THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, May 7, 1995 TAG: 9505050091 SECTION: DAILY BREAK PAGE: E1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY STEPHEN HARRIMAN, TRAVEL EDITOR DATELINE: NICE, FRANCE LENGTH: Long : 153 lines
THE HOTEL DOORMAN, resplendent in his mock 18th century palace staff uniform of black leather top hat with red plume, scarlet-lined, caped royal blue greatcoat, black knee britches and matching stockings, greeted us in English - I wonder how he could tell - and beckoned for a couple of similarly costumed bellmen to collect the luggage.
``Good evening. Welcome to The Negresco.''
Ah, yes, THE Negresco, the one-and-only Negresco, the glorious, monumental manifestation of what Nice and the French Riviera used to be all about. What the Mediterranean playground used to be - mystique and glamour and absolute luxury in a time when rich almost always meant refined - remains encapsuled within the Negresco's wedding-cake white walls that stretch a full block along the renowned Promenade des Anglais.
I had come here to see the legendary Riviera . . . to see this narrow strip of coastal plain between the sea and the Alps where the rich and famous have frolicked for ages . . . to see this place called the Cote d'Azur since Stephen Liegeard's book of the same name appeared in 1877 . . . to see this place whose special light and colors attracted Matisse and Chagall and Dufy . Gras but without all the drunkenness and debauchery.
But, momentarily at least, this place stopped me in my tracks.
Of course there are a lot of really elegant hotels; only The Negresco is a National Historic Monument. In 1974 the French government placed it in the company of such sites as the Palace of Versailles and the chateaux of the Loire Valley.
The Negresco is a Riviera landmark, a fairy-tale place come to life.
It is a palace that is the very essence of the grand Belle Epoque - that wonderful European period of mostly peace, ever-increasing prosperity and, post of all, opulence, when sheer fantasy triumphed architecturally, that began in the late decades of the 19th century and ended abruptly with the opening guns of World War I.
Well, it's not actually an official palace, but it was built by a Romanian-born hotelier named Henri Negresco in 1913 at a time when luxury tourism had begun to play an important role in the lives of the members of high society. He built his hotel to please people who were accustomed to living in palaces: rich, refined, demanding.
And they came in droves. Briefly.
Henri's personal triumph was tragically short-lived. The hotel was turned into a hospital during World War I, the clients left in droves, and by war's end he was ruined. He was to die two years later in Paris.
But Henri Negresco's legacy remains. In 1957 the hotel was taken over by Paul and Jeanne Augier, who, with Henri's vision, have discreetly and tastefully renovated the entire building to its former elegance. A fairy tale retold with late 20th century flair.
The guest list is truly remarkable: kings (some of them deposed) and queens, princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses, begums and maharajas, presidents and prime ministers, jet-setters and writers, artists and composers, singers and movie stars.
Here are first names of 10 celebrities (movie-star category) who have slept in Negresco beds; you fill in the last names: Ursula, Brigette, Claudia, Marlene, Ava, Sophia, Gina, Melina, Liz, Raquel. If you got fewer than 10, stop here and return to People magazine.
The Negresco is the sort of place every seasoned traveler should experience once in a lifetime.
Let's take a quick look around. The reception hall is very Louis XVI - ornate, gold-on-white plasterwork, with a plush red velvet divan encircling a white marble bust of Duke Charles de Berry, son of Louis XIV. It's been appraised at $800,000. There's a copy of it in the National Gallery in Washington.
Off the reception hall, through carved wooden doors from a 15th century mansion of King Henry IV's mom, is the Salon Louis XIV, with its 17th century coffered ceiling in 12 box sections that once adorned the state apartments of a Savoy chateau. An enormous - at least two stories tall - marble fireplace and a massive portrait of the big-haired Sun King himself dominate the room.
The piece de resistance is the Salon Royal, a large oval room with the stucco motifs and the cornices of its columns decorated in 24-karat gold leaf. In old days they used to have 1,000 here for tea - entertained by four orchestras.
The metal work in the stained-glass dome above is from the workshops of Gustave Eiffel in Paris, where he did some other important works in steel. The chandelier that hangs from its center is a ton - yes, 2,000 pounds - of Baccarat crystal. Its twin, delivered to the tsar for the Kremlin, hangs in the great hall of St. Catherine. Beneath this is the largest carpet (450 square yards) ever made by the Savonnerie factory (founded in 1615 by Marie de Medici), which specializes in the floors of royal residences.
Michel Palmer, the Negresco's director general, has been here since 1965. He has seen a lot. Palmer is a charming bon vivant with the grace and tact of a diplomat of the French Foreign Office. Sipping from a glass of champagne with a drop or two of some liqueur (a house specialty), he is telling me all about some of the Negresco's guests - and telling me nothing at the same time. Nothing really personal-like.
``The celebrities are very different when they are here,'' he says. ``They are very natural.''
He says the Beatles wrote something or another when they were here - he couldn't remember what - and Andrew Lloyd Webber composed part of ``Cats'' here. Elton John took over an entire floor and commuted to engagements in Madrid and Barcelona in a private jet. He tells of once arranging a luncheon get-together for Prince Rainier and Princess Grace (Monaco is just down the road) with Salvador Dali . . . and then joining then at the table at their insistence.
Palmer says that Michael Jackson's four-day stay was the most, uh, challenging. ``There were about 1,000 people outside every day. We had to arrange for him to leave from a different exit each time.'' He laughs as he recalls Michael having ``that Roger Rabbit film'' flown in from the United States so he could watch it.
My chamber, No. 225, adjacent to the Coco Chanel suite, has big French doors that open onto the Promenade and the Bay of Angels beyond. The room is not particularly large, although perhaps it only seemed that way because it is dominated by an enormous, ornately hand-carved wooden canopy double bed whose origins I would guess to be 16th century.
Palmer would later tell me that Jeanne Augier often would purchase an antique bed such as this and then ``build'' a room around it. Indeed, she had done so here, with chairs, tables, an armoire and hanging tapestries on satin wall covering and plush carpeting to complement it. The television set seemed out of place.
I turned it on. There was an episode of ``In the Heat of the Night'' on, and Archie Bunker, I mean Bill Gillespie, chief of po-lice of Sparta, Mis'sippi, was drawling - whoa, what is this? - in French! Get out of here.
My bathroom is something else: huge, nearly as large as the bedroom, marble floor, marble walls, separate room for the shower, another separate room for the toilet-bidet. All this set off by a corner tub the size of a jacuzzi and double wash basins of . . . glitter gold! Un-ba-LEEV-able.
I can almost visualize Winston Churchill, with a big cigar chomped in his mouth, walrusing around in that tub (although I imagine he commanded a suite and maybe an even BIGGER tub during his visit). But somehow I cannot imagine old Harry Truman, the plain Man from Independence, taking to all this.
Each floor, landings and corridors, carries a distinct and different decorative theme: The fifth is Second Empire (1880), the fourth Napoleon I (1800), the third Louis XV (18th century), the second modern, with a huge portrait in mosaic of Louis Armstrong. ILLUSTRATION: HOTEL NEGRESCO/Color photos
The Hotel Negresco, in Nice, France, is a Riviera landmark - the
essence of the Belle Epoque, when fantasy triumphed
The piece de resistance of the Negresco is the gilded Salon Royal.
The chandelier is a ton of Baccarat crystal. In former days, four
orchestras would entertain here at tea.
STEPHEN HARRIMAN/Color photos
Papier-mache figures pass along the Promenade des Anglais during the
pre-Lent Nice Carnival.
Men play a game of boules in front of the Matisse Museum in the Nice
suburb of Cimiez. Story, E3.