Americans and the Making of the Riviera by Michael Nelson

Patrick Middleton has been reading a new book about Americans on the Coast

book coverMichael Nelson made his debut in the field of what could be called Anglo-Riviera history with his book Queen Victoria and the Discovery of the Riviera. Some time after that work appeared he was walking through Juan-les-Pins when he noticed he was on Place Sidney Bechet. A quick check showed there were quite a few other US-inspired names in local towns, commemorating figures as diverse as Thomas Edison and J.F. Kennedy. That sent him off on a study of the American presence in the area which has led to his latest book Americans and the Making of the Riviera (US/UK: McFarland & Co). Nelson has had his head in a lot of books (and his walking boots on) and offers a fascinating account of this aspect of the Riviera's past.

"Artists, writers and loadsamoneys"

He begins with the perhaps surprising information that Thomas Jefferson came here 221 years ago and wrote enthusiastically about Nice's vin de Bellet. That American visitors and residents (the latter are his main concern) were relatively few for much of the nineteenth century was due to the length and, for some, the cost of the voyage under sail. It could last as long as three weeks; with steam power this was soon cut to six days. Across the final decades of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, the Riviera was a favourite destination of a roll call of American artists, writers and loadsamoneys (in some cases - as with Gerald Murphy - wealth and artistic gift, were conjoined). The book's cast list runs from Louisa M. Alcott - who lived for six months on Nice's rue Gioffredo - to Gertrude Stein, from Mark Twain to James Baldwin. Certain couples - in most cases, with the exception of the Scott Fitzgeralds, unfamiliar to the general reader - get a lot of attention, notably the Murphys, the Clewses and the Goulds; the extraordinary press baron James Gordon Bennett gets well merited coverage.

What was the attraction of the area? Climate, of course, and also its cultural associations - Picasso's presence excited some. Also it was far enough away for expats to shed their all-American morality. Until the 1950s to enjoy an openly permissive society you had to export yourself. As Florence Gould recalled of the Riviera in the 1930s, "Everyone slept with everyone else ... it was amusing, it was practical." It wasn't quite like that in the Hamptons or Miami Beach. A major point Nelson stresses is that from the beginning of the Twenties Americans increasingly came in the summer. In earlier days people wintered here and left in May. Some notable figures offered a demonstration effect which helped change this: the Cole Porters spent the summer of 1921 on the Coast and in 1923 Gerald Murphy persuaded the Hôtel du Cap to stay open across the hot months. Within a few years summer vacations on the Riviera were the norm. The transatlantic migrants were usually made very welcome, and in numerous cases were generous to local communities. Henry Clews poured money into Juan-les-Pins; Gordon Bennett, long a resident of Beaulieu, got the telephone service extended to the town in 1891 and, though a Roman Catholic, contributed to the cost of what is now Canon Greenacre's attractive little Anglican church.

This is a plumcake of a book, full of tasty morsels. When Alfred Hitchcock visited the Victorine Studios in Nice in the Thirties Yaley Rex Ingram (born Reginald Hitchcock) who then ran the place warned him that with such a family name "he would never get anywhere". On a more serious note, I've always regarded Prince Louis II of Monaco as a slimeball for his shameless schmoozing of Hitler when he thought the Nazis would win the war; I learned from Nelson that in 1945, worried (with reason) about de Gaulle's hostility, he vainly "requested the US to annex Monaco as an American territory"! Finally, Nelson offers few nits to pick though I'm pretty sure that Henry Clews dropped out of Amherst, not Amhurst, and it's not true that "the Anglo-American School in Mougins later moved to Sophia Antipolis". It's still in Mougins.

The book comes with a visitors guide describing where to follow in the footsteps of "the Americans who invented the Riviera as we know it today". See also www.michaelnelsonbooks.com


From Riviera Reporter Issue 126: April/May 2008
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