Tuesday 9 August 2016

Belles Rives: F Scott Fitzgerald at Juan-les-Pins

A long-held wish came true last weekend. I went to the Hotel Belles Rives near Antibes on the Côte d’Azur. We were staying with old friends nearby and this, to my delight, was where they had booked for dinner on Saturday evening.

For here is the villa that F Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda rented for the summer in 1926. They had enjoyed their time on the French Riviera the previous year with wealthy American socialites Gerald and Sara Murphy and their bohemian circle that included Gertrude Stein and Picasso, John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, and their mutual friend Ernest Hemingway. So Scott and Zelda returned with their five-year-old daughter Scottie to recapture the experience.

Ninety years ago, the property on the edge of the shore at Juan-les-Pins was called the Villa St. Louis, and was supposed to be a retreat from their frenetic life in Paris, where Scott was trying to write a new novel after the publication – to surprisingly indifferent sales – of The Great Gatsby, but constantly getting sidetracked by friends like Ernest Hemingway and the bottle. Zelda, meanwhile, was studying dance. 

The heat and light, the blue Mediterranean sea and scented umbrella pines, the lush, bright flowers and balmy nights provided Fitzgerald with a sensuous backdrop for the novel which would become Tender is the Night: the “diffused magic of the hot sweet South … the soft-pawed night and the ghostly wash of the Mediterranean far below”. Even today, when development has scarred the landscape he would have seen, his descriptions are instantly recognisable.
Though the building has been extended, it is still owned by the same family who turned the Villa St. Louis into a hotel in 1929. The ambiance of the 1920s is carefully preserved and enhanced, and the entrance foyer (pictured below) leads straight out onto the fabled terrace above the sea.

As the sun set and the lights came on across the hills towards Cannes and on the yachts at anchor, a small green light began to blink at the end of a jetty on the shallow rocky shore. Could something similar have been here on Fitzgerald’s previous visits to the area and found its way into the book as the green light on the dock that Jay Gatsby makes a symbol of his longing for Daisy?

As we sipped Bellinis overlooking the water, it was impossible not to be “borne back ceaselessly into the past”. Fitzgerald’s writing is remarkable for its sense of loss and nostalgia, even for the moment that has only just passed. It occurred to me that the Portuguese word saudade, untranslatable in English, comes closest to capturing the yearning sadness that infuses his most lyrical passages, trying to hold fast to moments of fleeting beauty. All the more poignant when you think of Zelda's descent and the subject matter of Tender is the Night, a novel that would not be published until 1934 due to her illness and Scott's need to earn easier money in the interim to pay for her medical care.
For the Fitzgeralds, the summer of 1926 on the Cap d’Antibes did not prove idyllic, despite the setting. Zelda was close to the madness that would blight the rest of her life. Scott made little progress on Tender is the Night and took refuge in drink, as he always did. Neither could Zelda restrain herself. Their increasingly reckless and erratic behaviour resulted in strained friendships with the Murphys and others. One night Zelda threw herself headfirst down a flight of stone steps because she was so incensed that the dancer Isadora Duncan was flirting with Scott.
Sadly, the rented villa was the scene of vicious marital arguments. In adulthood, Scottie recalled her parents fighting bitterly and constantly. Zelda kept fully packed luggage in every room, threatening departure at the slightest grievance. The dream of a successful life together was coming to an end.

The story goes that one night husband and wife had been drinking hard, and – inevitably – fighting. Rising to Zelda’s taunts about his professional and personal failures, Fitzgerald stormed out. At a nearby restaurant in Juan-les-Pins where an orchestra was employed every evening to entertain the diners, he persuaded the musicians to come home with him, no doubt offering a ridiculous amount of money. He led them into the Villa St. Louis, ushered them into a room – and locked them in. He commanded them to play all night if they hoped to be released by dawn. Then he turned to Zelda and asked her if she still thought he was a loser.

In the present day, the music comes from the piano bar, a grand room with stunning décor that carefully evokes the 1920s and 30s. What looks like a painting by Braque on the left is actually a picture viewed through two separate windows. Through the window on the right, you can see the dining terrace.

We were a party of seven, and we had a wonderful evening. The food was gorgeous, mainly fish, and beautifully presented. The lemon soufflé for dessert was heavenly! I loved all the art deco details, and the way each corner is designed to evoke the atmosphere of the Jazz Age.


Karen Wojcik Berner said...

What an amazing place! I've always been fascinated by Fitzgerald, especially Gatsby. From your pictures, one could almost feel him skulking around the villa.

Deborah Lawrenson said...

It really was atmospheric, Karen. The terrace and the jetty out over the water are surely little changed. Like you, I am still drawn to Gatsby, and strange to think that when he was here, he must have been wondering where that book had gone wrong the previous year from the sales perspective. If only he had known then...

john hargreaves said...

Thanks so much for this wonderful transportation through time, literature and life. Very evocative.

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