Crazy Stories Behind Famous Villas
A true paradise, the Côte d’Azur is widely renowned as one of Earth’s most luxurious destinations. For decades the world’s elite has descended on the French Riviera, drawing inspiration from its mesmerizing Mediterranean views as much as they do from the royalty, diplomats, actors, artists and entrepreneurs that rub shoulders there.
The South of France has been a revolving door of the super-rich for more than century. As their fortunes rose, industrialists, princes, and bankers built palaces along the Mediterranean, and as they fell on hard times—first the Russian aristocracy, then Americans after the 1929 stock market crash, then much of the European upper class after World War II—they sold them to the world’s next crop of newly wealthy.
Below you’ll find a series of short teasers about the French Riviera villas that have the most incredible or crazy stories attached to them. Each links to another article with the full story and more photos.
The Rolling Stones and Villa Nellcôte in Villefranche sur Mer
Built in 1899, this villa has gone down in history as a temple of rock’n’roll. The villa has a fascinating history, including a bit part in WW2. In 1971, Villa Nellcôte was the temporary residence of the Rolling Stones band members, rented by guitarist Keith Richards. Upstairs, a beautiful entourage socialized, often illicitly. In Nellcôte’s many-roomed basement, the Rolling Stones recorded material for what became their most storied album.
Here’s the full story of the debauchery that ensued while the Rolling Stones were recording in the villa, and who owns the famous villa now.
King Leopold’s Villas
King Leopold II was obsessed with the French Riviera. After a few years of secretive purchasing, the king of Belgium found himself the owner of the whole of the west side of the Cap Ferrat –more than 50 hectares– closing off the land from the public with barbed wire.
He purchased many properties along the French Riviera including the Villa Radiana, the Villa Ibéria which is next to Les Cèdres, and the Villa Léopolda, which he bought as a gift for his teenage (prostitute) mistress. Her conspicuous consumption made her world-famous, and they married when he was 74. She inherited great wealth when he died only 5 days later.
Le Lepolda in Villefranche-sur-Mer
Once owned by King Leopold II of Belgium, this villa was later owned by Lily Safra, a woman suspected of killing two of her four extremely wealthy husbands, who hosted lavish parties at the villa. The publisher John Fairchild later wrote about one of the Safra’s parties in his book Chic Savages and described the occasion as “the ultimate in conspicuous consumption.” The president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra, Prince Charles, and Prince Rainier III visited the Safra’s at the villa.
Lily and Edmond Safra’s story is one that’s almost too crazy to believe. Here’s the whole crazy story about La Leopolda, lavish parties, murder in a Monaco penthouse, and a deadly scandal.
Les Cèdres in Cap Ferrat
King Leopold II set his mistress up at Les Cèdres: a golden prison with panoramic sea views lost in the midst of luxuriant vegetation. Blanche spent her days at Les Cèdres alone, waiting for her royal lover who forbade her to go out or to receive other visitors.
The villa was later owned by another King, the Grand Marnier company, and then sold to a criminal Ukranian oligarch as he was being investigated for murder, for €200 million (it had been on the market for €1 billion).
Sean Connery’s Villa Le Roc Fleuri in Nice
This villa was the longtime French Riviera home of actor Sean Connery. This six-story Belle Epoque villa (dating from 1928) is set in exquisite surroundings with views of the city of Nice and the sea. Connery purchased the mansion, known as Le Roc Fleuri, in 1970 and lived there for “a dozen or so years.”. It is still referred to as “Sean Connery’s house” by neighbors.
Connery was the first actor to portray James Bond, and this villa played a role in the actor’s final turn as James Bond, 1983’s Never Say Never Again, which shot all around Nice and in neighboring Villefranche and Monaco — even at the villa itself.
Check out our post about Sean Connery’s famous villa for more details, video, and many more photos.
Bono’s Villa Les Rose in Èze
Bono, U2’s lead singer, jointly acquired the luxury property in Èze with the band’s lead guitarist ‘way back 1993. The rumored cost at the time was just €3.8 million, as it needed a lot of renovations. Nowadays it would be worth about €20 million. The pink, four-story seaside deluxe mansion is called Villa Les Rose, and was the site of the video for U2’s song Electrical Storm.
Bono is also neighbors with Adam Clayton (U2’s bass player) and Larry Mullen Jr. (U2’s drummer). They join him at the villa to practice in his recording studio, and to rest and rehearse in between concerts. Fans were reportedly recording and leaking some of their unreleased tracks when they get a little too loud.
Check out our guide to Bono’s life and villa in and around Èze.
Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Cap Ferrat
Banking heiress Beatrice Rothschild had this villa built in 1905, to celebrate her divorce from her cheating, gambling, lying ex-husband (Maurice Ephrussi), and to accommodate her ever-growing art collection. She made it into a hub for art of all kinds: literary parties, music, gatherings of art collectors, and riveting conversation.
Decorated with the treasures of the baroness’s collections, it is now open for visits and events. More than 5000 works of art are displayed, together with an impressive collection of furniture, lamps and carpets. The villa is most famous for its nine themed gardens.
In a deeply sexist move, the villa was renamed from Béatrice’s chosen name of ‘Ile de France’ to ‘Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild’, by the French association she donated the villa to upon her death. Beatrice’s horrible ex-husband’s name was added before hers, forever entwining their history in the public eye and unjustly giving him credit for a villa he had nothing to do with — in fact, he had never set foot in it!
Check out our guide to the villa, Beatrice’s extraordinary life, and how to visit.
E-1027 & Le Corbusier in Cap Martin
E-1027 is the kind of house that by now we may have seen before, but which no one but Eileen Gray could have dreamed of in 1926. Without any clue that she was creating a masterpiece years ahead of its time — Gray oversaw every detail of construction of the house.
Enter Le Corbusier, who often visited Eileen Gray and her partner at her seaside idyll. Whether he was or was not threatened by her talent, most scholars agree that he was obsessed with Gray and her triumphant E-1027. So much so that in 1938, after the bisexual Gray split with her partner and returned to loving women, Le Corbusier, with the consent of her erstwhile partner, took it upon himself to paint—some say defile—the interior walls with eight garish murals depicting charged lesbian imagery. To add insult to injury, he took photos of himself doing so, wearing nothing but his trademark glasses.
When she heard about this brazen act of disrespect, Gray was horrified and vowed never to return. At E-1027, the drama turned to tragedy. During World War II, Nazi soldiers looted the house and used it for target practice. In 1996, its morphine-addicted owner was murdered there. The villa was abandoned and left for dead, battered from disrepair, appropriated by squatters, junkies and drifters. Until…
Read the full, crazy story of Le Corbusier and Eileen Gray’s relationship …and what’s happened to the property since.
Pablo Picasso bought Villa La Californie in Cannes in 1955 and lived there with his last wife until 1961, when they abandoned it because another building was built that blocked his sea view. It was here that the Spanish artist created his masterpiece ‘The Bay of Cannes’. After Villa La Californie, Pablo Picasso and his wife bought another villa, this time in Mougins, where Picasso lived for 12 years, until his death in 1973 at age 91.
Here’s the full story (and photos) of Picasso’s villas, the time on the Riviera, and the legend –and mess– he left behind.
Santo Sospir in Cap Ferrat
Heiress socialite Francine Weisweiller was one of the prettiest, wealthiest, and most stylish women in Paris. The haute-bohemian villa Santo Sospir was built shortly after the war and was purchased by Francine’s husband Alex in 1946, as a prize for surviving the war. Alex spent most of his time in Paris living with his mistress, so Francine lived in the villa alone, and passed the time by throwing lively parties filled with celebrities and royalty.
Her friends and lovers, Jean Cocteau and his young boyfriend, arrived for what was to be a few days, and wound up staying there on and off for twelve years while he completed other commissions, including St. Pierre Chapel. Cocteau designed the Cartier ring with three colors of gold as a symbol of their threesome. Together, they became addicted to opium, and Cocteau ended up tattooing nearly all of the walls of the villa.
Here is the full story of villa Santo Sospir and the crazy events that transpired there.
Le Grande Jardin on Ile St Marguerite
Le Grande Jardin is the only private residence on the Lerins Islands. In 2008, it was purchased (via a bank loan which he defaulted on) by the Indian business magnate known as the “King of Good Times”. Since then, he has become a fugitive and is the subject of an extradition effort by the Indian Government to return him from the UK to face charges of financial crimes in India. It’s now owned by a hotel group who is renovating it and turning it into a luxury hotel and event space.
Here’s the full story about this amazing property and the fraudster who bought it.
La Fleur Du Cap / Place David Niven in Cap Ferrat
A magnificent piece of architecture in a vibrant shade of candy-pink, La Fleur Du Cap was built in 1880 by the son of an arms dealer. This villa has had many famous occupants, including King Leopold III of Belgium, and his successor and nephew of Léopold II. It was then purchased by David Niven, the famous actor. Since at least 1999, it has been home to the parents of New Zealand-born billionaires who bought the house for their mom, as a gift in a heart-warming fairy-tale story.
Here’s the full story of this villa, the parties its seen, and the people’s who’ve owned it.
Château de Napoule in l’Esterel
The Château de la Napoule was constructed in the 14th century by the Countess of Villeneuve. Over the centuries it was rebuilt several times. In the 19th century it was turned into a glass factory. In 1918, it was purchased by the American trust-funder, Henry Clews Jr., who renovated it in his own unique style.
The Clews rarely left the fairy-tale world they created in this castle. Henry designed medieval period costumes, not only for himself and wife Marie but also for the maids and the Senegalese butler, which they wore every day. They filled the château and garden with peacocks, flamingos and other exotic birds, and hosted elaborate parties for European society and American expatriates. They loved to stage dramatic, elaborate dinner parties that, to the bewildered guests, seemed to come straight out of a Hollywood movie.
Here’s the full, decadent story.
La Mauresque in Cap Ferrat
Around 1900, the former missionary and chaplain to Belgum’s King Leopold II, Félix Charmettant, purchased a parcel of land on Cap Ferrat and had this villa constructed. In 1927, British novelist Somerset Maugham (who famously called the French Riviera a “sunny place for shady people” —a prescient remark, given the villa’s recent history) purchased the property. He was the wealthiest author of his time.
Surrounded by gardens and terraces, this villa has received a long list of writers and celebrities. An invitation to Somerset Maughaum’s mansion on the Cap was considered quite the coup by Riviera high society, and a steady stream of luminaries came to visit. His exploits at this villa are etched in history.
Since then, Dmytro Firtash, a Ukranian oligarch with close ties to Vladamir Putin, has purchased the villa.
Pierre Cardin’s Bubble Palace in Théoule-sur-Mer
Less of a crazy story and more of a crazy property, the Palais Bulles (“Bubble Palace”) was owned by Pierre Cardin, the Italian-born French fashion designer. He became the second owner of the house after the first died during construction. Over the years, Bubble Palace has hosted many swanky parties and events; MTV hosted James Bond’s birthday party, Dior held a fashion show, and Assouline published a book replete with beautiful pictures from the mansion and estate.
Here are more photos and details about this crazy palace.
Villa Les Camélias in Cap d’Ail
No longer a private residence, this villa now a museum that It gives the public the opportunity to explore the Cap d’Ail archives – from the time the town’s incorporation in 1908 and throughout the 20th century.
Les Camélias’ mesmerizing garden level is dedicated entirely to the history of Cap d’Ail. Photos and other exhibits recall the lives of the people who lived in Cap d’Ail: most of the locals were Italian émigrés, but the international gentry wintered here too, followed by many celebrities from the world of arts, politics, and literature.
The museum tells us about the town’s “hôtels de passe” (short-stay brothels). At the well-known “Loup Blanc” sexual services were paid for using tokens stamped “bon pour le paradis”, meaning “ticket to paradise”.