WHEN EDEN ROCKED
The sun rises on another perfect day in paradise, a day of doing nothing in particular — but doing it terribly elegantly… The golden age of the jet set might have been eclipsed by commercial flight, but if you’re romantic enough you can still see the ghosts of Aly Khan, Agnelli and Cole Porter leaving their glamorous mark on the Côte D’Azur. NICK FOULKES lies back and thinks of summer....
The summer of 1969 was not exactly dull. The moon landings, the Manson murders, Woodstock, the Vietnam war… The images of the time are etched into the collective consciousness: the grainy flickering frames of space-suited astronauts looking like Michelin men bouncing about the lunar surface; the wide-eyed stare of the murderous Manson; a sea of hippies stretching as far as the camera lens could see; and the nightly television installments of whirring helicopter blades, death and destruction from Indochina. Such is the cultural payload of these images that they crowd out other, less celebrated, pictures from the summer of ’69, such as one taken by that Nadar of the jet set, Slim Aarons. While it bears his fingerprints in terms of style, subject and location, it has a spontaneity absent from some of Aarons’s more famous photographs: there are no famous Beautiful People posed around a pool or arranged in front of a sprawling villa. In the foreground a waiter in the Riviera uniform of white trousers, striped matelot shirt and sunglasses crouches with a tray of drinks. In front of him are three people on mattresses. A woman sits up to receive a gin and tonic. A man in white shorts lies prone. A nut-brown woman in a psychedelic print bikini hoists her glass of something red (Campari? Negroni? Bloody Mary?); her hair wrapped in a towel, she faces away from the camera — we follow her gaze, and the symmetrical composition of which Aarons was so fond leads the eye down an avenue bordered by mattresses, deck chairs and sun umbrellas to the familiar red-tiled roof of the Eden Roc, where on the terrace, shaded by more sun umbrellas, lunch is underway and the legendary Eden Roc buffet is being plundered by those sun worshippers famished by the rigours of a morning spent absorbing vitamin D. Men may be walking on distant planets, or dying in distant lands; mass murder may be being perpetrated by drug-addled adherents of a crazed cult leader; half a million hippies may be dancing in the mud of fields and farmland to ear-jarring music… but here, on the exclusive tip of the most exclusive isthmus of land in the world, it is business as usual. The sun has risen on another perfect day in paradise, a day of sunbathing, swimming, and the civilised pleasure of doing nothing — but doing it terribly elegantly. As the name suggests, there is an air of Eden-like calm, a sense of prelapsarian innocence, a palpable feeling that all the less agreeable and downright nasty things that life can bring are not welcome here, and that they are kept at bay beyond the high hedges and tall gates.
The lotus eaters drowsing under the Mediterranean sun are perhaps not au fait with the oeuvre of Jimi Hendrix or Creedence Clearwater Revival, but the chances are they can identify with the lyrics of another song of ’69, a sort of folk waltz written and performed by a British musician with a Zapata moustache, a hairstyle that recalls the Busby worn by guardsmen at Buckingham Palace.Peter Sarstedt’s Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? is addressed to ‘Marie-Claire’, who has the husky voice of Dietrich, the terpsichorean skills of Zizi Jeanmaire, a couture wardrobe by Balmain, and jewels in her hair. She goes to embassy receptions, where she speaks fluently in foreign languages. She studied at the Sorbonne. Her apartment on the Boulevard Saint-Michel is where you will find the painting she stole from Picasso (but not the racehorse she was sent by the Aga Khan). Her year is a story of being in the right place at the right time with the right people, which in the summer means the Riviera. Nowadays almost any half-decent coastline calls itself a riviera, but half a century ago that word was applied to only one stretch of the Mediterranean littoral… When you go on your summer vacation/ You go to Juan-les-Pins/ With your carefully designed topless swimsuit/ You get an even suntan on your back, and on your legs…. A narrative poem set to music, the song crystallised the elegance and glamour of the jet set at its height, and yet at the same time it was a hymn to, and elegy for, a life that was (perhaps unbeknownst to those Eden Roc sunbathers) coming to an end. The death warrant for that way of life had been issued in February of 1969, when the people lounging on the sunbeds of the Eden Roc were in Gstaad or St. Moritz, and it had been signed not with a name but with a three-digit number: 747. As Time magazine reported excitedly on February 21: “U.S. airlines will soon enter a period of change that will be almost as pronounced as the arrival of the jet age. Late this year, they will begin to fly the huge Boeing 747 jets, which are faster, quieter, bigger, and potentially much more profitable than the 707s and DC-8s. In the first test flight last week, a 747 cruised for more than one hour and then made a smooth landing near Boeing’s Everett, Washington plant.” The jet set had begun as an in-joke cracked by Ghighi Cassini, the émigré scion of a grand White Russian family who was writing a New York gossip column called Cholly Knickerbocker and was looking for a collective noun to describe the people he was writing about in the early fifties. “Casting about, I came up with a winner: I invented the ‘jet set’,” he said. “It was the only name for my gang because it succinctly conveyed, technology willing, a style that was new in the fifties. Jets were glamorous then, and speeding across the globe, snafus apart, gave a sense of luxury and power.” But this sense of glamour, power and luxury relied on jet travel remaining exclusive. The summer of 1969 was the last before the jumbo jet cast its figurative and literal giant shadow over air travel. Until then, aircraft functioned as airborne clubrooms in which there was always someone one knew or someone interesting to meet. Typical was the experience of the film producer Dino de Laurentiis, who boarded a flight early in 1966 and found himself sitting next to Princess Ira von Fürstenberg: by the time they landed he was convinced he had found a star, and within weeks he had put her under contract. The jet did not invent these people. Instead it became the latest and most modern aspect of the life lived by an elite that already existed, and in many ways — at the start of the jet-set era, at least — that elite was not very much changed from the early years of the century, the crowd of American heiresses, royalty, nobility and plutocracy who had gathered at the casino of Monte Carlo.
Back then, visiting a resort was not a matter lightly undertaken; it assumed the character of a seasonal migration, involving retinues the size of which would not have disgraced medieval monarchs and private railway carriages, and into which were stuffed everything from art treasures and jewels to dogs and caged songbirds. Travel in those days had been on a scale as grand as the palace hotels in which people stayed. No potential need was overlooked. Baron Maurice de Rothschild, for instance, would not dream of missing a Monte Carlo season, just as he would never travel without a blood donor… just in case. As particular about his food as his health, he did not find the offering at the Hotel de Paris up to his standards, so took another suite of rooms — equipped with a large kitchen — in which he took his meals. It was between the wars that the south of France began its shift from existing as a winter retreat for northern Europeans to a summer resort with an emphasis on casual elegance, sport, and the novel pastime of sunbathing. Cole Porter established the fashion for the Riviera during the summer when he took the Château de la Garoupe on Cap d’Antibes during what was then the off-season. Among the guests he invited were Gerald and Sara Murphy, the originals for the Divers in Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s evocative panegyric to the roaring twenties on the Riviera. The Murphys remained and surrounded themselves with a court of artists and socialites, and thus did the Riviera slough off its staid image. Chanel introduced the Riviera to such radical concepts as women in trousers and the daring informality of the buffet lunch, at which her guests served themselves (lunch without footmen… who would have thought?). Chanel presided over a villa called La Pausa, above Cap Martin, which she dared to decorate in a neutral palette. Along the coast on Cap Ferrat, the British interior decorator Syrie Maugham, another pioneer of pale colours, could be found with her famous author-husband at the Villa Mauresque, where the nude sunbathing characterised a general absence of inhibition. Meanwhile, another female fashion leader, and femme fatale, Daisy Fellows, promulgated a more opulent style that majored on faux leopard print and mirror balls at the villa on Cap Martin, off which she moored her yacht, the Sister Anne. But the greatest benediction received on the Riviera in the interwar period was from the most fashionable man in the world. As king of England he would have been expected to spend summers at Balmoral, but after his abdication it was on Cap d’Antibes, at the palatial Château de la Croë (which would later pass through the hands of Onassis and Niarchos), that the Duke of Windsor and his wife spent their summers in the late 1930s. During the 1930s tennis became a draw, attracting a younger, more vigorous crowd, and upon Aly Khan’s arrival on the Riviera with American forces in 1944, when they liberated the Carlton, one of his first actions was to look up his old tennis pro, an Irishman called Tommy Burke, with whom he went house hunting. Aly Khan, the son of the religious leader the Aga Khan, was the prototypical playboy of the past century, and together with Burke he found his own playboy mansion a few minutes outside Cannes. A Jazz Age pleasure palace, Château de L’Horizon had been designed for the actress Maxine Elliott; Aly bought it from her heirs in 1947. The château was furnished with soft, deep sofas covered in what one could probably now call ‘Riviera beige’ linen; the dining room held a long table hewn out of one slab of marble and the walls were hung with works by Boudin, Utrillo, Dufy, Renoir, and Degas. Outside, a giant pool with a chute deposited bathers in the Mediterranean, and when Aly married the film star Rita Hayworth, that same pool was filled with flowers and 200 litres of eau de cologne. The two had met when she stayed at the Hotel du Cap. It was said that the young Shah of Iran, another Riviera regular, who was staying at the Hotel du Cap at the same time, had also taken a liking to the lovely Rita, but such was Aly’s charisma that Rita stood up the occupant of the Peacock Throne. Meanwhile, one of Khan’s chief rivals to the title of greatest 20th century playboy, Gianni Agnelli, was living with Pamela Churchill, at first renting the Château de la Garoupe, where the Cole Porters and Murphys had reinvented summer. But La Garoupe, splendid though it may have been, was but a seaside shack compared to La Leopolda. The jet-set Riviera reached its apotheosis when Gianni bought La Leopolda, an immense villa that immediately put him in a different league. More impressive than La Garoupe, Croë, and even L’Horizon, it would for a while in the early 21st century come to be spoken of as the most expensive house in the world. If Agnelli was a sort of Sun King of the jet set, then La Leopolda was his Versailles. “A grand château,” recalls Jacqueline de Ribes, who was a regular guest. “One would drive in through a huge park. We used to go there every summer. In the morning you had to choose if you wanted to stay by the swimming pool or if you were going on the Agneta [Agnelli’s yacht]. Then there was a big lunch, always guests for lunch.” Ribes recalls meeting Marlene Dietrich, for instance. “After lunch you would take a car and see friends, and after dinner people used to go to Monte Carlo, and some of us used to go on to a nightclub in Monte Carlo.”
Every day, in short, was perfect, and it left guests with memories that would last half a century and more. Houseguest sometimes stayed for weeks, dinners for 100 guests were not unusual, and the level of attention to detail surpassed most if not all royal households. Oleg Cassini, the fashion designer brother of the jet-set inventor Ghighi, was among those who were spoiled for life by a summer at the Leopolda. “When I stayed at Leopolda, I would have my own little guest pavilion, set off from the main house, with a separate swimming pool and liveried servants in attendance,” he said. “If you desired champagne or something to eat in the middle of the night, all you had to do was ring a bell and a butler wearing a striped jacket, black pants, and white gloves would appear. There were always fresh flowers in the pavilion. The bed was turned down each night, pyjamas neatly folded on top. It was a little like Versailles.” For Cassini, nothing else in his life would come close to those Elysian days at La Leopolda. “Later, I would spend time with President Kennedy in Newport, and there would be the appearance of a grand lifestyle — helicopters, yachts, a Secret Service brigade in attendance — but never the numbers of servants, the sheer luxury of Leopolda.” Situated on an estate that had been owned by King Leopold of Belgium, who had accumulated a massive fortune from exploiting the Congo, La Leopolda had been built by an American architect, Ogden Codman, at the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s. According to Roderick Cameron, a chronicler of life on the Côte d’Azur, the Agnellis — Gianni married the long-suffering Marella in 1953 — “were exactly the right people for it. Young, handsome and extraordinarily elegant, they both had the taste and the means to live in it properly, and it is a great pity that they ever left.” But leave they did. The sale of La Leopolda brought a particular chapter of Riviera life to a close. “Suddenly everybody left the south of France, and this new money came in, and it’s been like that ever since,” recalled Taki Theodoracopulos. “People started having money, and the moment you have money, where do you go? To the south of France. And the old guard, they all took off.” Count Lanfranco Rasponi, in his late 1960s travel guide, The Golden Oases, said: “The elite want to get away from crowds, which proves difficult in places which were, until a few years ago, the acme of elegance, such as the French Riviera and Venice… The masses can now afford yearly international holidays.” And with the arrival of the jumbo jet, the ‘masses’ could feel they had joined the jet set. By the beginning of the 1970s the Riviera had changed, the Côte d’Azur about which Fitzgerald had written had vanished, and the great playboys and tycoons who had made the place their summer headquarters during the fifties had disappeared as well. And those who could remember the old days hated the new ones. The summer of 1970 saw Cecil Beaton enjoying a cruise aboard Radiant II, the yacht belonging to the socially ambitious Wrightsmans, eponyms of the furniture galleries of the Met museum. Beaton had been taken to Saint-Tropez 40 years earlier by Daisy Fellowes, and what he saw hurt him: “The quai has now become a shopper’s paradise for trendy clothes of all sorts. (This year tie-dye is the craze). Saint-Tropez is a place without charm for me.” And nor was it just Saint-Tropez: “The south of France is fashionable and loathsome.” Parts of it, he said, were “less glamorous, more disgracefully defaced even than last year. It is very squalid now.” I wonder what he would make of it now. In fact, I don’t really wonder: the hookers, the oligarchs, the supercars, the megayachts that share the same aesthetics as municipal car parks, the shambling crowds, and the standard of dress (very few people go to the beach with a string of pearls hanging down their back, like Sara Murphy did in the twenties) would furnish him with material for a few particularly acerbic pages in his famously caustic diaries. Perhaps because I did not know it in the time of Chanel, Daisy Fellowes, the Duke of Windsor and Somerset Maugham, I still find it possible to love the south of France. For all its appalling people, traffic and buildings, the romantic in me still wants to see the ghosts of Aly Khan, Agnelli, Cole Porter, et al, and there are still places where the spirit of the old Côte d’Azur lingers — the Hotel du Cap, the Eden Roc and the Château Saint-Martin among them. And before we become too sentimental about things not being what they once were, there is a kind of solace to be taken from the memories of a young bride who took her honeymoon at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, where the newlyweds were surrounded by “beautiful women and elegant men, many of whom were acquaintances of my husband”. But whenever she asked her husband about them, he became evasive. “It was only after repeated questioning that I learned that these were ladies of easy virtue whose beauty and charm had a price. It became increasingly complicated when I heard that I must not recognise the men who accompanied them, even though some of them had been my suitors a few months before.” That was in 1895… perhaps things have not changed quite as much as we think. Originally published in Issue 64 of The Rake. Subscribe and buy single issues here.