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The Golden Bowl
by Bill Kimberlin

December 14, 2003

Hotel du Cap, Cap d'Antibes, France

      Traveling in the South of France one recent summer I came upon the Hotel du Cap. It is on a little peninsula of land that sticks out into the Mediterranean Sea called Cap d'Antibes. I had stopped in the town of Antibes years earlier and walked around just long enough to know that I wanted to come back.
 
      It is this hotel on the French Riviera that made me start to think about the artist's license to rearrange reality. If you are familiar with the book,"Tender Is The Night" by Scott Fitzgerald, you might remember his description of this very hotel from the opening pages...
 
Cap d'Antibes, with Hotel du cap on left & Eden Roc below
     "On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half way between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose colored hotel. ...The hotel and its bright tan prayer rug of a beach were one."
 
      In earlier days, the beginning of summer was the end of the season on the Riviera. But in June, 1923 Gerald and Sara Murphy convinced the owner to keep the Hotel du Cap open for themselves and their friends with a minimum staff. Both the Murphys and the hotel were the models for Scott Fitzgerald's novel. Picasso and his wife were also at the hotel that June.
 

Path from Hotel du Cap to the Eden Roc
     There is indeed a large "tan prayer rug" that stretches from the hotel, but it is not a beach; the "prayer rug" is a wide brown gravel walkway that leads down to the equally famous Eden Roc, a restaurant and hotel complex. The "beach" is a solid rocky cliff and the only swimming nearby is in the luscious pool of the Eden Roc. You can spring from a diving board into the sea, if you like, and climb back up the cliff on a conveniently placed ladder that is bolted to the rock. I watched as several kids from the hotel dove into the Mediterranean. Swimming back, they would catch the rhythm of the ocean; scurrying up the ladder when the sea was pushing them, and holding on tight when the ocean sank back.
 
Hotel du Cap lobby stairway curving around elevator
     It costs about a thousand dollars a day to stay at the Hotel du Cap -- at least it did when the U.S. dollar was strong. Now it would be perhaps 30% more. Many wealthy American fathers were anxiously booking their families in for the next year as I studied the lobby. There is a beautiful antique elevator of highly polished wood and glass whose rise to the elegant rooms above is always in full view. The elevator is neatly placed in the curl of a curving staircase that leads the more adventurous to the same place.
 
      The hotel must have seemed a bargain to the son of the founder of the famous New York based leather goods store, Mark Cross. Gerald Murphy might best be described as the only man who could possibly have taught anything stylish to his soon to be heralded Yale roommate, Cole Porter. The Murphys had left the United States due to "an absence of cultural stimulation in America". I found that I was on this trip for the same reason.
 
      The Murphys were all about style and their life on the Riviera came to haunt the characters in Fitzgerald's novel. I'd always admired the book because it was so evocative of a certain American/French ambiance what Gerald dubbed "a false mystery".
 

Pet cemetery at Hotel du Cap
     I poked around the hotel grounds and found a pet cemetery with little stone grave markers carved with the names of favorite pets. The dates were mostly before 1930. The Murphys were a family that not only remembered their pets birthdays, but celebrated them.
 
      As always, the intersection of fiction and reality is a surprising place. The hotel in "Tender" is a composite of the Hotel du Cap and others. And the beach that the novel's Dick Diver so carefully rakes of seaweed in the early morning isn't at the hotel, but up the road a ways at La Garoupe, today a tiny sandy beach. In fact there are more wooden decks than beach there now.
 
Dust jacket of "Tender is the Night"
     Still it is a fascinating journey for any American brought up on the stories of these expatriate artists and the legacy that they have left us. I'm always as intrigued with seeing the inspiration for the art, as the art itself.
 
      The novel's intertwining of facts and fiction made my study of the hotel and the surrounding area all the more fruitful. I had read a little about the Murphys over the years, for instance in a book about them inspired by their lifestyle called, "Living Well Is the Best Revenge". The more I remembered, the more I wanted to see. Here had been a wealthy couple inventing a life of manners and art among some of the most famous artists of their time. Their friends included Fitzgerald, Dos Pasos, Picasso, Leger, Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Valentino, Cole Porter, and other assorted notables, all of whom were stopping by this hotel and later by their Villa American regularly.
 
      Besides starting the tradition of the Riviera summer season, Murphy is said to have introduced American jazz to the French. And although his output as a painter was small, he was no mere dilettante: he is actually regarded by some as one of the most important American painters of the twentieth century.
 
      From 1923 until 1929 the Murphys created a kind of magic, only to see it end tragically and dramatically with the death of their beloved young son after a visit to, of all places, Hollywood, where he contracted tuberculosis from his chauffeur. Such was the fertile ground from which their close friend Scott Fitzgerald drew his novel about beautiful people who lose their way and end badly.
 

Picasso painting of Hotel du Cap
     Not too far from the Hotel is a Picasso museum in an old stone fortress once used as a residence. One of the galleries had been an early Picasso apartment and it now contains some of his paintings and sculptures. There is one painting in particular that caught my eye. It is an abstraction but I recognized it anyway and confirmed my suspicions in a nearby description. It is a colorful little painting of the Hotel du Cap looking like a face with a big split tongue lapping out at the viewer, as if trying to woo him and then trap him in it's grasp. There is both whimsy and the danger of enticement in it, which now seems prophetic.
 
      By 1937 the magic of the Riviera was long in the past for both families. The Murphys had a second son die and the depression forced their return to their New York business. Fitzgerald's career was in decline and his wife was in a mental hospital.
 
Pool at the Eden Roc
     In later years Fitzgerald wrote to the Murphys and famously said,"The golden bowl is broken indeed, but it was golden." Having briefly brushed up against this golden bowl in Antibes, I can attest to its allure.
  

 




 
 
 
 
 

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