Books: The Riviera Set 1920-1960: The Golden Years of Glamour and Excess by Mary S Lovell

The chic Côte d’Azur villa where the rich and famous went to misbehave

In 1927, the song everyone was dancing to began: “I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.” The Prince of Wales in question was, of course, the future Edward VIII, the man who went on to give up his country for the woman he loved, Wallis Simpson.

The subject of Mary S Lovell’s entertaining The Riviera Set is the Chateau de l’Horizon, a house on a rocky promontory between Cannes and Juan-les-Pins, which occupies a similarly tangential relationship to royal romance as the girl in the song. The white art deco house, built in 1932 by Barry Dierks for Maxine Elliott, an American showgirl turned Edwardian grande dame and possible royal mistress, was the backdrop to some of the most delicious nuggets of society gossip for 40 odd years. It was a house where Winston Churchill might have been seduced by Doris Castlerosse, where his daughter-in-law Pamela first found herself strangely attracted to the Italian multimillionaire Gianni Agnelli, and where Rita Hayworth was definitely seduced by Prince Aly Khan.

The Côte d’Azur at the turn of the 20th century was where Russian aristocrats spent the winter. But after the First World War, when Coco Chanel stepped off the yacht of her lover the Duke of Westminster, sporting a tan, the South of France became a summer destination, a change famously documented in F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender is the Night, which drew on his time staying with Gerald and Sara Murphy, the American expatriates whose bohemian beach parties became a famous part of the Riviera scene.

Maxine had left her thespian American past behind her, thanks to some shrewd investments, and, after the death of her lover in the First World War, she resolved to give up trying to host the perfect English country-house weekend and decided to lure her friends to stay in the South of France instead. She supervised every detail of the chateau she was building, down to a special chute that let her to slide from the terrace into the swimming pool. She usually had 10 people staying at a time, and her friends ranged from the well-born, such as Churchill and Alice Keppel (the mistress of Edward VII and the great-grandmother of the present Duchesss of Cornwall), to the self-made, such as the former chorus girl Doris Castlerosse.

Churchill usually came without his wife, Clementine (she disapproved of the Riviera set), and was pampered by Maxine. He liked to paint when he was there, and on one trip did three portraits of Castlerosse. It was said she once climbed into his bed; afterwards, Churchill told her: “Doris, you could make a saint come!”

It is a good story, even if, as Lovell points out, there is no proof; but the Riviera was clearly a place where the usual rules did not apply. After the 1936 abdication, the Windsors were invited to dinner with Churchill and Lloyd George of all people. There was much debate about whether to curtsey to the new duchess. (Maxine decided she would as it was a private event.) One of the guests, a socialist nephew of Maxine, recorded the table talk in amazement. The Duke of Windsor had seen some coal mines in Hitler’s Germany and thought they were better than the English ones because they had pithead showers. This led to a discussion of the relative living conditions of miners in both countries. “The duchess,” the nephew noted, “seemed at the uttermost remove from the pithead of a mine… In the exquisite little room, gleaming with glass and silver over the flowers and champagne, all so enclosed and private and secure … what did they have to talk about but the dirt on a miner’s neck?”

It is an evening that sums up the strangeness of the period immediately before the Second World War — a former prime minister, a disgraced royal and a man who would save his country a few years later, all discussing working-class hygiene over lobster thermidor under a Mediterranean moon.

Maxine died shortly afterwards, and the villa lay empty during the war, and was bought in 1948 by Aly Khan, the playboy son of the Aga Khan, the leader of the Ismaili Muslims. Prince Aly, who had personally liberated the famous Carlton hotel in Cannes at the end of the Second World War, had stayed at the chateau before the war and decided to restore it after the depredations of the conflict (the Germans had left landmines in the garden).

The Riviera was a very different place in the postwar era. One American journalist wrote: “The most striking thing is the virtual extinction on this coast of the once-swarming British peer — a phenomenon so startling in scope as to recall the famous disappearance of the passenger pigeon.” The English aristocracy was replaced by the Hollywood elite: Hayworth stayed there after her divorce from Orson Welles, and met Prince Aly. He was a famous womaniser, she was the smouldering redheaded star of the film Gilda who was famed for her beauty but really wanted a simple life. Smitten, Prince Aly discarded Pamela Churchill, with whom he had been having a fling (she didn’t mind as she had her sights on Agnelli), and laid siege to Hayworth.

Their marriage in 1949 at the chateau was the most lavish wedding the Riviera had ever seen. It even had its own cocktail, the Ritaly (whisky, vermouth, bitters and a cherry). Unsurprisingly, though, the marriage between the millionaire playboy and the film star did not last long — just two years. After one dalliance too many by Prince Aly, Hayworth waited until he was away, took their daughter and went back to Hollywood, announcing their divorce as she boarded the boat.

Today the chateau is owned by a member of the Saudi royal family. When Lovell took a boat to get a glimpse of the house, she found to her disappointment that the original chateau had been completely erased. No doubt when the oil runs out, the rocky promontory will be colonised by a new elite. This Riviera, as her gossipy but enjoyable book makes clear, “will always be a sunny place for shady people”.

Personal service
Former showgirl Maxine Elliott had gained some weight by the time she built the Chateau de L’Horizon. The story goes that, during the build, her architect persuaded her to bend over to look at a detail of the swimming pool, so that an assistant, lurking behind them, could tactfully measure how wide the water-chute should be.

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