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History of the French Riviera The American Connection

beach in Nice

If you visit the French Riviera in July or August, you may have trouble finding enough space on the beach to put your towel. It’s difficult to imagine that until the 1920s there were no summer tourists there, hardly any hotels and no one swimming in the sea. Margo Lestz looks at the American connection that changed the history of the French Riviera…

The French Riviera was “discovered” in the 1800’s by the European nobility who spent their winters here. But when springtime rolled around these wealthy holiday-makers went home and left the summer heat to the locals. Then in the 1920s, an American couple played a big part in the Riviera’s “rediscovery”

The Murphys

Gerald and Sara Murphy were among the first Americans to move to the Riviera; in the early 1920s, they, along with many other artistic souls, left the US taking advantage of the strong US dollar. When they arrived in Paris with their three young children, they were captivated by the creative energy they found. In Europe, where every home had lost someone to the war, the young people wanted to forget about death and destruction. They just wanted to live and celebrate. This was the beginning of Les Années Folles, or the “Crazy Years”, in which creativity boomed. Modernism was born and Paris became the centre of all things artistic. There, you could find painters, writers and musicians from around the world forging new forms of their art. This vibrant inventiveness had a profound effect on Gerald Murphy and he learned to paint as well as nurture other painters.

gerald and sara murphy in paris

In Paris, the wealthy Murphys donated their time to help restore the backdrops for the Russian ballet which had been destroyed in a fire. There they met artists, including Picasso, and found their niche in the artistic community.

Discovering the Riviera

In 1922 the Murphys went to the South of France to visit Cole Porter, one of Gerald’s friends from Yale. The Murphys fell in love with the Riviera and knew immediately it was where they wanted to be. The next summer they returned without Porter. There were no tourists in the summer and the Riviera hotels closed the first of May. Gerald and Sara convinced the owner of the Hotel du Cap in Antibes to stay open for them and that summer they entertained the first of their many visitors from Paris: Pablo Picasso and his family. Picasso also fell in love with the area and rented a villa in Antibes.

Villa America

Gerald and Sara MurphyThe Murphys decided to make the Riviera their home and they bought a villa just below the Antibes lighthouse. It had a magnificent garden but the house required two years of renovation. Always trendsetters, Gerald and Sara added features to their home that were unheard of at the time, such as a flat roof that could be used as a terrace. The interior was very modern with black floors, white walls, mirrors and stainless steel. They moved in with their three children in the summer of 1924 and called their new home Villa America.

picasso at the French RivieraThe Murphys entertained a constant stream of guests, shocking the locals with their “unusual” activities. Gerald cleared off the 4 ft. (1.20 metres) thick layer of seaweed from the beach to create a place for swimming. These strange Americans and their friends picnicked in the sand while listening to Jazz on a portable phonograph.  As the astonished locals looked on, the Murphys held elaborate picnics at La Garoupe beach, one day Picasso showed up in bathing trunks and a black Stetson, and his first wife Olga, a Russian ballerina, danced on the sand. The American visitors slathered themselves with cocoa butter, sunbathed and swam in the height of summer, at a time when no one else dreamed of going near the water.

They loved to entertain and their friends enjoyed sharing their idyllic Riviera lifestyle. Some, like Picasso and Fitzgerald, followed in the Murphys’ footsteps and took up residence in the South of France. Others from the Paris art scene started spending summer holidays on the Riviera. Hotels began to stay open in summer to accommodate these guests and beaches were cleared of seaweed and filled with sunbathers. The most important figures of the European arts scene – Cocteau, Léger, Picasso, Man Ray, Stravinsky and Diaghilev arrived and for a while the French Riviera became the French American Riviera – in the summer at least. 

All good things must end

Les Années Folles, “the crazy years” ended abruptly in 1929 when the stock market crashed. The same year, one of the Murphys’ sons was diagnosed with tuberculosis and they left the Riviera for good in 1933 to go back to America. But they had left their mark on the French Riviera and it would never be the same.

It is reported that as Picasso sat looking out over a beach that had been abandoned when the Murphys arrived and was now filled with sun-bathers, he remarked that he and the Murphys had a lot to answer for. I wonder what he would think today…

Margo Lestz lives in Nice, France where she likes to bask in the sunshine, study the French language and blog as thecuriousrambler. Margo says “Life is never boring and I learn something new every day… and there are always surprises”.

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