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Quirk of history

A “playground of mad extravagance”

Brigitte Bardot in St Tropez. Quinio/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

When F Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda visited the Côte d’Azur, says John Walsh in The Sunday Times, they behaved appallingly. The couple were asked to leave one hotel because Zelda kept jamming the lift on their floor so it would always be available for them. At a dinner party, Scott got so drunk he began crawling around his host’s vegetable patch and “throwing tomatoes at the guests”. But they weren’t the only naughty ones. As Jonathan Miles describes in his “utterly absorbing” new book, the French Riviera was a “playground of mad extravagance” for everyone from Oscar Wilde and Pablo Picasso to Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.

The story begins in December 1834, when the English politician Lord Brougham fell in love with Cannes after stopping off on the way to Genoa. He had a villa built; friends did the same; and a process of “genteel Anglicisation” began. Queen Victoria was an early enthusiast, visiting in a royal train with home-cooked food “kept warm in red flannel pouches hung from the carriages”. Also a fan was her obese son “Dirty” Bertie – later King Edward VII – for whom the Chabanais brothel installed a special siège d’amour (“love chair”) so that he could “have sex with two women without crushing them”. One big draw was always the casino at Monte Carlo, which once denied Dorothy Parker entry for not wearing stockings. “I went and found my stockings,” she reported, “and then came back and lost my shirt.”

Once Upon a Time World by Jonathan Miles is available here.