SOME THINGS just don’t change. The Riviera, described nearly a century ago by F. Scott Fitzgerald as a “playground” with a “fairy blue” sea, is still coasting on its mythic allure. Every summer, the palm-fringed stretch from Monaco to St. RaphaÃ«l is the place where the whole world descends “to forget or rejoice, to hide its face or have its fling,” as the writer aptly observed.
But when Fitzgerald set sail across the Atlantic with his wife and daughter in 1924, his plan was to escape to a place where they could “live on practically nothing a year.” Having unwittingly become the spokesman for the Jazz Age with “This Side of Paradise” (1920), Fitzgerald could no longer afford the extravagant lifestyle that came with it. He and Zelda decided to flee their hectic social life in New York, where continuous partying prevented the writer from concentrating on his third novel, “The Great Gatsby.”
Back then, with sunbathing not yet in vogue, the Riviera in the summer was dirt cheap and desertedâ”like going to Palm Beach for July,” as Fitzgerald put it. The couple rented a villa on a lush hillside in St. RaphaÃ«l, “a little red town built close to the sea, with gay red-roofed houses and an air of repressed carnival about it,” where Fitzgerald worked on “Gatsby.”
All That Jazz
Dress like a Fitzgerald on your next trip to the Riviera.
Much has changed since he penned one of the most defining novels of the 20th centuryâwhose fourth incarnation on the silver screen hits European cinemas beginning May 15âbut you can still enjoy the excesses of Fitzgerald’s “hot sweet south of France.”
Start your tour, Ã la “Winter Dreams” (1922), on the golf course. Just a stone’s throw from the Fitzgeralds’ Villa Marie in St. RaphaÃ«l, the pine-shaded Valescure Golf Club is known for its short, narrow fairways, difficult roughs and a splendid Old English-style clubhouse. â¬75 a round; 725 avenue des Golfs, St. RaphaÃ«l; golfdevalescure.com
On your way out of town, stop for a cool drink at the seafront Hotel Excelsior, and imagine Fitzgerald puffing away on a Chesterfield at one of St. RaphaÃ«l’s oldest watering holes after a hard day’s work. Promenade du PrÃ©sident RenÃ© Coty; excelsior-hotel.com
From here, follow the Fitzgeralds in their little blue Renault down the winding coastal roadâthe red rocks of the Esterel and turquoise shallows are still spectacularâto the Cap d’Antibes. Scott and Zelda came here regularly to visit their friends Gerald and Sara Murphy. Gerald, an heir to the Mark Cross leather-goods company and visionary painter of proto-Pop Art, and Sara, a beauty known for her joie de vivre (she became Picasso’s secret muse), were the Riviera’s original trendsetters.
Their charismatic style still shines brightly at the outset of “Tender is the Night” (1934), as Dick and Nicole Diverâmodeled on the Murphysâtake over the curved sandy beach at La Garoupe with elaborate picnics and illustrious friends. Off the page, Sara elegantly “sunned” her strand of pearls on the tiny cove, while Gerald played the latest jazz records on his portable phonograph. Fitzgerald preferred to lie in the shade, nursing a bottle of gin. Zelda, as the Murphys’ daughter, Honoria, later recalled, was “a strikingly beautiful womanâblond and soft and tanned,” who always had a peony in her hair or pinned to her dress.
Today, at the far corner of La Garoupe, the bronzed and the beautiful flock to La Plage Keller. Follow them for a toes-in-the-sand languorous lunch washed down with Champagne. The Mediterranean-style dishes range from petits farcis and fried squid to lobster and truffle ravioli. Lunch from about â¬60; chemin de la Garoupe, Antibes; restaurant-plage-cesar-antibes.fr
Or, in the spirit of the Murphys’ caviar-and Champagne-parties, head for the hills of Vence to the ChÃ¢teau Saint-Martin & Spa for an extravagant La Prairie massage, with rich caviar cream. From â¬120; 2490 avenue des Templiers, Vence; chateau-st-martin.com
When the Murphys first discovered the pink seaside HÃ´tel du Capâthe Hotel des Etrangers in “Tender is the Night”âhidden away on a lush mini-peninsula, they immediately fell in love with it, persuading the owner to keep it open during the summer. While their new home, the Villa America, was being built, the hotel became their private headquarters to entertain their friends: the Count and Countess Ãtienne de Beaumont, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and his first wife Olga Khokhlova, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Rudolph Valentino and, of course, the Fitzgeralds.
Scott and Zelda would probably not feel out of place with the glitzy Bellini-sipping crowd that now lounges on the HÃ´tel du Cap’s pool terrace. Rooms from â¬800; blvd. JF Kennedy, BP 29, Antibes; hotel-du-cap-eden-roc.com
Their alcohol-fueled antics, howeverâsmashing handblown wineglasses and lobbing ashtraysâwould likely not play out so well today. As self-avowed “excitement eaters,” the couple would liven up the evenings at the hotel by diving off 11-meter-high rocks into the pitch-dark sea. One night, Zelda took off her black lace panties and tossed them to her hosts, prompting others to strip down and skinny-dip in the pool. “One could get away with more on the summer Riviera, and whatever happened seemed to have something to do with art,” Fitzgerald wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins.
Take a dip of your own into the Jazz Age at L’Antiquaire et la Mode. This Cannes store is a treasure trove of rare vintage threads, from sequined dresses to jewelry and shoes. 8 rue HÃ©lÃ¨ne Vagliono, Cannes; +33-493-99-13-08
For something more modern, try the St. James boutique in Nice. Their striped MariniÃ¨re jerseys are as fashionable (and ubiquitous) today as they were in the ’20s, after Murphy and Picasso made them de rigueur among the Riviera set. 11 place Ile de BeautÃ©, Nice;
You’ll wish you were in spats or a flapper dress when you step into les annÃ©es folles at Eilenroc, the Belle Epoque villa and vast rose gardens on the Cap d’Antibes where Scott and Zelda were frequently spotted swanning about, hobnobbing with European royalty. Once owned by the Count and Countess de Beaumont, it is now a restored landmark, replete with their original furnishings.
To take home your own piece of Art Deco, head to Nice’s antique district at the port. At Achille AntiquitÃ©s, you’ll find sculpted wood armchairs and desks with elaborate inlays, plus chandeliers, mirrors and Lalique objets d’art all from the 1920s. 13 rue Emmanuel Philibert, Nice;
The Fitzgeralds reveledâand rowedâin equally sumptuous evenings at La Colombe d’Or, in St.-Paul de Vence. When it came to restaurants, the Fitzgeralds avoided elaborate French cuisine. Even in the finest restaurants, Fitzgerald would often dismiss the waiter in poorly pronounced French and order a club sandwich. But they weren’t at La Colombe d’Or for the food. The artists’ haunt was the place to be seen. It still is. Dine on the star-packed leafy terrace, surrounded by original works by MirÃ³, Braque, Picasso and Chagall. Dinner from about â¬60; 1 place General de Gaulle, St.-Paul de Vence; la-colombe-dor.com
Monte Carlo was another surefire place for excitement. The Fitzgeralds would take the scenic Grande Corniche “through the twilight with the whole French Riviera twinkling below” for an evening at the casino. The Garnier-designed Monte-Carlo Casino, steeped in Old World glamour, remains the place for “excitement eaters” with money to burn. For a nightcap, order Fitzgerald’s favoritesâa gin fizz or mint julepâat the Bar AmÃ©ricain inside the gilded splendor of the HÃ´tel de Paris. Drinks, â¬24; place du Casino, Monaco; hoteldeparismontecarlo.com
“One could get away with more on the summer Riviera, and whatever happened seemed to have something to do with art.”
In 1926, with “Gatsby” a roaring critical success, the Fitzgeralds returned to the Riveria. renting the Villa St-Louis in Juan-les-Pins. Fitzgerald boasted to friends in New York that he’d found a big house on the shore with a private beach, near the casino.
The villa was later transformed into a small, family-run Art Deco gem, HÃ´tel Belles Rives, with one of the best terrace restaurants on the Riviera. Its furnishings, frescoes and fumoir have all been meticulously preserved by the current owner, Marianne Chauvin-EstÃ¨ne. “My favorite story is when Scott lured a local band inside the villa, then locked them in a bedroom upstairs,” says Ms. Chauvin-EstÃ¨ne. “He tossed away the key, forced them to play dance music all night for his guests and wouldn’t let them leave until sunrise.” Rooms from â¬175; 33 blvd. Edouard Baudoin, Juan-les-Pins; bellesrives.com
Ever since then, Juan-les-Pins has had jazz in its blood. You can get into the groove each July at Jazz Ã Juan, a festival featuring top-notch artists in a starlit seaside setting under the pines near the Fitzgeralds’ former digs. July 12-21; tickets from â¬19, jazzajuan.com
The couple spent their last summer spree on the CÃ´te d’Azur in 1929 in a less-fashionable part of Cannes. By then the stock market had crashed and the mood had soured. The Fitgeralds now avoided the celebrity circus at the HÃ´tel du Cap.
By the time “Tender is the Night” was published five years later, the Fitzgeralds and the Murphys had long since returned to America. Tragic events would mar their happiness, but the golden glow of those Riviera summers remained. As Sara Murphy later said: “It was like a great fair, and everybody was so young.”