When F Scott Fitzgerald created his most famous character, Jay Gatsby, in the mid-1920s, the American novelist was relishing the high life in a dazzling villa on the French Riviera and partying with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker and Frank Jay Gould.
This month, the focus will return to Gatsby’s Riviera when director Baz Luhrmann’s new film of Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, opens the Cannes Film Festival.
While Fitzgerald’s colourful coterie – the so-called “lost generation” of Americans who sought refuge on the Riviera away from the postwar Prohibition era back home – are no more, their legacy lives on.
The glamour of the Gatsby era can still be felt in the summer jazz festival in Juan Les Pins; the balletic waterskiing in front of the Belles Rives hotel; as well as in the waterfront villas on the Cap d’Antibes’ “billionaires’ bay”, which can sell for up to €300m, according to Fredrik Lilloe of Estate Net France, Knight Frank’s Riviera associate.
The seven-bedroom Villa Picolette, on the Cap d’Antibes, was home to Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda between 1922 and 1924. The view from the house features on the original cover of Tender Is the Night, which Fitzgerald wrote while living there, and the house itself is described in the opening paragraphs as the “large, proud rose-colored hotel. Deferential palms cool its flushed façade and before it stretches a short dazzling beach”.
Picolette’s prized waterfront position – within easy reach of La Garoupe beach, where Fitzgerald’s set would hold lavish picnics and which is still considered one of the coast’s most glamorous beaches – contributes much to the villa’s €27.5m price tag. “The villa’s original features have also been carefully restored, including the external frescoes and the art deco winter garden,” says Maria McLean from Sotheby’s International Realty, which is selling the property.
For fans of art deco elegance, Tanah Merah – also on the Cap d’Antibes and on sale for €14.9m through Estate Net France – is a five-bedroom villa that combines a sweeping stucco staircase and white cake-icing cornicing with the requirements of the 21st-century international jet-set. A panic room is concealed behind the home cinema and a split-level infinity pool has panoramic views of the Mediterranean, interrupted only by a curving parasol pine.
Tanah Merah was built in 1937 by Barry Dierks, an American architect whose star-studded career on the Riviera began in 1925 when he rebuilt writer Somerset Maugham’s Cap Ferrat mansion. He went on to create some of the coast’s most celebrated properties for Hollywood stars and royalty, including the waterfront Villa d’Aujourd-hui.
Tanah Merah fell into disrepair in recent decades but property developer Patrice Montuoro, head of the Regis Group in France, has salvaged the villa and transformed it, custom-designing every fixture and fitting, down to the doorknobs and logo-ed shower panels, and sourcing original antiques, all included in the sale.
Although the wealth tax recently introduced by French president François Hollande is prompting many of today’s rich Americans to stay away, the Cap d’Antibes was where their predecessors wanted to be when Tanah Merah was built. “People have a way of enjoying life here that’s amazing, even in times of crisis. I’m sure that’s what drew people here in the 1920s and 1930s,” says Montuoro. “In the cafés, you hear voices from all over the world and you see people who wouldn’t dream of waiting for anything back home queueing up in the local boulangerie to try to say a few words in French.”
In Gairaut, a village near Nice, Savills is selling the expansive 18th-century Villa de Châteauneuf, a nine-bedroom property with separate guest and staff accommodation, stables and a chapel. It is on the market for €15m.
Also near Nice is the quiet residential spot of Le Californie in the Cannes hills, a 20-minute walk from the film-loving crowds who will pack out the Croisette this month. There, Knight Frank is selling Estée Lauder’s former villa, Roche Cline, priced at €9.85m. Lauder had begun to build up a name for herself as a cosmetics queen in the US when she and her husband Joseph bought the handsome 1880s villa with its labyrinthine interior and split-level rooms.
The current owners acquired it in a rundown state a couple of years ago and have turned it into a modern home with marble floors, huge entertaining spaces and a large swimming pool on the terrace. But Lauder’s spirit is still alive, with prominent walls painted in her signature mint green and a collection of letters dating from the 1950s-80s sent to her at the house from the likes of Saks Fifth Avenue and Harrods, informing her of the stratospheric sales of her cosmetics.
Coco Chanel also preferred to enjoy the Riviera’s decadence from a prime perch in the hills. Her 10,000 sq ft mansion, Villa La Pausa, sits on a 2.6 hectare plot with views across Menton to the east and Monaco to the west and is on sale for €40m through Knight Frank.
The seven-bedroom house overlooks Cap Martin, where a similarly grand waterfront property would cost “easily €150m, as long as it’s on the west side, overlooking Monaco. That’s important,” says Francois de Bruyne from Knight Frank’s Monaco associate, Pieter Van Naeltwijck.
It is 60 years since Chanel – whose renowned perfume brand celebrates its centenary this year – lived at Villa La Pausa. She built the house with its grandiose wood-panelled bedrooms and huge stone fireplaces in 1928 with her lover Hugh Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster, and was closely involved in its design, inspired by the black and white of the French orphanage in which she grew up. She also incorporated the number five – immortalised in her perfume – with patterns of five windows dotted around the house.
Like many of the Riviera’s most opulent properties, Villa Pausa has hosted its fair share of famous names over the decades. Chanel’s guests included Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau (a framed original sketch of her by Cocteau still sits in a dressing room). And when, in 1953, Chanel sold the house to the literary agent Emery Reves and his wife Wendy, a New York model, the house was once again the hub of Riviera social life, with Winston Churchill a regular guest who would stay there to paint for six months at a time. Other visitors included Greta Garbo and the Duke of Windsor.
One art deco landmark from Juan Les Pins’ glory days, Le Provençal hotel, today sits empty and half-built, having hit the global crisis head on shortly after its relaunch in 2008 as high-end apartments for Monaco-style prices. “Prices are down 15 per cent in the last 24 months and sales have been hit hard,” says Fredrik Lilloe, of Estate Net France. “But there’s a lot of building work going on now. Confidence is back and that’s the key.”
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 15-26. www.festival-cannes.fr
Zoe Dare Hall was a guest of Knight Frank
● The average price of a luxury house on the Côte d’Azur dropped 8.6 per cent in 2012 and stands at €2.1m (Estate Net France)
● There are 19 per cent more properties over €1m on the market today than a year ago (Estate Net France)
● Demand for apartments has fallen dramatically but the villa market is picking up, particularly near Cannes and Mougins’ international school
● Egyptian, Norwegian and Middle Eastern buyers are among the new nationalities dominating high-end sales. Wealthy Brazilians are also taking far more top-end holiday lets on the French Riviera, which could see them become the next big buyers
What you can buy for …
€500,000 A two-bedroom house in Mougins, near the sought-after international school
€1m A three-bedroom villa in the hills of Cannes’ Le Cannet
€5m A six-bedroom villa in Mougins