Jonathan Miles’s “Once Upon a Time World” is simply a delightful, dizzying romp done the world’s astir glamorous muse: the French Riviera.
Aug. 27, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET
When you acquisition an independently reviewed publication done our site, we gain an affiliate commission.
ONCE UPON A TIME WORLD: The Dark and Sparkling Story of the French Riviera, by Jonathan Miles
Reading this breathtaking relationship of the transformations of the French Riviera implicit the past 2 millenniums is similar riding shotgun with a racecar operator successful the Monaco Grand Prix.
With each loop done time, the bystanders alteration — from naturalists and monarchs to dancers, writers, composers, artists, philosophers, statesmen, Rolling Stones and tourists. The inheritance shifts arsenic they flit past, reflecting the dreams each grafted to the craggy landscape: chateaus, casinos, yachts.
In the municipality of La Turbie, the Trophy of the Alps, 35 meters high, went up in 6 B.C. commemorating Emperor Augustus’s triumph implicit section peoples. (In the car pursuit successful Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief,” Cary Grant and Grace Kelly whip done excessively accelerated to respect it.) Other monuments are little visible, and the British taste historiographer Jonathan Miles tells their stories.
Once, the Riviera’s jagged terrain, piney cliffs, axenic aerial and “wonderful jade-and-amethyst” waters (the statement of the Lost Generation whisperer Gerald Murphy) were inaccessible to astir outsiders. Until trains arrived connected the Côte d’Azur successful 1866, travelers had to get by sea, connected ft oregon “on muleback" — and cipher undertook that arduous travel successful hunt of a Saint-Tropez tan.
For 1 thing; sunbathing did not go fashionable until the 20th century, aft Gerald and Sara Murphy and Coco Chanel launched the inclination connected the beaches of Antibes and Monte Carlo. For another, Saint-Tropez was lone a humble sportfishing colony until writers similar Guy de Maupassant and Colette and painters — Matisse, Bonnard, Derain — magicked it into a mythic destination with pen and brush.
The aboriginal visitors came mostly for their wellness — although, according to Maupassant, a doctor’s proposal that a diligent instrumentality a cure successful the southbound was “generally the archetypal country of the past enactment of the drama.”
But adjacent successful those aboriginal days — earlier determination adjacent was a Monte Carlo, fto unsocial a casino — the country abounded with scoundrels poised to prey upon affluent newcomers. In 1810, for example, the ailing Marchioness of Bute obtained support to question done the South of France. While her carriage ascended a way successful the hills adjacent Menton, a pack of bandits attacked and made disconnected with her diamonds and a vessel of what they presumed to beryllium good liqueur. Glugging it down, they fell dormant by the roadside and were “quickly apprehended,” Miles writes. The vessel had contained an opium-laced sleeping potion.
Many of the highwaymen turned retired to beryllium connected to the noble families of Nice. Until they were caught, they had enactment section authorities disconnected the scent by inviting them to opulent dinners pursuing each transgression spree.
A period and a fractional later, by which clip the Riviera had ceased serving arsenic an “outdoor hospital” and go a playground of the rich, different high-stakes theft took spot astatine a edifice edifice successful Saint-Paul-de-Vence. Its proprietor was known to judge paintings successful lieu of outgo — “My benignant of hotel,” Picasso joked. In 1960, burglars broke successful and stole 21 canvases, including a Braque, a Léger, a Mirò and a Modigliani. (The Picasso didn’t acceptable successful the car.)
Every occurrence Miles relays could animate its ain publication — oregon play, symphony, movie oregon painting. Many already have. An planetary Who’s Who of tastes, talents, whims and ambitions ushered successful the Riviera’s aureate age. They were not simply vacationing; they were mining this “thin portion of Shangri-La” to make the civilization that would specify the ensuing centuries.
In truthful doing, they defined caller heights of opulence. The influential Lord Brougham “discovered” Cannes successful 1834, erstwhile a cholera epidemic interrupted his advancement to Italy. Besotted by the Arcadian surroundings, helium built a villa. Other overseas aristocrats followed suit, and 20 years later, Prosper Mérimée complained that “the English are established present arsenic successful a conquered land. They’ve built 50 villas oregon chateaus each much bonzer than the last.”
As the belle epoque approached, likewise lavish villas and expansive hotels multiplied eastbound of Cannes, from Nice and Beaulieu to La Turbie and Cap Martin. When Queen Victoria arrived successful Menton disguised arsenic the “Countess of Balmoral” (her French bodyguard conceded that she “did not deceive a soul”), the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia was already established determination and the 2 royal influencers magnified the allure of the Côte d’Azur. Queen Victoria’s libertine lad “Bertie,” the aboriginal King Edward VII, had preceded them, indulging successful tennis, yachting, play and baccarat successful Cannes, and romping with courtesans successful Monte Carlo.
After the First World War, invading Americans erected their ain palaces. The millionaire creator Henry Clews concocted the fairy-tale “Château de la Napoule,” westbound of Cannes; the railway magnate Frank Jay Gould built fractional a twelve villas and hotels, including, successful 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, erstwhile Edith Wharton invited their impermanent F. Scott Fitzgerald for beverage astatine her villa successful Hyères, helium arrived drunk and screamed, “You don’t cognize thing astir life.”)
Even this accounting leaves retired memorable visits from Berlioz, Gogol, Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Karl Marx — who wrote disgustedly to Friedrich Engels that Monte Carlo was “a lair of idleness and adventurers.” In short: “a hole.”
A wistful code enters Miles’s Riviera circuit arsenic helium winds up the glory days. By 1983, erstwhile the James Bond flick “Never Say Never Again” was filmed astatine Victorine Studios successful Nice, Miles tells us, the once-fabled spot was successful disrepair, neglected by the infamously corrupt politician Jacques Médecin, who looted the region’s wealthiness acold much efficiently than immoderate feline burglar arsenic helium remolded the municipality to tribunal concern and tourism. Graham Greene, who wintered astatine Antibes, was truthful outraged by the mayor’s excesses that helium published a diatribe against him successful 1982: “J’Accuse: The Dark Side of Nice.”
Miles is elegiac successful recalling the passing of the “unexplored state distant from the world” that Maupassant recovered connected his archetypal sojourn to Saint-Tropez; successful the off-season, helium remarks, the scenery to this time remains “pristine and redolent of a little hectic time.”
Yet were different eras, successful hindsight, that overmuch little hectic than ours? The Riviera has shown singular resilience, Miles demonstrates, astatine riding retired overseas invasions, epidemics, depressions and satellite wars.
But the situation of overpopularity poses a subtler threat, helium suggests. The “democratized, Technicolor coast” that Agnes Varda celebrated successful her 1958 documentary “Du Côté de la Côte” portrays hordes of blessed French citizens connected their state-paid summertime vacations, crowding beaches beneath the villas and promenades of the dreamers. “What are they each looking for?” the narrator asks.
Reading this book, you cognize the answer. They privation to interaction that “sea similar quilted silk” that enraptured Katherine Mansfield; to spot the “magical light” that transfixed Claude Monet; to laic retired their ain towel successful paradise.
Liesl Schillinger is simply a professional and translator and teaches journalism astatine the New School successful New York City.
ONCE UPON A TIME WORLD: The Dark and Sparkling Story of the French Riviera | By Jonathan Miles | Illustrated | 464 pp. | Pegasus | $29.95