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.

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    Grace Kelly and Cary Grant overlooking Monaco

    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 French Riviera is the epicenter of the world’s celebrity vacation scene.

    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.

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    beyonce and jay-z frequently visit the french riviera

    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.

    The Lord Who Put Cannes on the Map

    In the winter of 1834, a six-horse carriage arrived in Cannes. On board: the impressive and world-famous Grand Chancellor Henry Brougham, and his sick daughter Eléonore-Louise. They were heading to Italy where they hoped to cure her respiratory ailments (at the time, they didn’t know what the cause of ‘consumption’ was: tuberculosis). But the carriage was forced to stop, and Brougham was warned that they would not be able to enter Italy. An outbreak of cholera meant his route was blocked and he had to wait in Cannes for the quarantine order to be lifted.

    Incredible Stories Behind the Celebrities That Made the Riviera - Cannes history Henry Brougham
    Henry Brougham, 1825

    They rented a room in the ‘Auberge Pinchinat’ — the only inn in town. Situated on the apex of the bay, looking out to the Îles de Lérins, sheltered by high ground to the west, north and south, Cannes was then a fishing-village called Le Suquet, with no more than three hundred inhabitants and two streets of very humble Provençal houses.

    In the days that followed, Brougham fell in love with this small port at the foot of the Suquet tower. He toured the area, and the red rock of the Esterel captivated his heart. He was hooked. “In this enchanted atmosphere, it is a delight for me who loves dreams, to forget for a few moments the ugliness and miseries of life”, he wrote to a friend who remained in London. One day, two days, and then more… While discovering the surroundings, Brougham imagined the life he and his daughter could have if they settled there. 

    Then, in a phenomenon that repeated itself to the extent that it became a critical factor in the development of the coast, Lord Brougham himself became an attraction. Brougham was one of the most well-known –and fascinating– celebrities of the time, and it wasn’t long before other intellectuals started visiting him on the French Riviera.

    His enthusiasm for Cannes and its mild winters attracted the wealthy and powerful from across Europe. They, too, built spacious villas. His patronage of the town made it the talk of Europe; royalty and aristocrats from Queen Victoria to the Tsar of Russia made a point of holidaying there, and the town took full advantage of its newfound fame. As this word-of-mouth marketing spread, hotels were built. Gradually, the fishing village passed into history, and the glamorous Cannes as we know it was born.

    Here’s the full story of who Lord Brougham was and how he influenced the development of Cannes.

    A Widow Queen, a Prime Minister & Coco Chanel

    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 began, 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.

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    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. Villa La Pausa was frequented by so many elites that their stays often coincided, resulting in gossip and anecdotes that spread worldwide. Famous guests included the Prince of Monaco and Grace Kelly, the Dukes of Windsor, Coco Chanel, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Wendy Russell, and Somerset Maugham, among (many) others.

    Learn more about the history of the Queen’s time on the French Riviera and how it led to the area becoming an international tourism destination.

    Cap Ferrat’s ‘Butcher’ & 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 land and villas on Cap Ferrat. A regular visitor of the French Riviera, he acquired the Villa les Cédres in Cap Ferrat and Villa La Leopolda in Villefranche-Sur-Mer, among others.

    Unlike his moralistic cousin, King Leopold II was a cruel and immoral man, famous for his reign of terror over Congo during which he earned 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 prostitute who he kept trapped in a villa on Cap Ferrat and married only five days before his death.

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    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.

    Here’s the full story about King Leopold, his mistress, and their villas.

    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’.

    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.

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    They renovated a villa 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.

    Their friend, F.Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night is an amalgam of the sensuous and beautiful life of the Murphys on the Riviera and his own spiraling marriage problems. 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 rental villas in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Cannes, Nice and Juan-les-Pins.

    It would not end well for the four of them in real life, with the Murphy’s losing two of their teenage sons 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 traversed the coast in their 100-foot sailboat.

    Here’s the full story about the Murphys, the Fitzgeralds, and the birth of summers and sunbathing on the French Riviera.

    Monaco’s Prince his Screen Goddess

    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.)

    That all began to change when screen goddess Grace Kelly met with the Prince at the palace during the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, and married in 1956. 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.

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    RANIER III AND GRACE KELLY yachting in monaco

    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, and the true story behind Grace Kelly and the Prince’s marriage.

    St. Tropez & The Teen 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.

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    BRIGITTE BARDOT Often tanned topless in St Tropez

    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.

    Learn about Brigitte Bardot and the scandal that made St Tropez famous.

    There are many more stories about celebrities spending time on the French Riviera, and each promoted the region through their presence and the resulting press coverage.

    In the 1970’s, The Rolling Stones rented a villa in Villefranche-sur-Mer, and brought with them a constant flow of celebrities and musicians, including stars like John Lennon. Here’s the full, scandalous story that includes Nazi’s, copious amounts of drugs, and theft, and an arrest.

    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. Discover 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.

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