The legend of Cap Ferrat was born out of a first-rate artistic and cultural life, which saw the succession of the most brilliant personalities of the twentieth century.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of winter tourism on the French Riviera was born. Attracted by its mild climate, Russian and British aristocratic families and new industrial fortunes were going to make the French Riviera their winter garden. It was then that the hamlet of Saint-Jean separated from Villefranche-sur-Mer to become an independent commune, initially named Saint-Jean-sur-Mer. Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat (its official name from 1907) became one of the most popular spots on the Mediterranean coast, especially when King Leopold II of Belgium bought the villa Les Cèdres to shelter his love affair with Blanche Delacroix. Then came the time of palaces, including the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat, built in 1908 on the tip of the cape. The Roaring Twenties will consecrate the status of this peninsula destined to receive the world’s elite, generation after generation.
In the 1950s, as tourism became more summery, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat took advantage of the emerging reputation of the Cannes Film Festival to attract the greatest stars, from Edith Piaf to Charlie Chaplin, from Elisabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to Jean-Paul Belmondo, Roger Moore and Tony Curtis. Not to forget Romy Schneider who married there in 1966.
As indicated by the Tourist Information Office of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat (www.saintjeancapferrat-tourisme.fr), the painters did not be insensitive to the charms of the site nor to its light: Henri Matisse was thus received on numerous occasions at the Villa Natacha, property of the art publisher Tériade. The painter had also created a stained glass window and a ceramic wall in the dining room of the villa. The publisher of Greek origin received there the many artists with whom he worked, including Chagall and Picasso. But one of the creators who will have most marked Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is Jean Cocteau, a regular guest of the villa Santo Sospir (today located at 14, avenue Jean-Cocteau!) whose walls he decorated with splendid frescoes. It is to Cocteau that we also owe the fresco that decorates the wedding hall of the town hall of Saint Jean Cap Ferrat.
More unexpectedly, politicians also took their quarters in the town, starting with Winston Churchill, General de Gaulle then Valéry Giscard d’Estaing or more recently George Bush or Bill Clinton.
Somerset Maugham, the novel of Cap Ferrat
But the legend of Cap Ferrat would be nothing without the evocation of the British writer Somerset Maugham (1874-1965). Leopold II’s chaplain, Félix Charmettant, bought a 4-hectare plot of land on the then newly-developed Cap Ferrat peninsula at the very beginning of the 20th century, and then had a villa built there in Moorish style. In 1927, Somerset Maugham acquired this property surrounded by terraced gardens and asked the young American architect Barry Dierks to eliminate the neo-oriental décor, create more classic facades and modernize the layout by creating a staircase to make the villa more comfortable on a daily basis. He will use the property as his main residence until his death in 1965. Somerset Maugham being one of the most widely read British writers in the world (and the best paid in the 1930s!), the Moorish villa became a must for all celebrities passing through the French Riviera. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Aga Khan, Rudyard Kipling, Ian Fleming, Virginia Woolf and of course Cocteau, authors and aristocrats made it the center of an unparalleled cultural and social life. Both mundane and misanthropic, openly assuming his homosexuality at a time when it was still difficult, Somerset Maugham will live quite discreetly at La Mauresque. His enigmatic and sometimes sulfurous personality will be a source of inspiration for authors such as Floc’h and Rivière, who wrote a graphic novel entitled Villa Mauresque in 2013, and Philip Kerr who, in Les Pièges de l’exil (2017) imagines the meeting between Maugham and his fetish hero, the German cop Bernhard Gunther (*).
This love story between Maugham and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is beautifully summarized in an article published the day after the author’s death in Le Monde under the pen of Jean Knecht on December 17, 1965: “William Somerset Maugham died this Thursday, shortly before 5 a.m., in his villa La Mauresque, in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, where he had been transported, at the last moment, from the Anglo-American hospital in Nice. The British writer had been hospitalized last Saturday, after having fallen at home the day before. (…) William Somerset Maugham had recently given up writing novels to devote his verve to caustic and tasty essays. He had not, however, exhausted his passion for travel. (…) A great traveler, Somerset Maugham knew almost all the world, except South Africa and South America. To which of all the countries he visited did his preferences go? He said he hesitated between Japan and the Pacific Islands. But didn’t he basically have a predilection for our Côte d’Azur, where he tasted for so many years the joy of living and working? Shortly after the liberation, he had finally settled at the extreme tip of Cap Ferrat, in a property acquired before the war and which he had enlarged and embellished: the Moorish villa, situated in the middle of this luxuriant vegetation which was the joy of the Impressionists. »
(*) Villa Mauresque, by Floc’h et Rivière, published by La table Ronde, 104 pages, €20 / Les Pièges de l’exil, by Philip Kerr, published by Points Poche, translation Philippe Bonnet, 408 pages, €7.90