The frivolous lyrics from Cole Porter’s Let’s Misbehave might very well have epitomized the mood on the Côte d’Azur when the song was published in 1927.
“There’s something wild about you child, That’s so contagious. Let’s be outrageous, Let’s misbehave!!!”
Not only was he penning the song, but quite possibly Porter was working through it while he hung out with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. They were staying at their rented Villa Saint-Louis on the shore of a scenic cove on the west side of the iconic Cap d’Antibes. The Fitzgeralds loved partying with their Jazz Age friends. The semi-Bohemian crowd included wealthy Americans and visiting artists, writers and hangers-on. Picasso, Hemingway, Cocteau, John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein and Dorothy Parker were just a few of the regulars. Porter was a fixture at the piano in the music room of Villa Saint-Louis, overlooking the shimmering Mediterranean.
From all accounts, notably captured in Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, along with letters, journal entries and recorded memories by others in the Roaring Twenties, the French Riviera was rather a wild place to be. It was also, and continues to be, a fabled coastline of incomparable beauty and light that inspires artists to settle there and create.
The Belle of the French Riviera
Since 1929 the privately-owned Villa Saint-Louis has been known as Hôtel Belles Rives. At the time it was the only hotel on the water along the Côte d’Azur. And since 2001, the gracious third-generation owner, Marianne Estène-Chauvin has guided her beloved 5-star, 43-room gem with a clear desire to keep the best of the Fitzgerald years alive.
The atmosphere becomes electric the instant one steps into the elegant and welcoming lobby of this gracious Art Deco mansion with its unique ornate elevator. Black and white photos of Fitzgerald, his tormented wife Zelda, and their daughter Scottie, holidaying on the property, hang on the walls. A predominately placed marble plaque quotes a letter he wrote to Hemingway: “With our being back in a nice villa on my beloved Riviera (between Nice and Cannes) I’m happier than I’ve been for years. It’s one of those strange precious and all too transitory moments when everything in one’s life seems to be going well.”
One imagines the author peering out over the sun-kissed bay, “the fairy blue sea” as he described. His gaze would continue across to the hills of the Massif de l’Estérel to the west of Cannes, perhaps searching for his muse. He penned much of Tender is the Night during his stay of almost two years and drew inspiration for his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby.
Inside the Hotel Belles-Rives
It’s no surprise that room number 50, the Fitzgerald room, must be booked well in advance. However, each room in the Belles-Rives offers a level of comfort and tasteful decorating that befits a member of the Small Luxury Hotels Of The World group. The blue-striped awnings are one of many details that have remained consistent through almost a century.
Leaving the warm welcome of the well-trained reception and concierge staff, the Fitzgerald Bar off the lobby entices the visitor. The stunning art, grand piano, and authentic Art Deco styling … leather bar, mirrored tabletops, leopard-patterned upholstery offer an intimate and elegant invitation to linger. The panoramic view across Golfe-Juan and the Baie de Cannes creates its magic no matter what the hour. Sunsets, it must be said, are often unforgettable.
A broad patio beckons with lush potted palms, umbrella-shaded tables topped with crisp white linen and Art Deco light fixtures. The electric blue accent color mimics shades of the azure sea. Another flight of steps leads to the water and other elegant dining areas, carrying on the blue and white theme so complimentary to the Mediterranean setting.
Returning to the lobby from the terrace, the artwork of ships on the wall and subtle furniture create the illusion of preparing for a voyage. There is a sense of being on an ocean liner during the grand days of transatlantic crossings. One enters the Michelin-starred dining room, La Passagère. The cuisine focuses on local seafood and superior desserts under the direction of some of the finest chefs in France.
Bold Temple of Luxor-style columns covered in marble mosaic create a dramatic sense of structure. The geometric frescos on the walls were discovered when wall paper, applied after WW2, was stripped in 2001 to install air conditioning. They offer an effective backdrop to the stunning exhibit of ceramic and glass art created by local artisans that compliments the collection of 1930’s art.
An elaborate, stunning chandelier hangs over the table de commandant/captain’s table. Before one consults the menu, art is the main course here: substantial Leger-inspired sculptures frame the room, Egyptian sculptures, ceramique flamé in primary colors, la terre rouge, hand-painted Bernardaud porcelain plates with white background, la terre blanche, hand-blown glass from the skilled verriers of nearby Biot.
In the library, Cole Porter played the piano. Fitzgerald’s wealthy American friend, Gerald Murphy (who along with his wife, Sarah, had first of this group discovered the Riviera) had brought a portable phonograph from the United States, the first one on the coast. The music of the Jazz Age frequently filled this room. Other musicians would filter in at times. Raucous parties were the norm.
Today the room also displays portraits and trophies of the winners of the literary Prix Fitzgerald. Begun by Madame Chauvin in 2010, the submissions are juried by a distinguished panel of writers and critics. The recipient is an author working in a style or addressing themes that interested Fitzgerald. The prestigious prize is awarded in early June.
Of all the narratives that make up the foundation of the Hôtel Belles Rives, possibly the best is that of Madame Marianne Estène-Chauvin. Her memories begin with cherished childhood holidays at this resort owned by her Russian emigré grandfather and French grandmother. The original villa was expanded with two upper floors and a west wing. Lovingly restored, the hotel played a major role throughout her life as each generation of the Estène family carried on their dedication to being hoteliers of distinction.
When she first expressed interest in becoming the owner, she was not taken seriously. “After all, I am a woman. And there are many other roles within the business it was thought would be more suitable. I became involved with decoration and public relations …women’s work.”
Perseverance paid off. Ironically, the week she was to take charge, the uncle who would help ease her into her new role, suffered a major heart attack. Suddenly she was immersed in the business. Soon she had a plan. She changed the seasonal schedule to being open year round, fixed the beach, and began her dream to establish fine dining. The name, La Passagère, evokes not only a passenger on a ship but also a philosophy that we are passengers in time.
By Patricia Sands, the best-selling author of the Love In Provence series, her love letter to France. She writes about and shares her photography of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur regularly at patriciasandsauthor.com