LA VIDA BELLA: The Marbella Club
It was once so cut off from real life that its guests slept, sunbathed and partied while the Cuban missile crisis took the rest of the world to the brink of nuclear war. Originally written by NICK FOULKES in Issue 45 of The Rake, he asserts that The Marbella Club’s communications have improved dramatically since then, but this little piece of Spanish heaven remains a perfect refuge in uncertain times.
The Marbella Club has many stories, but my favourite concerns the Duke of Windsor, who, after giving up the British Empire for the woman he loved, found he had a bit more time to spend with his wardrobe, his guns, and his golf clubs. The alternative name of the Costa del Sol is the Costa del Golf, so naturally the Duke stayed at the Marbella Club, the famous hotel founded by the late Prince Alfonso of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, who was as fond of retelling the story as I am. “The Duke of Windsor came,” Alfonso would say, “and at that time the club was full of about 60 really good friends, so I told them I was giving a dinner at the Beach Club for the Duke of Windsor, and asked them if they would like to come. I told the Duke I would collect him at 9.15pm and I told the other guests to arrive at 9.00pm. Everybody dressed up in blue suits with ties, looking like lawyers, and the Duke and Duchess looked down at them. The Duke was wearing a red and white Hawaiian shirt, and he said, ‘Alfonso, I have to go back to the bungalow quickly’.” The Duke changed into a dark suit and they tried again. “Everybody had seen the Duke of Windsor with a colourful Hawaiian shirt, so everybody had taken off their jackets and ties. We went down to the Beach Club and the Duke was so funny because he took his tie and threw it into the pool. Then he took off his suit jacket and there was a big applause. That was what made him come back again and again, because he felt at home. The people respected him but at the same time made him feel comfortable.”
It may be more than half a century since the Duke of Windsor, the best-dressed of British monarchs, used to come to this charmed spot in southern Spain, and if he were to return today, he would not recognise much of the coastline on the drive from the airport. In fact, he would not recognise the airport, which in the 1950s was a much simpler affair. “You had a tarmac runway,” recalls an early Marbella pioneer, “but not a very wide or a very long one. Everything around it was lovely lawn, and occasionally the plane would overrun the tarmac and come to rest on the lawn! The airport building was a small lovely Andalusian house, like a cottage covered with bougainvillea, and there were no bus stations, but there was a man with a carrito [cart], so it was this normal Andalusian country life that received you.” Since then the cottage on the edge of the landing strip has grown into an international transport hub, and the journey of two hours along rutted roads, where donkeys were once more common than motor vehicles, has been replaced by a 30-minute drive along a bowling-green-smooth motorway. But I like to think that the Duke would find the Marbella Club largely unchanged. Obviously it has changed, but largely for the better. Had it remained the same hotel as in the 1950s, with hip baths and headboards painted on the walls behind the beds, it would no longer exist: any 21st-century guest checking in and finding the sort of accommodation that those early guests put up with would quite reasonably not even bother unpacking. But while the standard of the rooms is what one would expect from a modern luxury resort, the feel and the unique atmosphere remain as seductive as they ever were: low-built whitewashed villas, suites and rooms; towering pines and palms; exotic trees and plants; lush gardens drenched with the scent of bougainvillea and night jasmine. Even though it has been some time since his last visit, the Duke might spot a few familiar faces among the staff, who joined the club as teenagers and are now nearing retirement. Of course, he would be greeted in the same friendly and welcoming manner by the club’s resident Dr. Pangloss, a man for whom the glass of life is always, at the very least, half full, Count Rudi. If Count Rudolf von Schonburg carried a business card, it would bear the words ‘Soul of the Marbella Club’. He has been here since the 1950s and is so much a part of the local community that he has had a street named after him. I have written two books about the Marbella Club — the first for the 50th anniversary, the second, more recently, for its 60th — and, having travelled reasonably widely, I can say that it is probably my favourite spot on the planet. The climate is remarkable: while northern Europe shivers through the dark-by-teatime depths of winter, in Marbella people can be on the beach. There is an ease and a relaxed pace that is inimitable, and there is a pleasing lack of stuffiness about the place that appeals to rock stars and royalty alike: one morning I saw Rod Stewart and, later that day, I was introduced to the late Otto von Habsburg, the man who would have been emperor of Austria-Hungary. I am not alone in being smitten by the place: I know many people for whom summer at the Marbella Club is the terminus ad quem around which their year is arranged.
Of course, Marbella is not for everyone: the sea might be more pellucid in Greece; the food and museums better in the South of France; and the nightlife in Ibiza more popular with those who think they are younger than their birth certificates would suggest. But the Marbella Club has a unique relaxed charm. A summer here doing little more than watch the sun trace its diurnal arc from east to west — and moving from the beach restaurant at lunch to the magical setting of the candlelit terrace of the grill to dine under the vaulted open-air ceiling provided by ancient umbrella pines — is the definition of time well spent. The opening chapters of the story of the Marbella Club read like a fairytale involving a prince, a playboy and a charcoal-burning Rolls-Royce. The prince was Max von Hohenlohe, who was told in great detail about life on the shores of the Mediterranean by his cousin Ricardo Soriano, Marquess of Ivanrey — the playboy. Soriano was also a daredevil powerboat racer, sportsman and inventor who had built a fishing lodge just outside the small town of Marbella. (Today, he gives his name to Marbella’s high street.) Max von Hohenlohe decided he needed to see this place for himself, so in 1946 he fired up his charcoal-burning Rolls-Royce Phantom and pointed it south. He arrived hot and dusty to find that Soriano had gone fishing. He parked his Rolls-Royce and ate a picnic in the sun-dappled shade of a pine forest that ran to the edge of the sea. There, he waited for his cousin, who had pointed out that for the money it cost him to heat his vast palace near Madrid during the winter months, he could buy a house on the Mediterranean. The idea appealed to Prince Max, and the following year he sent his son Alfonso to Marbella. Prince Alfonso Hohenlohe, named after his godfather, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, had charm, manners, spoke numerous languages, was a crack shot, skied, played tennis, and was generally prepared for a way of life that had ceased to exist after the end of the second world war. But, as enterprising as he was handsome, he had sailed to New York, where he was supposed to study agriculture, but came back a graduate of the nightclubs and restaurants of New York to which he had been introduced by Ghighi Cassini (see issue 39 of The Rake), the fabled playboy gossip columnist who would invent the term ‘jet set’. Taking a break from his studies in the Stork and El Morocco, Alfonso headed to southern Spain, where he conducted the best real-estate deal since the island of Manhattan was bought for a few shiny gewgaws. Finca Santa Margarita, a beachside farm with olive groves covering 180,000 square metres, changed hand for 150,000 pesetas. At the time no one really wanted land in Andalucía: agriculture was barely profitable; the vineyards were blighted by phylloxera; basic items such as copper wiring could be obtained only on the black market; and to make things more interesting, bandits and civil war renegades operated in the hills. But it was a haven from the grimness of Europe in the Marshall Plan years. Soon the house filled with so many guests that Prince Alfonso was inspired to build a hotel along the lines of those he had encountered in America. “It was actually like a motel, because I had lived in Motels in California,” he said. “So I called it the Marbella Club Motel. Then, when we saw that people wanted to stay here, we added bungalows so that people could be a little bit more independent.” The word ‘motel’ soon disappeared, leaving the place known simply as the Marbella Club. And the suave, dashing Prince Alfonso was a born promoter. Whether he was shooting in England, skiing in St. Moritz or nightclubbing in New York, he never missed an opportunity to talk the place up, making it sound like a new and improved version of the Garden of Eden filled with Beautiful People.
I suppose that today it would be called barefoot luxury, only without much of the luxury that we now take for granted. Forget spas and fine dining — in the early days there wasn’t even a telephone. All that linked the Marbella Club to the outside world was a bellboy on a bicycle pedalling back and forth between Marbella town and the club a dozen times a day to send telegrams, buy newspapers, order taxis, and so on. Eventually the club did invest in a telephone — and it was an investment: the club had to supply the copper wire, which the phone company graciously agreed to nail to some poles that ran alongside the dirt road. And once fixed to the wall at the end of the bar, the telephone became one of the hotel’s chief attractions — at that time there were only two telephone lines in Marbella, so placing a call became a social activity, with people booking a line and returning to the club to make their call, a practice that continued until the early 1960s. However, by the time Aristotle Onassis came to stay, and demanded that he have six telephone lines connecting his villa to his worldwide empire, it was clear the Marbella Club was on the map. Of course, Onassis’s arch rival, Stavros Niarchos, was also seen at the Marbella Club. The summer of 1967 brought an avalanche of aristocracy, millionaires and stars. Don Juan de Bourbon, Count of Barcelona, the man who would have been king of Spain had Franco not taken over the country, moored his yacht off the coast, and the royalist faction of Spanish society paid court. But just to show that Marbella was the sort of place where politics were suspended in order to allow everyone to enjoy themselves, Franco’s son-in-law, the playboy heart surgeon the Marqués de Villaverde, was a frequent visitor and was often to be seen water-skiing and paragliding. The resort also received the benediction of a visit by Slim Aarons, whose photographs capture only the sunny side of life. His pictures told a tale of Bismarcks, Rothschilds, languid afternoons poolside or on the beach, gracious living in sprawling villas, and a social life like nowhere else. “Everyone also is of the opinion that the pace is the most exhausting in Europe and that several days are always necessary to recover from Marbella,” wrote Lanfranco Rasponi in his 1968 travel guide, The Golden Oases. Of course, the Marbella Club was the social hub around which charming villas and houses were built. They were relatively simple compared with the huge mansions that now poke through the canopy of pine trees either side of the Marbella Club. It is almost exhausting to read Rasponi’s account of the beautiful people who made the resort their playground: “The Mel Ferrers (Audrey Hepburn), Peter Viertels (Deborah Kerr) and the Arthur Rubinsteins now have bungalows in the area … There are also the pavilions built by Generalissimo Franco’s daughter and her husband, the Marqués de Villaverde, and the Count and Countess of Romanones-Quintanilla (Aline Griffith of Pearl River, New York) … One runs into Senator Teddy Kennedy and his wife, former King Simeon of Bulgaria and Margarita, Rafael Trujillo, son of the late Dominican dictator, and the former strongmen of the Argentine and Cuba, Juan Perón and Fulgencio Batista, Charlotte Ford Niarchos, Peggy d’Arenberg and Jacqueline de Ribes. Homeowners within commuting distance include such a diversified group as Lady Mary Stuart Walker, aunt of the Marquess of Bute, Gerald Brenan, Hector and Chico de Ayala, the Duke and Duchess of Lerma … ” The list of names goes on and on. Marquesses, dukes, archdukes, duchesses, counts, countesses, princes, princesses — “titled people,” quipped one glamorous settler of the day, “everyone except the waiters and Americans”. With so many crowned heads and deposed dictators around the Marbella Club, the occasional embarrassing incident was bound to occur, as Count Rudi recalled: “At one party King Simeon of Bulgaria dressed up as Fidel Castro. He looked very convincing with a beard and military fatigues.” So convincing, in fact, that his appearance gave quite a shock to the Batistas, “who were sitting a few tables away”. It was Fidel Castro who was, indirectly, responsible for my second favourite Marbella Club story. The splendid isolation from the rest of the world was particularly apparent during the Cuban missile crisis, when the absence of newspapers and the difficulty of getting a phone line meant that while the rest of the world feared that the Cold War stand-off between the Soviet Union and the U.S. in the Caribbean would result in world war III, guests at the Marbella Club were rather less well-informed. As it happened, Alfonso was away in Mexico, and when after a few days he managed to get through on the phone with the news that the crisis had been averted, he feared all the guests would have left. “What’s happened? What’s happened?” he asked. To his surprise he found that all was calm and that the guests had remained ignorant of the impending end of the world. While the rest of the world was preparing for nuclear armageddon, in Marbella there was not a night without a party. Some things never change: the world remains an uncertain place, and the Marbella Club remains a perfect refuge from it. Originally published in Issue 45 of The Rake. Subscribe and buy single issues here.