Mary McAuliffe is the author of “When Paris Sizzled: The 1920s Paris of Hemingway, Chanel, Cocteau, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, and Their Friends,” due out in September.
Monte Carlo is an international symbol of glamour — a playground for the well-to-do and for celebrities such as Ringo Starr and Leonardo DiCaprio. But it has not always been so.
In “Making Monte Carlo,” Mark Braude illuminates the unsavory dealings and outright flimflam that underlay the development of this out-of-the-way principality on the French Riviera. Braude’s well-researched and deftly written history whisks the reader through Monte Carlo’s colorful past, from the mid-19th century to the early 20th, culminating in the 1929 inaugural of the Monaco Grand Prix. Along the way the reader is treated to accounts of the early speculators who created this fantasy land.
At first sight Monaco was merely a dusty fishing village, with little to attract tourists. But it was the only place within hundreds of miles where it was legal to gamble, and several investors took interest, encouraged by Monaco’s rulers, the down-at-the-heels Grimaldi family. Within a remarkably short period the turnaround began, led by the cunning businessman François Blanc.
Blanc recognized that Monaco’s location on the Mediterranean was a major asset, and he began to build his dream world at the far edge of the tiny principality, constructing it around the casino that was its lifeblood and naming the venture Monte Carlo.
His concept, which proved a winning one, was to greatly extend the pool of Monte Carlo’s visitors by attracting middle- as well as upper-class vacationers and encouraging them to stay — and gamble — for long periods. He accomplished this under the pretext that this was a spa, and therefore a healthy destination, and by providing top-notch free entertainment and fine food in lavish surroundings. These in turn were brightened by lush tropical plantings (mostly imported) and a warm winter sun.
The secret to maintaining Monte Carlo’s aura of elegance, Blanc realized, was to foster the illusion of exclusivity, even while admitting all comers — at least, all those who dressed and behaved properly. The siren call of glamour and excitement worked, and once Blanc had improved the roads and prodded the railway to extend its services to Monte Carlo, people flooded in.
Braude, who teaches history and urban studies at Stanford, tells how Monte Carlo survived its World War I downturn, emerging more glamorous than ever during the 1920s, when it became a summer as well as winter destination. His story ends there, but it would have been interesting to know how the place fared during the ’30s and World War II, wedged between Vichy France and Mussolini’s Italy.
Braude’s narrative also deprives the reader of any account of the fairy-tale marriage of Hollywood’s Grace Kelly into the ancient House of Grimaldi, although he does provide a tantalizing tidbit about Kelly’s mother-in-law, the Hereditary Princess Charlotte, another commoner who entered the Grimaldi family. Charlotte was the illegitimate daughter of a Grimaldi prince and a laundress, and received recognition and titles only after a pragmatic decision to continue the direct line.
But life in Monaco, especially in Monte Carlo, had always been a pretense of grandeur and happily ever after. According to the fantasy, the sun always shined, and everyone was carefree. Except for the occasional rainstorms, suicides and rebellions by the tax-free but disgruntled citizens of Monaco, all was well, in the best of all possible worlds. What went on behind the scenes was nobody’s business.
By Mark Braude
Simon & Schuster. TKpp. $27