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
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
Originallypublishedin Issue 45 of The Rake.
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