I will say right from the outset that the dinners I threw at the Hôtel du Cap over the years—and I held a number of them—were evenings of such pleasure and exuberance and glamour that, had I not been the host, I would most certainly never have been invited.
I can also say from the outset that, over the past quarter of a century, I have developed a fondness for the hotel to such a degree that it feels like a second home—one far superior to my first home—as indeed it has been for the iconic figures of so many passing eras, from the Belle Époque, through the Jazz Age, the jet age, the 1960s and 70s, right up to the present.
There are grander hotels than the Hôtel du Cap. There are more expensive hotels than the Hôtel du Cap. But there is no hotel with such subtleties of setting, purpose, and service like the Hôtel du Cap. It stands by itself on the cliffs of Cap d’Antibes, a world apart.
The age of the hotel is a marvel in itself. It’s almost 20 years older than Raffles in Singapore and the Savoy in London, and nearly 30 years older than the Paris Ritz. Many of the grand hotels built at the end of the 19th century look like 19th-century palaces. In the case of the Hôtel du Cap, with the addition of Eden-Roc overlooking the sea, it looks as fresh as when Slim Aarons took that iconic photograph of the pool area in 1976.
There are grander hotels than the Hôtel du Cap. There are more expensive hotels than the Hôtel du Cap. But there is no hotel with such subtleties as the Hôtel du Cap.
This modernity may have something to do with the fact that, in its 150 years, the hotel really has had only three proprietors. This sort of continuity allows for long-term planning and execution.
In addition to the continuity in ownership, there is also an enduring respect for the human assets of the hotel. There are 500 employees for 118 rooms and many members of the staff have been there for 20 years or more—you can spot them by the badge in their lapels. The badges with a small diamond indicate two decades of service. If you look, you will see a lot of them.
Marie-Christine Saison had been executive housekeeper for 27 years before she retired, in 2019. Michel Babin de Lignac, head doorman, who stands regally outside the entrance to the Eden-Roc pavilion, looking for all the world what a French president should look like, has been standing sentry for 45 years.
Eric Grac, concierge at the Eden-Roc pavilion and right-hand man of Gilles Bertolino, head concierge, grew up nearby in Nice, and, for him, the hotel was always a place of sophisticated mystery. Eric has an ear for languages—useful in a hotel like this one—and can handle a difficult situation in French, English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and even Russian.
Not so long ago, he was summoned to the Grill down by the pool to sort out a problem. A diner had requested a tarte tropézienne, an inexplicably popular brioche bun that is sliced in half and layered with a creamy center. As you can guess from the name, it was concocted in Saint-Tropez, 60 miles to the west of Antibes. And it is not on the Hôtel du Cap menu.
The diner was adamant: he wanted a tarte tropézienne! Eric’s solution? He chartered a helicopter and sent a staff member to Saint-Tropez. He had a tropézienne on the customer’s table by the time coffee was served. The tarte was five euros. The helicopter was 2,000 euros. The diner’s bill reflected all of this. But he was happy.
Hippolyte de Villemessant, in addition to having a name that generally would be found only in fiction, is a man of two great destinies. In the middle of the 19th century, he bought Le Figaro from its founder and changed it from a satirical weekly into the conservative daily it is today.
He then set his mind on creating an elegant retreat for burnt-out writers in search for inspiration—as if there were any other kind. It was to be called Villa Soleil—later renamed the Grand Hôtel du Cap and, in 1987, the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc.
In the early days, the season along the Côte d’Azur went from September through April. The major hotels, including the Hôtel du Cap, closed for the summer. The Mediterranean, it was thought, was just too warm during the summer months.
The smart set preferred to spend July and August in towns along the west coast, where the ocean-fed waters were cooler—places like Deauville, Cap Ferret, and Biarritz. In time the actual months of the Hôtel du Cap’s season began to change. Today, it is almost reversed from its earliest days. The hotel opens in April and closes at the end of October.
The change began in the 1920s, when the Americans and the English discovered the Riviera. They were led by Gerald and Sara Murphy, who rented a good part of the hotel for the summer of 1923. From then on, the Hôtel du Cap attracted any number of writers, composers, and artists.
The writers and composers came for the liquor—Prohibition was still the law in the United States. And the artists came for the light. During those heady years between the wars, everyone who was anyone spent time at the Hôtel du Cap: Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Noël Coward, George Bernard Shaw, Isadora Duncan, Rudolph Valentino, John Dos Passos, Erich Maria Remarque, Marlene Dietrich, Archibald MacLeish, Donald Ogden Stewart, Beatrice Lillie, James Baldwin, Ella Fitzgerald, Picasso, and, most prominently, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. (Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald’s final book, was based in part on his earlier years in the South of France.)
Former British prime minister David Lloyd George was a regular guest in the years before World War II. He would begin his day with a brisk walk around the hotel’s gardens. The postwar years brought their own brand of glamour: the guest list included Peter Sellers, John and Yoko, Romy Schneider, Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, Michael Caine, Robert Evans, and Rock Hudson and Doris Day.
Dinner and a Party
My own experiences with the hotel began in the mid-90s. I was about four years into my 25 years as the editor of Vanity Fair. Wendy Stark, the magazine’s West Coast chief (and the daughter of producer Ray Stark) had been attending the Cannes Film Festival since childhood.
She urged me to have a dinner and party during the film festival, similar to the one we were then doing in Los Angeles on the night of the Oscars. I resisted at first, for reasons that now escape me. I knew one thing, though: I didn’t want to do a dinner in Cannes proper, at one of the hotels along the Croisette. If I was going to do something, I thought, it should be done at a hotel I had heard of but never visited: the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc.
Beginning our first year and for much of the next two decades, we invited people from across Europe as well as New York and Los Angeles. We also included the many stars who were staying at the hotel. I had incredible co-hosts along the way: Giorgio Armani, Richard Plepler and HBO, and Gucci all helped pitch our tent along the Riviera for memorable evenings.
Our dinners at the hotel were for 150 people and started at eight P.M. in the dining room. Once dessert was served, the evening spilled out into the pool area, where a further 300 guests had arrived.
Mateo, our D.J., provided the music—American popular standards and rock classics at first, and then disco and more contemporary music as the evening went on. One year there was a hundred-person conga line that snaked all around the pool area.
We had princes and princesses, billionaires and Bond girls, comtesses and crooks. Everyone from Mick Jagger, Colin Firth, and Harrison Ford to Claudia Cardinale and Cate Blanchett.
Two regulars at the dinners were Jean Pigozzi, who has a house just down the coast from the hotel, and Bernard-Henri Lévy, the philosopher. B.H.L., as he is often billed, would come to dinner wearing a dinner jacket and an open-necked white shirt with the buttons undone to just about the stomach. One year he dispensed with the shirt completely and just wore the jacket.
The only people we ever banned from the party were Harvey Weinstein and British retailer Philip Green—the first one for being rude to the staff, the second for being rude to the other guests.
The weather in May can be glorious one moment and then turn on a dime. One year, a late mistral blew in from the north and caused havoc. Another year, a well-known French actress collapsed at the dinner. Her skin was the color of cement. Apparently she had had a bit too much to drink and not enough food. We called for help but didn’t want to embarrass her or for the other guests to see her. In my experience, nothing kills a party faster than a dead actress. Without a bit of fuss, the hotel staff had her moved to another part of the area, at which point an ambulance came for her. Not a single guest was the wiser for it.
One year our London editor, Henry Porter, got stuck in the bathroom down near the Grill when the party following dinner was in full swing. He just wanted a bit of quiet and a cigar. When he decided to head back into the throng, he found that the door handle had jammed. “Aidez moi—je suis emprisonné dans les toilettes!” he shouted feebly. He kept trying the knob and was about to give up when a man’s voice said, “Reculez, Monsieur! Stand back from the door!” Henry hopped up onto the seat. There was a loud noise as the man on the other side kicked in the door. It was Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Graydon Carter is a Co-Editor of Air Mail