How Monte Carlo went to hell

I now find resorts more fun out of season. Civilized tourists are as rare as a smart Hollywood movie, so local talent will do, and to hell with the vulgar jet set. Gstaad is perfect in June and July, March and April, as is St Moritz, the Ionian Islands, and Patmos, my next destination. Once upon a time, the must-see French Riviera, but now it’s a sweaty hell, a seedy place for not-so-sunny folks.

Although I grew up on the French Riviera, I was two out of three in 1939, the time I would have chosen to be an adult if given the choice. Elders there were telling me about that summer, the most gay – in the old sense of the word – on record. At the time, Monte Carlo was still Ruritania-by-the-Sea, and the whispers of the last revelers on the columns of troops between Cannes and Monaco had replaced the last gossip. Even better were the stories of German spies disembarking from submarines at Cap Martin and showing up at the casino in tuxedos. But nothing could put a damper on the feverish atmosphere of pleasure. People were eager to have one last adventure before war broke out.

The day in August when the Soviet-Nazi pact was announced, a pandemonium broke out on the Riviera. Hotels and villas emptied in a few hours. Officers and men on leave left within half an hour. The main Monaco casino is struggling but most croupiers, as French, are called to join their units. An international tennis tournament has been canceled, as have boat races. The high-class rascals who frequented the big players met at the Hotel de Paris and consoled themselves. Monte Carlo had never seen anything like it before: a town full of prostitutes and a few very rich but very old men, and nothing else. Everything stopped, then came May 1940, and hectic attempts were made by Britons, including Somerset Maugham, to leave the coast via Monte Carlo. Some eventually reached England.

The ax fell when Italy declared war on a rapidly collapsing France and the Italians marched from their border to Monaco. Worse still was the embarrassment when the Italian troops were cheered to the rafters by the Italians in Monaco. After a temporary closure, the casino reopened and saw unprecedented profits as wealthy French Jews and other refugees reached the principality once Prince Louis declared Monaco a neutral sovereign state. This suited everyone, including the possible German occupying army surrounding Monaco.

Twelve years after the end of the war, I visited the old Beach Hotel and the Sporting Club with a gentleman who owned them, a certain Aristotle Socrates Onassis. He knew my father and was kind to young Taki. Onassis became a household name in the early 1950s when he “bought” Monte Carlo. In fact, what he did was become the majority shareholder of SBM, the company that controls Monaco’s casino and its largest hotels. Onassis wanted Monte Carlo to remain a quaint little island, but the ruling Prince Rainier wanted a Las Vegas by the Med. Rainier, who looked like any janitor in his principality, won by issuing more shares and turning the Golden Greek into a minority holder. The result, 70 years later, is that the Grimaldis are among the wealthiest families in the world, and Monte Carlo is an overbuilt, overcrowded cement hell straight out of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.

St Tropez was slow to follow the rest of the Côte d’Azur, but even there the unacceptably vulgar prevailed. Wealthy Arabs and, until this year, wealthy Russians have turned this peaceful fishing village into a nightmare. The superyachts, as these monstrosities and super-polluters are known, have turned the main harbor strip into a freak show, with masses of sweaty semi-naked voyeurs ogling fat slobs eating and drinking with their whores on board. Very ugly people own very ugly boats, my old dad always said, but luckily he has never seen the owners of today’s yachts. Looking back on it, another great long-dead man said exactly the same thing, a certain Gianni Agnelli.

Oh my God, we’re still getting nostalgic. I just finished Anne De Courcy’s The Parisian life of Nancy Cunard, and memories of the French capital came back stronger than ever. I have read many biographies of De Courcy, and this one was as good as any, except I was never drawn to nymphomaniacs, especially wealthy, intimidating, leftist nymphos like the Lady Cunard. (The degree of difficulty in seduction is very important – for me, at least.) What made me ring the bell, it was the reading on Noailles. The viscount and the viscountess of Noailles were the most distinguished in the world and renowned patrons of the arts. Marie-Laure de Noailles had the most artistic salon in Paris and was close to Cocteau, Dali, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Picasso etc. The lavish Noailles house had Dalis, Goyas and other big names hanging on its walls. It was in the 1920s. Around 1965, I was invited to Les Noailles by Raoul Lévy, the man who discovered Brigitte Bardot and later the young Taki. (I don’t swing like that so he was a little disappointed.) But I met Marie-Laure and I enjoyed talking to her. A car crushed by Caesar was in the entrance hall. (Lévy later committed suicide, but not because of young Taki.)

And so on. Memories of great times in great places that are no longer fun.

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