“That is the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Imagine you are a young writer with a beautiful family, a literary celebrity standing on a warm sandy beach in 1924 and facing the intense provençal blue sky of a summer day on the French Riviera. You are also looking ahead at an almost unlimited world of parties and champagne, beautiful people, and the beat of the Jazz Age. The world is literally yours. You often find yourself in the company of other acclaimed celebrities: Hemingway, Matisse, Miro, Picasso and other brilliantly talented artists who also have gazed upon the same scene. You will bask in their friendships and share the brilliant aura that encompasses all of you. It is a heady time, enough to make you inhale deeply, and wonder what that future will bring. You are F. Scott Fitzgerald, an enfant terrible with the recent praise of and international success for your novel This Side of Paradise!
And you speculate in your imagination for a few moments that such success might be yours!
Perhaps, though, you might just be content with sharing some of the ambiance he created in a variety of hotels along the Cote d’Azure, which my friend Frank and I did as we drove through that almost mythical world.
The Fitzgeralds on the French Riviera
As we traveled along the coast road past bathers enjoying the summer sun and being part of a slow-moving river of cars, trucks, motorcycles), caravans and bicycles, Frank shared his knowledge of Fitzgerald drawn from his doctoral studies in American Literature, especially writers of the early 20th. century. We began with a drive past some of the haunts that Fitzgerald, his wife, Zelda and their daughter Scottie (Frances), frequented during those seemingly innocent times in the 1920s. Fitzgerald soon realized how cheap it was to live there. He was also disgusted by the hectic lifestyle on Long Island, New York, especially after the success of This Side of Paradise, and a bank balance less than $10,000. In his article entitled “How to Live on Practically Nothing a Year,” published in the Saturday Evening Post, Fitzgerald described the relatively carefree life he and his family enjoyed on the Côte d’Azur.
Fitzgerald’s Riviera wasn’t the world-famous place it is today. That would not happen until after World War II when peace returned to Europe. Money became easier as a rising prosperity began to rebuild war-torn countries, and the airplane was an exciting and relatively inexpensive way for people to travel beyond their own worlds to discover new ones. Also, winter was the time when most people visited there. Summer had yet to become part of the new lifestyle of the Riviera, so the cost of enjoying that world was low. For Fitzgerald, life was easy and good, and there were wealthy friends and artists who helped him when needed. He might have been a burgeoning successful writer, but he seemed to always be short of money.
The first stop for Frank and me was Monaco, the gambling mecca for the wealthy and a place of dreams and fantasy for the rest of the world! It was early morning as we entered an underground parking garage located a few blocks from the Place du Casino, then slowly walked in a warm morning sun through the striking gardens of sculptures and flowers before the Casino and stood facing the Hôtel de Paris. A Belle Epoque masterpiece of elegance and wealth and quiet sophistication, it offered spectacular views of the Palais Princier (Prince’s Palace) as well as the Mediterranean Sea!
The Hotel was also a place where Scott and Zelda often drank themselves into numbing oblivion with their favorite gin fizzes and mint juleps. I wondered how he managed to continue creating excellent stories and novels as his brain was slowly eroded. In his notebooks, Fitzgerald described living in Monaco “when life was literally a dream.” Then, Frank reminded me that Fitzgerald had died, an alcoholic, in 1940, at age 44, in a room in Hollywood as a failed screenwriter and, tragically, Zelda in 1948 in a North Carolina hospital fire while under psychiatric care.
Now, it was time to move on to Nice, where Fitzgerald and his family spent much of their brief time on the Riviera. One of the more exclusive locations for them was the Ruhl Plage, located on the Boulevard des Anglais. A private and elegant beach club, it offered loungers, showers, umbrellas and a variety of necessaries for enjoying le soleil, la plage and the crystalline blue waters of the Baie des Anges, which the Fitzgeralds enjoyed on several occasions. The Le Meridien hotel next to the Ruhl Plage also offered fine dining, superb wines, liquors and champagne to quench the dry throats of the Fitzgeralds after a hot day on la plage!
As a sign of their money issues, Fitzgerald and his family took rooms in the Hotel Beau Rivage, located in the heart of the old town of Nice, between the Cours Saleya and its early morning flower market and casual evening dining, and the Promenade des Anglais. The Hotel was one of the first in Nice, and had welcomed famous artists, writers and intellectuals. The Fitzgeralds were easily able to join their wealthy friends in their lives of parties and fine dining and other excesses.
The Hotel Belles-Rives is located in Juan-les-Pins, a relatively sedate town six miles east of Cannes, and the only hotel which appeared to publicly honor the Fitzgeralds as their guests. Inside the expansive lobby, are proudly displayed, black-and-white photographs of Scott and Zelda, looking relaxed for once.
Antibes was our next stop. Fitzgerald wrote about it on Zelda’s birthday, 1926: “There was no one at Antibes this summer, except me, Zelda, the Valentinos, the Murphys, Mistinguet, Rex Ingram, Dos Passos, Alice Terry, the MacLeishes, Charlie Brackett, Mause Kahn, Lester Murphy, Marguerite Namara, E. Oppenheimer, Mannes the violinist, Floyd Dell, Max and Crystal Eastman… Just the right place to rough it, an escape from the world.”
The Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes is elegant, stately, and luxurious, surrounded on three sides by pines and the fourth by the rocky and pristine coastline. Constructed in the 1870s, it was home to many celebrities during Fitzgerald’s time, including Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso.
Fitzgerald was also befriended by Gerald and Sara Murphy, a young, wealthy and attractive life-loving couple who became the glamorous and free-spirited – and ultimately – tragic couple, Dick and Nicole Diver in Tender is the Night, his final novel. Curiously, the Murphys were credited with turning the Riviera from being only a winter resort destination, into a summer one, in part by renting the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc for a full summer season! The glamorous now had another place to see and be seen.
There were other places where the Fitzgeralds lived and/or haunted, sharing their time with friends and celebrities, such as La Colombe d’Or, in Saint Paul de Vence. Scott and Zelda often enjoyed the outdoor terrace and bar in the hotel, which had opened in 1920 as Chez Robinson. It became renowned as one of the finest art museums on the Riviera, displaying works by such rising artists as Picasso, Matise and Calder who often gave their paintings as payment for their rooms.
Scott and Zelda were famous habitues of the Hotel’s restaurant where they enjoyed many lively evenings. Zelda once allegedly suspected her husband of becoming too familiar with the dancer Isadora Duncan during a party. In a drunken fit of jealousy, she threw herself down the stairs from the outdoor terrace!
The French Riviera was a genuine inspiration for Fitzgerald. In his few years there, he was nearly able to complete The Great Gatsby. He was also able to write much of Tender is the Night, in the Villa Marie, in the quaint hillside town of Saint-Raphael, which was published in 1934, after he and his family left the Riviera. It was here that Zelda supposedly had a brief affair with a French aviator which nearly ended her marriage. In her semi-autobiographical novel, Save me the Waltz, published in 1932, she blamed the Riviera as “a seductive place.”
It may be true that clothes do make the man or woman, as the Fitzgerald personified the image of Jazz Age 1920s celebrities: living well, enjoying all that life offered, popular magazine subjects, alive on the Riviera, and seemingly on the edge of self-destruction. But they looked damned fine while doing it!
“For what it’s worth, it is never too late to be whoever you want to be. I hope you live a life you’re proud of and if you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start over.” – Scott Fitzgerald
By John Pekich producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA