Villa America, Glitterati & the Birth of Summers on the Riviera

    The French Riviera was “discovered” in the 1800s by the European nobility who spent their winters here, but it was in the 1920s that the French Riviera became the summertime destination we know today. If you visit the French Riviera in July or August, you might have trouble finding an open space on the beach to put your towel. It’s hard to imagine that up until the 1920s there were no summer tourists here, no hotels were open, and no one swimming in the sea.

    Normally, high society deserted the French Riviera in the hot summer months, with all the grand hotels shuttering their doors from May to September. That is, until the Murphys, a wealthy and trendsetting socialite couple from New York single-handedly changed that. They began a trend which would forever change the way the wealthy enjoyed the Riviera.

    Villa America, Glitterati & the Birth of Summers on the Riviera - Hotel du Cap Eden Roc swimming pool 1
    Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, NOW
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    Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in 1930

    Though they met when they were adolescents, Irish-American couple Sara (32) and Gerald Murphy (27) tied the knot in New York in 1915. Both had been born into fabulously rich families — Gerald’s father the proprietor of a luxury leathergoods firm, Sara’s an ink manufacturing millionaire. With no need to earn a living, the Murphys were at liberty to pursue their passions (art and alcohol being key among these). And so, the young couple fled prohibition, family pressures, bigotry and the conservative atmosphere in the USA for the creative freedom and uninhibited intoxication of Paris, where they soon fell in with the leading artistic, literary and intellectual figures of the time.

    In 1923, when the Murphys (along with their three children and pet monkey) arrived on the French Riviera, lying on the beach merely to enjoy the sun was not a common activity. Neither heat nor tanning were fashionable then. From June, the Mediterranean coast was emptied of its posh clientele who migrated to the Normandy beaches.

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    Gerald (left) and Sara (right) Murphy with friends

    The Murphys were amazed by this and persuaded the owner of Hôtel du Cap (now the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc) on Cap d’Antibes to keep a few rooms open through the summer. Their pal from Paris, Pablo Picasso, joined them, along with his family. Gertrude Stein followed, as did American writer John Dos Passos. He mentioned this unprecedented craze for the Côte d’Azur in a book, fittingly titled The Beautiful Life: “The French, and the wealthy British, who frequented the Riviera in winter would have died rather than being seen there in summer. The place seemed too hot to them, but to us Americans, the temperature seemed perfect to us, the delicious baths, and Antibes was the little virgin provincial port that we had dreamed of discovering. The cult of the sun was just beginning.

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    Gerald and Picasso in Antibes, 1923
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    Picasso, 1923

    Their sunny charm, elegant good looks, and trend-setting brilliance made them Beautiful People before the term was coined.

    It was a fabulous summer, spent swimming in the crystal clear waters bordering the still wild beaches, in an atmosphere of hedonistic idleness. The Murphys, with their long forays and picnics at La Garoupe, introduced sunbathing on the beach as a fashionable activity. They invited an ultra-fashionable crowd for summers of sunbathing and swimming, picnics and bathing costume competitions, where everyone appears in extravagant clothes, and glittering parties under the pines.

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    the murphys

    Word spread, a trend sparked, and summering on the Riviera became the thing to do for Lost Generation tastemakers. That summer, a fashionable young stylist named Coco Chanel displayed a tan for the first time, challenging the norms of the time. It was scandalous, but it seduced.

    From that first summer in Antibes, Sara and Gerald decided to make the French Riviera their new home. They bought a villa, nestled in the lush greenery just below the Antibes lighthouse. It had a magnificent garden but the house required two years of renovation. Always trendsetters, Gerald and Sara added features to their home that were unheard of at the time, such as a flat roof that could be used as a terrace. The interior was very modern with black floors, white walls, mirrors and stainless steel. They moved in with their three children in the summer of 1924 and called their new home Villa America .

    It was the “Villa Diana” of Fitzgerald’s novel: “There were small lanterns hung on the fig trees, an immense table, wicker chairs, and a large parasol such as one sees in the market, all grouped around of an enormous pine, the most impressive tree in the garden.” The sumptuous Villa America, became the place where a whole ‘lost generation’ of artists could congregate to turn life into art. With many of the crew (Gerald Murphy and his old Yale chum Cole Porter among them) being rather ‘sexually fluid’ shall we say, all manner of liaisons, drugs, drinking and debauchery ensued. Along, no doubt, with some seriously stimulating conversation.

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    one of Picasso’s portraits of sara murphy

    They partied with close friends: painters Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger, American writers in exile such as John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway, but also French authors Jean Cocteau and Raymond Radiguet, composer Igor Stravinsky and ballet impresario Serge de Diaghilev. Some, like Picasso and Fitzgerald, followed in the Murphys footsteps and took up residence in the South of France. Others from the Paris art scene started spending summer holidays on the Riviera. Hotels began to stay open in summer to accommodate these guests and beaches were cleared of seaweed and filled with sunbathers.

    Gerald took up painting and had a brief-but-successful career as an artist, painting 14 canvases in his life, of which 8 still exist. He and Sara took lessons and while Sara eventually quit, Gerald became a somewhat admired painter. Even though his career was short, he produced some impressive works.

    The Murphys were close with of the hard-drinking F.Scott Fitzgerald and his schizophrenic wife, Zelda, and introduced them to the French Riviera.

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    Sara Murphy with Coco Chanel

    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 and his own spiraling marriage problems. Like the main character, Nicole Diver, Sara Murphy used to read lying on the beach, her long pearl necklace draping down her back. Like Dick Diver, Gerald had “a delicately red complexion tanned by the great outdoors, “intense blue eyes”, and “no one resisted their exquisite politeness for a long time”. In the novel, when asked if they like the French Riviera, a friend steps in and responds: “Can’t help it: they invented it.”

    In 1925, F.Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, his most famous novel, after staying in St. Raphael. 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.

    During the five summers that the Fitzgeralds spend alongside the Murphys, most often renting a neighboring villa, their escapades cause a sensation. Zelda threw herself from the top of a staircase during a dinner in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, furious after seeing Scott monopolized by the dancer Isadora Duncan. Another evening, the two fell asleep after returning from a party, on a railway track in their Renault, before being saved by a villager just before the train arrived. They were banned (for 3 weeks) from Villa America, for throwing a fig down the neckline of a countess during a dinner at the Murphys, during which, after breaking a few glasses, he and Zelda, totally drunk once again, crawled into the vegetable garden before throwing tomatoes at the guests.

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    The Murphys and their glamorous friends, having a picnic party on the beach in Antibes

    The Murphys and their amazing social life never fail to fascinate, and their wonderfully glamorous –and, finally, tragic– chronicle is catnip to writers. Their lifestyle of dining (and drinking!) in the garden, lazing about on the beach in costume, and sailing along the coast in their 100-foot sailboat, were portrayed in literature, art, and theater, including:

    • Pablo Picasso, a friend of Sara, painted her in several of his 1923 works:
      • Femme assise les bras croisés
      • Portrait de Sarah Murphy
      • Buste de Femme (Sara Murphy)
      • Femme assise en bleu et rose
      • Woman Seated in an Armchair
    • Nicole and Dick Diver of Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald are widely recognized as having been based on the Murphys. The book was dedicated to them (“For Gerald and Sara, so many parties…”), and although the characters were described as being physically similar to the Murphys, many of their friends saw as much or more of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald’s relationship and personalities in the couple than those of the Murphys. (The novel, which displeased the Murphys, created tensions between them and the writer, though they continued to support Fitzgerald through his years of depression, alcoholism and decline. Hemingway even wrote a grumpy letter to Fitzgerald criticizing his depiction of the Murphys in Tender Is the Night. “I liked it and I didn’t like it,” the letter starts out).
    • Ernest Hemingway, another friend to whom they were always enormously generous (both personally and financially), later savaged them in A Moveable Feast, his bitter memoir of his early Paris days. Hemingway’s couple in The Garden of Eden is not explicitly based on this pair, but given the similarities of the setting (Nice) and of the type of social group portrayed, there is clearly some basis for such an assumption.
    • Art critic Calvin Tomkins initially rescued the couple from obscurity in his 1962 New Yorker magazine profile and then in his 1971 book, Living Well Is the Best Revenge.
    • Amanda Vaill documented the Murphys lives in the 1995 book Everybody Was So Young and then, in 1988, They Were So Young, her celebrated double biographies.
    • In 1982, the Murphys’ daughter (and only surviving child) released Sara & Gerald: Villa America and After. Honoria’s childhood was the stuff of grown-up fantasy: “Ernest Hemingway taught her to ski and to clean fish — and not to wear high heels while bowling. Dorothy Parker showed her how to tipple tequila and lime. Picasso provided art criticism, Cole Porter added the music, and F. Scott Fitzgerald the magic.’ She was the only daughter of Sara and Gerald Murphy, the golden American who, between the wars, created the emigre artists’ paradise in the south of France.” The book is from the perspective of their daughter, Honoria Murphy, but apparently written largely by Richard N. Billings.
    • In 2007, a play by Crispin Whittell titled Villa America, premiered. It was based entirely on Sara and Gerald Murphy and their relationships with Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.
    • Many other books, including Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy by Deborah Rothschild.

    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 Days20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and A Voyage to the Moon. Graham Greene, author of The Quiet American and The End of the Affair (and ex-MI5 spy!) would spend 24 years in Antibes after fleeing Britain for tax fraud in 1956. And many other authors followed them, hoping for –and finding– inspiration.

    Despite their seemingly-carefree life on the French Riviera, it did not end well for the Murphys. In the end, it turned out that the Murphys lost both of their teenage sons (before their 16th birthday) to disease, and most of their money in the stock market crash of the Great Depression. Gerald was either bisexual or gay, but closeted, and that combined with the loss of their sons lead to depression and the end of his art career.

    But, for a while, life was magical on the Cap d’Antibes...

    Villa America update: Russians bought Villa America, and hired muscular security staff, who were known to be rather threatening to onlookers, along with several large guard dogs. Unfortunately there is now a massive metal door at the beginning of the driveway and a very tall hedge/fence so it is really only possible to see the white rooftop of Villa America.

    The Castle Garoupe, where Cole Porter welcomed the Murphys for the first time, is also now owned by a Russian oligarch (Boris Berezovsky). Learn more about Russians and their French Riviera real estate.

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