Crème de la crème
Yacht cruises and tennis clubs, champagne and caviar, fortunes crashed on the roulette wheel, Princes and tycoons, duchesses and courtesans… How on earth did all that glamour fit into such a small strip of land? The 18th-century English nobility was the first to discover Riviera’s exquisite natural beauty, and to appreciate the benefits of its climate: they immediately made it their favorite destination for the winter. A century later, the intelligentsia of the Belle Epoque -renowned French writers such as Prosper Mérimée, Guy de Maupassant- started to publish notes on their travel experiences in “Nissa” (Nice’s name in the Occitan dialect). The crème de la crème would not take long to follow their steps.
The turning point was marked by the arrival of Russian czars and Queen Victoria. From 1882 to 1899, the Queen’s visits to the Riviera were numerous -Ventimiglia, Cannes, Grasse among others. In Nice, new roads and hotels, such as the Excelsior Regina Palace, were constructed according to Her Majesty’s royal demands. Her stays got longer until she spent almost a year of her life in the area she called the “sunny, flowery south”. That was it! From that period onwards, the Riviera would be identified as the holiday destination of nobles and jetsetters, par excellence.
In the aftermath of the Great War, the surviving high society, more eager than ever to return to their careless routine -dining, drinking, and dancing- was looking for the next place to be for the summer. The Riviera’s fame spread like wildfire to Parisian cafés of the trendy Montparnasse; soon, wealthy Americans -Gertrude Stein’s Lost Generation-, artists and intellectuals who had made Paris the capital of the avant-garde, were packing bathing suits: Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, Henry Miller and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were only a few of the world-famous talents who found inspiration in the Mediterranean scenery of the Côte d’Azur. Growing demand for new tourist installations propelled a real-estate speculation race on the French Coast; in only two decades, from the early ‘20s to the late ‘30s, the Coast’s landscape was transformed by countless new villas, apartment buildings, and lavish hotels.
Almost a century later, the Riviera has lost nothing of its glamorous patina. Monaco, Cannes, Antibes, Nice and Cap Ferrat host some of the most prestigious hotels in the world. Casinos, Formula-1 races, film festivals and other fancy events keep the socialites busy all year round. The elegant architecture of the area’s major cities, inherited from the 19th and 20th centuries, is yet another timeless hallmark, as well as a reminder of their grandiose past and creative verve. In the City Map section, at the end of this article, you can find noticeable edifices of Art Deco and Modernist architectural styles to visit and admire.
Numerous travel writers tried to make a “Who’s Who” of the Riviera’s distinguished visitors. Victor-Eugène Ardouin-Dumazet was one of them: this French journalist wrote “Voyage en France“(“Trip in France”), a series of no less than 70 volumes describing the state of the industrial, rural and touristic economies in France, between 1893 and 1921. His travel notes drew an all-round portrait of the various socialite crowds flocking to the Riviera -from Russian Princes to American heiresses of rich butchers- and describe one day of their lives.
Such socialites were the American writers F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. In the summer of 1925, the couple moved to a villa in Antibes whose magnificent setting motivated Fitzgerald to write -what he considered as- his “best work”: Tender is the night recounts the glamorous life of the Divers, an American couple who -like the Fitzgeralds- rent a house in the Riviera, surrounding themselves with fellow expatriates. The book is directly inspired by real-life incidents and encounters at the villa with brilliant artists, such as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Rudolph Valentino and wealthy jetsetters such as Gerald and Sara Murphy.
A century earlier, in a time that the French called the Belle Epoque, courtesans were the ones who ruled the world. Carolina Otero was the richest, most charming, most idolized of them all. Raoul Mille, an expert in the history of the Riviera, wrote a novel inspired by her life, “La Belle Otero”. From her homeland, the Spanish Galicia, to Lisbon, Paris, New York and Nice, Mille portrays the rise and fall of that beautiful dancer whose dark black eyes were said to be of “a captivating intensity”. Otero had countless love affairs with Kings and Princes – including Prince Albert I of Monaco, Edward VII of England, the royals of Spain and Serbia, Emperor William II, and Baron Ollstreder among others. Several lovers dueled for her or committed suicide. In the selected extract, the most coveted woman in Europe is now almost a hundred years old. Yet, in the old dancing hall, her presence still manages to arouse the envy of fellow courtesans; every evening, they all go there, dressed-up, to reminisce about the glorious days of their lustful youth.
But here is the crowd of cosmopolitans invading the public garden and the Masséna quay. Oh! They are bursting with life, health, luxury and thirst for pleasure. Take a look at these marvelous horses and carriages; the automobiles, bicycles, riders, amazons, and a mass of pedestrians in elegant gowns filling this privileged corner of France with life.
This is a meeting point of all idle millionaires in search of entertainment; of adventurers on the hunt; of girls on the lookout for an opulent husband; of young – or older – ladies attracted by this influx of wealth…
And all these people are milling around, restless, thinking of nothing else than pleasure and luxury. They do worry about spending; in fact not only about spending, but also about the need to show that they are spending: An ostentatious prodigality.
Who are they? Where do they come from? Why are they coming? How do they live?
First comes the royalty […]: The Emperor and Empress of Austria, Empress Eugenie, Queen Victoria, King Leopold, King and Queen of Wurttemberg, King Milan (note: of Serbia), the Prince of Battenberg, etc.; Lord Salisbury with his “country house” in Beaulieu and (Prime Minister) Gladstone in Cannes. Then, comes a scattering of princes, dukes and counts of genuine titles -for the most part. On almost equal rank, the adventurers of stately demeanor follow; their titles, deprived of official recognition by the nobility, are the most brilliant; it is obvious that, if one creates a name for himself, he might as well pick the most prestigious one, compared to those merely transmitted by heredity. […]
Here, the hotel staff neither speaks nor understands the French language: English and German are the only languages in use. One can easily find cute young American ladies who warned their fathers -many of them own butcher shops and the likes- that they were going to Monte-Carlo for the winter. “All right!” their daddies replied, and so they came! These great winter visitors -I count around twenty thousands of them- are pretty much everywhere: riding carriages, straddling well-bred guests, filling restaurants, cluttering up casino tables; they make the whole area look joyful, elegant and with a charming prestige.
They are drawn here by the pleasant climate […] and the enchanting natural site of the bay of Angels […]: escalated rocks, grandiose mountains, flowery plains, and gigantic olive groves with views to the deep sea, dramatic cliffs, and beaches gently caressed by the waters […]…
This is where all the elements of the most comfortable and elegant life are brought together: no city, not even Paris on Rue de la Paix, has an alignment of stores like those on Masséna and Saint-Jean-Baptiste quays. All luxury items -jewelry, costumes, hats, antiques, and works of art- are captivating: they entice passers-by to the wonders of the most refined civilization. Pretty villas and stately mansions, furnished with taste and comfort, provide the wealthy owners with a luxury equivalent to their permanent homes.
Voyage en France, Berger-Levrault, 1898.
The day of an aristocrat
Now, let’s take a look at the distinguished winter visitors. […]
Their mornings are spent in day trips: thanks to an admirable effort, Madame managed to be ready by 11 o’clock: she put on a lovely dress decorated with braids and a flowery greatcoat, and was driven for lunch to the Réserve de Nice, […] or to the Hôtel de Paris in Monte-Carlo, or the “Righí d’hiver” at La Turbie. […]
The afternoon is reserved for lawn-tennis, five o’clock teas, white balls, and music events. […] Yacht rides are equally prescribed: there are about twenty yachts permanently anchored in Nice, and all the yacht-club men of England, France and America regard it as their duty to make an appearance there for a few days: regattas of Marseille, Cannes and Nice provide them with the opportunity. Female yacht uniforms consist of white and pink flannel or blue Scottish wool with embroidered anchors, matching straw boaters and yellow lace-up ankle boots. […]
Dinners offer a stage for a parade of diamonds, pearl necklaces, tennis bracelets, tiaras, diadems. […] Foreigners don’t have the slightest squalm: they display the precious contents of their jewelry boxes superbly.
Such was the case of the Belle Otero (note: famous Spanish dancer and courtesan): not being able to wear all of her jewels, she exhibited them in a showcase placed in the prompt box at the forestage. […]
(On the French Riviera) one feels that there is a need to spend heavily and bear evidence of this spending. Here’s a funny story: Just outside the Casino, there was a Monegasque jeweler holding pearls the size of his thumbs to sell to the players on their way out. […] The happy gambler is in desperate need to obtain tangible proof of his fortune immediately; it is only when he can madly spend it that he is able to realize the size of his good fortune. […]
[…] So there we are: this is what the high life of a winter visitor looks like. Nobles or foes, they are all beautiful and elegant, they are living the good life. With all their faults and their qualities, it is they who turn modern Nice into the richest, most attractive and most perverted of cosmopolitan cities.
Voyage en France, Berger-Levrault, 1898.
A dozen cabbies slept in their hacks outside the Cannes station. Over on the promenade the Casino, the smart shops, and the great hotels turned blank iron masks to the summer sea. It was unbelievable that there could ever have been a “season,” and Rosemary, half in the grip of fashion, became a little self-conscious, as though she were displaying an unhealthy taste for the moribund; as though people were wondering why she was here in the lull between the gaiety of last winter and next winter, while up north the true world thundered by.
As she came out of a drugstore with a bottle of coconut oil, a woman, whom she recognized as Mrs. Diver, crossed her path with arms full of sofa cushions, and went to a car parked down the street. A long, low black dog barked at her, a dozing chauffeur woke with a start. She sat in the car, her lovely face set, controlled, her eyes brave and watchful, looking straight ahead toward nothing. Her dress was bright red and her brown legs were bare. She had thick, dark, gold hair like a chow’s.
With half an hour to wait for her train, Rosemary sat down in the Café des Alliés on the Croisette, where the trees made a green twilight over the tables and an orchestra wooed an imaginary public of cosmopolites with the Nice Carnival Song and last year’s American tune. She had bought Le Temps and The Saturday Evening Post for her mother, and as she drank her citronade she opened the latter at the memoirs of a Russian princess, finding the dim conventions of the nineties realer and nearer than the headlines of the French paper. It was the same feeling that had oppressed her at the hotel -accustomed to seeing the starkest grotesqueries of a continent heavily underlined as comedy or tragedy, untrained to the task of separating out the essential for herself, she now began to feel that French life was empty and stale. This feeling was surcharged by listening to the sad tunes of the orchestra, reminiscent of the melancholy music played for acrobats in vaudeville. She was glad to go back to Gausse’s Hotel.
Her shoulders were too burned to swim with the next day, so she and her mother hired a car -after much haggling, for Rosemary had formed her valuations of money in France- and drove along the Riviera, the delta of many rivers.
The chauffeur, a Russian Czar of the period of Ivan the Terrible, was a self-appointed guide, and the resplendent names -Cannes, Nice, Monte-Carlo- began to glow through their torpid camouflage, whispering of old kings come here to dine or die, of rajahs tossing Buddha’s eyes to English ballerinas, of Russian princes turning the weeks into Baltic twilights in the lost caviare days.
Most of all, there was the scent of the Russians along the coast–their closed book shops and grocery stores. Ten years ago, when the season ended in April, the doors of the Orthodox Church were locked, and the sweet champagnes they favored were put away until their return. “We’ll be back next season,” they said, but this was premature, for they were never coming back any more.
Tender is the night, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934.
They arrived at the Palace at the same time with the first regular customers -retired couples that come for a coffee or a liqueur. They had their ordinary table at their favorite corner. On the stage, at the back of the brewery, the music instruments were waiting in gray covers […] She (i.e. la Belle Otero, a famous Spanish dancer and courtesan) sat back in the wrinkled moleskin chair with delight. A waitress in a black dress and white apron approached. […]
– “Suzanne, why don’t you bring us a bottle of champagne and some cakes… The day calls for a celebration, doesn’t it, Georges?”
[…] Little by little, the room filled up with its everyday crowds of old courtesans crowned with red, purple, or apple-green turbans, all wearing heavy, coarse make-ups. Every afternoon, they come here to listen to the orchestra, nibble a tart, sip on a cup of tea or chocolate; they all witnessed the beginning of the century and are haunted by extraordinary memories. They shoot smiles to no one in particular, raising their little finger while they drink, leaving large streaks of lipstick on the filters of their English cigarettes.
Just by listening to these old ladies, one would deduce that they all have frequented kings and queens; that they have been adulated, covered in gifts, and spent fortunes. Just by listening to them…But nobody is.
They speak little to each other […] and look proud of themselves like a crown in its case. […] Some of the ladies could even be considered dead, so motionless that they sitting, so petrified, waiting for visitors that are fond of antiques.
The musicians of the orchestra […] laid out the first bars of a song called Frou-Frou. “Frou-Frou bears the scent of a woman”. […] It only took a couple of bars for the enchanted ladies to forget about the neon lights and automobiles… to forget all about their age, wrinkles or imminent death. Frou-frou was a kiss of life, a benediction. Suddenly, a world of gaslights, carriages and horses rose up…Beautiful breasts and lovely thighs resurge. […] They had tried everything to conquer a man, the Man! Instead, they ended up in that relic café, abandoned and solitary.
They were throwing angry glances at the ancestor of the ancestors, that “bitch of Otero” still able to be offered a bottle of champagne.
– “What a nerve, that woman!”
– “How freakishly lucky she has been, right until the end… she was the richest of all… such a big spender and she lost everything… Now, here she is, almost a century old, still managing to offer herself a young company, the amorous gaze of a playboy in shorts.”
– “What an injustice! What on earth does he see in her?”
– “Just look at her! There is nothing left: no allure, no feminine shape…and look at those old rags of hers!”
– “My God! She looks as if she was stocked in mothballs… A scarecrow to frighten the sparrows of La Promenade.”
– “How old can she be now? A hundred years old? Perhaps more? It should be forbidden to live that long. It is a matter of decency.”
La Belle Otero, Albin Michel, 1994.
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