Reliving Colette's Riviera
Published: June 2009
By Judith Thurman
In the 1920's, the French novelist fell in love with the Côte D'azur and with a much younger man. You can still find the house they bought in the hills above St.-Tropez -- and the mountain villages, brilliant colors, and secluded coves that so seduced her
In 1991 I spent a vibrant year in Paris researching a book on Colette's life, then eight somber years in my New York study writing it. While I was in France, I visited her native Burgundy, her apartment at the Palais-Royal, and two of her country houses. But I didn't have the leisure or the means to explore her haunts on the Riviera.
By last summer my first draft was done, and no commission has ever been more timely or welcome than this one: to compare the sensuous images in Colette's letters and books with the living landscapes and sensations that inspired them. The Riviera, of course, has been developed, even pillaged in the course of a century, not least by writers. So one must search for poetic affinities rather than for literal matches between Colette's Riviera and its contemporary counterpart. Some things, however, have endured: the austere beauty of the hills; the unbridled hedonism of the coast; the intensity of the light; the temper of climate and people; the potent erotic savor of the whole southern experience.
For half a lifetime, Colette had scorned what she liked to call le bas de la France, "the bottom of France." She had always, she says, "childishly" imagined the road from Paris to the Mediterranean as "a downward slope, easy and fatal." Then suddenly one summer—in 1925—she took the fall and tumbled into love with the Midi.
It was one of those affairs for which one impetuously forsakes old ties, in this case a "dream house" on the Breton coast where she had vacationed for 13 years, first with her lesbian lover, the Marquise de Morny, then with her second husband, Henry de Jouvenel, their daughter, his two sons (the elder of whom, 16-year-old Bertrand, became her lover there), and a large circle of friends.
Colette's infatuation with the Riviera was to last longer than either of her first two marriages: 14 years. It was a "family romance" in many senses. Through her father, the improvident Captain Colette, who called her Bel-Gazou—a Provençal expression that means "lovely babble"—Colette had le bas de la France in her blood. He came from the great shipbuilding port of Toulon, where his own father had been a naval officer, and the Colette family owned a very pretty piece of real estate on the cliffs outside town, at Le Mourillon.
In the youth of her first marriage, Colette often stayed with friends in Nice—the poet Renée Vivien owned the delightful Villa Cessole in the hills above the city—or in Monte Carlo, where her husband, Willy, gambled away the fortune that, in part, she'd earned for him by writing the Claudine books. Having signed his wife's novels, which invented the modern teenage girl and became the biggest best-sellers of the fin de siècle, Willy kept the royalties and cobbled the series into a play, also wildly successful. In the spring of 1903, she and Willy took Claudine on tour to the casino towns of the Côte d'Azur.
A few years later, Colette had divorced Willy and gone onstage herself. She was soon, in her own right, one of the most scandalous and popular French music-hall artistes—famous for appearing without a leotard, or much else, in pantomimes with titles such as The Flesh, The Cat, Egyptian Dream, or The Gypsy Girl. The reliable money was in the provinces, so under the aegis of her impresario, Baret, she became a virtuoso of the one-night stand, playing 32 cities in as many days. On the downhill train from Paris to Nice, and uphill from Monte Carlo to Paris, she wrote The Vagabond, using her makeup case as a desk. In Marseilles, she stayed in the same modest hotel (today called the Mercure Beauvau) that once received Chopin and George Sand. The view from its front windows has barely changed: the masts of pleasure boats and fishing launches; the glittering, tacky, and vital old port shaped like a horseshoe and hedged with sprawling cafés and bars, some of ill repute. When her show was over she would wolf down a velvety bouillabaisse like the one still proudly served at the Restaurant Michel on the Rue des Catalans. Yes, she loved the garlicky breath and the lilting accents—her father's accent—in which an irrepressible public shouted out its admiration for her charms. But a season in the "pretty, false Midi" wasn't—"and I'll say it again," she wrote—worth a chill November day with the mists rising from the bogs of her native Burgundy.
Yet it was to the Côte d'Azur that she returned when De Jouvenel discovered her five-year liaison with his son, and asked for a divorce. Bertrand had been pried from her embrace by his parents, and engaged to a young woman he was shortly to marry. The 52-year-old Colette was at the height of her powers; as usual, she found solace in her Olympian productivity. She was working simultaneously on two novels, a screenplay, and a hefty weekly quota of reportage and criticism, as well as acting the part of Léa in a revival of the drama she had adapted from Chéri, her own great novel about the romance of an aging courtesan and a young gigolo. Her sensual appetites were undiminished, including her appetite for adventure. But she had come to regard love as a fatal trap.
That didn't mean, however, that she wasn't willing to walk into it again with her beautiful, sea-colored cat's eyes wide open. Earlier that winter, her friend Marguerite Moreno, who was playing Chéri's mother, introduced her to Maurice Goudeket-- 35, an intense, courtly, raven-haired dealer in pearls and an obliging "extra man" at society dinner parties, who had adored Colette's work since adolescence. The meeting was inconclusive, so Colette and Moreno cooked up a second "chance" encounter—at Easter, on the Riviera. Maurice, Moreno, and some mutual friends were staying at the Eden Palace, on Cap d'Ail, a delicious Belle Époque hotel, expensive and discreet, with balconies and a manicured parterre overlooking the sea. It is still as charming to look at, and no doubt as romantic to inhabit, as it was then, though when I rang the bell the concierge informed me that it had become a private apartment complex. But perhaps because Colette's name also rang a bell, he opened the wrought-iron grille and invited me in to inhale the perfumes of a secret garden.
Colette arranged to join Moreno and her party—and to make the ploy seem spontaneous. "I was quick," she admitted. By July, the great writer and her "exquisite boy" were inseparable and would remain so. Their vacation on Cap d'Ail had not yet changed her opinion of the south, but Maurice had taken a two-week lease on a pink villa in the Var, with the Mediterranean at the foot of the garden. Game for every new pleasure that her "Satan" had to offer, Colette accompanied him.
By day, the heat was torrid, bleaching the sea and sky and melting the resin of the pine trees. The two lovers gaily braved sunstroke to go touring in Maurice's open car, stopping to bathe on deserted beaches with sand "as white as flour and finer than pollen." The nights were so mild they dragged their mattresses onto the terrace, and awoke to the setting moon and the "dark orange dawn." She had discovered her native element, Colette gushed to Moreno, which was this landscape, and "love, too."
In the neighboring village of Ste.-Maxime, recently colonized by the Parisian theater and fashion worlds, Colette had friends—actors, models, directors. The lovers could have dined in chic, familiar company every evening, but preferring nightlife of a rougher, more local color, they often drove to St.-Tropez, just across the gulf.
St.-Tropez's old port is now jammed with charter yachts out of the Cayman Islands and beefy tourists in knockoff Versace T-shirts. But the peeling stucco houses—pink, yellow, and terra-cotta, with worn green and turquoise shutters—haven't changed. Nor has the stately, low-slung Place des Lices, at the heart of the village, where there is a thriving open market on Saturdays.
While the narrow side streets are solidly stocked with branches of nearly every major luxury store found in Paris, Milan, and New York, Colette's sandal-maker, Rondini, is still in business at 16 Rue Georges-Clemenceau, and he still makes Colette's "Spartacus" sandals. After she broke a leg in 1931, she took to wearing them, even in winter, and they became her trademark.
In the summer of 1925, however, St.-Trop was still a somnolent place with no traffic and a rustic piano bar frequented by fishermen and a few adventurous artists. Here they drank rosé and ate grilled fish caught that morning. Colette consumed "enormous" quantities of garlic and raw onions, and exulted to her aristocratic friend, Anna de Noailles, about the charms of the "beautiful sailor-boys" who danced together under a bare lightbulb. A week into her honeymoon with the man and the place, Colette surprised another old friend, Francis Carco, with the announcement of her conversion: "What country! No kidding, Francis, I don't want any other." Her father would have been pleased to hear it.
This idyll in the Var so utterly seduced Colette that before she left she decided to sell her house in Brittany and buy a property near St.-Tropez. Her friends turned up a peasant farmhouse with four small rooms, off the Route des Salins. It had no plumbing or electricity, but the well was deep and full, and there was a wisteria-draped terrace that faced north. The house stood on slightly more than 21/2 acres of land, planted with vines and fig trees. Beyond the garden was a pinède—a stand of old pines—and a path that led through the vineyards, past a rotting gate "which a child could break through," to a deserted beach. "Without having to negotiate a single step," wrote Colette, she was in the sea.
Colette christened the house La Treille Muscate—the muscat vine. She immediately began to settle down in her imagination: the big, luminous room for her lazy hours and the small, dark one for writing; a kitchen garden scented with tarragon and sage; an abundance of tomato and pepper plants, of wild mushrooms and untamed roses. There were no mosquitoes, so she would sleep on the terrace with the mistral ruffling her hair, and wake to see the first rays of a copper sun tincturing the milky water.
To the fastidious Maurice, La Treille Muscate, as he wrote in his memoir, would never be "really beautiful or really comfortable," although Colette would give it—magically, as she had given all her Edens—the illusion of being so. She would also do some of her greatest writing here: The Pure and the Impure, which she called her "personal contribution to the sum total of our knowledge of the senses," and which is something deeper, too—a meditation on the way human beings eroticize their first bonds. And she would make the house, St.-Tropez, and its landscape the setting for her masterpiece, Break of Day: "The finest Côte d'Azur book," writes the coast's most astute recent chronicler, Mary Blume, "in which a middle-aged writer named Colette renounces the pleasures of the flesh, and in particular the sunburned, salt-flecked flesh of a handsome young man, for the sterner demands of art. [Break of Day] is a book of considerable nobility whose composition was undoubtedly eased by the presence of the sunburned, salt-flecked young man whom Colette married in 1935. Like so much of the Côte d'Azur, it is all a cheerful imposture."
The destiny of ravishingly scenic coastal real estate with a caressing climate seems to be ruled by a set of laws as inexorable as natural selection. First come the artists, then the rich, then the aspiring rich, and finally the masses. It wasn't long before Pastecchi's, the St.-Tropez piano bar, was charging Deauville prices and crowded with celebrities and moguls in couture beach pajamas air-kissing over their champagne buckets. Soon there were traffic jams of Hispano-Suizas and Bugattis triple-parked in front of the little shop where Colette bought her stationery and toilet paper. (They have since been replaced by Jaguars and Ferraris.) In 1932, having quixotically entered the beauty business, she opened her own boutique on the port, selling cosmetics with the Colette logo and—in a white lab coat—doing makeovers of the famous actresses who, it was noted, came out looking 10 years older than when they went in.
While the glamour of St.-Tropez has never quite palled, it was even then being diluted by the campers, the tents on "her" pristine beach, the proliferation of nasty little snack bars with American names—"Hollywood-Beach," "Seawood Lodge"—and the souvenir stands selling postcards of "Collette's villa [sic]," which she bought up wholesale and sent, half-furious, half-amused, to her friends. She deplored the cars full of foreign "sheep" (including those from Paris) that created gridlock on the corniche. By the mid-1930's, it was only at dawn that she could swim in the Baie des Canoubiers without being pestered for an autograph or offended by German nudists showing too much chalky flesh, or by amorous couples pushing the envelope of flamboyance. Colette admired discretion. She also liked having things to herself.
As the years passed, her haunts on the Riviera became the naturally inaccessible rather than the socially exclusive ones. She was invited to dine on the burnished yachts moored in the new marinas, and in the flashy villas going up in the hills, where white-gloved servants waited on languid convives who later retired to swap wives, daughters, or occasionally sons. But she much preferred the family suppers of ratatouille and fish soup at the farmhouse of her closest neighbors, Vera the ballerina and Julio the dentist; or a pre-breakfast walk with her bulldog through the pinède, where she soaked her espadrilles in the dew and feasted on stolen figs; or an expedition with her friend Moune to the hill towns—Grimaud, Bormes-les-Mimosas, Èze, Haut-de-Cagnes—to explore the ruins and to buy old pottery for a song. If the heat abated or a novel was stuck, she might set out for a daylong hike, with a picnic, through the Dom Forest.
Today there is little tourism and almost no commerce on the shadowy N98 out of Bormes-les-Mimosas, which runs through the Dom. Twelve miles west of St.-Tropez one passes a small vineyard—Domaine des Campaux—which produces one of the delicately spiced and delicious local Côtes de Provences. The old stone maison de maître, surrounded by a flagstone terrace, has been converted recently to a bed-and-breakfast, with rustic rooms and a wholesome table d'hôte. It looks much as La Treille Muscate must have when Colette discovered it.
You may decide, with her, to bypass the coastal resort towns east of St.-Tropez and spend half a day finding the 12th-century Chartreuse de la Verne, set in a grove of ancient chestnuts. Drink from the sacred stream and count your blessings. You might also, in her honor, stop at the Restaurant du Café de France, in Grimaud, for a plate of roasted yellow peppers, meltingly sweet and smothered in raw garlic.
If you do nothing else in St.-Tropez (besides sun, gorge, ogle, and shop), you must bike or drive down La Route des Salins, which runs past Colette's farmhouse, to the Plage des Salins, where the sentier littoral begins. This footpath of ocher sand winds for miles along the coast, through fragrant scrub, with unspoiled views of the sea. You can clamber down the rocks for a swim, your communion with the elements uninterrupted by greasy toddlers carrying Barney floats, brokers with laptops, or topless models flaunting perfect bodies.
After her morning swims, Colette loved working among the lizards and the stray cats in her own garden. She dug an irrigation ditch for her tangerine trees and mulched them with heaps of seaweed, which she carried from the beach and rinsed in well water. In September, she helped her farmhands bring in the grape harvest. And only when the new wine was in its casks did she close up La Treille Muscate and return to the gray light of Paris.
In 1939, when Hitler signed his "Pact of Steel" with Mussolini, Colette and Maurice sold their house in St.-Tropez and bought a country place closer to the capital. She was beginning to suffer from the excruciating arthritis of the hip that eventually crippled her. During the exceptionally frigid and damp first winter of the war, Colette's doctors advised her to go south for some relief, so she and Maurice booked rooms at the Hôtel Ruhl, in Nice. She told friends that the garlic, the oranges, and the flower market had restored her, at least a little.
Old cities, like old trees, have deep taproots that can't be shaken as easily as resorts are by the storms of change, and Nice, like Marseilles, is an inexhaustibly real place. Visit "her" flower market in the Cours Saleya, with its ancient pastel houses, two stories high, and lunch on salade niçoise at the Riviera's most charming hole-in-the-wall, Chez Palmyre. There were two Chez Palmyres in Colette's life, one a famous lesbian bistro in Belle Époque Paris, the other a tiny restaurant in St.-Tropez, where an aged "Ma Palmyre" did all the cooking, and this is the latter reincarnate. It is even possible that Colette ate here—Mme. Palmyre of Nice, now 84, has been in business since the 1930's and still does all her authentic Provençal home cooking for a devoted, native clientele.
In winter I might have chosen, as Colette sometimes did, to stop at the Negresco. But since it was July I avoided the heat and congestion of downtown Nice by staying at Le Cagnard, in Haut-de-Cagnes. This handsome hotel has been artfully assembled from several ancient village houses and decorated in a medieval style. A few doors away, on Place Docteur-Maurel, I found the only shop on the Riviera that tempted me to spend some of the mad money I had been saving for the Casino de Monte Carlo. Terraïo sells classic pottery with pure shapes, the color of the dusky sea.
Chronic pain dimmed but never entirely extinguished Colette's wanderlust, and at the end of her life she was still writing prodigiously. Her confinement focused her powers, and in the course of the four war years in France, this invalid entering her seventies produced eight books, including her last and most famous novella, Gigi. When peace returned, Maurice took her south as often as he could, hoping to revive her spirits in the southern climate that had nurtured their early love. They stayed with Simone Berriau, the actress and producer, who had a house overlooking the salt marshes near Hyères, and with the count and countess—Charles and Pata—de Polignac, who rented a luxurious villa in the hills south of Grasse. Practically next door, you will find one of the most refined hotels in the region, Le Moulin des Mougins, run by Roger Vergé. It is just off a main road, but like a Frenchwoman with a flaw to her beauty, it goes to heroic lengths to be alluring, and succeeds admirably.
The Polignacs introduced Colette and Maurice to their cousin, Prince Pierre of Monaco, and in May of 1950, encouraged by her fan the prince, Colette made the first of what was to become a series of annual trips to Monte Carlo, living in a ground-floor suite of the Hôtel de Paris, which had a wheelchair entrance and a private garden. She regaled Pata with descriptions of the appallingly inelegant foreign tourists and the crowds of assorted millionaires and minor royalty—the characters, she said, from a somewhat tedious operetta. The following winter, as Colette was being wheeled into the operatically opulent Salle Empire, with its frescoes of peacocks, tigers, and naked women, she stopped to watch a film being shot in the lobby. The leading actress was an enchanting young beauty switching fluently from English to French. Without hesitation, Colette announced to Maurice that she had found "our Gigi for America": Audrey Hepburn.
Having ventured and lost 200 francs in my first 10 minutes at the roulette table, I, unlike Colette, decided that I would never voluntarily return to Monte Carlo. But it was great pure impure fun for a while. The Hôtel de Paris still caters to millionaires, minor royalty, and appallingly inelegant foreign tourists, many of them our compatriots, and the ambiance today is more Dynasty than Merry Widow. But Colette would have enjoyed the sybaritic new spa, the three-star cuisine, and even, I suspect, the hotel beach, where surgically enhanced beauties in four-inch mules, dripping with diamonds and Tahitian pearls, are kept busy on their cell phones. To what purpose?Reread Chéri.
The "downhill" TGV (France's super-express train) gets you to Marseilles from Paris in four hours, just enough time to read Colette's Break of Day, and perhaps Mary Blume's absorbing and sharply observed Côte d'Azur. Rent a car in Marseilles and head for St.-Tropez, stopping in Toulon for a coffee in one of the shaded squares around the opera house. You might find some fine old editions of Colette's work in the charming book kiosks, or you can search the musty philately shops for the rare stamps once cherished by Colette's fey, musical brother, Léo.
Hôtel Mercure-Beauvau Vieux-Port 4 Rue Beauvau, Marseilles; 33-4/91-54-91-00, fax 33-4/91-54-15-76; doubles from $110. Still a haunt of French writers and literary romantics.
Le Yaca 1 Blvd. d'Aumale, St.-Tropez; 33-4/94-55-81-00, fax 33-4/94-97-58-50; doubles from $250. Colette wintered here in 1927, when La Treille Muscate was undergoing one of its periodic renovations.
La Réserve de Beaulieu 5 Blvd. Général Leclerc, Beaulieu; 33-4/93-01-00-01, fax 33-4/93-01-28-99; doubles from $330. La Réserve opened in 1890. It has since been renovated, but the shell-pink rooms, dazzling views, and antique politesse of the service give an exquisitely creamy taste of the old Côte d'Azur.
Hôtel Belle-Vue 14 Place Gambetta, Bormes-les-Mimosas; 33-4/94-71-15-15, fax 33-4/94-05-96-04; doubles from $30. A modest, somewhat funky establishment with a charming terrace.
La Grande Maison Domaine des Campaux, Bormes-les-Mimosas; 33-4/94-49-55-40, fax 33-4/94-49-55-23; doubles from $85. Mother-and-daughter proprietors Laurence Lapinet and Joyce Naveau rent out rooms.
Le Cagnard Rue Sous-Barre, Haut-de-Cagnes; 33-4/93-20-73-21, fax 33-4/93-22-06-39; doubles from $150. Several refurbished village houses.
Hôtel de Paris Place du Casino, Monte Carlo; 37-7/92-16-30-00, fax 37-7/92-16-38-49; doubles from $350. Colette wintered in this Monaco classic.
Restaurant Michel 6 Rue des Catalans, Marseilles; 33-4/91-52-30-63; dinner for two $88. For bouillabaisse.
L'Olivier Hôtel La Bastide de St.-Tropez, Rue des Carles, St.-Tropez; 33-4/94-97-58-16; dinner for two $150. Set among old olive trees, this restaurant offers excellent cuisine-- rabbit cooked in olives, scallops roasted in garlic.
Restaurant du Café de France 5 Place Neuve, Grimaud; 33-4/94-43-20-05; dinner for two $67. Local melon with ham, roasted yellow peppers smothered in raw garlic, fresh cold tomato bisque.
Le Moulin des Mougins Quartier Notre-Dame-de-Vie, Mougins; 33-4/93-75-78-24; dinner for two $200. Owned and run by one of the great chefs of France, Roger Vergé.
La Pinède 10 Blvd. de la Mer, Cap d'Ail; 33-4/93-78-37-10; dinner for two $83. An unpretentious grilled-fish kind of place right on the beach.
Chez Palmyre 5 Rue Droite, Nice; 33-4/93-85-72-32; dinner for two $23. The menu is drawn from family recipes.
Castelroc Place du Palais, Monaco; 37-7/93-30-36-68; lunch for two $65; closed for the season until May 13. Delicious fettuccine with white truffles.
Rondini 16 Rue Georges-Clemenceau, St.-Tropez; 33-4/94-97-19-55. Where Colette had her sandals made.
Poterie Augier 40 Rue Clemenceau, St.-Tropez. Modern versions of the milky-green Provençal pottery that Colette liked.
Market Place des Lices, St.-Tropez. At the heart of the village; Saturdays until 1 p.m.
Gérard Panay 22 Rue Jean-Alard, Bormes-les-Mimosas; 33-4/94-71-31-90. The old Provençal pottery and local landscape art collected by Colette.
Diagram 11 Cours Saleya, Nice; 33-4/93-80-33-71. A picturesque array of antiques, pottery, and fabrics.
Terraïo 12 Place Docteur-Maurel, Haut-de-Cagnes; 33-4/93-20-86-83. Classic pottery with pure shapes; milky turquoise platters and bowls.
Perfect for your rental car: the audiocassette of Gigi (Audio Partners) read by Leslie Caron, who played the title role in the movie.