The Debaucherous Stories Behind the Rolling Stones’ Villa Rental
Nellcôte is one of the most stunning properties along the Côte D’Azur, built in the 1890s with an imposing façade complete with marble Ionic columns, Keith Richards said it was decorated for “bloody Marie Antoinette”.
The honorable banker Eugène Thomas did not imagine, when he built in 1899 the château Amicitia, in Villefranche-sur-Mer, that his palace would go down in history as a temple of rock’n’roll. The villa was renamed Nellcote after being purchased in 1919 by the Bordes family, shipowners specialized in the transport of nitrates between France and Chile.
The British government was threatening to confiscate the bands’ funds if they did not leave the country by April 5th of that year as part of the Labour government’s punitive 93% tax on high earners. The Rolling Stones were tax exiles from England and, in 1971, shacked up at Villa Nellcôte , a 16-room mansion of the Belle Epoque that had previously been occupied by the local Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of France in the 1940s.
Before the Stones moved in, the house’s history is a little murky following World War II when the Nazi Gestapo used it as their headquarters in the early 1940s. Allegedly unoccupied for decades, the floor vents in the basement where the Stones recorded were still decorated with swastikas.
Dominique Tarlé remembers, “I found a box down there with a big swastika on it, full of injection phials. They all contained morphine. It was very old, of course, and our first reaction was, ‘If Keith had found this box...’ So one night we carried it to the end of the garden, and threw it into the sea.”
When Jagger married Nicaraguan model Bianca at a small whitewashed hillside chapel in St. Tropez, Keith Richards reportedly showed up to the groom’s dressing room in full Nazi SS uniform. The story doesn’t specify whether he discovered the uniform at Nellcôte, but Richards was apparently highly intrigued by the mansion’s sinister history and agreed to rent the house because of it.
Richard’s partner, actress and model Anita Pallenberg soon joined her famous rockstar with the couple’s son. She was fresh out of rehab. To fuel the couple’s heroin habit, Keith set up a supply chain with the Corsican mafia based out of nearby Marseille. His dealers were nicknamed ‘les cowboys’ and often hung out at the villa, inviting suspicion from the French police.
The scene in the villa was pure debauchery. Upstairs, a beautiful entourage socialized, often illicitly. John Lennon is said to have partied with the band at Villa Nellcôte and Mick Jagger is rumored to have bedded Anita there, reigniting his alleged affair in 1968 with Keith’s longtime partner, which Keith himself later confirmed in a biography.
Darker accusations from American journalist Robert Greenfield, who briefly spent some time at Nellcôte and wrote an entire book about the band’s album, claim that Anita once encouraged an employee’s young daughter to inject heroin for the first time.
In Nellcôte’s many-roomed basement, the Rolling Stones recorded material for what became their most storied album. “It’s got a raw sound quality, and the reason for that is that the basement was very dingy and very damp,” says Mick Taylor, Stones lead guitarist for the five years between 1969 and 1974. “The roof leaked and there were power failures. We had to deal with all that, and go with the flow.”
The flow to which Taylor refers was the fragrant drifting in and out of some of the era’s most interesting characters. Musicians like Bobby Keys, the sax player who taught Keith Richards the pleasures of throwing furniture out of windows. Drug dealers like Tommy Weber, who arrived with his children, and a plentiful supply of cocaine. Glamorous friends like Stash Klossowski, son of the painter Balthus. There were record execs, family members, groupies, wasters and journalists.
With Richards’ ever-present entourage of hanger-ons and drug dealers, nearly half of the furniture was missing from the house by the time their stay was over. According to Stones researcher, Jack Vanderwyk, “Villa Nellcôte was such an open house that, one day in September 1971, burglars walked out of the front gate with nine of Richards’s guitars, Bobby Keys’s saxophone and Bill Wyman’s bass in broad daylight while the occupants were watching television in the living room. The crime was reputedly carried out by dealers from Marseille who were owed money by Richards.”
“People appeared, disappeared, no one had a last name, you didn’t know who anybody was,” remembers Robert Greenfield, who was at Nellcôte to interview Keith Richards for Rolling Stone. “There were 16 people for lunch, and lunch went on for three-and-a-half hours. It was an unparalleled cast of characters.”
For all the relaxed atmosphere at Nellcôte, it was, however, pragmatic business practice that had taken the Stones to the south of France. They were musicians, and major celebrities, but if they stayed in the UK, they would have to pay 93% income tax. The band’s financial advisor, Prince Rupert Lowenstein, came up with an ingenious solution. After playing a short “farewell tour” in England, in April 1971, The Rolling Stones went into tax exile in France. At Keith’s residence, they parked their new acquisition, a £65,000 mobile recording studio, and set, erratically, to work.
“It was an impressive house,” remembers Andy Johns, who engineered and mixed Exile. “Somewhat baroque. The heating vents on the floor were gold swastikas. Keith told me that it had been a Gestapo headquarters in the war. But he told me, ‘It’s OK. We’re here now.'”
“There was a friction at that time,” says Marshall Chess, who ran the Stones’ own record label. “Mick didn’t like Exile; it was being made in Keith’s domain. And then there was the drug issue, which I was somewhat naive about. But I could see the effects.” Meanwhile, the friendship between Keith and another Nellcôte guest, singer-songwriter Gram Parsons, wasn’t helping the band’s productivity.
“Nobody really went upstairs. I remember being at the bottom of the stairs once with Mick Jagger and Jimmy Miller, and we wanted Keith. I said to Mick, ‘It’s a band thing, why don’t you go and get him?’ He said, ‘I’m not going up there …'”
“Keith invited us down,” remembers Gretchen Carpenter, then married to Parsons. “Keith and Gram were two peas in a pod. They were best friends, exploring music. They were instantaneous friends, and instantaneous troublemakers.”
While the band continued their intermittent recording, the days at Nellcôte passed in a slow, dazed enchantment. To pass the time, Andy Johns and horn player Jim Price set up a casino in their own villa. A guy lived on the front lawn, in a tepee. “There wasn’t really any pattern, that wasn’t the way they rolled,” says Gretchen Carpenter. “If the kids wouldn’t sleep, we’d take them out in a speedboat ride to Monte Carlo. We’d have cocktails, and the kids would fall asleep on the way. It was the most perfect summer, but everything seemed to go wrong after that.”
‘If the kids wouldn’t sleep, we’d take them out in a speedboat ride to Monte Carlo. We’d have cocktails, and the kids would fall asleep on the way.’
Producer Jimmy Miller began getting more involved in the heavy drug use among the musicians. Ultimately, there was a drugs bust, which precipitated the Stones’ rapid departure for America in October, where they worked to make sense of the Nellcôte tapes, and, says Marshall Chess, “Mick took control”. The deserted mansion, and the beautiful people who had temporarily resided there, meanwhile, were left to take their place in rock legend.
“Sometimes turmoil and trouble in art make it come out good,” says Marshall Chess. “Toulouse-Lautrec drank absinthe. Great jazz musicians shot heroin. It made for a strange scene, but that coloration, that quality is there in Exile.”
In 1973, Richards and his partner Anita were both charged, by the French police, with possession of heroin and intent to traffic following a police raid on Nellcôte. Keith was banned from entering France for two years, which meant no touring there for the band either.
Today, one of the most famous villas in Villfranche-sur-Mer remains cloaked in mystery. In 2006, Villa Nellcôte was bought by a wealthy Russian for €100 million. The new owner is not particularly welcoming to Rolling Stones fans, and the house is heavily guarded. While he was making Stones In Exile, director Stephen Kijak asked to visit Nellcôte, but the current owners declined to let their property be filmed. In a way, it’s a fitting end to this chapter in the Exile On Main St story. Everyone has their own take on what might be going on inside. The truth, though, is behind closed doors.