Even though John McEnroe is retired, he spent a stint of the summer hitting tennis balls with guests at Épi Plage 1959, a small private club and hotel on Pampelonne Beach, near St. Tropez. “It’s like a Soho House, but much smaller, more exclusive,” says McEnroe, who stays for free in exchange for, mostly, his presence.
He wanders about the bungalows in a T-shirt silkscreened with the face of his friend Keith Richards, smoking a joint. It’s McEnroe’s fourth season at Épi Plage 1959—which formerly was named L’Épi Plage—but he claims to be unaware of its sex-drugs-and-rock-’n’-roll-laced history.
It opened in 1959, when friends and business partners Albert Debarge and Jean Castel bought a deserted waterfront estate in the small village of Ramatuelle. Debarge, a businessman who made his fortune in pharmaceuticals, and Castel, an event coordinator, had already found success with L’Épi Club, their two-year-old jazz venue in Montparnasse.
Even though it had only 10 cabins, a few clay tennis courts, and a swimming pool, L’Épi Plage was an immediate hit. In the early 60s, the only requirement for admittance was to be “eccentric but elegant,” according to De Colmont. Guests were expected to be capable of hurling tropézienne pastry in a pie-throwing battle and know how to properly hold a champagne flute.
Françoise Sagan, Roger Vadim, and Brigitte Bardot, who celebrated her 37th birthday at L’Épi Plage, were among the regulars. Johnny Hallyday had a one-night stand with Natalie Wood in one of the bungalows, and Audrey Hepburn, Jane Fonda, and photojournalist Tim Page, who inspired Dennis Hopper’s character in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, were often spotted by the pool.
Guests were expected to be capable of hurling tropézienne pastry in a pie-throwing battle and know how to properly hold a champagne flute.
In 1961, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg dropped in and took heroin. He wrote about his visit in the poem “Funeral Vomit,” which paid tribute to “the most luxurious mushroom sauce laying out in the sunshine on Epi-Plage.”
“They built a big greenhouse under the pretext they were cultivating flowers, but in fact they were growing hallucinogenic mushrooms,” confirms Patrice de Colmont, the owner of nearby restaurant Club 55. He was 11 when L’Épi Plage first opened, and spent a lot of time observing its cast of characters. The club’s architect dressed like a gunslinging cowboy. Yacht master Jacky le Marin resembled Tintin’s bearded Captain Haddock.
“Debarge chose to surround himself with amazing people who either had artistic talent or were very funny,” says de Colmont. And, he explains, they invented what some consider to be the first real beach club in the area, with showers, locker rooms, a hairdresser, a restaurant, a bar, two pools, two tennis courts, and colonial-style bungalows. “It had service and comfort, but the atmosphere was hilariously silly,” he says.
By 1967, the mood trended toward psychedelic debauchery. Debarge broke with Castel, sold his pharmaceutical laboratory for $15 million, and moved to L’Épi Plage for good. A steady stream of pretty young girls, supplied with a candy store’s worth of drugs, hung out in la chambre des minettes (the teenyboppers’ room). Pink Floyd passed through, and Soft Machine staged a “happening” whose invitation read: “Come insanely tattooed.”
But things weren’t sunny forever. In November 1971, Debarge’s 25-year-old second wife, a former stripper, was arrested for possession of drugs on her way home from Amsterdam. The police raided L’Épi Plage and found enough contraband, including weapons, to threaten Debarge with prison time. Humiliated, he liquidated his business, sold L’Epi Plage, and, at age 56, put a shotgun to his head and died.
“Debarge was the Sun King of St. Tropez,” says Frederic Mauch, author of L’Épi Plage: Une Saga Tropézienne. “You’ve got to wonder why a guy like that—a bourgeois father of four with no-limit finances—suddenly flips, divorces, and becomes a party animal.”
Soft Machine staged a “happening” whose invitation read: “Come insanely tattooed.”
Mauch is especially invested in this story because his parents, Wolfgang and Shala, were the ones who bought the club from Debarge. From 1972 to 2018, he spent every summer in his family’s bungalow there; as a child, he rode his pet pony to buy cigars for his father at Club 55.
In the 80s, his parents split, and his mother settled down with an Argentinean model, Alexandre Deyhim. After decades of heavy use, Épi Plage was shabby as well as chic, but it still managed to attract Elton John, Madonna, and Sonia Rykiel. “It was kind of a bizarre place, but people liked it because it was authentic,” says Mauch.
Five years ago, the Mauch family sold Épi Plage to Frank McCourt, a real-estate developer and the owner of the Olympique de Marseille football team. Now it’s surrounded by a tall white fence, and its turquoise pools are bordered by dusty-rose-and-white parasols. The gardens were landscaped by Madison Cox, who was married to the late Pierre Bergé, who also designed the Connecticut compound of Anne Bass. If nothing at the Thom Browne boutique appeals, there’s plenty of merchandise in the gift shop, and most of it is covered in the Épi Plage 1959 logo: two crossed tennis rackets. It’s also found on staff uniforms, embossed towels, Bernardaud porcelain, swizzle sticks, and even the toilet paper. It’s a lot, especially since the club’s capacity is 18 residents, attended to by a staff of 60.
McEnroe, taking a water break, cracks a half-smile. “This isn’t a place where kids come who can’t afford to play tennis—I have a tennis academy for that in New York,” he says. “It’s a schmooze thing, a cocktail party.”
And the members love all of it—the clay courts, the high-tech gym, the aqua- and electric bikes, the paddleboard yoga, the kids’ club, and even the hangover-eviscerating cryotherapy chamber. Pets are extremely welcome: a pair of goldendoodles were spotted drinking bowls of cappuccino; another resident pooch made do with steamed vegetables and rice.
The five-figure membership fees and room rates are not published on the Web site, and posting photos on social media is forbidden. “I’ve done St. Tropez—people, yachts, big villas—but there’s nothing to compare with this,” enthuses Bill Dean, a Miami-based engineering executive who spent his summer vacation there. “It’s the one place I’ve been that is refreshing.”
On a July evening, guests were handed tennis balls filled with ice cream. They watched McEnroe battle a young protégé in the 92-degree heat before going to the beach for a barbecue. A sweltering cook in a starched white apron and long-sleeved white polo shirt clipped the claws of a lobster. The throbbing bass from neighboring Nikki Beach had finally subsided.
There are no magic mushrooms on the 240-euro family-style menu, but Ginsberg’s woozy tribute to L’Épi Plage still nails it. “Every time it will always be different … it’s so different from all before.”
Lanie Goodman is a travel and arts writer and the author of Romantic French Homes. Originally from New York, she has lived in the South of France since 1988