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Of Princes, Murderers, and Socialites : A Celebrity History of the French Riviera

The celebrity history of the French Riviera reads like a Who’s Who of the last century. It is a riveting story of butcher kings and widow queens, sex sirens and princesses, scheming billionaires and socialite visionaries, hard-drinking writers and eccentric artists—all flocking to the Riviera to live lives full of decadence, intrigue, and debauchery under the Mediterranean sun.

It is impossible to overestimate the impact a few key individuals had on the meteoric rise of the Cote d’Azur, transforming it from a sleepy 19th century place of medieval villages and rocky sheep farms into the ultimate celebrity destination and the birthplace of the superyacht industry.

Let us take you for a journey down the French Riviera, stopping at the haunts of the celebrities, socialites, and royals who forever changed the French Riviera.

Related article: An Art Journey down the Riviera: Tracing the Great Artists

Menton: Widow Queens and Handsome Shepherds

The gloriously pretty seaside town of Menton may well be lesser known than its Riviera neighbours, but it was at Menton that the French Riviera as we know it truly begun, when the widowed Queen Victoria came to stay in 1882, thus opening the floodgates for royals and high society to follow. Railways were built, grand villas replaced stone farmhouses, and ornate carriages carrying dukes and princes passed slowly along high coast roads above the sparkling sea.

Pretty coloured houses in Menton, France

Queen Victoria was enchanted by ‘the sunny, flowery, south’ as she called it, and returned 8 times, throwing flowers at Nice’s Battle of the Flowers, riding on donkeys up narrow medieval roads, and admiring the ‘very picturesque’ local shepherds, some of whom she said ‘are very handsome boys’. She even got in trouble for trampling the flowerbeds of her friend Alice Rothschild. Her maidservant, observing the elderly queen’s behaviour on her visits, remarked that ‘she enjoys everything as if she was 17 instead of 72’. She had dark memories of the place too, as her youngest son, Prince Leopold, slipped and fell in the Cannes marina, and, suffering the royal family’s curse of haemophilia, bled to death.

Queen Victoria in Nice, France

Some credit the Queen’s love of the South of France for the improvement of relations between longstanding enemies England and France at the turn of the century- a softening relationship that would build into their WW1 alliance. Those shepherds must have been handsome indeed.

Monaco: A Prince, A Screen Goddess, and a Scheming Billionaire

It’s hard to imagine, looking at Monaco now, that this magnificent cliff-side city of opulent casinos and grand hotels was teetering on the edge of financial ruin in the 1950s, and held precious little influence or renown on the world stage. (Except, that is, for its longstanding reputation as ‘a sunny place for shady people’, as the famously caustic Somerset Maugham once called it.) Enter shipping magnate and superyacht owner Aristotle Onassis, who bought up control of the failing Monegasque bank and encouraged Prince Rainier III to marry an American actress to bring star power to shine on the Principality. The more famous, the better.

Grace Kelly Prince Rainier of Monaco

And so it was that screen goddess Grace Kelly met with the Prince at the palace in during the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, posing for photos in a carefully contrived ‘meet-cute’ in front of a lion cage in the palace grounds. They married in 1956, with the $2 million dowry demanded from Grace’s family indicating that money was still rather tight for the Royal Family of Monaco.

The glamorous marriage succeeded in reinvigorating Monaco’s fortunes as intended, although the match would be tainted by rumours of Grace’s affairs and alcoholism, and nostalgia for her forsaken acting career. ‘The idea of my life as a fairytale is itself a fairytale’, Grace once said. Princess Grace was killed in a stroke-induced car crash in 1982, driving on the same high, beautiful Corniche road along the coast that she travelled with Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s ‘To Catch a Thief’, back when she was the famous actress in the world.

To Catch A Thief

As for the scheming Onassis? He and the Prince came into conflict over the future of Monaco, and after the Prince wrested back control of the bank from Onassis, Onassis cruised away from Port Hercules on his yacht, Christina O: the superyacht that set the tone for all yachts that were to follow.

Onassis and Jackie O on Christina O yacht

Christina O Yacht

Cap Ferrat: The Butcher of Congo & The Lizard of Oz

The Queen may have given the Cote d’Azur her royal seal of approval, but it was her cousin, King Leopold of Belgium, who began the transformation of the coast in the late 19th century when he began buying up grazing land on Cap Ferrat to build huge villas. Unlike his moralistic cousin, King Leopold was a cruel and immoral man, famous for his reign of terror over Congo during which between 3 and 15 million people died, thus earning him the name ‘The Butcher of Congo’.

King Leopold II Belgium

Leopold’s behaviour in Cap Ferrat was also fairly scandalous with a secret relationship with a 16 year old who he kept shut up in a villa on the Cap and married only two days before his death. Yet he did transform the Cap into a place of stunning villas and exotic gardens, and his yacht Clementine was the first of so very many to anchor off this stunning emerald headland dropping away into the blue-green sea.

Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Côte d'Azur

Leopold turned the Cap into a wealthy playground, leading the Rothschilds (who built the fabulous Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild) and the great families of Europe to follow. The writer Somerset Maugham was another notable fellow to take up residence on the Cap, inviting Picasso, Kipling, Churchill, T.S Eliot, Ian Fleming, and many more to visit him for grand villa parties in the gardens and sunny days by the pool. It’s hard to know why they accepted, given that Maugham was notorious for writing rather nasty, thinly veiled descriptions of his friends and acquaintances in his books. But come, they did- although not all guests were fans, with Noel Coward calling him ‘The Lizard of Oz’, and Virginia Woolf likening him to ‘a dead man’.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

Cap d’Antibes: Glittering Parties and Madness under the Pines

Antibes is most famous for Picasso, who lived and worked in the Grimaldi tower which now houses the Picasso museum. But in truth, the celebrity history of Antibes goes much, much deeper than that, for it was on the Cap d’Antibes in the 1920s that the French Riviera became the summertime destination we know today.

Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc luxury hotel in Cap d'Antibes, France

Normally, high society deserted the French Riviera in the hot summer months, with grand hotels like the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc shuttering their doors from May to September. That is, until the Murphy’s, a wealthy socialite couple from New York, convinced the proprietor of Eden-Roc to stay open through one summer, beginning a trend which would forever change the way the wealthy enjoyed the Riviera. They renovated a small chalet nearby, naming it Villa America, and cleared the pretty Plage de la Garoupe of seaweed, fishing line and rocks. They then invited Picasso, Hemingway and an ultra-fashionable crowd for summers of sunbathing and swimming, picnics on the Cannes Islands, and glittering parties under the pines.

The original pool at Eden-Roc hotel on Cap d'Antibes

Some of the Murphy’s most illustrious guests were F.Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, and F.Scott Fitzgerald wrote Tender is the Night based on his time on the Cap: an amalgam of the sensuous and beautiful life of the Murphys on the Riviera and the spiralling marriage problems of the hard-drinking Scott and his schizophrenic wife, Zelda. It would not end well for the four of them in real life, with the Murphy’s losing two of their teenage sons to illness and most of their money, Scott losing his sobriety and writing brilliance, and Zelda losing her sanity and eventually dying in a sanatorium fire. But for a while, life was magical on the Cap d’Antibes, as they dined and drank in the garden, lazed about on the beach, and sailed along the coast in the Murphy’s 100 foot schooner, Weatherbird.

Old Antibes from Cap d'Antibes

Fitzgerald was far from the only writer to fall for Antibes’ many charms, with Jules Verne, the ‘father of science fiction’ anchoring his yacht Le Saint Michel II off the Cap and renting the Villa Les Chenes to work on Around the World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and A Voyage to the Moon. Graham Greene, ex MI5 spy and author of The Quiet American and The End of the Affair would spend 24 years in Antibes after fleeing Britain for tax fraud in 1956.

Saint Tropez: 

In 1956, a young, relatively unknown sex siren called Brigitte Bardot cavorted on Pampelonne Beach in a skimpy bikini while filming And God Created Women—the story of an astonishingly beautiful 18 year old orphan who seduces the men of the village. Saint Tropez and Brigitte Bardot would be forever changed by the movie, which catapulted both the town and actress to global stardom.

Brigitte Bardot and Roger Vadim in St Tropez

Of course, Bardot was not the first to notice Saint Tropez’s extraordinary charms; great artists like Signac and Matisse had fallen in love with the sleepy, pastel painted fishing village many years before, capturing its extraordinary light and pretty harbour in their masterpieces. Yet Bardot was the one who gave the village its name as a glamorous, libertine destination of celebrity parties, topless sunbathing, and long, champagne-spraying days by the sea. She is also responsible for the birth of the most famous beach club of them all, Club 55, when, during filming, her director husband Vadim mistook a beach shack for a café and sent Bardot over to buy some food for the film crew. The husband and wife who owned the shack kindly agreed to cook them some food, and so Club 55 was born.

Le Club 55

Related article: Best Beach Clubs for a French Riviera Yacht Charter

Sadly, Brigitte Bardot has had a tumultuous personal life of failed marriages, depression, and suicide attempts. She hated the limelight and after being nearly mobbed by fans while shopping in a St Tropez boutique, she retreated to the La Madrague villa she had bought in 1958 and became a relative recluse, only coming out to speak for animal rights and against immigration. Bardot is rarely spotted in Saint Tropez these days, but many celebrities have taken her place, enjoying wild, champagne spraying parties and sunbathing on the beach where a young Brigitte Bardot once posed for the cameras and changed the Riviera forever.

Yachts and luxury villas on Cap Ferrat

The French Riviera has a magic about it, as if all those glittering parties and illicit nights have somehow soaked into the very air of the place. A yacht charter along the Riviera is the perfect way to soak up this storied, magnificent coastline—from Queen Victoria’s Menton to Grace Kelly’s Monaco, and from the Murphy’s Cap d’Antibes down to Bardot’s St Tropez.

This article was written by Jo Morgan – Jo is a freelance writer for yachts and travel, offering targeted feature articles, content marketing, blogs and press releases for the yachting and travel industries.

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