A century ago, the French Riviera had become the most stylish winter holiday spot for European royalty and aristocrats, particularly the British, who journeyed to Menton, Nice and Cannes for the gentle climate. These high society visitors soon created their own well-mannered enclave. They sipped tea in the exotic gardens of Belle Epoque villas, surrounded by blossoming almond and mimosa trees. They introduced cricket, croquet, lawn tennis and golf to the Côte d’Azur, and organized charming thés dansants where only English was spoken. Come April, they packed up and went home, before the hot weather arrived.

Then along came the Americans, and the Côte d’Azur would never be the same. As early as the 1880s, the warm temperatures and crystalline turquoise sea began to attract wealthy entrepreneurs and artists who crossed the Atlantic hoping to create their own private Eden. Many were as eccentric as they were visionary, and left their indelible mark on the Riviera landscape and lifestyle. They built luxurious yachts, fairy-tale castles and sumptuous Art Deco casinos; they shocked and dazzled the local residents with their extravagant lifestyles, lavish fêtes and outrageous antics. And they stayed through the summer, soaking up the sun. Among them were James Gordon Bennett Jr., proprietor of the New York Herald and founder of the Paris Herald; eccentric Wall Street banker-turned-sculptor Henry Clews Jr.; millionaire Frank Jay Gould and his wife Florence; painter Gerald Murphy, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, dancer Isadora Duncan and film director Rex Ingram.

One of the most notoriously wacky figures was James Gordon Bennett, who ran his newspaper from his 20 room seaside villa in Beaulieu, Namouna Cottage, or from his yacht, and helped to publicize the sunny splendors of the Riviera. Bennett moved to France after scandalizing New York’s upper crust at an 1877 New Year’s Day reception given by his fiancée’s parents, when he whizzed in the fireplace. The engagement was broken off. A skilled sailor, Bennett—often referred to as “the Commodore”—built himself a 246-foot steamship, Namouna, which caused a considerable stir when it arrived in the bay of Villefranche-sur-Mer in 1883. Among Bennett’s many illustrious guests during his Mediterranean cruises were Lady Randolph Churchill and her son Winston.

Known for his ingenuity, Bennett also invented a horse-drawn mail-coach service that ran from the Herald’s office on Nice’s Place Masséna to his favorite hotel and fish restaurant, La Réserve, in Beaulieu. The remarkable speed of his coaches—6 miles an hour—stirred up so much dust for pedestrians that they were forced to slow down.

Bennett also did much for the restaurants he frequented, starting with the Riviera’s first telephone, which he installed at La Réserve in 1891, at his own expense. In Monte Carlo, the Commodore once arrived at his habitual lunch spot only to be informed that he could no longer dine on the outdoor terrace, which had been reserved only for drinkers. As often happened, the slight annoyance triggered his rage: “I’ll buy the restaurant!” he bellowed. And so he did, bestowing it on Ciro, the humble Egyptian waiter who always served him; it soon became a legendary gastronomic Mecca.

Bennett’s editorial attitude was equally volatile: if he woke up in a good mood and the weather was fine, he’d summon his secretaries and get to work. If he woke with a hangover, he was known to kick sacks of the Herald‘s mail—sent to his yacht by coach—into the Villefranche harbor, and go off to lunch instead.

Indeed, the Commodore’s idiosyncratic, devil-may-care behavior knew no bounds: he was known to stroll the streets of Beaulieu, lighting his cigars with banknotes, then tossing them, still aflame, into the street. He also made a habit of passing between rows of restaurant tables and yanking the tablecloths out from under the plates and glasses. Neighbors buzzed about wild garden parties at his sumptuous Namouna Cottage with young demi-mondaines from Monte Carlo. More than once, his dinners ended with a surprise dessert—a semi-nude dancer brought out on a giant silver platter.

The villa’s vast terraced gardens were  filled with orange groves, and the lawn was covered with animal statuary. Bennett was particularly fond of owls—his lucky mascots—and he adorned the seven Pekinese dogs that roamed the grounds with diamond collars. An elaborate cage in the garden housed a monkey given to him by the Emperor of Ethiopia during an Asian cruise.

Despite his quirks and rages, Bennett’s reputation as Beaulieu’s benefactor remained unscathed, since he contributed to local charities and shipyards, and hosted village street parties with musicians and food for the townspeople. Launched in 1900, Bennett’s astonishingly modern 2,082-ton, 314-foot yacht, the Lysistrata, created yet another stir. This $3,125,000 vessel included a Turkish bath, a resident cow to provide fresh milk, and luminescent owl’s eyes on either side of the prow that lit up at night.

While living on the Côte d’Azur, Bennett married Maud, Baroness de Reuter, daughter-in-law of Paul Julius Reuter, creating a link with her late father-in-law’s press agency Reuters. There’s a pretty winding street named after Bennett in Beaulieu, near his villa, but he’s likely to be remembered more for his high-roller stunts—even today, the term “Gordon Bennett” has become a general expletive, used for anything a bit over the top.

Strange Fantasies

The Château de la Napoule, a turreted seaside fantasy castle incorporating Saracen ruins, was completely rebuilt, stone by stone, according to the designs of expatriate Wall Street banker-turned-artist Henry Clews and his wife Marie. The Clews had moved from New York to war-time Paris in 1914, and three years later, when their young son fell dangerously ill, the family headed south to a warmer climate. While living at the Hôtel du Cap in Antibes they learned that an abandoned castle was for sale. Seduced by the 14th-century towers—all that was left of the original château-fortress—and high walls, Henry and Marie decided to raze the ugly “bourgeois” central building, with its pink furniture and red brick chimneys, left behind by the former owner, the Edwardian socialite Daisy, Princess of Pless. By the following summer, they had launched into a restoration of the castle and gardens that would last 18 years, supervised by Marie and executed by 12 resident Florentine stonecutters. Above the entrance was inscribed: Once Upon a Time.

During the 1920s and 30s, the Clews hosted medieval-costumed dinner parties attended by Winston Churchill and Lady Cunard. A self-trained painter and sculptor who studied briefly with Rodin, Clews had an elegant bohemian air and sported a Napoleon III goatee. “He should have been born in the Renaissance,” wrote artist Gabriel Domergue. Clews came to identify so closely with Cervantes’s Don Quixote that he named his son Mancha, and called his manservant Sancho. But his quest for an impossible dream was clouded by a quirky fear of persecution, and his life-size bronze statue of a Christ-like martyr, the “God of Humormystics” in the castle courtyard, is as strange as the rest of the house.

Today the château is owned by the La Napoule Art Foundation, based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and directed by the Clews’ grandson Christopher and his wife Noele. The foundation manages an artist-in-residence program and also offers guided tours of the castle and its cloister, replete with bizarre carved-stone demons inspired by pre-Columbian art—big-bellied grimacing spirits and laughing gnomes in blocks of pink, grey and green porphyry. But the highlight is the atelier—a curious bestiary of sculpted hybrid creatures that evoke Hieronymus Bosch, Lewis Carroll and Dr. Seuss. For example, there’s the Wog, a parrot with elephant feet and a lizard’s tail, and the friendly Glick, the Shat of Snakes and the Doodles of Dukes. It is said that Clews only ventured out of his self-made kingdom five times in 20 years—the last time was in 1937, when he was sent to a hospital in Lausanne where he died at age 61.

The palm-shaded formal gardens, orange groves and labyrinths of greenery where the Clews’ all-white bulldogs, white peacocks and marabous used to wander is now used as an exhibition space for American sculptors-in-residence. In a remote corner of the garden, Henry and Marie Clews are buried side by side in their sculpted crypt in a sealed-off tower: inside, in accordance with the Clews’ wishes, the two tombs are half-open so that their spirits can escape above the sea through a small window.

Jazz and Cocktails

When American expatriates Sara and Gerald Murphy stumbled upon the sleepy seaside Hôtel du Cap in Antibes in 1923 and convinced the bewildered owner to keep it open for them during the summer with a minimal staff, little did they dream that it would someday become one of the glitziest celebrity hotspots in the world. The Murphys had fallen in love with the Côte d’Azur while visiting their friend Cole Porter, and had decided to search for a villa where they could settle with their three young children. “It was a hot summer, but the air was dry, and it was cool in the evening, and the water was that wonderful jade-and-amethyst color,” Murphy wrote. “We bathed there and sat in the sun, and we decided that this was where we wanted to be.”

Best known as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s initial models for Dick and Nicole Diver in Tender is the Night, Gerald, ,a handsome dandy and serious modern artist who was heir to the Mark Cross luxury leather goods company and Sara Wiborg, a Midwestern beauty who would become Picasso’s secret muse, had a magnetic originality that is neatly summed up in the novel’s opening pages on the beach: “They have to like it,” Abe North tells the young actress, Rosemary, who has just arrived on the Riviera, referring to the Divers. “They invented it.”

Gerald launched the Riviera style, sporting a striped sailor jersey, a workman’s cap and white duck pants; Sara wore her long strand of pearls to the beach, explaining that they “wanted sun”. As the astonished locals looked on, the Murphys held elaborate picnics at La Garoupe beach, sipping sherry under parasols to the tune of the latest jazz ballads on their portable phonograph. Picasso showed up in bathing trunks and a black Stetson, and his first wife Olga, a Russian ballerina, danced on the sand. They slathered themselves with cocoa butter, sunbathed and swam in the height of summer, at a time when no one else dreamed of going near the water.

Their lavish parties, held on the terrace of their Villa America on the Cap d’Antibes included an illustrious circle of American friends—the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker—and the most important figures of the European arts scene—Cocteau, Léger, Picasso, Man Ray, Stravinsky and Diaghilev. “The air smelled of eucalyptus, tomatoes and heliotrope,” rhapsodized Dos Passos. Murphy, nicknamed “Dow Dow” made elaborate cocktails, “like a priest preparing Mass”, Dos Passos added, inventing concoctions “with the juice of a few flowers”.

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald spent the summer of 1926 in nearby Juan-les-Pins at the Villa Saint Louis, which would later become the Hôtel Belles Rives. Their increasingly strained relationship with the Murphys was a result of the couple’s relentless need to provoke excitement like naughty children. At the local casino, Scott took to lobbing ashtrays and insulting the waiters while Zelda dreamily danced on the tables. One night at a restaurant at Saint Paul de Vence, jealous that Scott had been paying too much attention to the famed dancer Isadora Duncan, Zelda threw herself down a flight of stone steps.

Duncan, who always danced barefoot in a white Grecian toga, created a new form of modern dance that combined poetry, music and rhythmic swaying. After a series of disastrous love affairs and the tragic death of her two children in an accident, the nearly destitute Duncan lived in Nice and Beaulieu toward the end of her career. She was a familiar figure at Nice’s elegant tea parlor La Vogade, where she would lace her hot chocolate with gin or vodka as a morning aperitif. On September 14, 1927, Duncan climbed into a Bugatti with a young race driver, on the pretense of wanting to buy his car. As they drove down Nice’s Promenade des Anglais, her long scarf got caught in the spokes of the rear wheel, and she died instantly of a broken neck.

The arrival of flamboyant Irish-born American director Rex Ingram in 1925 turned Victorine Studios into Nice’s “little Hollywood”. Ingram’s film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had already turned Rudolf Valentino into an overnight international success, and established his own reputation. After filming The Arab in North Africa, Ingram fell in love with Mediterranean landscapes, and longed to remain far from the imbroglios of MGM. The glamorous Côte d’Azur offered the ideal conditions to exercise his creative independence. He rescued Victorine Studios from bankruptcy and transformed them into Europe’s best-equipped film production site. Dubbed “the King of Nice”, Ingram was a key player on the high-spirited 1920s Riviera, welcoming celebrities including Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Harpo Marx. A dashing figure—Erich von Stroheim thought Ingram looked like a Greek god—the director drove a Rolls Royce chassis with no body, just two basket chairs, and sported open sandals and a Bogart-like trench coat. In 1930, the stock market crash and the onslaught of the “talkies” forced Ingram out of the film business.

No one could have predicted the stock market crash, judging by a new influx of well-to-do Americans who arrived on the Riviera to escape the dour mood of Prohibition. Most important was Frank Jay Gould and his ravishing wife, Florence. Gould, the son of railroad baron Jay Gould, built the monumental $5 million Art Deco casino, the Palais de la Mediterranée, in Nice, and then put Juan-les-Pins on the map in 1926 by revamping the town’s shabby wooden casino and adding a cabaret. He then bought up the 200-room Hôtel Provençal, which would soon become a glamorous modern landmark, with a private bathroom (and a new piece of soap) for every guest. It was said that Frank Jay Gould danced every day at least two hours, for exercise. Florence, known for her gambling and all-night champagne swilling, was also a true athlete, and  introduced water-skiing to the Riviera. She was also credited with launching the fashion of wearing pajamas during the day, particularly “baccarat pajamas”, with large pockets to contain casino winnings. At their Cannes villa, the Goulds entertained a steady stream of visiting Americans, from Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Elizabeth Taylor to Paul Getty, Nelson Rockefeller and Joseph Kennedy. In later years, Florence continued to host stylish parties for her friends, including Jean Cocteau, André Gide and André Malraux. Gould also financed the restoration of the Pinède, a pine-shaded square at the water’s edge in Juan-les-Pins that was named after him, now the site of the summer jazz festival and other outdoor concerts.

“It was like a great fair and everybody was so young,” Sara Murphy would later declare, looking back on that glittering era of unadulterated gaiety on the Riviera, where the expatriate Americans made art out of life. Gerald Murphy later wrote to Fitzgerald: “…what you said in Tender is the Night is true. Only the invented part of our life—the unreal part—has had any scheme or beauty.”

Originally published in the February 2009 issue of France Today

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