Incredible Stories Behind the Celebrities That Made the Riviera
The show of wealth on the French Riviera is utterly dazzling, from the supercars that cruise along the Croisette to the immense superyachts that gather off the shore. Yet it’s the celebrity history that truly glitters on the Cote d’Azur, with every location bursting with silver-screen heritage: the palace where Grace Kelly met Prince Rainier during the Cannes Film Festival; the beach where Brigitte Bardot cavorted in her tiny bikini while filming And God Created Woman. The casino where James Bond played Baccarat in GoldenEye, and the breathtaking Corniche road that Carey Grant and Grace Kelly drove along in To Catch a Thief, and that Grace Kelly later perished on.
The star-power of the South of France is almost palpable, and each year it is added to, with silver screen legends walking the Cannes red carpet to a riot of flashing paparazzi bulbs, pop stars lounging on their yachts offshore under buzzing helicopters, and tech billionaires throwing spectacular, jaw-dropping parties on their superyachts.
Summer on the Riviera is the epicentre of the world’s celebrity vacation scene.
A Celebrity History of the French Riviera
The celebrity history of the French Riviera reads like a Who’s Who of the last century. It is a riveting story of butcher kings and widow queens, sex sirens and princesses, scheming billionaires and socialite visionaries, hard-drinking writers, and eccentric artists—all flocking to the Riviera to live lives full of decadence, intrigue, and debauchery under the Mediterranean sun.
It is impossible to overestimate the impact a few key individuals had on the meteoric rise of the Cote d’Azur, transforming it from a sleepy 19th century place of medieval villages and rocky sheep farms into the ultimate celebrity destination and the birthplace of the superyacht industry.
Let us take you for a journey down the French Riviera, stopping at the haunts of the celebrities, socialites, and royals who forever changed the French Riviera.
Menton: A Widow Queen, Chanel & a prime minister
The gloriously pretty seaside town of Menton may well be lesser known than its Riviera neighbors, but it was at Menton that the French Riviera as we know it truly begun, when the widowed Queen Victoria came to stay in 1882, thus opening the floodgates for royals and high society to follow. Railways were built, grand villas replaced stone farmhouses, and ornate carriages carrying dukes and princes passed slowly along high coast roads above the sparkling sea.
Queen Victoria was enchanted by ‘the sunny, flowery, south’ as she called it, and returned 8 times, throwing flowers at Nice’s Battle of the Flowers, riding on donkeys up narrow medieval roads, and admiring the ‘very picturesque’ local shepherds, some of whom she said ‘are very handsome boys’. Her maidservant, observing the elderly queen’s behavior on her visits, remarked that while on the French Riviera “she enjoys everything as if she was 17 instead of 72”.
Some credit the Queen’s love of the South of France for the improvement of relations between longstanding enemies England and France at the turn of the century — a softening relationship that would build into their WW1 alliance.
The Queen’s ally, prime minister Winston Churchill spent several periods of his life on the French Riviera. He and his wife and he particularly enjoyed the Villa La Pausa in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. The Villa was built by Coco Chanel and the Duke of Westminster and sold to multimillionaire Emery Reves, who was a friend of Churchill’s.
La Pausa was frequented by so many elites that they often coincided and spent time together. These included the Prince of Monaco and Grace Kelly, the Dukes of Windsor, Coco Chanel, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Wendy Russell and Somerset Maugham, among others.
Monaco: A Prince, A Screen Goddess, and a Billionaire with an idea
It’s hard to imagine, looking at Monaco now, that this magnificent cliff-side city of opulent casinos and grand hotels was teetering on the edge of financial ruin in the 1950s, and held precious little influence or renown on the world stage. (Except, that is, for its longstanding reputation as ‘a sunny place for shady people’, as the famously caustic Somerset Maugham once called it.)
Enter shipping magnate and superyacht owner Aristotle Onassis, who bought up control of the failing Monegasque bank and encouraged Prince Rainier III to marry an American actress to bring star power to shine on the Principality. The more famous, the better. “The right bride could do for Monaco’s tourism what the coronation of Queen Elizabeth did for Great Britain,” Rainier was told by Onassis, a partner in the syndicate that owned a casino in Monaco.
Had history gone a different way, Rainier might have romantically pursued another famous Hollywood blonde: Marilyn Monroe. According to Vogue, Rainier’s friend (and future second husband of Jacqueline Kennedy) Aristotle Onassis suggested the playboy prince pursue Monroe. While Monroe reportedly had no interest in the prince romantically, Vogue implies she might have still pursued the relationship for the status it would have afforded her.
And so it was that screen goddess Grace Kelly met with the Prince at the palace during the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, posing for photos in a carefully contrived ‘meet-cute’ in front of a lion cage in the palace grounds (see all the photos here). They married in 1956, with the $2 million dowry demanded from Grace’s family indicating that money was still rather tight for the Royal Family of Monaco. When Kelly and Rainier married, Monroe sent Kelly a telegram that read, “I’m SO happy you found a way out of this business.”, probably happy to have less competition for acting roles.
Grace Kelly broke off her engagement to fashion designer Oleg Cassini to marry Prince Rainier. Before Cassini was a couturier to Jacqueline Kennedy, he made a name for himself by styling Kelly. “I created the Grace Kelly look,” he wrote in his biography. “She dressed like a schoolteacher. I put her in elegant, subdued dresses.” Creating Kelly’s enduring style, however, wasn’t enough to win over Kelly’s parents. “Do you realize if my mother hadn’t been so difficult about Oleg Cassini, I probably would have married him?” she later said. “How many wonderful roles I might have played by now? How might my life had turned out? That one decision [to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956] changed my entire future.”
Grace Kelly’s wedding to Prince Rainier involved two ceremonies: one civil and one religious. The former included a reception attended by approximately 3,000 citizens of Monaco and the latter, a 700-person guest list that included Conrad Hilton, Cary Grant, and Ava Gardner. As one Boston Globe writer cleverly observed at the time: “Never have so many women brought so much luggage to such a small country for so few days.” The same could be said for the bride-to-be, who sailed to Monaco from New York for the occasion with 80 pieces of luggage and her beloved poodle, Oliver, in tow. When she arrived, 1,800 photographers and reporters were waiting at the port to capture Kelly exiting the ship and, naturally, falling into her prince’s arms.
The glamorous marriage succeeded in reinvigorating Monaco’s fortunes as intended. Sadly, Princess Grace was killed in a car crash in 1982, driving on the same high, beautiful Corniche road along the coast that she traveled with Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s ‘To Catch a Thief’, back when she was the most famous actress in the world.
As for the scheming Onassis? He and the Prince came into conflict over the future of Monaco, and after the Prince wrested back control of the bank from Onassis, Onassis cruised away from Port Hercules on his yacht, Christina O: the superyacht that set the tone for all yachts that were to follow.
Since that time, many celebrities of sport and industry chose Monaco as their home base. Perhaps none so well-known as the internationally recognized Karl Lagerfeld, who longed for peace and tranquility, and it showed in the place he chose to call home. A true Monaco lover, he fell for the beauty of La Vigie, one of the most beautiful and prestigious villas on the Côte d’Azur, well-known for its unique architecture. The house served as his residence for over ten years, allowing him to offer perfect privacy to the illustrious friends he wished to entertain.
Learn more about the history of Monaco’s royal family.
Cap Ferrat: The Butcher of Congo & The Lizard of Oz
The Queen may have given the Cote d’Azur her royal seal of approval, but it was her cousin, King Leopold of Belgium, who began the transformation of the coast in the late 19th century when he began buying up grazing land on Cap Ferrat to build huge villas. A regular visitor of the French Riviera, he acquired the Villa des Cédres in St. Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Villa Leopolda in Villefranche-Sur-Mer.
Unlike his moralistic cousin, King Leopold was a cruel and immoral man, famous for his reign of terror over Congo during which between 3 and 15 million people died, thus earning him the name ‘The Butcher of Congo’. Leopold’s behavior in Cap Ferrat was also fairly scandalous with a secret relationship with a 16 year old girl who he kept trapped in a villa on Cap Ferrat and married only two days before his death.
Yet he did transform Cap Ferrat into a place of stunning villas and exotic gardens, and his yacht Clementine was the first of so very many to anchor off this stunning emerald headland dropping away into the blue-green sea. Leopold turned Cap Ferrat into a wealthy playground, leading the Rothschilds (who built the fabulous Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild) and the great families of Europe to follow.
The writer Somerset Maugham was another notable fellow to take up residence on Cap Ferrat, inviting Picasso, Kipling, Churchill, T.S Eliot, Ian Fleming, and many more to visit him for grand villa parties in the gardens and sunny days by the pool. It’s hard to know why they accepted, given that Maugham was notorious for writing rather nasty, thinly veiled descriptions of his friends and acquaintances in his books. But come, they did — although not all guests were fans, with Noel Coward calling him ‘The Lizard of Oz’, and Virginia Woolf likening him to ‘a dead man’.
Cap d’Antibes: Glittering Parties and Madness under the Pines
Antibes is most famous for Picasso, who lived and worked in the Grimaldi tower which now houses the Picasso museum. But in truth, the celebrity history of Antibes goes much, much deeper than that, for it was on the Cap d’Antibes in the 1920s that the French Riviera became the summertime destination we know today.
Normally, high society deserted the French Riviera in the hot summer months, with grand hotels like the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc shuttering their doors from May to September. That is, until the Murphy’s, a wealthy socialite couple from New York, convinced the proprietor of Eden-Roc to stay open through one summer, beginning a trend which would forever change the way the wealthy enjoyed the Riviera. They renovated a small chalet nearby, naming it Villa America, and cleared the pretty Plage de la Garoupe of seaweed, fishing line and rocks. They then invited Picasso, Hemingway and an ultra-fashionable crowd for summers of sunbathing and swimming, picnics on the Cannes Islands, and glittering parties under the pines.
Some of the Murphy’s most illustrious guests were F.Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, and F.Scott Fitzgerald wrote Tender is the Night based on his time on Cap Ferrat: an amalgam of the sensuous and beautiful life of the Murphys on the Riviera and the spiraling marriage problems of the hard-drinking Scott and his schizophrenic wife, Zelda. In 1925, he wrote The Great Gatsby, his most famous novel, after staying in St. Raphael on the French Riviera. His wife Zelda Fitzgerald and he were regular clients of the Monte-Carlo Casino and several hotels and villas in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Cannes, Nice and Juan-les-Pins, where he began his final novel, Tender is the Night.
It would not end well for the four of them in real life, with the Murphy’s losing two of their teenage sons to illness and most of their money, Scott losing his sobriety and writing brilliance, and Zelda losing her sanity and eventually dying in a sanatorium fire. But for a while, life was magical on the Cap d’Antibes, as they dined and drank in the garden, lazed about on the beach, and sailed along the coast in the Murphy’s 100 foot schooner, Weatherbird.
Fitzgerald was far from the only writer to fall for Antibes’ many charms, with Jules Verne, the ‘father of science fiction’ anchoring his yacht Le Saint Michel II off the Cap d’Antibes and renting the Villa Les Chenes to work on Around the World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and A Voyage to the Moon. Graham Greene, ex MI5 spy and author of The Quiet American and The End of the Affair would spend 24 years in Antibes after fleeing Britain for tax fraud in 1956.
Currently, Russian dictator Putin is accused of meddling in elections, and a French probe lead to a raid on his sumptuous villa in Cap d’Antibes, which shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the outrageously rich oligarchs who make the South of France their home.
Saint Tropez: the sex siren
In 1956, a young, relatively unknown sex siren called Brigitte Bardot cavorted on Pampelonne Beach in a skimpy bikini while filming And God Created Women—the story of an astonishingly beautiful 18 year old orphan who seduces the men of the village. Saint Tropez and Brigitte Bardot would be forever changed by the movie, which catapulted both the town and actress to global stardom.
Of course, Bardot was not the first to notice Saint Tropez’s extraordinary charms; great artists like Signac and Matisse had fallen in love with the sleepy, pastel painted fishing village many years before, capturing its extraordinary light and pretty harbor in their masterpieces. Yet Bardot was the one who gave the village its name as a glamorous, libertine destination of celebrity parties, topless sunbathing, and long, champagne-spraying days by the sea.
She is also responsible for the birth of the most famous beach club of them all, Club 55, when, during filming, her director husband Vadim mistook a beach shack for a café and sent Bardot over to buy some food for the film crew. The husband and wife who owned the shack kindly agreed to cook them some food, and so Club 55 was born.
Sadly, Brigitte Bardot has had a tumultuous personal life of failed marriages, depression, and suicide attempts. She hated the limelight and after being nearly mobbed by fans while shopping in a St Tropez boutique, she retreated to the La Madrague villa she had bought in 1958 and became a relative recluse, only coming out to speak for animal rights and against immigration.
Bardot is rarely spotted in Saint Tropez these days, but many celebrities have taken her place, enjoying wild, champagne spraying parties and sunbathing on the beach where a young Brigitte Bardot once posed for the cameras and changed the Riviera forever.
The French Riviera has a magic about it, as if all those glittering parties and illicit nights have somehow soaked into the very air of the place. Soak up this storied, magnificent coastline —from Queen Victoria’s Menton to Grace Kelly’s Monaco, and from the Murphy’s Cap d’Antibes down to Bardot’s St Tropez— through Iconic Riviera’s guides.