• mattnewbury

Drifting back to the Jazz Age on the French Riviera

Updated: Jul 11, 2020

Taking a dip where original wild swimmers Zelda and F Scott Fitzgerald Swim invented the summer holiday on Cap d’Antibes.

All images © 2020 Matt Newbury

Swimming played a central role in several of the books and stories of F Scott Fitzgerald, mainly because it was an obsession of his flamboyant wife and muse, Zelda. She famously once confessed she only really cared for two things in life, swimming and boys. Growing up in Alabama, Zelda was notorious for her daring dives from heights local boys couldn’t match and for rumours she would frequently swim naked. On her honeymoon, she dived bare into the fountain in Union Square, while the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel in Central Park was another drunken swim spot for the star crossed lovers of the Jazz Age.

Scott, Zelda and their young daughter Scottie headed to the French Riviera in the summer of 1924, to escape the extravagant New York lifestyle they could no longer afford and to allow Scott to concentrate on finishing his third novel, The Great Gatsby. Back then the palm-fringed Riviera would have been nearly deserted, with sunbathing not yet in fashion, but the Fitzgeralds took to hanging out with millionaire socialites Gerald and Sara Murphy down at Cap d’Antibes where they helped make the summer holiday popular for the first time.

In Fitzgerald’s later masterpiece, Tender is the Night, the Murphy’s are represented as Dick and Nicole Diver, who take over the curved white sand known as Plage de la Garoupe with extravagant picnics and eminent friends. Reality wasn’t much different, with Gerald playing jazz records on a portable phonograph on the beach, Scott sipping gin from a bottle and Zelda and her daughter playing in the inviting azure waters. Today there are three private beaches here, but there are patches of public beaches if you fail to gate-crash the party.

Scott and Zelda would liven up evenings at the hotel by diving off the 11-meter high rocks into the dark sea.

Alternatively you could always head down to the pink Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc (Hotel des Etrangers in Tender is the Night) where the Murphy’s would entertain the likes of Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and Rudolf Valentino while their new home was being built. Scott and Zelda would liven up evenings at the hotel by diving off the 11-meter high rocks into the dark sea. At one party, Zelda removed her black lace panties and threw them to her hosts, prompting several of the other guests to strip off and skinny dip in the pool.

In 1926 and with The Great Gatsby a huge success, the Fitzgerald’s returned to the French Riviera renting Villa St-Louis in Juan-les-Pins, now the stunning Hôtel Belles Rives. At the time, Fitzgerald boasted "we are in a perfect spot. Our big house is right on the sea and has a private beach. The casino is scarcely a hundred meters away and we are looking forward to a splendid summer." While a stay in the art deco hotel may be out of many of our price ranges, you could always take a dip before sipping a Gatsby (gin, lychee liquor, violet syrup and Perrier) in The Fitzgerald Bar. There’s a lovely little beach in front, where I took a dip and drifted back to the halcyon days of these bright young things.