This Side of Paradise
Always looking for the latest far-flung destination, jetsetters have made the world’s most beautiful locales their own. Vanessa Lawrence charts their peripatetic course over the past 40 years.
The French Riviera this summer was the site of Chris Brown’s feverishly chronicled escalating debauchery. The rap star, who was in Cannes with Ludacris, allegedly reignited his romance with his ex-girlfriend Rihanna at a party on Russian billionaire Yuri Shefler’s $330 million yacht. As reps swatted away rumors, photos emerged of a sweat-drenched Brown at the Cannes nightclub Gotha, where he had performed earlier, grinding topless with an ever changing array of camouflage-bikini-clad ladies. Meanwhile, Rihanna was making her own headlines, parading through Saint-Tropez in various states of undress and causing a mob scene of camera-wielding vacationers.
Forty years ago, summers in the south of France were a very different affair. In the early sixties, Brigitte Bardot was the queen of the then sleepy fishing town, where a mix of celebrities and socialites would alight in the warm-weather months for lazy days by the sea. Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, and Jean Cocteau would gather on the beach, and Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy would take casual strolls through the streets. Young, pretty things would meet friends in the clubs, dance until 5 a.m., then gather at the harbor for fresh croissants before heading to bed.
Saint-Tropez is not the only hot spot to have fallen prey to vulgarity since its popularity at the height of jetset chic. Name any major destination—Capri, say, or Marrakech—and you will invariably hear grumbles from anyone who had the privilege of vacationing there in its heyday. A by-product of the café society of the forties and fifties, “jetset” was a term reportedly coined by the gossip columnist Igor Cassini in the The New York Times in 1962: “Jetsetters are people who fly away for weekends. They are the avant-garde, the pacesetters. The jetset is people who live fast, move fast, know the latest thing, and do the unusual and the unorthodox. The jetset has no fixed rules and standards.”
The latter was certainly true of this group’s behavior in the seventies—a hedonistic, devil-be-damned time during which fabulously wealthy travelers often opened their homes (and sometimes their bedrooms) to the inhabitants of the destinations they socially colonized. Marrakech—which Yves Saint Laurent deemed the Venice of Morocco, and where he and Pierre Bergé had a home in which they would serve lunches of chicken tagine and ice cream in the shape of a mosque for dessert—saw many an illustrious face. The Countess Boul de Breteuil’s Villa Taylor hosted the likes of Winston Churchill, Rita Hayworth, and Malcolm Forbes, with whom she would go hot-air ballooning. The North African city was also a substance-fueled nirvana where the American decorator Bill Willis would go from snorting cocaine with the Rolling Stones to dropping acid with the lingerie designer Fernando Sanchez. Talitha and Paul Getty Jr. would spend months there lounging in a hashish-filled haze. For some male visitors, Moroccan houseboys—famously available for all sorts of hosting needs—were the preferred indulgence.
Mustique, the St. Vincent and the Grenadines island that Colin Tennant, the Lord Glenconner, purchased in 1959 and later bestowed plots of on his elite pals (Princess Margaret’s piece was a wedding gift), saw its fair share of naughtiness, with a little help from the locals. After all, the Gilligan’s Island paradise was devoid of any obvious amenities.
“When we first arrived, there were just a few families, and we had one generator and one telephone that was on the main switchboard,” recalls Jade Jagger, who began going to her father Mick’s house there as a child in the seventies. “And the generator guy would sometimes drink too much rum, and we’d find him asleep in there, and we’d try to get it going ourselves.”
So to entertain themselves, Mustique’s denizens would throw house parties said to include boys wearing only coconut oil—except when Princess Margaret was present. For the sake of the royal’s modesty, Lord Glenconner made sure the village youth at the island’s infamous Golden Ball wore codpieces fashioned from coconut shells and painted gold. Not that Princess Margaret was a paragon of perfect behavior: When she retreated to Mustique after the failure of her marriage to Lord Snowdon, it was into the arms of Roddy Llewellyn, a gardener 17 years her junior—not exactly dynastic-nuptials material.
Perhaps the consequences of such fraternizing with the natives were that the eighties became all about showmanship and grand hostessing. On the southern part of the Spanish island Ibiza, a typical summer would have had George Hamilton, Princess Diana, Gianni Versace, and Claude Montana all partying in the nightclub Ku. (Princess Tessa of Bavaria and Countess Jacqueline de Ribes were just a few of the boldfacers who kept homes there.) Mica and Ahmet Ertegun’s mansion in Bodrum, Turkey, had 10 bedrooms and 15 bathrooms, and was occupied by a rotating group of friends like Chessy and Billy Rayner and Jerry Zipkin. And Marta Marzotto, the wife of the Italian finance titan Count Umberto Marzotto, who had a vacation place in Porto Rotondo, Sardinia (south of the Aga Khan’s resort complex Costa Smeralda), was known to head out for the night wearing Russian emeralds and a sequined top; she would jump into her silver Rolls-Royce, only to drive it to a destination a mere two minutes away. “I wear emeralds because I like mint,” she remarked rather cheekily in 1983.
Meanwhile, Yanna Avis, a French cabaret singer and the widow of Warren Avis, the founder of the rental car company, kept one of the liveliest houses in Acapulco, La Barranca, where the couple hosted Egon von Furstenberg, Cristina and Jerry Goldsmith, and Mary McFadden, among others. Avis would often throw luncheons by the ocean, with her staff carrying food down the steep cliff from the house. “Even the gardener was on duty, and they would all come down the steps with things on their head,” Avis says. “I always felt a little guilty about it, but they were good sports. They didn’t have much of a choice!” Avis recalls going to parties at an even grander manse nearby, the Villa Arabesque, owned by Houstonians Baron Ricky and Baroness Sandra di Portanova, which had 12 suites, 3 swimming pools, and a tower of guards with machine guns: “They had their own nightclub in the house that was used for a James Bond film, actually. It was so huge—they had the most amazing waterfalls coming down, and when they would turn them on, you’d really think you were in Disney World.”
If your version of the Magic Kingdom involved supermodels and rock stars, you would have been in paradise in Jamaica in the early nineties, a decade that saw celebrities and fashion types starting to mingle with—and invade, however quietly—the more socially driven jetset stratum. Chris Blackwell, a native of Jamaica and the founder of Island Records, grew up celebrating New Year’s Eve with his parents as well as the Kennedys and Oscar Hammerstein. When Blackwell returned to Jamaica in the nineties after a hiatus in London and New York, he sought to re-create this heady sixties atmosphere with his resorts Strawberry Hill and GoldenEye (in what was Ian Fleming’s former home). The first visitors were musicians like U2 bass player Adam Clayton, who came with his then girlfriend Naomi Campbell and her friends Kate Moss and Christy Turlington. Though, according to Blackwell, they spent more time convalescing than partying. “They all had terrible colds,” Blackwell says. “It was funny; you had the most beautiful girls in the world, and they were all just coughing and sputtering.”
Not far away, St. Barths, once the stomping ground for Rockefellers and Rothschilds, was luring an A-list fashion roster—on it, the likes of Kelly Klein, Patrick Demarchelier, and Stephanie Seymour—with its no-frills atmosphere. The island’s tiny airport could accommodate only small propeller planes.
“You still cannot land there with a G4,” sniffs Dr. Gerald Imber, a New York plastic surgeon who first went in 1982. “The harder a place is to get to, the more protected it is.”
In theory, yes, but sadly for many early pioneers, even the most secluded Shangri-las could not escape the infiltration of Wi-Fi, telephoto lenses, and supersize yachts. After all, the true pleasure of these places was that they gave you the ability to behave as you chose, free from any judgmental or prying public eyes. (New York social fixture Nina Griscom, recalling the prevalent nudity in Saint-Tropez back in the day, says: “It was always the guys with the tiniest equipment who had their trunks off and were waving them around like a flag. And nobody was looking.”)
“It was small-time, but it was big-time,” says Reinaldo Herrera, the husband of designer Carolina, who traveled everywhere from Greece to Jamaica and Mustique, where he stayed with Princess Margaret. “We had no paparazzi, so we had the great privilege of being able to do anything we wanted, and it wasn’t recorded unless you were an Italian movie star.”
Nowadays, any instance of derobing is captured in aching detail by photographers (exhibit A: Elton John mooning Michael Caine as their boats passed one another in Saint-Tropez this summer). Cheap flights to exotic places and omnipresent iPhones have made disconnecting from the “real world,” even on the remotest of islands, an impossibility. By the same token, yachts have evolved into mega-ships, like Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s Eclipse (more than 500 feet long with 8 decks, a disco, and a 70-strong staff) and British entrepreneurs Nick and Christian Candy’s Candyscape II (featuring a 12-person jacuzzi that transforms into a circular bed rotating in conjunction with the sun’s movements). They all dock offshore in quaint seaside ports like St. Barths, trumping smaller, quieter kinsmen with their aquatic versions of SUVs.
“We never go to St. Barths at Christmas, because Christmas is for amateurs,” says Imber, who with his wife, Cathryn Collins, now visits the island after the holidays. “In January or February, you go to Saline Beach, and on one end is Stefano Pilati by himself, not talking to anyone. And 10 feet down the beach is Francesco Clemente with his daughter, just quietly swimming,” Collins says.
Mustique, once so private that you practically had to be pre- approved to fly into its airport, which is controlled by the island’s management company, has become a more democratic amusement park, at least for those who can afford it. “Now it’s like a kind of golf course for billionaires,” Jagger says.
Helping boost the ranks of this new moneyed class is a large contingent of Russians, some of whom have caused riffs in the most pristine waters around the world with their large, noisy entourages and—in some people’s eyes—tacky displays of wealth. “For me, when you go to Saint-Tropez, it’s more loud, more rich, more Arab, and more Russian. So I don’t want to go to Saint-Tropez,” says one male gadfly.
If the über nouveau riche—and, arguably, rappers (yes, we mean you, Chris Brown)—have ruined paradise, then where does the new jetset go? Most people would say there is no longer a jetset. Diane von Furstenberg prefers the term “moveable feast,” and these days she favors vigorous hikes on Stromboli over “scene-y” places that feel like an Oscars ceremony. Others have turned to mellower locales like the Mediterranean islands Panarea, Favignana, and Formentera for a little peace and quiet. Joy Hendricks, who was once Pierre Bergé’s right-hand woman at Yves Saint Laurent, is happy to give the keys to the kingdom to a new, perhaps less sophisticated group. “I think the world has changed, and now it’s their territory. And fine. People move on,” she says. (Her thoughts on Saint-Tropez these days? “Basically, I think it should be seen by boat.”)
However, there is a young international crew that is maintaining some semblance of the jetset’s originally glamorous lifestyle. Cartagena, Colombia, whose beauty and romance have been etched in literary history in Gabriel García Márquez’s novels, was a dozy town just a decade ago, when travelers were still wary of visiting the country. Now, if you head there in December, you will find Eugenie Niarchos, Tatiana Santo Domingo, the Princess Francesca von Habsburg-Lothringen, Angela Missoni, and the Courtin-Clarins sisters wandering the cobblestone streets or, in some cases, attending a party at the palatial home of local maven Chiqui de Echavarría. “I suppose Cartagena attracts those who aren’t necessarily looking for the typical posh-resort experience,” muses Lauren Santo Domingo, whose husband, Andrés, is Colombian. “There are very few champagne coupes on New Year’s Eve in Cartagena. Instead, we drink aguardiente.”
With its charm and elegance, Cartagena has been anointed the latest hot spot—and one that outside of certain circles is still under the radar. But for some stalwarts, no matter the surnames in the group or the untouched nature of these new paradises, the jetset is as fallen as the Berlin Wall.
“It was people who knew how to live,” Herrera says. “Now it’s people who have the money to live.”