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.”