How the French-Italian coastline became the famous Cote d'Azur

May 15, 1994|By Richard Eder | Richard Eder,Los Angeles Times

For building purposes, a dream is at least as important as sand and cement. In 1887, the Riviera was still a place of ornate mansions, 50-servant establishments and European crowned heads sharing pillows with such resplendent courtesans as La Belle Otero and Liane de Pougy. Then the poet-promoter Stephen Liegeard published a rhapsodic book entitled "La Cote d'Azur."

It was a dream of a phrase; as Mary Blume writes: "The Riviera is the entire French-Italian coastline, the Cote d'Azur is its myth." As much as the sunshine, blue water and pretty coast, a whole chain of myths -- Victorian moneyed discomfort and Edwardian moneyed pleasure, Jazz Age extravagance, film-festival glamour and the lavish decadence of tax-sheltered high-rollers -- has made the place what it is.

Or rather, what it seems to be. The product of a dream is morning's grit in the eye. The product of the Cote d'Azur is polluted beaches, package tours, white unbroken stretches of high-rises and a shore of which one-quarter is under concrete. It is still a dreamlike shock to fly in from the north over the hazy blue Bay of Angels and glimpse the slow green-and-white curve toward Antibes and Cannes to the left and Cap Ferrat and Menton to the right. Disquiet sets in with the airport taxi ride; we seem to be moving through someone else's dream or, rather, through a whole hungry mob of other people's dreams.

Dreams and their expropriation are the center of Ms. Blume's "La Cote d'Azur: Inventing the French Riviera," with its parade of grand dukes, artists, writers, con men, gangsters, millionaire escapists, hard-eyed promoters, nuts, solipsists and Cannes' white-bearded Mayor Capron, who rode his white horse to visit the poor each morning and continued on to the railroad station to meet arriving royalty. Also Mayor Capron's daughter, who saved the lives of 400 Jewish schoolchildren by faking their identity papers. Asked much later why she had the Legion d'Honneur, she replied as only one particular kind of old French woman might: "I was a good little girl. I ate my soup."

Ms. Blume is better known in Europe than in the United States. For several decades she has written features for the International Herald Tribune that are not quite like anything else in American journalism. She is as distinctive as Art Buchwald, who was funny in Paris before coming home to be funny in the United States.

She can be funny, too -- the humor comes not from what she says but from what she brings out in others -- but it is not her purpose; a kind of social comedy is. Her subjects tend to be figures in the arts and society, but she is not a celebrity writer. She writes the things her subjects know about themselves and also, without making a point of it, one or two things they don't know. Her locus is the uncertain connecting passage between the person and the personage. If Edith Wharton had been a journalist, perhaps she would have written a little like Ms. Blume.

Ms. Blume brackets her retrospective with a lively, two-part portrait of Nice and its popular and crooked longtime mayor, Jacques Medecin, who is last seen selling T-shirts in Uruguay after being convicted of various financial misdeeds or, in Nicois parlance, "salades." She gives us Medecin's recipe for salade Nicoise and his contempt for the way Parisians make it, and for Parisians in general: "They are egotistical; they despise the rest of the country. They forget to wash most of the time, especially their feet."

It is the French-Mediterranean resentment of the north of France; a resentment that comes out in Alexandre Dumas' account of an early 19th-century Riviera innkeeper who said that he had some "Anglais" guests but wasn't sure whether they were French Anglais or German.

The permanent invasion, which the locals resented and prospered from, began in the 1830s, when Lord Brougham became the first Englishman to build a villa at Cannes and a friend's gardener became the first English real-estate agent. Ms. Blume writes of Queen Victoria, sunproof in hat and shawls, being served by Indian butlers whom the Aga Khan knowledgeably declared to be second-rate. She writes of a swarm of Russian dukes, one of whom shot a police inspector under the impression that he was a nihilist.

Elaborately formal display was followed after World War I by the much more enjoyable carousing of the Fitzgerald-Hemingway-Maugham generation. Summer became the season instead of winter; suntans replaced fashionable pallor. The wealthy and aristocratic, no longer sufficient unto themselves, cultivated artists, writers and musicians. Ms. Blume writes of Gerald and Sara Murphy as joint Masters of the Revels; and she quotes from Gerald's letter to Scott Fitzgerald after the fun had faded and two of the Murphys' children had died: "Only the invented part of our lives -- the unreal part -- has had any scheme, any beauty. Life has stepped in now and blundered, scarred and destroyed."

The author tells of the wartime shutdown -- one Englishman drove his Rolls into the sea so the Italians wouldn't get it -- and the postwar boom. Her portrait of Monte Carlo as a tightly policed, stuffy haven for the super-rich is particularly telling. Money no longer goes in for public display or enjoyment on the Cote d'Azur; it is no longer a playground for fantasy and escape. "Escape," she writes, "with its sense of generous adventure, is a large word for our times; the search has narrowed to privacy and safety."

Ms. Blume writes with irony and regret, neither doting nor excoriating. She writes with the coolness of someone whose heart is not in the actual present or past but in her dream; located, I would estimate, somewhere between the late 1920s and early '30s, somewhere between Bandol and Hyeres.

Title: "La Cote d'Azur: Inventing the French Riviera"

Author: Mary Blume

Publisher: Thames & Hudson

0 Length, price: 208 pages, $14.95 (paperback)

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