There’s clearly a mutual admiration society between businesswoman Sheila Johnson and political commentator David Gergen. He was just one of many who came to praise her Thursday at the grand opening of her new Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Virginia. The dozens of invited guests, who sat in white chairs under the front portico and in the driveway of the resort, gave her two standing ovations. Gergen invoked the anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. “Isn’t it fitting that this week, 50 years later, we come to celebrate Sheila’s dream? She will tell you it takes perseverance and courage . . . and she has plenty of both.”
When fans weren’t praising Johnson’s resort project, they praised her filmmaking moxie—including her latest endeavor, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Gergen said he was at the Boston premiere with Johnson. “She brought that to the screen. She raised the money to make it possible.”
Making the 185-room, 340-acre resort possible took a number of years, was stopped by but survived the Great Recession, and caused some kerfuffle among the area’s landed gentry, especially since the land Johnson bought and developed once belonged to a pair of them, politician and diplomat W. Averell Harriman and his socialite and diplomat wife, Pamela Harriman. Both are deceased. “Somewhere up there, Pamela Harriman is smiling because of what Sheila has built with Salamander,” Gergen said. “I will guarantee you the stars and diamonds will be showered on this resort.”
Gergen’s words were a reference not to heaven or Tiffany’s, but to the notable travel guides that use stars and diamonds as a ratings system. A representative of Forbes Travel Guide, for example, was among the guests, and was acknowledged by Prem Devadas, the president of Salamander Hospitality. When Devadas came to work for Johnson he brought with him from Charleston, South Carolina, his family and a history of helping to score those coveted stars and diamonds for his previous resort employers. He seems not to have looked back. Salamander “is the very best resort I have ever worked in,” Devadas said. “We’re happy, and it’s all because of Sheila.”
Praise for Johnson also came from representatives of the town of Middleburg, Loudoun County, and the state of Virginia. Rita McClenny, president and CEO of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, said, “I can’t imagine any other place on the planet I’d rather be today.” She called Salamander a “crown jewel” in Virginia tourism, and said Johnson’s presence reminded her of when First Lady Jackie Kennedy came to Middleburg to spend weekends and fox-hunt. “We’re very appreciative of all you’ve done,” she said. “Our doors will always be open to you.”
With these kinds of accolades, it is no wonder that when Johnson arrived at the podium to make her remarks she was almost immediately in tears. “Boy, what a day,” she said. “I can’t thank you enough for being here. This is the day we’ve all been waiting for.” Pause. Tears. “I’m pulling it together here.” Deep breath. “I have the best friends in the world.” She thanked some who were in the audience—fashion designers Donna Karan and Kay Unger, Project Runway host Tim Gunn, Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel Robinson, fashion model Beverly Johnson, her lawyer, Sandy Ain, and Pamela Williams, one of the producers of The Butler.
Johnson then reflected on the journey leading up to the day. “When we decided to mothball this project, I stopped sleeping,” she said of the period after 2008 when construction was halted. “The recession hit us hard.” It took time, but eventually her financial advisers said there was “light at the end of the tunnel” and she could proceed. For her, she said, the resort “is personal. Middleburg was my refuge. In Middleburg I truly found serenity and friendship, and it is home. I want all my Middleburg neighbors to know that Salamander is your partner.” When she finished her remarks there was a second standing ovation, followed by a ribbon cutting, and then the doors were pulled open so the guests could tour just about every square inch, sample food from the kitchen overseen by chef Todd Gray, sip Prosecco, and admire the views—which included, almost as if on a movie set, equestrians on their steeds.