Code / June 2016

Contrarian: The Ruin of the Riviera

Tracking a century-long transition from the getaway of the intellectual haute-monde to the playground of high net worth lowlife.

There’s a terrific 2007 Vanity Fair feature that recounts the lives of Gerald and Sara Murphy — the wealthy American jazz-age duo who basically invented the French Riviera as we know it. (Well, not as we know it now, but more of that later.)

Both born into fabulously rich families — Gerald’s father the proprietor of a luxury leathergoods firm, Sara’s a printing industry millionaire — with no need to earn a living, the Murphys were at liberty to pursue their passions. Art and alcohol being key among these, the young couple fled Prohibition USA for the creative freedom and uninhibited intoxication of post-First World War Paris, where they soon fell in with the leading artistic, literary and intellectual figures of the time.

Until the early 1920s, many hotels on the French Riviera would close from May through September (the fashion being to stay during winter). In 1923, however, the Murphys convinced the owner of the legendary Hotel du Cap Eden-Roc in Antibes to keep a small number of rooms open. Their pal from Paris, Pablo Picasso, joined them along with his family. Gertrude Stein followed. Word spread, a trend sparked, and summering on the Riviera became quite THE thing to do for Lost Generation tastemakers.

In seasons to follow, the Stravinskys, Jean Cocteau, the Cole Porters, the Hemingways, John Dos Passos, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Sergei Diaghilev, and Zelda and F Scott Fitzgerald (who’d base the lead characters in his novel ‘Tender is the Night’ on the Murphys) would also take up residence on this idyllic strip of French seaside. The Hotel du Cap and the chic, deco-modernist chalet the Murphys had purchased nearby, dubbed ‘Villa America’, formed the social locus for this remarkable group of geniuses. With many of the key figures in the set (Gerald Murphy and his old Yale chum Cole Porter among them) being rather ‘sexually fluid’ shall we say, all manner of Rococo liaisons, drugs, drinking and debauchery ensued. Along, no doubt, with some seriously stimulating conversation.

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Christian Barker

Christian Barker is The Rake's Asia editor-at-large, a frequent contributor to this site, and an enthusiastic consumer of fine whiskies, sashimi and classic disco music - ideally in unison.