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Once Upon a Time World
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In February 1934 F Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his editor, Max Perkins, about how Tender Is the Night, his novel about the behaviour of American expatriates in France, should be advertised. “Please do not use the phrase ‘Riviera’ or ‘gay resorts’,” he implored. “Not only does it sound like the triviality of which I am so often accused, but . . . its very mention invokes a feeling of unreality and unsubstantiality.”
In fact there was nothing trivial or unreal about the behaviour of Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, on the Côte d’Azur. They were vivid shockers. Invited to a dinner party, a drunken Scott would crawl around his host’s vegetable patch throwing tomatoes at the guests. They were asked to leave a hotel because Zelda habitually trapped the lift with her belt, so it would be available when they went to dine. When they met the dancer Isadora Duncan, Scott gushingly proclaimed his love for her; when Duncan replied that he could visit her that night if he fancied, Zelda flung herself down a stone staircase.
Jonathan Miles’s evocation of the French Riviera is as fascinating in its historical sweep as its devotion to gossip and misbehaviour. Its story begins in December 1834, when the English politician Lord Brougham, travelling to Genoa, was becalmed in Cannes by reports of cholera. Impressed by the sheltered, sandy beaches, the clear night sky and the bouillabaisse, he bought some land and commissioned a villa. Friends from England came visiting and, similarly entranced, did the same — and a process of “genteel Anglicisation” began.
Brougham persuaded King Louis-Philippe of France to invest a million francs in building a port for Cannes. Soon after, in 1843, the Hôtel Beau-Site was opened with an unheard-of seven tennis courts. Soon 25 English families were living there, as the seafront was transformed into a boulevard named La Croisette, along which majestic hotels and fabulous villas were built.
Queen Victoria was an early enthusiast. She visited Menton in 1882 on a royal train of seven coaches. A French menu was offered to her entourage, but the Queen preferred food brought from Windsor; it included Irish stew, kept warm in red flannel pouches hung from the carriages.
Victoria’s son Edward, the Prince of Wales, was a Riviera fan from 1872, indulging his epic fondness for gambling, gluttony and girls. He became so large that, in 1890, a special siège d’amour (“love chair”) was built for his visits to the Chabanais brothel, so that he could have sex with two women without crushing them.
Between 1860 and 1914 Nice became France’s fastest-growing city, its income pumped by winter visitors — a phenomenon spotted by Charles III, Prince of Monaco. He also noted how casinos generated huge sums for the small German state of Hesse-Homburg. His mother, Caroline, approached François Blanc, who ran the Bad Homburg concession, and, in June 1866, a new casino started life on a deserted Monaco plateau called Spélugues. In the prince’s honour it was renamed Monte Carlo — basically Charley’s Hill of Cash — and draws some rapturous prose from the author. “Monte Carlo, in the years leading up to the [First World] war, was a thicket of plumed turbans, a dance of dazzling tiaras, diamond dog-collars and precious stones draped across powdered breasts.”
The book becomes a delirious chronicle of excess, as hordes of well-heeled hedonists, from Colette to Bono, arrived to construct a playground of mad extravagance and moral abandonment. Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Cole Porter and Somerset Maugham enjoyed high jinks on the beaches, but revolutionary thinkers such as Nietzsche, Marx and Lenin also stooped to dipping their toes in the water.
In a typically stylish segue, Miles moves from the arrival in 1922 of the “blue trains” (with their scandalous connecting rooms and mahogany interiors) to the Ballets Russes production of Diaghilev’s sparkling 23-minute ballet Le train bleu in 1925. Its line-up of talents was remarkable — story by Jean Cocteau, music by Darius Milhaud, curtain painted by Picasso, costumes by Coco Chanel and choreography by Nijinsky’s sister, Bronislava.
We watch British writers succumb to the lure of the green baize. Arnold Bennett, far from home, won a modest amount in the casino. Dazed with success, he went to tea and sat beside a Russian grand duke who had won several thousand pounds. “In the falling twilight,” Bennett wrote, “with the incomparable mountain landscape in front of us, and the most chic and decadent Parisianism around us, we talked roulette.” At such a moment, Bennett said, “the art of literature seemed a very little thing”.
We see the New Yorker wit Dorothy Parker denied entry to the casino because she wasn’t wearing stockings. (“I went and found my stockings,” she reported, “and then came back and lost my shirt.”) We meet striking demi-mondaines like Cora Pearl (born Eliza Emma Crouch in Plymouth), who once gave a dinner party where she was carried into the dining room on a silver platter, naked except for a parsley sprig.
Miles’s 186-year chronicle is, of course, interrupted by appalling events: two world wars, one Wall Street depression and the 2020 Covid pandemic, which closed Riviera hotels, cafés and beaches. But Miles is equal to evoking these dark days, describing how signs for the Rue d’Angleterre were torn down by locals in the early years of the Second World War and how, in August 1944, 350 Resistance fighters, armed with old rifles, knives and grenades, counterattacked the German invaders in the streets.
Once Upon a Time World is a phenomenal work of research across hundreds of histories, biographies, memoirs and letters. It shifts with masterly control across a dozen arenas from high art to low scandal, taking in fashion, sport, ballet and motor racing. It’s utterly absorbing, indelicate to a shocking degree and I devoured every page of it.
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