August 01, 2007

This is for us oldies. Remember when the summers lasted longer back then, when all men seemed to wear hats, and all women acted like ladies?  My best summer ever was 1952, when I came to New York from Blair Academy and my father informed me we were leaving for the south of France via ocean liner. I was 15 and terribly eager to lose my virginity. What better place than the fabled land of F.Scott Fitzgerald and the Murphys? I read Tender is the Night while crossing on the Constitution, the latest in comfort, speed and elegance where liners were concerned. After staying up all night with a girl from Texas—Isla was her name, and I was truly smitten—I watched as we approached Cannes from the West. The twin towers of the Carlton Hotel—reputed to resemble exact copies of the breasts of La Belle Ottero, a famous grand horizontal— was the first thing I saw in the horizon. The place was green, unbuilt and reeked of sex, adventure and romance. I will never forget driving from Cannes to the Hotel du Cap, the model F. Scott used in Tender which he called the Josse Hotel. I spent the whole summer there, going to Juan les Pins to listen to Sidney Bechet at night, dancing until dawn at the summer casino of Monte Carlo, and meeting lotsa people who in my 15-year-old mind were as fabulous as any I had read about in Fitzgerald’s fiction. By the time I had to return to boarding school, I was a broken man. I had discovered girls, fast girls, gambling, drinking and all the other vices one associates with having a good time. My mother was appalled and couldn’t wait for August to end. The trip back, again on the Constitution, was like being given the royal suite at the world’s greatest hotel while waiting to die in the electric chair.

I went back to the Riviera five years later, after I was through with schooling, and it was still a magic place. Then, year after year, the place got more crowded, more built up and—worst of all—the world’s nouveaux riche had begun to arive with a vengeance. By 1977 I had had enough. I moved my summer operations to the Greek Isles, and after those followed the Riviera’s example, it was time for good old Helvetia, Gstaad to be exact, where I watched cows graze, breathed clean air and bored myself stiff. Four years ago I built myself a boat and came back where I had started from. It was like meeting Isla after all these years. To say I was disappointed would be a gross understatement.

And yet. Further west from Antibes and Cannes, St. Tropez has held out the longest against the invading hordes of Arabs and Russkies. The rest of the Riviera is now a sweaty, dangerous hellhole, its polluted waters matched only by the polluted kleptocrats who inhabit the place. St Tropez proper is clean and charming, its tiny cobbled streets unchanged, its bistros and places where the locals play Boule exactly the same as fifty years ago. The horrors come from the sea, in the form of large refrigerators on stereoids which these modern megayachts resemble.

With the exception of the Israeli boycott of Gaza this year, the most appalling sight of this long hot summer are the rich in St Tropez. The colossal arogance of the nouveaux riche, especially the Ayrab camel drivers and the Russian gangsters, is mind boggling. There are even some Pakistanis whose specialty is to pop open magnums of Crystal champagne in the Cave des Rois, and pour the contents out on the floor down to the last drop at—get this—fifty thousand Euros a shot. And it gets worse. People cheer while they’re doing it. (Remember this the next time your tax dollars go to that miserable land).

The posturing and showing off is enough for one to cry for Stalin’s return, certainly that of Nasser or Bin Laden, as long as I no longer have to watch these oily types mistreat women and waiters the way they do back home in Saudi. This is what has happened to my beloved St Tropez, once a sleepy fishing village port full of sleek and beautiful sailing boats, now full of monstrosities only obnoxious, rampaging and ugly megalomaniacs could own or charter. Like the movies we watch, the music we listen to, and the people we see on megayachts and getting off their privaye jets, it’s all very, very vulgar. Poor old F.Scott. One look today would cure him from his fascination of the rich once and for all. Thank God he’s not around.

Still, by staying away from the port, anchoring off the Bismarck house high up in the hills, I have managed to have the best summer in many a year. And it could be worse. I could be back in the Hamptons with Puff Daddy and his merry band. —The American Conservative


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