Americans and the Making of the Riviera – Launches


Led by Cole Porter in the nineteen twenties, Americans revolutionized the Riviera by demonstrating that the best season to visit was not the winter, but the summer. Before he arrived the season ran from September to April. The Americans created the summer season. In the twentieth century Americans took over the nineteenth century British role of shaping tourism on the Riviera.



The book was launched in Nice at the Hotel Negresco on December 20 2007.

In his speech Michael Nelson reminded the guests of the important role the Hotel Negresco had played in the lives of Americans on the Riviera. He quoted extracts from the book about three Americans who frequented the hotel.  

Isadora Duncan

On New Year’s day 1927 a reporter toasted her: “To your health, Miss Duncan.” “My health is all right,” she retorted. “It’s money that I want.” She did get some money by signing a contract for her memoirs. But early in February she received a note from the management of the Negresco saying that if she did not pay the bill for nine thousand francs ($360) she would have to vacate her room. But she charmed the manager into postponing payment and he even advanced her a first-class train ticket to Paris.

Rudolph Valentino

New Year’s eve made up for the strains of Christmas when the Valentinos were guests of honour at an exuberant party amid the Belle Epoque glories of the Negresco. Rudolph consumed large quantities of champagne and in the centre of the dance floor replayed part of his film Blood and Sand, prodding an imaginary bull with his cane. His mother-in-law later found him wrapped round a dancer, Jane Day, trying to persuade her that she would make a great movie actress, but she was almost asleep and did not respond.

James Thurber

Thurber recorded life on the evening shift of the Riviera edition of the Chicago Tribune:

We went to work after dinner and usually had the last chronicle of the diverting day written and ready for the linotypers well before midnight. It was then our custom to sit around for half an hour, making up items for the society editor’s column. She was too pretty, we thought, to waste the soft southern days tracking down the arrival of prominent persons on the Azure Coast. So all she had to do was stop at the Ruhl and Negresco each day and pick up the list of guests who had just registered. The rest of us invented enough items to fill up the last of her column, and a gay and romantic cavalcade, indeed, infested the littoral of our imagination.


The author signs a book for Malcolm Bruce-Jones at the Nice launch.
Guests from France and the United States at the Nice launch.
Fontan Binoche, harpist, at the Nice launch.


The London launch was at the Garrick Club on January 18 2008.

Robert Elphick reported:

The speaker at the launch was another prolific historian and expert on France, Jonathan Fenby. He described the book as “a fascinating account of a fascinating place and fascinating people.”  One of its great attractions was the presence of writers and artists, such as Cole Porter, Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker and many others, particularly in the inter-war period of the 1920s and 30s.

While Queen Victoria showed that the Riviera, hitherto renowned as the place to escape the northern European winter, could also be an ideal place for a spring holiday. The Americans, used to hotter climes, showed that the stretch of coast between Marseilles and Menton could be a playground throughout the summer too.

They came in droves with money and talent.

American interest started quite early. Thomas Jefferson went there not long after penning the American Constitution in the late 18th century. He spent five days travelling by coach to Nice from Marseilles where he wrote that he “found a gay and dissipated society, a handsome city, good accommodations, and some commerce.”  But he recorded that he stayed in a “fine English tavern.” A practical man, Jefferson saw the benefits that olive trees could offer his own country and claimed the introduction of olives and improved rice strains to the US as among his greatest achievements.

A seriously eccentric American character of a different era, James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the Herald Tribune, settled in a palatial villa in Beaulieu where he could watch his enormous yacht in the bay and run his newspapers in New York and its Paris edition by something like remote control.

The gaiety and dissipation took on a new lease of life however between the wars. The Americans had in fact used the Mediterranean during the 1914-18 Great War as an area for rest and recuperation for fatigued or injured troops.

Michael Nelson describes how with the advent of peace they crowded in. Artists like the Murphys and the Clews, got their friends to visit, and left their marks on the Riviera that can be seen today.

People like Frank Jay Gould, heir to a great American Railroad fortune, put their money to good use. He developed Juan les Pins, and built a hotel in Nice. His third wife recalled “everyone slept with everyone: it was amusing and practical.”

As another of the Americans put it: “you might find yourself swimming in the Mediterranean beside Picasso or Chagall.”

Nelson marshals his characters and tells a host of vivid and amusing stories. Apart from the word, the illustrations are a joy in themselves.

Jonathan Fenby suggested: “With such a rich and varied cast, the book might have been twice as long.”


Guests bought many books at the London launch.
Jonathan Fenby, author of “On the Brink: The Trouble with France,” at the London launch.
The author describes the founding of the Garrick Club in 1831 — at the London launch.

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Explore more about the book:

Introduction     Launches     Reviews     Contact      Follow the Footsteps of the Americans on the Riviera (PDF)