Dispatch #26: A Profile of Monaco

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I wrote this back in l997, when the Grimaldis were celebrating their 700th anniversary on the Rock. It is being published here, now, for the first time.  Prince Ranier's death a few weeks ago reminded me of its existence. He was a lovely man, and we really hit it off. His eccentric family-- his sister with her stray cats,  the Victorian interest in natural history,  the grandfather the oceanographer-- reminded me of my own, and indeed we discovered that we were distantly related, through the Beauharnais. Plus Igor Markevitch, a closer cousin, had been the conductor of the Monaco Philharmonic for many years, so Ranier recognized that I was not another trash-seeking paraparazzo and introduced me to some of his oldest and closest friends. This is another unexpected turn on the dance floor of loss-- the death of a prince, the resurrection of a lost piece from a different kind of oblivion, the tenacious struggle for survival of a family and of the culture it invented, "a sunny place for shady people," in Maugham's famous description. 
                              -AS
“Monaco c’est le top,” gushed the gorgeous, young masseuse in fetching Franglais. She worked at The Thermes Marins de Monte Carlo, a futuristic spa adjacent to the Hotel de Paris. Her job was to administer “thalassotherapy,” slathering warm, brown, ground seaweed all over her wealthy clients’ bodies and wrapping them in plastic sheets. It was not hard to imagine James Bond on her table. The entire 482-acre principality of Monaco resembles a set for a James Bond movie, which it has been, in fact, three times--movie titles tk. The Hotel de Paris, where I was staying, is the grande dame of Old World luxury hotels. Built in 1864, it is a white Belle Epoch confection of cupolas, porthole windows and caryatids resembling ship figureheads. There are 250,000 bottles, on a kilometer of racks, in the wine cellar. In the restaurant you can order up a bottle of Petrus Pomerol l945 for a mere 49,000 francs ($10,000). Every time I went up the grand staircase to the hotel’s front door I imagined myself colliding with Winston Churchill or Jacques Offenbach, Jules Verne or Marlene Dietrich, or perhaps Edward, Prince of Wales, incognito with his latest paramour. While I was staying there,  one of King Fayed’s sons had taken an entire floor for the month, and many of the 41 deluxe suites were rented to the new Russian rich (we will avoid the loaded term Mafia). 

My fifth-floor balcony looked down on the harbor bristling with yachts, including the 335-foot Atlantis II, which had once belonged to Stavros Niarchos, the Greek shipping magnate. Prince Rainier, Monaco’s head of state, told me it was currently being chartered out by Niarchos’s three sons and daughter. The Van Gogh, Renoir, and other Impressionist paintings that had made the boat a floating museum were stashed in a bank vault, he had heard, and replaced with copies. Niarchos had been a frequent visitor to this elegant little country on the Cote d’azur, but unlike his rival, Aristotle Onassis, he never invested in it.

 *****

Early in the morning, from my balcony, I watched the sun rise out of the sea, bathing the harbor and small thicket of high-rises behind it in a rose wash that slowly ascended up the corniche--the limestone crags that loom two thousand feet above. Monaco consists almost entirely of this small, perfectly scalloped, intensely built-up bay, enclosed by two points: the Rock, where the prince’s palace is, and Monte Carlo, with the casino and the Hotel de Paris. On the other side of the Rock is Fontvielle, the new sixty-three-acre residential and light-industrial district that Rainier built out into the sea in the early eighties, increasing the principality’s size by 14%; on the other side of Monte Carlo are the artificial beaches whose gravel he trucked in date tk. The beautiful pastel villas and gardens with needle cypresses that one sees on vintage travel posters have largely disappeared. In their place tower glass-and-steel apartment canisters containing the pieds de terre of “people who have made a pisspot of money elsewhere,” as one woman characterized the more than 20,000 foreigners who have established residence here. The draw: no income, property, or inheritance taxes since 1869. 

Among “Rainier’s guests” have been thirty-five tennis stars, including Boris Becker, Bjorn Borg, and Vitas Gerulaitis (who moved out in the late ‘80s after the acrimonious end of his affair with Ranier’s eldest daughter, Princess Caroline). To obtain citizenship as a foreigner you have to open a $100,000 bank account and pass muster with the selective Rainier. The Shah of Iran was not welcomed after he lost his throne, even though, during his glory days, he had helped add luster to Rainier’s royal reputation by including him in his circle. But Placido Domingo is here, as are Ringo Starr, Julian Lennon, Claudia Schiffer, Karen Mulder, Karl Lagerfeld, and Helmut Newton. The Duke and Dutchess of Bedford come for two months of the year, go to the galas, spend a lot of money, and are well-liked.  

 The casino and what Prince Rainier described to me as “a certain confidentiality” practiced by Monagasque banks have attracted some unsavory types over the years. Arms-dealers, money-launderers for the Colombian cartels and the Italian Mafia (the businessman Enrico Baggiotti, who is wanted by the Italian government for money laundering, is still at liberty here) have slipped through the screening process, lending credence to Somerset Maugham’s famous description of Monaco as “a sunny place for shady people.” Maugham himself lived for many years in a villa on nearby Cap Ferat. The principality has also been a haven for artists: Ravel, Picasso, Cocteau, Balanchine, Bakst, and Anthony Burgess all produced important work here. Colette was a longtime resident of “this little country whose borders are flowers.” 

 Some years back Prince Rainier explained that his goal, when he inherited the throne 48 years ago, was to transform a sleepy colony of overwintering British and White Russian emigres into “a reduced model of perfection.” To a remarkable degree he has succeeded. Monaco’s economy, measured in terms of annual turnover, rather than g.n.p., is currently about five billion dollars and though it is impossible to verify (no one has to declare his earnings), the per capita income may well be the world’s highest. The streets of Monaco are purged of all malodorous funkiness. Policemen, in uniforms designed by Karl Lagerfeld, and closed-circuit cameras are ubiquitous. There is one carabinier for every 67 residents. If you are going to be run over here, it is probably going to be by a Mercedes. 

 This modern-day fairy tale owes much to Rainier’s marriage in l956 to the Hollywood movie star Grace Kelly.  Grace was one of the best things that ever happened to Monaco. She was glamorous and dignified as a first lady, and she dedicated the second half of her life to being the perfect wife for her prince. He, his children, and the country have never really recovered from her death in an automobile accident on the corniche tk years ago. 
 In l963 Rainier reluctantly agreed to the formation of an eighteen-member National Council, elected every five years by those Monégasques with voting privileges (currently about eight hundred how determined tk), thus making him in theory a constitutional monarch. But there is no mistaking who is the boss of the Rock- le propriétaire, as everyone calls him; he refers to himself as the C.E.O. He is Europe’s senior monarch, and the House of Grimaldi, of which he is the thirty-third head, is the continent’s oldest unbroken dynasty. This year it celebrates its 700th year in power. In two years Prince Rainier will have been on the throne for fifty years, making him the longest-reigning, and in many ways the greatest Grimaldi of them all. Far more powerful dynasties have bitten the dust after much shorter runs, and only six of the myriad European mini-states have survived into the modern era, the others being (one recalls from the most from the most spectacularly colored and exotic specimins one’s childhood stamp collection) Andorra, San Marino, Luxembourg, Leichsenstein, and the Vatican. What is it about this little Faberge egg of a country, only half the size of Central Park, that has enabled it to hang in there? 

 *****

There is nothing esoteric about the Grimaldis,” a marquis of my acquaintance told me. “They had position in the court of Versailles, but in Parisian society their circle is not the top. They’ve always been considered a little louche. In the first place, they are not royals, but serenes. You can’t compare them with great titles of France, the grandees of Spain, the English dukedoms, the princes of Germany, Austria, and Italy. But now that the Italian royal family has married down, and the Windsors have been besieged by scandal, the Grimaldis, by default, are serious aristocracy.”

 “The peculiar thing about the Grimaldis,” explained the Comtesse de Chantrelle (as I will call her), “is that they don’t to have to make calculated marriages to better their strain. They can marry commoners, they can marry for love, they can marry whomever they want, and they have, repeatedly, which sort undermines the whole premise of aristocracy, so they’ve always been considered a mongrel lineage.”

 Like the Windsors, Rainier’s children have had difficulty connecting with suitable mates. Albert, the prince héritier, is thirty-nine and still unmarried, and according to the Comtesse de Chantrelle is “curiously lacking in backbone and personality. People say he’s gay, and he keeps denying it.” His once-divorced, once-widowed elder sister, Caroline, has lately been having a stressful affair with the married Prince Ernst of Hanover, which caused her hair to fall out in clumps last October, or so everyone was saying. Meanwhile her rebellious kid sister Stephanie had married her bodyguard, Daniel Ducruet, á la Patti Hearst. But last August, paparazzi photographed and videotaped Ducruet in flagrante with a former Miss Nude Belgium beside and in a pool at Cap D’Ailles, just up the French coast. The photos were splashed all over the Italian magazine, Eva Tremilla, and the 90-minute video of their poolside passion was aired on a Rome porno station. Prince Rainier was reported to have had a crise cardiaque when he was shown the proof of his son-in-law’s dalliance. Princely wrath expediting the process, Stephanie and Ducruet were hastily divorced. 

 *****

Rainier is seventy-three years old. He underwent double-bypass surgery two years ago, and people have been asking him for the last ten years when he is going to step down and pass the baton to his son. But the Prince probably intends to stay on the throne until his golden anniversary in l999. One of his hobbies is making drawings of circus clowns, the greatest one having been named Grimaldi. He supposedly has had an r.v. custom-made for his retirement, in which he plans to follow the circus. He is a talented sculptor, and an internationally recognized authority on primates. He doesn’t play golf anymore, however. 
  Rainier and Grace shared a passion for golf, and they used to play at the Monte Carlo Golf Club, below Mont Agel, up on the corniche. Robert, the old Irish pro, who has been there since l947 recalled their lively rounds with David Niven, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra. “I was the prince’s [golf] doctor,” he told me. “I had him down to a fourteen [handicap]. He’s never got over Grace’s death. Her clubs are still in the clubhouse. He never even picked them up.” 

 At the Cathedral in Monte Carlo last January, where a Te Deum was sung for the family on the 700th anniversary of their ancestors’ storming of the Rock on January 9, l297, Rainier seemed a broken man; at one point he appeared to be dozing off, which he is famous for doing at official functions. Virtually all his closest friends are dead, including Noel Coward and Niven.

 Ranier is often depicted in the press as a cold, brooding autocrat given to violent fits of temper. His son is said to be so intimidated by him that he stutters in his presence. So it was with some trepidation that I entered his office in the crenelated tower of his palace. The Prince was sitting at a table, looking dour. But, after a few minutes of polite small talk, he brightened visibly and began to reveal a quality that my grandmother used to call “coziness.” Still, he seemed perfectly aristocratic, as one would expect the possessor of 147 titles, among them the Duc de Valentois, Comte de Carlades, Baron de Oalvinet, Baron du Buis, and Sire de Matignon to be. He spoke an improvised, continental version of upper-class English and was brimming with anecdotes. One was about Churchill, who, toward the end of his life, was a familiar sight on the sidewalks of Monte Carlo, as he painted the sea and puffed on his perennial cigar. No one bothered him. One evening he came to the palace for a screening of Lawrence of Arabia. “I knew that man,” Churchill had said with mischievous twinkle in his eye. 

 “The British aristocrats would come for two or three months in the winter,” Rainier recalled. “They’d play tennis and ride horses in white flannels. I remember the Flêche d’Or, which brought them, and the Bleu Wagon Lit, which would depart Paris every evening; its cuisine was superb. But Monaco was affected by the success of skiing and winter resorts, and the opening up of flights to the Caribbean..        “That was the first challenge,” Rainier explained : “to adapt Monaco from a winter to a summer resort. We weren’t equipped for summer tourism. In the nineteenth century women had wanted their skin to remain light. Now they began to take bains de soleil, and their husbands were being given paid holidays in the summer months.” So Rainier brought in gravel and created the artificial beaches of the Monte Carlo Beach Club in 19tk. 

 What about Monaco’s reputation as a haven for questionable financial activity? I asked. In the casino a few months back certain croupiers had been discovered easing the odds for some appreciative Italian businessman. It wasn’t Mafia money, but “black money,” undeclared income the businessman could say they won at the tables. 

  “I asked my attorney to make an inquest and he said maybe there is some money laundering, but-- I always remember his expression--. ‘it is being done in an artisanal, not a big manner.’ To do it on a big scale, you’d have to own the casino, so I was tranquilized on that subject. 

 “The extent of dirty money that comes in here is greatly exaggerated,” he went on. “The banks are told not to take money that they are not clear where it comes from or they will be in trouble. A commission watches over this.”

 It was Rainier’s proud boast that the casino, in the fifties the principality’s greatest moneymaker, now only provides four percent of its revenues. “The nature of gambling has changed,” he observed. “I was in Las Vegas with Albert, and I noticed they couldn’t get up a baccarat table. It’s the same here. It’s hard to make up a table with 6-7 gamblers who will play all night long any more.”

 After Grace’s death, Ranier devoted himself to the one other thing that mattered to him, being the Builder Prince and turning what he called a pays d’operettes, a country of operettas, into what he described as “not only a nice place to live, but to work.” Today there are over a hundred light industries and twenty thousand wage earners. 

The press started to get excited after Ranier was seen a few times with the flamboyant “business princess” Ira von Furstenberg, but he has never given serious thought to remarriage. When I brought up the death of Grace and its effects, the familiar look of grief-stricken devastation came over his face, and he fished out a thin cigarette from his jacket pocket and lighted it. “Her death has been very tough on the children, which is obvious,” he explained. “One can’t replace a mother. One can be a good father, but there is a gap. What I can’t understand is the resurgence of nasty books in America that say Grace was not happy and I was fooling around all over the place, which is absolutely untrue and grotesque. And that she became a drunk. We had the same laughs and the same attitude about each other right to the end—even more so, because the children were becoming teenagers. She was deeply involved in social and charitable events. I’m astonished by this dreadful man Lacey [Robert Lacey, author of Grace, published in 19tk, one of several recent books that chronicled her many premarital affairs and estrangement from Rainier toward the end]. Why try to destroy a very beautiful image and a wonderful person?” Rainier had wanted to sue Lacey but his advisers had dissuaded him with the argument that the suit would only boost sales. The book, excerpted in VFtk, claims that Grace sought comfort from at least four young lovers when her looks started to fade and her weight ballooned as she hit fifty. 

  I saved his daughters till last. “Stephanie is very much wounded for this [the Ducruet affair] to happen to her,” he said. “But the fact of having these three children [ages tk] and herself dedicated to them--- that may be the good part of it. I find her much more self-conscious and self-dependent. I always felt that it should be a rule as a parent to leave the door open. However one feels and whatever is said, kids have to know home is home and that they can come back any time they want to.”

 At this point rumors were still flying about the filming of Ducruet and the former Miss Nude Belgium. The general consensus was that it must have been a coup monté, a set-up. I heard from several sources that Rainier himself may have been behind it; he wanted to get rid of the Ducruet. It was true that Rainier had made it hard on other men who had married into the family like his sister’s first husband, the Monégasque tennis star, Alecko Noghes, and Phillip Junot, Caroline’s philandering first husband. But to get rid of Ducruet in a way so embarrassing to the family was preposterous.  

 “I don’t want to talk about Ducruet,” the prince said, sparing me the discomfort of having to ask about the rumors. “When he says he was set up in Ville Franche, you don’t go and stay there and get undressed. That’s not being trapped. But,” he added, “it’s probably just as well that he’s out of the family.”

 *****
 
 
 
 

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