and their business partner, Pat Harrington (yes, there are two Pats in this story), assembled a cast and crew composed largely of their friends: top models like Jerry Hall, Maria Hanson (a Swedish model who would later appear in a Maidenform campaign shot by Helmut Newton), and Mary Maciukas (a Canadian model who was an early yoga adopter). They also enlisted male models Bob Clement (who rode horseback in an advertisement for Polo that Les shot), Randall Laurence (who’d been on the cover of GQ and had also made headlines for a much publicized–though later disputed—ménage à trois with Charlotte Rampling and her press agent) and Laurence’s boyfriend, model Conrad Bell. Pat Christman would style the shoot, her kid sister Julie would assist, and Neiman’s David Wolfe would oversee the project.
On the night of July 13, while the crew packed for their trip, the lights went out all over New York: It was the great blackout of 1977. Despite power outages and rioting, the entire entourage managed to get to the airport the next morning and board a flight to Santiago, Chile, transporting $2 million in fur coats by Fendi, Yves Saint Laurent, and Ralph Lauren.
Les was inspired. “He said, ‘I’ve got a vision of the catalog,'” Pat recalls. “He kept saying, ‘I just have a feeling it’s going to tell a story.'”
THE ADVENTURE BEGINS
This is as good a time as any to mention that Catholic schoolgirl Julie Christman wasn’t exactly the angel her older sister had imagined. A couple of days before leaving for Chile, Julie was assisting on one of Les’s shoots when she sidled up to the assistant photographer—”a hippie kind of a guy,” she says—with a special request. “I‘m like, ‘Don‘t tell Pat this, but do you know where I can get some pot?’ He burst out laughing and dragged me over to Pat and Les and was like, ‘Tell them what you just said to me.’ The next thing I know, there’s cocaine on the table. It changed the whole dynamic.”
The newly open environment set the tone for our band of high-fashion characters as they arrived in Santiago and boarded a private bus for Hotel Portillo—a mountaintop, ski-in, ski-out resort, the oldest in South America, two hours northeast of Chile’s capital. The bus traversed a long, twisty road up to the hotel—a yellow building with a rich history and richer clientele. It’s the kind of place where you might find Argentine polo players skiing, or, in 1973, Bobby Kennedy Jr. being chased by the Chilean border police.
Les wanted his models to be camera-ready, in case he spotted something cinematic along the way, and so Jerry Hall and Maria Hanson were having their makeup done in the back of the bus while Julie sipped a bottle of Coca-Cola and smoked a cigarette and marveled at her good fortune. (Randall, for his part, spent the time staring out the window, though he wasn’t exactly taking in the scenery. “Someone told me marijuana grows wild there. I spent the whole time looking for it.”)
YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT
The Neiman Marcus crew had barely settled in when the snow started to fall. Slowly at first, then in sheets. Randall, worried that the weather might make the work difficult, asked the manager if he was expecting much more snow. “No,” he said, pointing to the mountains in the distance: “You can still see the sky between them.” He couldn’t have been more wrong.
Portillo is located on the southern end of the Lago del Inca, a picturesque lake, and when the snow started to pile up, the hotel’s friendly staff tried to dig out a spot by the water for Les to shoot. But Les wanted a more dramatic backdrop. Despite the foreboding conditions, he was keen to scout locations beyond the property and climbed behind the wheel of an SUV, joined by Jerry Hall and David Wolfe, among others, and made off for the Argentine border.
“We were up in the Andes in this blinding snowstorm,” Wolfe recalls, “and Les was backing up. I said, ‘Les, Maybe you better wait.’ Jerry and I put down the back window and stuck our heads out.” It’s a good thing they did. “We became stone still. We both turned to Les and said, ‘Don’t anybody move because we’re right on the edge.’ With all the heavy snow we couldn’t see the bottom of the valley—but what we could see was pretty far and straight down.”
One by one, they climbed out of the car and backed away from the edge. Wolfe stared at the SUV in disbelief, realizing that he and Jerry Hall had actually been hanging over the edge of the cliff. “We were maybe two inches away from going over the cliff,” he says. “Jerry and I had been in the back part that was sticking out.”
They drove back to the hotel in near silence. Les, for his part, was already rethinking the shoot: to get this done in a blizzard, he’d have to improvise. He heard about an abandoned, underground railroad tunnel nearby Portillo. Pat dressed the models and together they all made the trek—no easy task. “We’re not talking about pretty little snow coming down,” Pat says. “Just to get down to that train station we all had to hold on to each other.”
“The wind was blowing through the tunnel,” recalls Julie. “But Les was able to start shooting Maria Hanson standing next to a telephone pole. Maria was maybe 90 pounds. The wind just picked up and she had to grab the pole. Her feet almost went straight out from under her.”
It was day three. There was very little film in the can. And David Wolfe was starting to regret this trip. He’d wanted to shoot in Dallas, where Neiman Marcus was based, but Les had refused. “Les always wanted his work to have a cinematic quality,” Pat says. “We weren‘t going to find that sitting in the desert or whatever happens in Dallas in July.” To make the trip happen, Les and his associates had successfully lobbied the Chilean Tourism Board (and Braniff Airways) to foot the bill, reasoning that since Chile was under the dictator Pinochet’s control and the country was no longer a popular tourist destination for Americans, what better way to change its image than to have a venerable brand like Neiman Marcus photograph millions in furs at one of Chile’s top ski resorts?
“David was starting to have a heart attack,” says Pat Christman. “He was like, ‘We have three days to shoot a whole catalog!'” But even Wolfe had to admit there was no way to keep working. Les, at least, maintained a sense of humor about the whole thing, saying: “Well, we wanted snow….”
It was clear they’d have to wait out the storm. Except the storm didn’t stop. Not that day. Or the next. Randall recalls a particularly memorable conversation with Maria Hanson: “We’d been secluded for a few days now and she comes down to dinner and sits down. She was so beautiful, and in this heavy Swedish accent she just said, ‘I’m so fucking horny.'”
“We were all kind of freaking out,” Julie says. “But at some point it was like, Um, well, we‘re stuck here. Why don‘t we have a good time?”
For fashion people in 1977, that could mean only one thing: Find the cocaine.
Julie had befriended some competitive Chilean skiers at the hotel. Or maybe these handsome men worked at the property. The details are lost to the ages. But she does remember that they were staying at a chalet on the Portillo property—an outbuilding within walking distance. “And they had a lot of cocaine,” she says. Some of the models pooled their cash and sent Julie out into the frigid cold with these strangers to bring back the nose candy.
The wind was whipping by. “I remember almost falling into this huge snow drift and thinking to myself, Wow. I could have gone into that drift and nobody would have known where I was.”
Thankfully, she didn’t get hurt. “And once the cocaine arrived,” Pat says, “Les decided, ‘Let’s put on a fashion show.'” Pat dressed the girls in the designer clothing and furs meant for the catalog shoot and they commandeered the hotel’s disco. Conrad Bell, one of the male models, served as the DJ, playing Donna Summer but also the theme song to Rocky, which had just won the Best Picture Oscar three months earlier.
Purcell, the Portillo’s manager, vividly recalls that night. “Any time guests are snowed-in, people with special talents offer guitar or piano concerts or massage classes or capoeira demos,” he says. “But this was the only time we could offer a top fashion show with supermodels.” The models strutted down the disco’s makeshift runway, casually tossing the furs aside, while the security detail picked them up, recalls Pat.
There‘s more to being snowed in than cocaine and catwalks; there‘s also sex. As day three turned into day four, it was clear that the whole scene had become one big party. “The disco was like Studio 54,” says Pat Harrington, Les and Pat‘s business partner in the Gerard Fashion Group. “We were there every night. A lot of women were after Bob Clement. I met a Brazilian.” Jerry Hall had been dating Bryan Ferry at the time, but she‘d already met Mick Jagger; she was wondering aloud about which man to choose. Randall recalls her saying, “I don’t know which one I should pick. If I were to marry Bryan Ferry, I‘d be Jerry Ferry.” Gambling groups started to gather in the corners of the disco, he says; dice and cards. “It started to get a little strange. There were a lot of very rich Argentinians and rich Brazilians.”
If Wolfe was anxious before, he became apoplectic as he watched the bills pile up. Jerry Hall alone was earning close to $1,000 a day. To sit there! “I remember Jerry Hall getting chocolates in the hotel and charging it to Neiman’s,” says Clement. “David was very upset. She said, ‘Too bad.‘”
Ever the practical businessman, Wolfe sat the models down and re-negotiated their contracts, offering to pay half their fees for every additional day they were stranded. “It would have been tens of thousands of dollars of modeling fees for which no one was doing any work,” he says. “The models agreed that it was an act of God.”
What started out as a seemingly harmless adventure (apart from that whole cliffhanging episode) started to feel dangerous. The blizzard still hadn’t stopped. The snow hit the second floor of the hotel; rooms were suddenly filling with snowdrifts. Phone lines were down. “We were all huddled in the hallways and you could hear the wind going through the hotel,” Julie says. “It was like a train coming through the ski resort.”
“We thought the roof was going to blow off,” says Pat Harrington. “That‘s when everybody stopped laughing.”
This wealthy crowd wasn’t used to compromise, and things had become a bit…cramped. The hotel staff tried to maintain a sense of normalcy—high tea continued to be served every day at 5 P.M.—but some guests became hysterical, wondering if the hotel might run out of food. Purcell offered anxious guests tours of the stockrooms to prove that Portillo had enough food to feed everyone—well, for three weeks, at least. But some wouldn’t stop fretting.
Remember the book (or the 1993 movie based on the book) Alive? The true story of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which crash landed in 1972, leaving 16 survivors stranded in the Andes, forced to eat each other to survive? That story was fresh (so to speak) in everyone’s minds. Wolfe recalls his colleague Kay Kerr, who’d also come on this trip, looking around the hotel lobby, saying, “Now which one do you think we should cook first?” She was joking, he says, “but it wasn’t so far from being true. It was like the book! The windows were cracked and we were sleeping on mattresses on the floor.”
It had been nearly a week since they’d left New York. People had jobs and families to get home to, and no way to let their loved ones—and agents—know they were alive. Some guests inquired about the possibility of a ski patrol helicopter rescue mission. The winds wouldn’t allow it, and avalanche fears kept any vehicles from attempting to head up to the mountain, either. Wolfe sums up the mood: “There was no real relief when it stopped snowing. We couldn’t go anywhere. There was no one to come get us and no way to get out. We were stranded.”
THE GREAT ESCAPE
After close to a week, the sun finally came out. This meant that at least they could get back to work, if not back home. At one point, the only way to get out of the hotel was to crawl through a second-floor window. Bob Clement recalls having seen a two-story quonset hut upon check-in. “I asked an assistant where it was,” he says. “He told me we were standing on it.”
Les photographed Jerry Hall sitting in a ski lift with her legs hanging over one side. For another picture, he corralled some local competitive skiers and shot the models against the backdrop of a downhill race. Les, who‘d never skied before, put on a pair of skis and tried to shoot in motion. The ski patrol, meanwhile, was finally able to come up and down the mountain, relaying any urgent messages to a military base, La Escuela de Montaña del Ejercito de Chile, or the Mountain School of the Chilean Army, which was about a half-mile from Portillo and doubled as a training ground for soldiers. Les had an idea to photograph Jerry Hall with her arm draped flirtatiously around a Chilean military commander as the two strolled past some handsome troops standing at attention, and so a crew made their way to the military base. This field trip offered a bonus: the opportunity to wire the Neiman Marcus headquarters in Dallas and explain their situation.
Besides finishing the shoot, they’d need help planning their escape—without alerting the several hundred other guests at Hotel Portillo, who were also clamoring to get back to their lives. It was time to get creative. Les pleaded with the colonel to make arrangements, explaining that he had “important jobs” to get home to. (Having prominent American guests of the Chilean Tourism Board stranded for much longer wouldn’t look good.) Wolfe suggested another tactic: sex appeal.
“At one point,” Wolfe says, “We were with Jerry and told her, ‘Help us charm that colonel so we can get out of here.'” The power was still out at the base and they ate a meal by candlelight. “Jerry started talking to the colonel and sneezed right in his face,” Wolfe says. “Conrad Bell looked at her and said, ‘We said charm him, not sneeze on him!'”
Wolfe was working on a more realistic plan. At the military base, he’d befriended a young doctor, a man whose family was influential in Chilean politics. Through a series of cable messages, the doctor’s father was close to arranging an exit strategy. There was a chance his son and the Neiman Marcus crew could be airlifted out of Portillo by military helicopter—provided the winds cooperated.
Military intervention was not uncommon back then. “In 1977 there were no commercial helicopter companies,” explains Purcell. “The army often gave us a hand to get sick, injured, and important guests down the mountain.” But this would have to be a covert operation. Nobody wanted to upset the other hotel guests.
They’d been in Chile for probably eight days—and Les was fairly certain he’d gotten the pictures he needed—when a plan crystallized: Early the next morning the doctor and the Neiman Marcus crew would be driven down to the base where two military helicopters would airlift them to a base in a town called Ocho Rios. Once there, they’d await transport to Santiago and ultimately a commercial flight back to New York.
“They woke us up at 5 o’clock in the morning,” Julie recalls. “They were trying to get us on the bus before anybody realized we were going.” But the scene in the lobby was like something out of Titanic, with the guests on high alert. “Guests were literally grabbing at us, trying to get on the bus. People were pounding on the windows.”
“It was almost like evacuating Vietnam or something,” adds Wolfe. “People were saying, ‘Please, can I go? Can I go?'” Some of the models who were accomplished skiers actually skied down to the military base.
The sun was on glorious display when Les and the crew arrived at the base. The models waited for the helicopters to arrive—stretching out on the tarmac, using the Neiman Marcus fur coats as pillows. Hours passed. Finally, a huge military chopper came whoosh whoosh whooshing into view, followed by a second, smaller helicopter. With the helicopter’s blades still spinning overhead, the models awkwardly climbed aboard.
The escape was not easy. By that point, says Wolfe, “the wind was blowing so hard that both helicopters had to fight to get away from crashing into the side of a mountain.” Once airborne, Julie and her sister Pat both recall peering down at the snowy terrain beneath them and seeing Portillo, a yellow dot cut off from the rest of the world by an endless gulf of white. “You couldn’t see the roads,” Pat says. “That’s when the reality hit us. We were in real trouble.” (More than they knew: This is impossible to confirm, but several of the people involved all recall that one helicopter that had initially been sent for them had crashed en route.)
Relieved to be out of harm’s way, the models spent one night in Santiago before boarding a Braniff Airways flight home. There was only one problem: What to do with the rest of the cocaine? “We couldn’t just throw it away….” Pat Christman says.
Of course not. And when their flight reached 30,000 feet, “little by little, everyone started going to the bathroom and passing the cocaine off to someone else,” Pat explains. “Whoever had it at the end of the flight was supposed to throw it in the toilet. We couldn’t bring it through customs.”
Or could they? Right before landing, Conrad Bell apparently hollowed out a tube of Chapstick and stashed the remaining cocaine inside. “Nobody found out,” Pat says. “But we all got off the plane with bloody noses.”
Nearly two weeks after this saga began, the crew finally landed safely back in New York. Pat Christman and Pat Harrington began calling the models’ agents at Wilhelmina, Ford, and Zoli. “They were very concerned,” Harrington says. “The agencies wanted to know what the models had gone through. They also wanted to know what the models were going to be paid for that extra time.”
Julie’s first phone call was to her mother: “I have a story to tell you,” she started.
She left out the cocaine.
A page from the catalog
It’s been almost 40 years since that summer, but Purcell, now 81, still recalls that week perfectly. “I have friends that remember the whole event as one of the high points of their teenage years.” (He also points out that getting snowed-in these days is a rarity.)
The experience left a lasting impression on other participants, too. The model Conrad Bell, who‘d studied art at the University of Georgia, sketched some of his own fur designs during the blizzard; Neiman exec David Wolfe later sold a Conrad Bell collection of furs at Neiman’s, including a coyote coat that folded up into a pouch in case of rain. Bell won a Coty Award for those designs and, in 1979, he and his signature furs appeared on an episode of The Merv Griffin Show along with Eileen Ford and Jerry Hall. Bell has since passed away. He and his one-time lover Randall Laurence split not long after that trip. For his part, Randall walked away from modeling in 1980 and embraced his spiritual side, moving into an ashram in New York for 10 years, where he grew a long beard, dressed in white, practiced yoga, and had an arranged marriage. He now lives in Hawaii and is working on a memoir.
David Wolfe was not deterred by the Chilean misadventures. He worked for Neiman Marcus for 25 years, producing subsequent fur catalogs in far-flung locations like Barcelona and Russia. He retired from Neiman’s in 1989 and later consulted for Armani, Fendi, and Holt Renfrew. Now 77, he splits his time between Denmark and Dallas.
In August of 1977, a month after returning from Chile, Les Goldberg and Pat Christman got married not far from Rodeo Drive, where Les had first approached Pat outside the Polo store. The wedding was something of a reunion for the Neiman Marcus/Chile crew: Bob Clement served as Les’s best man, and Jerry Hall brought Bryan Ferry, though she’d ultimately leave him for Mick Jagger a few months later. Naturally, Les and Pat walked down the aisle to the theme from Rocky. (Jerry Hall, who made headlines in January 2016 for her engagement to media titan Rupert Murdoch, did not return an interview request for this story.)
Les and Pat’s business partner, Pat Harrington, continued to work with Les before moving on to a job with Barneys and then launching her own firm, Harrington Communications. She’s still working in fashion, but nothing comes close to the Fabulous Furs of Neiman Marcus catalog shoot, she says. “People think the ’80s were excessive. This was beyond.”
Les Goldberg’s early shoots for Ralph Lauren arguably gave birth to what we now call lifestyle advertising. He shot campaigns for Revlon and CoverGirl, and covers and editorial spreads for ELLE, Harpers Bazaar, and Vogue, photographing models like Janice Dickinson, Beverly Johnson, and Stephanie Seymour. He directed a 1991 TV spot for Ralph Lauren’s perfume Safari, which was shot on location in Africa. He would later reinvent himself as an interior designer, remodeling suites at the Chelsea Hotel, where he was a longtime resident. Following a bout with cancer, he passed away in January of 2013. His archives had been in a storage facility, but after he fell behind on payments, it is believed that much of his work was destroyed.
Pat Christman and Les had two sons together before separating in 1982. She went on to work as a vice president at Ralph Lauren for 30 years. Now 69, Pat looks back on Les as her best friend.
Pat’s kid sister, Julie Christman, meanwhile, returned home from that summer in New York and studied clothing textiles and retail marketing at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. She moved to Chicago after she graduated and worked retail on Michigan Avenue for nearly a decade before moving back to St. Louis where she worked for seven years at, yes, Neiman Marcus. Sometimes she’d find herself starting to tell colleagues the Chile story but realized it “sounded so outrageous,” she says. “People would look at me like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I would just kind of summarize it and say, ‘Oh yeah, I was in New York, and I was with my sister and my brother-in-law, and we ended up going down to South America and we were stranded there for 10 days and then we got out by helicopter.'”
Had it not been for this epic adventure, she doesn’t think she would have worked in fashion. Julie’s parents expected her, the youngest of seven children, to settle down after college, she says. And perhaps she would have married the first guy who’d asked her, had it not been for that trip to Chile. Something about that once-in-a-lifetime harrowing experience rearranged her molecules, she says. “It made me more adventurous. I moved to Chicago without a job. I realized there was a lot more to life than getting married. At the age I would have been having babies. I was having too much fun to settle down.”
Her parents had sent her to New York to get her out of the house. But like all great coming-of-age stories, the trip did something much more vital: It made her feel alive.