A secret for centuries, the south-eastern coast of France became the Riviera. It brazenly created and recreated itself in the image of successive visitors attracted by its sun, sea and fragrant air. To become so famous, so desired, and yet prove incapable of satisfying everybody’s dreams, is a tough destiny. Paradise was threatened—but there was much passion, wit, intrigue and splendor along the way. This strip of land hosted cultural phenomena well in excess of its tiny size. A mere handful of towns and villages transformed by foreigners enticed the talented, rich and famous—as well as those who wanted to be. For two centuries of opulence, scandal, war and corruption, the Riviera was a temptation. Nineteenth-century visitors came south to keep themselves alive or to die on a temperate coast that one Belle Époque writer called “an outdoor hospital.” These winter residents were often overbearing. Foreigners with spending power, they imposed their will and their languages. There was palpable xenophobia on all fronts. The English mocked their hosts, while the French were amused by English self-importance, German pedanticism and Russian bombast. By 1870, Nice—a medium-sized town of 50,000 plus—hosted consulates and therefore visitors from countries as widespread as Turkey, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay. The list grew. The early quest for self-preservation was succeeded by a drive for dangerous living that reverberated through the first decades of the twentieth century. High-octane, the Riviera was spurred by hedonism and cultural frenzy as the English and American impact on the region made waves across the world.
The territory had been frequently contested. The French and Italians had been bickering over the frontier for centuries. When Antonio de Beatis visited in 1517, he recorded the prevailing wisdom that Nice, being on the border, was so-called because it was “neither here nor there”—“ni ici, ni là.” The claim has been questioned, but it is significant that, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Nice coat of arms displayed an eagle whose raised claws seemed undecided about what to clutch.
The area’s motley and squabble-ridden past is echoed by its medley of voices. Before the French Revolution, the astronomer Jérôme Lalande observed Nice’s linguistic indecision. Polite society spoke French, the laws were in Italian, and the ordinary people spoke a verbal salmagundi. The larger Provençal dialect has been described as “French rubbed with garlic,” whereas the local lingo—Nissart—derives from almost any language but French. If “laundry” is lessive in French, in Nissart it is bugada—as it is in Catalan. The Niçois use cabossa for “head”—close to the Spanish cabeza. Spanish agua for “water” is corrupted into daigua, and so it goes on. The philosopher and art critic John Ruskin, visiting briefly in 1845, heard the Greek ara for “now” and Aspai ma picciota?—“Where are you going, my little girl?”—in which he considered aspai to be a corruption of aperçevoir, and picciota from the Italian picciola. There were also borrowings from Arabic, the Provençal langue d’oc and a slow corruption of Latin. As foreigners came south, the babble of sounds became even more diverse. Travelling to Genoa in 1878, the French writer Laurent Germain’s train stopped in Nice to pick up gamblers bound for Monte Carlo. His compartment was invaded by a gaggle of aristocratic gentlemen who rattled away in English, German, Russian, Spanish—even French. No matter which language they used, their discourse was predictable. “Did you win yesterday?” “No, I lost a lot of money.”
In autumn 1922, James Joyce—about to have leeches applied to drain the pressure of his glaucoma—took a room at Nice’s Hôtel Suisse and began to assemble ideas for what became his huge and forbidding multilingual pun, Finnegans Wake. He took inspiration from a polyglot city which, throughout its checkered history, hosted languages that came and went according to political circumstance. Russian diminished after the 1917 Revolution only to reappear on restaurant menus in the 1990s. German vanished after the Second World War and came back in the early 1970s, as hordes of West Germans came south to grill themselves lobster orange.
Earlier ages largely ignored the potential of the southern French coast. It took the British desire for a sympathetic climate for bronchitis and the Romantic attraction to untamed nature to make the Riviera a destination. The British saw paradise in a wilderness and created a pleasure ground. Over the decades, other nations followed and turned this thin strip of Shangri-La—snow-capped mountains towering on one side, the azure Mediterranean on the other—into a singular treasure. The Aga Khan spoke of meeting members of the aristocracy and plutocracy “over and over again” in London, Rome, Berlin, Monte Carlo, Cannes and Nice—three capitals widely separated and three resorts only miles apart.
There was an Anglo-Saxon land grab aided and abetted by the Russians, Germans, Belgians, Americans and a scatter of Scandinavians. The Parisian French also colonized the coast—seeking either commercial opportunity or enjoyment in resorts that boasted a wonderful winter climate and an international reputation. They found no indigenous high-cultural tradition—just a convivial lifestyle and a landscape in which to create a modern paradise; one full of temptations in which those who fell were rarely doomed to expulsion. As entrepreneurs recognized the commercial scope of the Riviera, they built restaurants and hotels in the grand French style while cunningly making strategic concessions to foreign tastes. Later, American improvisations on the themes of Gallic style and bohemianism modified the character of the coast. Later still, all levels of the French population grew to love and hate the Côte d’Azur.
As the “outdoor hospital” became a pleasure ground, it grew famous for its frivolity. The Riviera was a world of indolent aristocracy and Noël Coward’s poor little rich girls. It was also an attractive destination, where important decisions could be taken by powerful people relaxing at a remove and out of context—Winston Churchill was addicted. The Riviera provided a haven where the Duke and Duchess of Windsor went to escape reality. The landscape and the influx of international visitors made for a potent cultural cocktail that worked its magic on the likes of Hector Berlioz, Friedrich Nietzsche, Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Baldwin, Katherine Mansfield, Jean-Paul Sartre, Igor Stravinsky and the Rolling Stones—to name but a few. Colors and forms cut by the strong Mediterranean light were inspirational to modern painters. The Riviera hosted the exceptional. “Out of time’s monotone,” recorded the American writer Allen Tate in a poem honoring a picnic at which 16 adults—in an act of intoxicated inversion—downed 61 bottles of wine. Tate and friends put into a small cove full of “amethyst fishes and octopuses darting, like closed parasols.” Over a driftwood fire, they started to cook a bouillabaisse—its ingredients lately caught. Lurching down the craggy goat track of the red cliff came an eighty-two-year-old peasant on a horse carrying all those bottles.
Drink has always been a feature of this festive enclave. Celebrated lush F. Scott Fitzgerald arrived hours late for a dinner with the writer Michael Arlen. The delay had been caused by Fitzgerald’s inability to pull himself away from a bottle. He sat down and declared, “This is how I want to live… This is how I want to live,” laid his head on the table and fell asleep.
This wayward coast—once a temptation for pirates and brigands—has attracted profiteers, corrupt politicians and the mafia—Italian and Russian. David Dodge’s book To Catch a Thief, which inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same name, demonstrated that wealth lavishly displayed provided great opportunities for crime. The coast, wrote Dodge elsewhere, was “lousy with situations and characters.” Among these were notable crooks, from the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo to the famously corrupt mayor of Nice, Jacques Médecin, and the underworld that sustained him. Somerset Maugham’s celebrated quip “a sunny place for shady people,” believed to have targeted Monte Carlo but perhaps provoked by the unsavoury quarters of wartime Marseille—or by his disreputable lover Gerald Haxton—has become the motto for a dark yet sparkling coast.
Ford Madox Ford thought the south of France was Eden whereas the north meant Brussels sprouts.
The locals were swept up into the international scene that engulfed them. The 1960s École de Nice was a group of artists inhabiting the worlds of Pop Art and Conceptualism. In one of Nice’s most surprising hotels, some rooms are decorated by local artists. I remember standing in the foyer, listening to an American guest despair about the room she had been given. In true Pop style, the walls were covered with American license plates. “That’s what I came away to escape,” the guest groaned. “Perhaps the Louis XIV room would suit Madame better?” Indeed. I also overheard a couple of traveling companions suggest that having the bathroom facilities creatively exposed in the middle of their room was a teensy bit too “modern.”
This sunny coast lifts the spirit. Picasso found that Antibes and Golfe-Juan rekindled his delight in the joyous visual pun which had lain largely dormant during the years of the Second World War. Marc Chagall let his antic spirit loose in the installations he made for the Musée National Message Biblique. Yves Klein of the École de Nice signed the air above the Mediterranean, calling it a work of art.
Verbal wit has also embellished most aspects of life on the Côte d’Azur. Charlotte Dempster, who lived near Cannes in the second half of the nineteenth century, mocked the energetic attempts of Protestants to establish their own churches: “At Nice and Monte Carlo I dare say there are not many persons as devout as the Praying Mantis.” Even when they were ill, visitors could be witty. The ailing author of Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote to an old friend from Hyères in March 1884: “Dover sounds somewhat shiveringly in my ears. You should see the weather I have—cloudless, clear as crystal… aromatic air, all pine and gum tree. You would be ashamed of Dover; you would scruple to refer, sir, to a spot so paltry… pray, how do you warm yourself?” Comparisons of southern sun and northern chilliness are legion. Vita Sackville-West suggested that “her lover, violet Trefusis, was the Mediterranean while her husband, Harold Nicolson, was Kent.” Ford Madox Ford thought the south of France was Eden whereas the north meant Brussels sprouts.
Social observation was spiked. The French writer and archaeologist Prosper Mérimée spoke of the arrival in Nice of a certain Madame de Vogué, “who left her husband somewhere en route but who has replaced him with impressive specimens from here or there.” Etiquette often gave rise to risible situations. A shabbily dressed, socially diffident and absent-minded Englishman attempted to enter the Casino in Monte Carlo. He was asked for his passport. “A passport? I’m sorry but I haven’t got one.” “No passport! Then you cannot enter.” “You see, I am the man who issues them.” “You! That’s a good one.” The Englishman left. When it was discovered that the thwarted visitor was Lord Salisbury, thrice prime minister and—at the time of the incident—Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the fear of bad publicity sent a frock-coated, top-hatted deputation from the Casino administration to Salisbury’s villa in nearby Beaulieu to apologize. The Foreign Secretary had merely been amused by the rebuff.
As performers began to adorn the coast in the 1920s and ’30s, the homosexual contingent—often fleeing from the stringent laws that pertained in England—prompted the actress Maxine Elliott to refer to the coast as an “Adamless Eden.” She sometimes found it refreshing to invite heterosexuals like Douglas Fairbanks Sr or Johnny ‘Tarzan’ Weissmuller. True to character, Tarzan dived from her top terrace, over the dining patio, into her huge pool.
A legend about the lemon-scented border town of Menton claimed that its citrus trees were a gift from Eve. Expelled from paradise for eating the forbidden apple, the mother of us all grabbed a lemon and—wandering over the earth—threw it down in the countryside near Menton, where it created a new Eden. Unlike Eve, many later visitors arrived not with lemons, but with oodles of their own forbidden fruit.
Excerpted from The Once Upon a Time World: The Dark and Sparkling Story of the French Riviera by Jonathan Miles Copyright © 2023. Available from Pegasus Books.