Shore To Please

REVIEW: 'The Once Upon a Time World: The Dark and Sparkling Story of the French Riviera'

Nice, France (Alexander Spatari/Grabien)
January 7, 2024

The South of France is beautiful if you don't look at it. Keep your back to the coast, and the Mediterranean sea and sky look much the same as they did to the ancient Greeks who settled in the two best natural harbors and called them Marsilia and Nike (Marseilles and Nice). Turn your back on the main attraction, however, and you see the ruin of nature.

If Hieronymus Bosch ran a holiday resort, it would look like St. Tropez in the summer. It's the same all the way along the coast from Marseilles to Menton. The rocky hillsides are swathed in concrete. The roads are jammed with preposterous sports cars and Germans in camper vans. The harbors are slick with oil and other fragrant discharges from the yachts in the bay. The harborside restaurants are extortionate and smell of drains. In Nice and Monaco, the surviving Belle Époque mansions are dwarfed by glass towers. This is the Côte d'Azur, the French Riviera: a sweaty panorama of organized crime, municipal corruption, tax-dodging, drug-smuggling, money-laundering, compulsive gambling, and gratuitous thong-wearing. I went last summer and had a great time.

The locals joke that Nice gets its name from "Ni ici, ni là": "Neither here nor there," neither French nor Italian, a living city and a stage set for a dream. That is what the visitors want, a break from reality on a cosmopolitan shore between the mountains and the sea. They come to escape life, as once, when the Riviera was an al fresco hospital for tuberculosis patients, they came to escape death. The English invented the French Riviera as a home away from home in the 19th century. The Americans reinvented it in the early 20th as a sophisticated alternative to home. The Germans only knocked it about a bit. The French destroyed it as the Venetians destroyed Venice, by catering to the world's dreams and desires.

Jonathan Miles's The Once Upon a Time World is the story of the making and remaking of the Riviera. It would be tidy to speak of its "unmaking," but that has not yet happened and probably never will. A coast of malarial fishing villages and busy ports became an exclusive resort for the rich, then a glamorous gambler's paradise with artist colonies on its fringes, then the world's beach in the Jet Age when being a movie star was worth the trouble, and latterly a money laundry for oligarchs. But the view remains unchanged, and so the Riviera will go on forever, like a Disney cruise that has slipped into the Bermuda Triangle.

The coast was discovered by English travelers as they hopped along the shoreline by boat on their way to Italy. Tobias Smollett's bestseller of 1766, Travels Through France and Italy, described the novel pleasures of swimming and sorbets, and warned about the "flies, fleas … and gnats." In 1767, the Duke of York, one of George III's younger brothers, became the first visitor to die from having too much fun in the sun, after contracting a chill while dancing the night away. Another of George III's brothers, the Duke of Gloucester, became the first of that near-extinct English species, the remittance man. Sent out of Britain for the sake of propriety after secretly marrying an older widow, Gloucester and his family subsisted in high style at Nice on money sent from England.

By 1787, Thomas Jefferson reported that Nice was a "gay and dissipated" city and an "English colony." The revels were suspended for the French Revolution and the wars that followed; it was at the siege of Toulon in 1793 that a young artillery captain named Napoleon Bonaparte first demonstrated his talents. Nice emerged battered and back under Sardinian control, and the tourists returned as soon as they could. Paganini saw Nice and died. British tourists came armed with John Murray's guidebook, an irritating sense of superiority, and the misplaced conviction that they could speak French.

The phrases in Murray's book included "Are there any fleas here?" "Is the road safe?" and "Sir, let me give you a wing or leg of a chicken." The tourist stops were still islands of international commerce on a rough coast. Only peasants used the winding coast road, or lived in the sunstruck hill villages, which, lacking clocks and sundials, were literally timeless. In 1838, Stendhal called the hinterland "bare and barren." Berlioz came a year later and found inspiration for his King Lear overture in its fragrant but inhospitable heaths.

The Liberal politician Henry Brougham built the first of the English villas in the 1840s. Queen Victoria came "incognito, posing as the Countess of Balmoral"—a ruse that fooled no one. As a horde of English toffs bought up chunks of the coast, a tourist infrastructure sprung up: clubs, libraries, theaters, casinos, brothels, and shops selling English food. The Anglophile Russian aristocracy came next, and then the Russian intellectuals sought out the cheaper lodgings. Gogol and Turgenev came for love, Herzen to recover from political exhaustion, Tolstoy to care for a tubercular brother. The fate of the coast was sealed between 1856, when the Ruritanian princelings who ruled a tiny fishing village called Monaco went into the casino business; 1860, when France annexed the coast from its Italian proprietors; and 1866, with the opening of the railroad line from Paris (a 23-hour trip).

The Riviera, as the English now called it, was rebuilt in the image of the Belle Époque: imperial in form, sordid in content, a trickery of gilt and mirrors, flashy surfaces and sticky surfaces. If this sounds like every European hotel you've ever been to, that's because mass tourism as we know it was pioneered on the Riviera. The flushed cheeks of the tubercular patients, the mad eyes of the gamblers, the threat of cholera in the drains, and the presence of a small army of prostitutes made the South synonymous with sex and death—like Venice, only more fun. Cannes, Guy de Maupassant thought in 1884, was "the flowery cemetery of aristocratic Europe," and a doctor's recommendation for a patient to take a cure on the coast was generally "the first scene of the last act of the drama." 

The English installed a polite simulacrum of English life at Menton, the "Utopia for invalids" where the Anglican minister was William Webb Ellis, the inventor of rugby football, but the real action was in the casinos and hotels. The twin cupolas of the Carlton Hotel in Cannes are reputed to be modeled after the breasts of La Belle Otero, the celebrated Spanish courtesan whose lovers included Edward VII, Leopold II of Belgium ("very good but exhausting"), and a member of the Russian general staff whom she shot after he objected to her leaving him.

Robert Louis Stevenson received the £100 fee for Treasure Island while convalescing from TB at Hyères. Joseph Conrad was arrested for smuggling at Marseilles, failed to enlist with the American squadron at Villefranche, lost everything gambling at Monte Carlo, and failed again when he tried to shoot himself upon returning to Marseilles. Nietzsche, who wintered on the coast regularly in the 1880s, wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra there and first read Dostoevsky's novels beneath its palms. Karl Marx, taking the air for his bronchitis in 1882, called Monte Carlo "a lair of idlers and adventurers" and complained to Engels that the locals, mostly waiters and maids, had no class consciousness.

As this was the age of European affluence and surplus, the Riviera eventually produced art too. While Van Gogh labored inland at Arles, Monet caught the breeze and the light at Antibes, Renoir retired to Cagnes, and Cézanne got away from it all at L'Estaque. "With no tradition of painting this coast," Jonathan Miles writes, "the Riviera was a blank canvas for artists with a fresh vision." On we go, through Picasso and Chagall, and Matisse above all. One reason you should go to the Riviera is to see the light in which they painted, and see the paintings in which they captured it.

Another reason is to get a tan. When Americans arrived in force after World War I, they drove a further round of development, and confirmed the atmosphere of arty delinquency. The eccentric millionaire Frank Jay Gould built new hotels for the age of the Ballet Russes and the Blue Train; when the Palais de la Méditerranée at Nice opened in 1928, the Cannes News called it "probably the most luxurious building the world has ever known, designed, erected and conceived for the gratification of the pleasure-loving public." The Fitzgeralds got drunk on the beach as elsewhere, and Isadora Duncan was throttled when her scarf got entangled in the wheels of her date's car. For a more traditional night out, the Menton Players staged The Naughty Wife. The Menton and Monte Carlo News reported that Miss Dorothy Crossthwaite made a "charming Naughty Wife," and Darrell MacKnight's "love making was well done, and his enunciation capital."

In World War II, Nice was invaded first by the Italians, who ran a relaxed occupation, and then, in 1943, by the Germans, who did not. The Gestapo set up torture chambers in the Excelsior Hotel at Nice and deported all the Jews they could find. The locals have the usual mixed record, generally unscrupulous in fleecing the Jews and denouncing each other, but occasionally fearless in the Resistance. Revelry resumed immediately after the liberation of August 1944, with Eisenhower taking a break at Antibes and Churchill, a serial visitor, returning for a spot of watercolor painting.

The first commercial Paris-Nice flight landed in 1945, and a London-Paris-Nice service began in 1948. The postwar Riviera was dominated by the romance of "American glitz and glamor" with French sophistication and naturalness: Grace Kelly and To Catch a Thief, Rita Hayworth and the Aga Khan, the Cannes film festival and the Antibes jazz festival, and then the apotheosis of the cult of St. Tropez, whose summer population increased from 4,000 to 50,000, in the form of Brigitte Bardot, who was to St. Tropez in the '60s as Botticelli's Birth of Venus was to Renaissance Florence.

The French, newly affluent and given three weeks' guaranteed vacation time after 1956, were the first mass tourists, and after that it was open season. The "cronyism of local government and the tentacular mafia presence" catered to demand, exploiting an unending construction boom that turned the beautiful coast into an ugly ribbon of glass and concrete, and drove the beautiful people off the beaches, up to their mansions, and out to their yachts.

"What are they are looking for?" Agnès Varda asked in her 1958 documentary Du côté de la côte (Next to the Coast). They were looking for the dream of freedom that democratic leisure then represented. They seem to have found it, too, before the Riviera fell victim to its success. Eventually, the Riviera became either too cheap or too expensive, a place where all the accommodation is luxurious except for the slums, which remain plentiful in Nice and Marseilles, or the campsites where the northern Europeans insist on gathering every summer like some barbarian horde, pausing before crossing the Alps.

The last artwork of any significance to be created on the Riviera was made in 1971, when the Rolling Stones, having come south to dodge British taxation, recorded Exile on Main Street in the basement of Nellcote, Keith Richards's rented mansion on the headland by Villefranche. Jean Cocteau lived on the same headland and filmed his Orpheus in Villefranche's backstreets. Somerset Maugham lived there too and knew what he was talking about when he called the Riviera a "sunny place for shady people." Perhaps the only detail missing in Miles's encyclopedic account is that when the future Andrew Loog Oldham stopped in Villefranche as a teenage backpacker, he was advised not to go near Maugham's villa, as young boys were known to have disappeared there.

The Rolling Stones moved on, mixing their album in Los Angeles. The Menton Players gave up the ghost. Brigitte Bardot now runs a donkey sanctuary and supports the Le Pens. Only the French remember Cocteau. When I was at Villefranche last summer, Nellcote was shuttered and its Russian owner was away. It's a shame how the Riviera has lost its culture along with its heart, but the view is the same as it ever was, and the phrases in John Murray's old handbook still apply, so all this is neither here nor there. "Only the invented part of our life—the unreal part—has had any scheme, any beauty," Gerald Murphy wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald as Murphy and his wife Sara left Antibes after the fatal illnesses of two of their children.

Everyone should go to the South of France. I cannot think of a better companion to the Riviera's past and present than Jonathan Miles's book. When you feel like a change from contemplating the unchanged sky and sea, Miles tells you in whose footsteps your flip-flops are flapping. They're all here, from Oscar Wilde being pelted with Champagne bottles to Jacques Cousteau escaping the madness for the serenity of a scuba dive. The Riviera is real life, the Riviera is a commercial fiction. The Riviera is crass and crowded, the Riviera remains oddly sophisticated. The tourists come and go, living the dream. The thong remains the same.

The Once Upon a Time World: The Dark and Sparkling Story of the French Riviera
by Jonathan Miles
Pegasus Books, 464 pp., $35

Dominic Green is a Wall Street Journal contributor and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.