With Russians moving in and glass towers casting their shadows over the glamorous hotels of old, Taki looks back on a time the Riviera was run by gentlemen…
Taki Theodoracopulos is the final link to the golden age of the Riviera; the lone survivor of a rarefied set that boasted Gianni Agnelli, Gunter Sachs and Porfirio Rubirosa. Sixty-something years since he first set foot on the Côte d’Azur, the tennis star and shipping heir remembers long nights in a lost world.
“I first went to the Riviera in 1952, and back then you went by boat. I was 15 years old, and I was taken by my parents. We sailed from New York to Cannes.
“At that time, the Côte d’Azur consisted of the locals and a handful of fantastic houses. Society rotated around a few very grand establishments. You had the Villa Leopolda, which was owned by the Agnellis in Villefranche-sur-Mer. You had the great Bonnet house in Cap d’Antibes. You had Countess Therese de Beauchamp’s house, La Fiorentina. You had the Ruspoli house. You had Jack Warner’s house. They had houseguests every weekend, or for a week, and the people who owned those houses gave parties. This was the heart of the place.
“I would always stay in Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc. My parents had been married there and Mr Sella, who owned it, gave us terrific prices. I had a small tiny room up in the attic, which cost ten dollars a day, and of course you could use the Eden Roc if you stayed in the hotel, so that saved you money.
“It was just an idyllic life straight out of Tender is the Night — not that it was quite as dissolute as Fitzgerald might have found it. We had heard, of course, that Dado Ruspoli and Gianni Agnelli had taken cocaine, but there was no real drug use. We were young, people drank. Debauchery then was a private affair. Of course, you had a lot of women looking for a rich man, but it was all done in a very discreet way. You didn’t have the hookers in the hotels, the slobs in t-shirts in the casinos. At the very least, everyone was very well dressed.
“In many ways, Gianni Agnelli was the king of the Riviera. I first met him in 1957 when I came back to Cannes. Every morning he’d come down, get on his boat and sail up and down the coast, looking for you know what. Gianni took me under his wing. My father used to say he ruined my life. I thought everybody lived that way. I was doomed.
“I was first introduced to Gianni on a boat called the Creole, owned by Stavros Niarchos. Gianni was told I was a young, up-and-coming I-don’t-know-what. He liked me. I was a tennis player in those days, and the tennis tournaments in the spring were wonderful. They were amateur affairs, but all the top players went there and drew very nice crowds.
“We’d play tennis everyday at the Hotel du Cap and in Monte Carlo where there were 35 courts. There was a great deal of betting on court, and you could make serious money. Philippe Washer was the number one player in Europe in the fifties, and a friend of mine. Our routine was pretty simple. He and I would wake up in the morning with a tremendous hangover and go down to the courts to hit a set or two for an hour. Then we’d go to La Boheme, the old beach hotel in Monte Carlo. The waiters knew us there, so we’d go there to recover, have a swim, maybe in the afternoon have a hit or two, and then in the evening we’d get back into black tie and go around hunting for women. It didn’t do a lot of good for our brains, but it was fun.
“I can’t go back any more. It’s too painful. Gianni died in 2003, but a couple of years before he died we were on his boat with his grandson, Lapo Elkann, who was always getting into trouble. And he said to me: “take Lapo, take him to one of the hotels where we used to fool around. ” So I took him down, and the place looked like a brothel on a Sunday morning. Fat people, slobs, nobody paying any attention to anyone else, everything over crowded. Lapo turned to me and said: “This is where you had a good time?” And I said: “Don’t judge it by today. Things have changed.”
“I knew the moment when it all ended. I was going to write a novel about it, in fact, called The Night Bella Darvi Died. It’s funny how these things work. The great actress Bella Darvi lost all her money in ‘71 and went back to her hotel room and committed suicide. That finished the Riviera once and for all. She was a girlfriend of Daryl Zanuck, and Zanuck dropped her, and she was getting old and losing her looks. Certain things happen, and after that nothing works anymore; nothing’s the same. It wasn’t the cause, but it was the signal. The party was over.
“I sometimes read all this bullshit in the gossip columns, and people talk about these great parties with people you’ve never heard of. High Society today is the Kardashians. It’s not the same.
“When Onassis ran Monaco it was Ruritania on the sea. If you see pictures of it in the 1950s it looks straight out of the 18th century. Then all these big glass buildings went up. They keep the lights on at night to show residency. But there’s no one there.
“I went down there with my boat Bushido a few years ago. Bushido was by far the most elegant boat on the bay. But she was dwarfed by all those enormous refrigerators on steroids. I’ve sold it now. I’ve had five Bushidos and this is the last. You get fat on a boat — you sit around and eat and drink too much.
“There are no more playboys, as far as I’m concerned. Take the top playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, or Dado Ruspoli. In those days, if you wanted to be a playboy you had to be a tough guy, because if you were in pursuit of their women you’d have a fight on your hands. They were tremendous athletes, too. Rubirosa was a very good boxer, a sailor, a racing driver. Gunter was a very good athlete, and so was Ruspoli. These men were manly, in the old fashioned sense of the word. Now, when people talk about playboys they’re usually just ‘walkers.’
“Charm was everything. You couldn’t not have charm and be a playboy. It was very social. People had extraordinarily good manners. I never heard anybody say the F-word. I never heard Rubi or anyone say fuck. Now that’s all you hear.
“The old Riviera lifestyle might still exist elsewhere. Maybe in Harbour Island in the Bahamas where Arki Busson goes. It’s a tiny place with a few houses and some eclectic people. Or some place in the Greek islands where I go to meet my friends. But there’s nothing like the Riviera, that old magical land. It no longer exists. Onassis died, and his houses were bought by Russians who will shoot at you if you come within 200 yards of their property. In a way, I’m happy that I’m 81.
“I’m the last link to that world, I suppose. Everyone else is dead. Not a single person who I knew from that time is alive anymore. I have the last memories of the Riviera. The terrible thing is, in those days, taking photographs was not the done thing. You didn’t say: “Oh can you take a picture of us?” — that was for American tourists. In those days, Gianni and I, sitting on our boats, would never have dreamed of taking a photograph. I regret that I don’t have any shots, but perhaps it’s better than looking like a show off.
“My one big regret about being a playboy is that I didn’t finish university — I wanted to study history and classics, but the good times did for that. My education lacks, so I’m always having to look up everything in books. Where Boris Johnson can come up with it in a second, I have to spend half an hour doing the research.
“Perhaps I wasted my time chasing girls instead of hitting the books. Then again, perhaps it wasn’t so bad after all.”
Source: The Gentleman’s Journal / Words: Joseph Bullmore