A Book to Read Edith Wharton’s French Riviera
The following is my review of Edith Wharton’s French Riviera, by Philippe Collas and Eric Villedary, and translated from the French by Susan Pickford. The French title of the book was La Côte d’Azur au Temps d’Edith Wharton. Flammarion, Paris 2002.
French Riviera Images
When one dreams of Provence and the French Riviera, two interlaced images float before our eyes: one is of the physical beauty of the place: its bright blue skies, and bluer sea, and its light that turns everything into a work of art, from the deep oranges, velvet greens, and golden yellows of nature to their reflection in the roofs and walls of every town and village of the Midi. The power of the image lies also in its appeal to our senses of taste and smell, of Provençal food, and of jasmine and the bougainvillea. This image of overwhelming beauty is tangible, present and constant.
Then there is the other image, one that has its place in our imagination: ethereal and evanescent, based on stories we have heard, books we have read, black and white photos we have come across. It is an image of a group of extraordinarily talented people who lived and worked, loved and died on the French Riviera, people who did not really belong there but who made the place their own.
And one of the best books I have come across that brings together the sensory and the imaginary, the permanent and the transient, is the one written by Philippe Collas and Eric Villedary entitled Edith Wharton’s French Riviera. The book is a richly illustrated history of the French Riviera created first by the British, and later after World War I, by the Americans. It begins in the nineteenth century when British aristocrats discovered the sleepy French villages on the Mediterranean, and turned them into winter resorts, building casinos, hotels, castles and cottages, some reminiscent of those in England. They also created exotic tropical gardens in Eze, Nice, Menton and elsewhere, bringing eucalyptus trees from Australia, cypresses from Mexico, and rare plants and flowers from all over the world.
In 1919, Edith Wharton who was living in Paris then discovered the south of France. “… Edith Wharton, the most English of Americans, and the most French of novelists writing in English eventually found the haven that had been an almost physical need for all her life.” (p. 10). Like many others she had witnessed the horrors of World War I, as well as had had her share of personal problems, including the break-up of her 28 year marriage to Edward Robbins Wharton, and the end of her passionate love affair with Morton Fullerton, a foreign correspondent in Paris for The Times, a British daily. So she purchased the former convent of St. Claire, the patron saint of the Clarisse order, in Hyères, and transformed it into a beautiful villa where she could write and entertain her many friends who came to visit from the United States and Europe.
While Wharton continued the British tradition of wintering on the Riviera, it was the young and wealthy American couple, Gerald and Sarah Murphy who launched the summer season there and opened their villa in Antibes to the newcomers from Europe and the States. Scott Fitzgerald’s original decision to come to the Riviera, for example, had been to meet with Edith Wharton, whose works he greatly admired, and to share with her his own writings. But it would be while staying with the Murphys in the Villa Saint Louis, between Juan-les Pins and Cap d’Antibes, that he would be inspired to write parts of his last completed novel, Tender is the Night. He would only meet Wharton later in Paris.
Americans on the French Riviera
Americans took over where the British left off and, starting in 1919, continued building the French Riviera, and change its social scene. The American railway billionaire, Frank Jay Gould, for instance, would launch the resort of Juan-les-Pins, building a casino and a palatial hotel of 250 rooms, le Provençal, with the help of an award-winning French architect Roger Seassal. The new hotel drew the likes of Picasso, Rebecca West, Jean Cocteau and other luminaries. “The creation of Juan-les-Pins as a holiday resort marked the absolute conquest of the Riviera by the Americans. They brought their own lifestyle and unique architecture, which gradually came to dominate the entire coast…” (p.86)
The lifestyle was that of the wealthy and talented, not always the same people. But they are the ones we imagine partying during the golden age of the Riviera. They include writers like Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, and John Dos Passos who were frequent visitors at the Murphy’s villa, or jazz musicians, and composers like Cole Porter, movie stars like Charlie Chaplin and Norma Shearer, and singers like Maurice Chevalier and Josephine Baker who gathered there. Somerset Maugham bought a splendid house, La Mauresque, in Cap Ferrat in 1926, where he entertained everyone from writers to royalty. Artists and painters, like Picasso and Henri Matisse, settled on the Riviera and spent years painting and sculpting.
This book is filled with so many stories and stunning images that for the dream to last it must be read and re-read, and savored slowly like a long cold drink.
Click the book cover below to buy a copy.
More summer reading inspired by the French Riviera: A Short Course on Hemingway.