In the French seaside town of St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, long the basking ground for plutocrats and Hollywood princes, the season doesn’t start until a sun-bronzed senior strips down to his Speedo, dons a straw sombrero, and takes his post beside a saltwater infinity pool. Since 1950—a year after he hitchhiked here from Paris with a rucksack and his net worth jingling in his pocket—Pierre Gruneberg has held court every summer at Club Dauphin, in the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat, teaching the aquaphobic A-set—including everyone from Gérard Depardieu to Tina Turner—to swim.
Born in Germany, Gruneberg fled the Nazis with his family at age three and lived underground in France during the war. Had he not been uprooted, Gruneberg says, he’d likely have followed in the footsteps of his father, an attorney. Instead, his transient childhood led him to want to connect with people in a meaningful way. “I’m often told I’m living a dream because I get to work outdoors all day in this luxurious location,” he says. “I don’t disagree.”
Unlike most desirable jobs, which tend to lose their luster under closer scrutiny, Gruneberg’s has managed to sustain him for 58 years. Most mornings, he leaves his waterfront apartment at sunrise, jogs or bicycles 20 minutes to work, then caps off his day with a one-mile swim in the Mediterranean. Regardless of his students’ age or renown, they’re mostly beginners, so every Gruneberg lesson begins next to the flower-rimmed pool, not in it. His method involves a plastic salad bowl, which he fills with water so that his pupil, face submerged, can master the rhythms of relaxed breathing before advancing to the pool. The copyrighted technique (thegrunebergmethod.com) is described in his book How to Be Happy in Water, which he gives to students.
Decades as a swim instructor have left Gruneberg with not only a sunny disposition but also a deep tan. “I worked for many years without sunscreen,” he says. “Now I always wear it, along with a Mexican sombrero and a T-shirt.” (Winters, he teaches skiing at Courchevel, in the French Alps, and uses similar methods.)
Even the good life has its challenges, however. Over time, clients have come to expect more than tips on proper breathing. They regularly e-mail him for weather reports or flight updates. As for his most trying students, those who can’t put down their cell phones, Gruneberg regards them as a source of inspiration. “I admire their sense of drive,” he says. “And I like to think I help them improve their lives.”
Paul McCartney, former Beatle: “He brought his daughter Stella as a baby, and I taught her how to float. Years later he returned, and we swam together in the sea. He was wary of jellyfish.”
Norman Foster, architect: “I taught him at the hotel, and his children at his former house nearby. There is a pool on the upper floor that looks out on the sea. It’s a masterpiece of modern art.”
Domenico Dolce, fashion designer: “I knew nothing about fashion, and he knew nothing about swimming, so we shared our knowledge. When he invited me to his fashion show in Milan, how could I say no?”