How the French Riviera became a paradise for the rich: stories of extravagance and opulence

By | May 15, 2023

How the French Riviera has always been a paradise for the rich and the decadent: from the bankrupt gambler who blew himself up to the prostitute whose clients included a duke, king and czar…

Jonathan Miles’ book traces the rich heritage of the French Riviera.

French Riviera: how it gained prestige

What Matisse described as “the luminosity of the Côte d’Azur” has always attracted “outsiders with consumer power.”

Queen Victoria, for example, stayed in Menton, where her presence “established the prestige of Riviera resorts”, even if the locals laughed at John Brown’s kilt. She had traveled to France incognito as the Countess of Balmoral. Less conspicuous were the three British battleships and the 15 ships of the French Mediterranean Squadron, anchored for their stay outside Villefranche.

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Victoria brought her own food from Windsor, including Irish stew. But then the British could be difficult customers abroad, always complaining, says Jonathan Miles, about “flies, fleas and gnats”.

British tourists and residents were easily recognizable by their “height, slurred speech and eating habits”, who tended to eat in grim silence.

In the 19th century, visitors like Robert Louis Stevenson went to the south of France for the guaranteed fine weather, “cloudless, crystal clear…fragrant air, all pine and gum.” The warm winter weather was advertised as good for gout, rheumatism, and tuberculosis. DH Lawrence died of a pulmonary hemorrhage at Vence. James Joyce went to Nice to have “leeches to drain the pressure of glaucoma”.

However, with Riviera’s growing popularity as a “cocktail of illicit affairs and questionable behavior”, the powerless were less welcome. In 1899, tuberculosis patients were barred from hostels as other patrons would be “disturbed by early morning coughing”. If someone died, the relatives of the deceased were in charge of “repairing, whitening, and renewing the curtains.”

Book cover / Photo: Amazon

The south of France became a favorite haunt of plutocrats and aristocrats, who built elaborate stucco villas. The beaches “located near the city’s sewage outlet” were renovated with promenades, boardwalks, and platforms.

In Monte Carlo, the casino, with its domes and gargoyles, was designed by the architect of the Paris Opera. Dorothy Parker was not allowed into the gambling house because she was not wearing stockings. Diaghilev’s opinion said it all: “My tastes are simple. The best is good enough for me.”

extravagance and opulence

There was a lot of money. People would arrive on their private yachts, which may have had a crew of 100, plus a cow on board for fresh milk.

It was not uncommon for hostesses to parade to the silver platter dinner, naked except for a discreet sprig of parsley.

There was also the luxurious Blue Train, with its dining cars and berths, the interiors decorated in mahogany and gold.

The Riviera shops sold extravagant items, “glittering diamonds, pearls, rubies, emeralds, that flicker and shine in the bright winter sun.” The ladies of fashion were presented with 20 trunks, containing a wide variety of dresses and accessories. Patou, Molyneux, Worth and Coco Chanel had outlets on the Côte d’Azur. At this turn of the century, 300 million exotic birds were killed annually to decorate hats. The perfume industry in Grasse needed 45,000 kg of roses and 15,000 kg of orange blossoms per day.

The dark side of the French Riviera

If there’s a darker side to all of this, Miles points out that the Riviera also provided business opportunities for many society prostitutes. A courtesan’s clients included D’Annunzio, the Italian poet, the Duke of Westminster, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, and Tsar Nicholas.

Queen Victoria’s son and heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, built a special ‘love chair’ or custom hammock device so that ‘with minimal effort’ he could have sex with two prostitutes at the same time without strangling them to death. death.

Suicides were common, following losses at the gaming tables: 19 in the 1884 season. One man committed suicide by “exploding a stick of dynamite in his mouth.” Drinking was a problem. It was not uncommon for drunkards to plunge into empty swimming pools and require months of hospitalization.

Beach in Cannes, around 1970 / Photo: Getty Images

During World War I, due to the Russian Revolution, the grand dukes who flocked to the resorts suddenly started working as porters and taxi drivers.

Later, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor spent time with Chips, Tufty, Baby, Nana and Fruity, wealthy acquaintances. The ex-king’s telephone bill when Wallis was away for a fortnight was £800 (about £69,000 today). He wanted to be served by footmen in formal red uniforms and insisted on royal protocol.

World War II was worse. The Germans used the Blue Train as a brothel. The Gestapo set up torture centers in hotels and villas. The beaches were littered with barbed wire.

Hollywood discovers the French Riviera

Over the years, Hollywood has discovered the Riviera: David Niven, Dirk Bogarde and Gregory Peck have acquired villas. Hitchcock filmed To Catch a Thief on location with Grace Kelly and Cary Grant. Brigitte Bardot was photographed topless in St Tropez. The Cannes Film Festival became an international feature film. In general, the place, which once saw so many lush forests, turned into “a vast square of reinforced concrete.”

All green spaces have been lost to lawless buildings. Valuable art deco and belle epoque architecture was demolished. Blue Train dissolved as air travel took over. Shopping malls, apartment buildings, fast food chains, and highways are everywhere.

Brigitte Bardot in Cannes in 1953 / Photo: Getty Images

Monte Carlo is home to Putin’s oligarchs and Princess Grace was killed when her car crashed off a cliff.

There are drug dealers, illegal activities, and examples of judicial fraud, robbery, murder, and significant Islamic terrorism. The residents drive bulletproof cars with tinted windows.

It is an environmental, cultural and political disaster. Chronicling “luxury, scandal, war and corruption,” Miles’s book is packed with hundreds of juicy anecdotes and got me thinking about the best outcome for the Côte d’Azur, writes Roger Lewis in the Daily Mai. “A sunny place for shady people,” said Maugham, is to sink completely and utterly under the sea.

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