From Living and Loving on the Riviera
The Riviera Embraces Modernism
In Cannes on the Riviera in the early 1920s the hotels and restaurants were filled with voices of diverse nationalities. These included le gratin – the royalty and aristocracy of Europe (the Russians being notably absent) who chattered to the accompaniment of the clinking of ice in newly created cocktails and the tinkling of Irving Berlin or Jerome Kern tunes on a baby grand. Later in the evening there would be dinners in private houses or at fashionable restaurants. The women chose their garçonne-look, drop-waisted gowns from Poiret, Molyneux or Vionnet, worn over silver hose and, to keep off the chill of a Riviera winter evening, cloak-coats edged with fur. For the young, and sometimes not-so-young, it was mandatory to spend the rest of the evening dancing, often frenetically, in one of the newest creations of the 1920s – the nightclub, which de Faucigny-Lucinge in his Memoires called ‘the fever of the age’. How better, if one had the means to forget, even for a moment, those lost forever?
Periodicals such as L'Hiver à Cannes and Le Journal des Etrangers detailed the arrival of rich visitors to the coast. These visits were an opportunity for glamour, sophisticated entertainment and the chance to meet old friends and make new ones. Enjoyment was enhanced by starlit nights beside the rippling Mediterranean and the frisson of a Latin environment. It was not for nothing the couturier Jeanne Lanvin named her perfumes, created in Grasse, My Sin, Scandale, Rumeur and Prétexte. And there was no Prohibition.
This new, younger set, La Bohème Chic, began increasingly to realise there was much pleasure to be had in lying languorously on a beach. Although many different nationalities now returned to the coast after the war this was the era of the Americans. During the war many thousands of young servicemen from the United States had been cared for and convalesced in the great hotels of the Riviera, requisitioned as hospitals and nursing homes – and many would return as tourists. In 1921 and 1922 the musician and song-writer Cole Porter and his wife Linda rented the Château de la Garoupe on the Cap d'Antibes, an estate with which Barry would later become much involved. They invited another American couple, Gerald and Sara Murphy, whose subsequent sojourns on the Cap have passed into Riviera history. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night was born when he and his tempestuous Zelda joined the Murphys and their circle, and set the astonishing trend for summers in the sun. The body beautiful became almost an obsession, the beaches along the coast playing host to exercise and dance classes. Golf, tennis, polo, swimming and sailing were pursued with great enthusiasm. ‘Young people, slim and beautiful of line, flash from rock to sea in a sparkle of diamonds’ so wrote Grant Richards in his Coast of Pleasure of 1928. The freedom of a tanned body, caressed by the sun, was a new and voluptuous experience dignified by the fashion designer Coco Chanel who soon acquired a glamorous tan of her own.
As far as architecture was concerned, while the cities of Europe had been enthusiastically discovering Art Deco and Modernist designs from the early 1920s, the French Riviera had stuck firmly to its Belle Epoque or Provençal Regionalist styles. Of the very few modernist villas of that time on the coast, only two really stand out. In 1923 the French architect Robert Mallet-Stevens had designed the Villa Noailles at Hyères in the Var, with its Cubist garden, for Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles. In 1925 the Anglo-Irish designer Eileen Gray created at Roquebrune what was perhaps the most evocative of early modernist villas on the coast – the ill-fated 'E1027'. She built her iconic house on rocks above the sea. A purist design, in the shape of an ocean liner, it caused the architect Le Corbusier to be consumed with envy. E1027, sadly neglected for so long, is being restored with private funding and will eventually be open to the public.
The great Belle Epoque hotels or palaces of the Riviera stood proudly, as they do still today. The Carlton on the Croisette in Cannes was built in 1911, the Negresco on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice in 1912. The Hôtel Hermitage in Monte Carlo graced the municipality as early as the 1890s, with a lobby designed by Gustave Eiffel. These grand buildings were resplendent with their embellishments, domes and turrets, as was the Monte Carlo Casino of 1893, built by Charles Garnier, the architect of the Paris Opera. They were the admired edifices of the coast favoured by those who could afford their luxury.
On the Croisette at Cannes, the Art Deco Hotel Majestic was, in 1926, the first to have a more streamlined design. In Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night Dick Diver records walking past the Majestic as it is being built. Now the last two years of the 1920s saw an upsurge in the building of large hotels, and they were almost all in a modern style. The most striking grand palace of this period was built by Frank Jay and Florence Gould, American entrepreneurs from Juan les Pins. Their Hotel Palais de la Méditerranée on the Promenade des Anglais at Nice was begun in 1927 and opened to great acclaim in January of 1929. It was the epitome of Art Deco glamour. The façade of the Palais, with its row of arcades was decorated with large bas-relief figures by the sculptor Antoine Sartorio. The interior with its splendid entrance hall, enormous stained glass windows and white marble staircase illuminated with Art Deco crystal chandeliers was breathtaking. Mainly conceived as a gaming house with rooms, its accompanying theatre attracted such music hall stars of the day as Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf and Josephine Baker. Eventually falling on hard times and lying in the wilderness for many years, it has now been resurrected in another form, only its façade surviving.
In 1928 came the construction of the Miramar Hotel on the corner of the rue Pasteur and the Croisette at Cannes. And here was created the first artificial sandy beach on the Croisette. Eventually, as the years went by, all the beaches of the Croisette would lose their stones and be covered by soft and cared-for sand. The Miramar opened its doors to the rich and famous in January 1929 but only survived as a hotel for 17 years, becoming an apartment block. In 1927, Emmanuel Martinez, son of an Italian baron from Palermo in Italy built, also on the Croisette, the enormous Art-Deco Hôtel Martinez. Beaten by one month by the Miramar, the Martinez opened its doors in February 1929 and would always remain a hotel. A hotel which would have a history almost as complicated as that of Palais de la Méditerranée in Nice. The Riviera was becoming comfortable with Modernism and striking Modernist and Art Deco apartment blocks began to be built in towns along the coast, particularly in Nice, and are generally much appreciated today.
The hotel owners had not anticipated the stock market crash of 1929 and the following Depression. Happily for the economy of the Riviera, soon the city-dwelling middle-classes of France realised they did not have to take a chance on the weather in northern resorts such as Deauville and Le Touquet. With the growing acceptance of a golden skin, they turned their faces to the south – and changed the Riviera for ever.