I can get anyone in the water, says German swimming instructor Pierre Gruneberg, whose clients have included Pablo Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, Paul McCartney and Tina Turner. McCartney was terrified of jellyfish, but Gruneberg coaxed him into the ocean; Picasso was so grateful for the lessons that he gave him a drawing of a dove. But Gruneberg isn’t fussed by celebrities, he tells High Life magazine: “Every man is created equal when he’s wearing nothing but his swimming trunks.”
He worked at the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat, on the Côte d’Azur, for 70 years after stumbling across it in 1949, while he was hitchhiking through France. He was 18 and charming – he wangled a job as a swimming instructor on the condition that he wouldn’t flirt with any customers. Several years later he married one of his students.
Gruneberg’s teaching methods are unconventional. Before getting to the pool, he fills a salad bowl with water and dunks his student’s head in it. “My greatest pleasure is to undo the fear in people.” He is used to fear himself. While he was growing up in the 1930s, the Jewish Grunebergs fled Germany for Paris, taking a “little suitcase and some gold coins”. When the Nazis occupied the French capital, they buried the coins under a cherry tree, forged identity papers and headed south. They all survived and, when they returned to Paris, the coins were still there.
Gruneberg is now 90, but he has only just started winding down. He retired last year, but still swims in the sea every day – “in the winter, even when it’s raining, and I never wear a wetsuit”. Swimming at the hotel was his dream job. “I sat on a little green chair, I didn’t move, and all the personalities of the world passed by.”