Book Review: “The Once Upon a Time World, “by Jonathan Miles

Book Review: “The Once Upon a Time World, “by Jonathan Miles

A century and a half later, by which time the Riviera had ceased serving as an “outdoor hospital” and become a playground of the rich, another high-stakes theft took place at a hotel restaurant in Saint-Paul-de-Vence. Its owner was known to accept paintings in lieu of payment — “My kind of hotel,” Picasso joked. In 1960, burglars broke in and stole 21 canvases, including a Braque, a Léger, a Mirò and a Modigliani. (The Picasso didn’t fit in the car.)

Every episode Miles relays could inspire its own book — or play, symphony, movie or painting. Many already have. An international Who’s Who of tastes, talents, whims and ambitions ushered in the Riviera’s golden age. They were not merely vacationing; they were mining this “thin strip of Shangri-La” to create the culture that would define the ensuing centuries.

In so doing, they defined new heights of opulence. The influential Lord Brougham “discovered” Cannes in 1834, when a cholera epidemic interrupted his progress to Italy. Besotted by the Arcadian surroundings, he built a villa. Other foreign aristocrats followed suit, and 20 years later, Prosper Mérimée complained that “the English are established here as in a conquered land. They’ve built 50 villas or chateaus each more extraordinary than the last.”

As the belle epoque approached, similarly lavish villas and grand hotels multiplied east of Cannes, from Nice and Beaulieu to La Turbie and Cap Martin. When Queen Victoria arrived in Menton disguised as the “Countess of Balmoral” (her French bodyguard conceded that she “did not deceive a soul”), the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia was already established there and the two royal influencers magnified the allure of the Côte d’Azur. Queen Victoria’s libertine son “Bertie,” the future King Edward VII, had preceded them, indulging in tennis, yachting, golf and baccarat in Cannes, and romping with courtesans in Monte Carlo.

After the First World War, invading Americans erected their own palaces. The millionaire artist Henry Clews concocted the fairy-tale “Château de la Napoule,” west of Cannes; the railway magnate Frank Jay Gould built half a dozen villas and hotels, including, in Nice, the Art Deco landmark the Palais de la Méditerranée. In Antibes, the lower-key Murphys attracted artists and writers to their Villa Americana. (In 1925, when Edith Wharton invited their guest F. Scott Fitzgerald for tea at her villa in Hyères, he arrived drunk and screamed, “You don’t know anything about life.”)

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