There are few places that possess that heady combination of miles of stunning coastal scenery and white sand beaches, crystalline blue skies, a temperate climate, picturesque villages, gilded mansions and a glamorous, storied past as does the French Riviera. From St. Tropez to Monaco the beau monde of this fabled coast of the rich and famous, and those lucky enough to vacation here, luxuriate amidst Belle Epoque mansions with formal gardens and Modernist masterpieces on terraces with views stretching along the magnificent Cote d’Azur. A Who’s Who list of illustrious names have lived and vacationed here: King Leopold; the Rothchild-Euphrussi’s; Edith Wharton; Cole Porter; Sara and Gerald Murphy; Pablo Picasso; Jean Cocteau; Elsie de Wolfe; F. Scott Fitzgerald; Ernest Hemingway; Coco Chanel; the de Noailles; Eileen Gray; Le Corbusier; Lady Kenmare and her son Roderick “Rory” Cameron; Karl Lagerfeld and countless celebrities – to name but a few.
What, exactly, is Riviera Style? In the world of interiors it’s not a style often spoken of. But one glance taken of the French Riviera, in particular, it becomes apparent what constitutes Riviera Style: breathtaking coastlines with miles of white sand beaches and turquoise waters; saturated sun-kissed color – both sartorially and “interiorially”; and glamorous environs with Mediterranean distinction. Riviera Style captures the atmosphere, allure, and graceful lifestyle of Europe’s most glamorous coastline. It is a style, however, that can easily cross the line from good to bad taste with excessive display; in other words, too much bling. Personally, I find much it over the top, a bit too much. But I love a good story, history, and a bit of opera, and for that the French Riviera delivers.
Villa La Leopolda in its current incarnation was designed and built from 1929 to 1931 by American architect Ogden Codman Jr. on an estate once owned by King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold had made the previous estate a present for his mistress Blanche Zélia Joséphine Delacroix, also known as Caroline Lacroix. In more recent times Lily and Edmond Safra vacationed here. It was recently purchased from Lily Safra by a mysterious Russian oligarch for $750 million. Villa Leopolda exemplifies one end of the spectrum of Riviera Style in the grand manner.
Though not typically associated with the Riviera Style the stunning and iconic Greek-style Villa Kerylos in Beaulieu-sur-Mer cannot go unmentioned, if for no other reason that it remains my idée fixe. Designed by the French archeologist Theodore Reinach, building began in 1902 and took six years to complete. His wife, Fanny Kann, was the daughter of Betty Ephrussi and cousin to Maurice Ephrussi, who was married to Béatrice de Rothschild. Upon visiting Villa Kerylos Béatrice was so overcome by its beauty she decided to build a palatial villa of her own.
The Riviera Style may have well begun with Villa Ephrussi, Béatrice de Rothschild’s rose-colored villa on Saint-Jean-Cap Ferrat overlooking the Mediterranean sea, completed in 1912. On a promontory overlooking Villa Kerylos to the east the Baroness filled the mansion with antiques, Old Master paintings, sculpture, objets d’art, and assembled an extensive collection of rare porcelain – the whole conjured in a neoclassical confection inspired by local color.
Author and style-setter Edith Wharton retreated to her vacation home, Château Sainte-Claire, in Hyères, in the mid-1900’s. In a letter to Bernard Berenson in 1919 she extolled the region’s endless charms: “I read your letter stretched out on a bank of amaranth and moly, with the blue sea sending little silver splashes up to my toes, and roses and narcissus and mimosa outdoing Coty’s best from the centre all around to the sea. In front of us lay two or three Odyssean isles, and the boat with a Lotean sail which is always in the right place was on duty as usual — and this is the way all my days are spent! Seven hours of blue-and-gold and thyme and rosemary and hyacinth and roses every day that the Lord makes; and in the evenings, dozing over a good book! …”.
In the early 1920’s Cole Porter and his wife Linda retreated to a rented villa, Château de la Garoupe, on Cap d’Antibes.
After vacationing with Cole Porter at Château de la Garoupe the glamorous and wealthy American expats Gerald Murphy, scion of the family owned leather goods empire Mark Cross, and his wife Sara ensconced themselves in their own vacation home, Villa America, in 1922. Famous for their unique brand of style and sophistication they became famous for entertaining modern artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau, and the literary world of Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, creating the French Riviera’s first artists’ enclave.
Gerald Murphy modified a modest chalet with a pitched roof into an Art Deco variation on a Mediterranean theme incorporating a flat roof for sunning – perhaps the first of its kind on the Riviera. Gerald, an artist in his own right, created a gouache for Villa America (bottom right). The interiors were strikingly spare and crisp, with waxed black tile floors, white walls, black satin slip covers, fireplaces framed in mirror, and shots of pink and purple. Not the sort of decor one usually associates with beach-side living; at least not for this native Californian! The French Riviera was, and is, a completely different scene., with its own set of traditions and aesthetics.
Picasso’s masterpiece The Pipes of Pan is a reference to a photo (on right) of Gerald with Picasso at La Garoupe, and to Gerald’s sexual ambiguity. It was believed that Gerald’s irritation with Picasso stemmed from recognizing himself in the painting. Images courtesy of Vanity Fair.
In the later 1920’s Jazz-Age writer of the Lost Generation F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda retreated to Antibes and is rumored to have spent time, here and there, off and on, at three different villas: Villa St-Louis, which is now a hotel; Villa Paquita, which the Hemingway’s moved into following the Fitzgerald’s departure; and, the last, Villa Picolette. It was here Fitzgerald penned Tender is the Night, based on his observations spent in the company of Sara and Gerald Murphy.
The book cover design for Tender is the Night illustrates “Villa Picolette” through the pines overlooking the bay of Antibes.
In a photo taken on the beach at La Garoupe in 1926 Gerald poses with Sara in distinctive Riviera style: a striped jersey, espadrilles, and knitted fisherman’s cap. “They have to like it,” said one of Fitzgerald’s characters about the Murphy’s fictional counterparts, “they invented it.” The Murphy’s were inspiration for “Nicole and Dick Diver” in Tender is the Night.
Villa Picolette appears today as it did when the Fitzgerald’s vacationed here in the late 1920’s. Fitzgerald loved its Mediterranean style so much he used it as a model for the villa in Tender is the Night.
If you would like to see how the property and interiors look today the villa was recently featured in The New York Daily News. It may still be available and, if so, can be yours for a modest $35 million.
It’s hardly surprising that the allure of the Côte d’Azur cast its spell over France’s grande dame of fashion, Coco Chanel. Villa La Pausa, situated in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin between Monte Carlo and Menton, was built in 1927 for Chanel and her lover, the Duke of Westminster. Its current interiors were recently featured in the Financial Times House & Home section.
Here, Chanel is entertaining friends in her dining room at La Pausa. Roderick “Rory” Cameron described the interiors as “large low-ceilinged rooms sparsely furnished with handsome pieces of Spanish and Provençal furniture.”
A vintage photograph of a corridor in La Pausa exhibits a groin-vaulted ceiling and spare provincial furnishings.
Coco Chanel receiving her friend Jean Godebski and his sister Mimie Godebska Blacque-Belair in her bedroom at La Pausa.
The famous and oft blogged about Villa Fiorentina in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat has earned much of its notoriety under the auspices of Lady Kenmare and her style-setting son, Roderick “Rory” Cameron – whose Provencal mas, Les Quatre Sources, I blogged about earlier. A wonderfully entertaining and insightful synopsis of the history of the villa and its owners since its inception as a Florentine-style palazzo in 1914 by Countess Therese de Beauchamp – who departed the villa for Villa Leopolda in the 1920’s – can be found on John J. Tackett’s incomparable blog The Devoted Classicist. Though purchased by Lady Cavendish, as she was known then, in 1939, Lady Kenmare did not return to it until after the war. The atrocities of WWII and Nazi encampment at the villa left it in sad condition so Lady Kenmare decided to restyle it as a neo-Palladian villa. Another glimpse into this villa’s storied past is illustrated in The Golden Riviera, written by none other than Rory Cameron, chronicling his years spent there between his mother’s numerous divorces and “widowship” entertaining the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Villa Fiorentina perhaps received even greater attention when owned by Mary and Harding Lawrence, who hired the then dean of American decorating Billy Baldwin to refresh its interiors. The grand salon, washed in shades of “Riviera blue” has left its imprint on the psyche of every interior designer, decorator, and design aficionado across the globe. What is most impressive is how these rooms still feel fresh today, with only the slightest details dating them.
“Clear, fresh blue covers the upholstered sofas and chairs, a deeper blue checkerboards with white on the French woven rugs, and every blue imaginable mingles in the Indian handkerchief pillows. All over the room are masses of blue and white Chinese porcelains. The big lacquered coffee table was designed, as was much of the furniture spotted here and there, by Charles Sevigny.” – Billy Baldwin
Over the years the fashionable set has lived and vacationed in grand style in some of the Gold Coast’s most desirable addresses, luring blue chip designers and decorators to create personal Xanadu’s evocative of a life well-lived in full Riviera color – sunny yellows, all-white, clear pinks, coral, tangerine, cooling greens and, of course, refreshing blues.
I had intended to close with Villa Corinne, the guest house Nicky Haslam collaborated on designing on Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, but in the end I’ve decided to dedicate a separate post to it, as this post has become quite lengthy. So stay tuned! More to come from the golden Cote d”Azure, including Hubert de Givenchy’s quietly elegant style at Le Clos Fiorentina and a Modernist villa built by architect Oscar Niemeyer and decorated by Peter Marino. It has been awhile since I have visited these distinctive vacation retreats and I look forward to casting my eyes once again upon their unique and singular Riviera Style.
Photos of Edith Wharton at Sainte-Claire courtesy of Edith Wharton: A House Full of Rooms:
Architecture, Interiors and Gardens by Theresa Craig.
Photo of Gerald and Sara Murphy’s Villa America from “Growing With the Lost Generation” by Wendy Goodman for HG; February, 1992.
Photos of “party boat” and of Gerald and Sara Murphy on La Garoupe from “Everybody Was So Young” by Amanda Vaill
Photos of Chanel’s villa La Pausa courtesy of the Financial Times.