Tales of the Jet Set Elite

In this period of COVID-19, one in which new fast-spreading strains of the coronavirus are developing and vaccination has reached only a small part of the world’s population, travel, especially international travel, has been limited or must be approached carefully or banned to certain places. Instead, the reality is largely immobility, the result of a complex mix of factors: lockdown, masking, social distancing, quarantine, and international travel bans.  Already, before the appearance of the pandemic, there was action or calls for action to limit travel to certain destinations because of tourism overload and backlash.  

Tourist overload has resulted in overcrowding, congestion, physical disturbance, destruction of natural environments, pressure on facilities and infrastructure, strains on the fabric of cities, and conflicts with locals over the use of space. Popular places such as the Galapagos, Venice, Dubrovnik, Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, Santorini, and Capri are overrun. In every continent there are problems due to what is regarded as an excessive number of visitors.

Mass tourism has only become a serious problem in recent years, at least in areas with beaches and are of special physical, historical, or cultural interest. Mass tourism resulted from a number of factors --  global population growth, the increase in the global middle class,  expansion of low-cost air travel and availability of cruise liners with thousands of passengers, increased information and advertising through social media, supply of accommodations through Airbnb, and emulation byincreasing numbers of what was considered elite culture or the playgrounds of celebrities.  

That desire to visit places  previously limited to well off, elite, or celebrity groups is shown by the increase in numbers. Among the most pressed are Barcelona, population 1.6 million, which has 30 million visitors a year, and Venice, population 50,000,  which has 20 million visitors a year.

The large number of visitors to what were formerly fashionable places for the rich and celebrities paradoxically prevents an “authentic “ experience. Perhaps the best example of this issue is the daily crowd attempting to see the world’s most celebrated painting, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Giaconda.  About 10 million visit the Louvre every year, up to 50,000 a day, of whom 80% say it is to visit the painting, now housed in a bulletproof glass setting in a separate room. The Louvre has instituted a crowd control system with serpentine lines to allow visitors to get a better glimpse of the painting. However, the problem remains. Tourists may get a glimpse of the painting for an instant, on average 50 seconds a person,  but their main view is of the heads of other tourists .

What explains the unique popularity of the most seen painting in the world? Everyone acknowledges it is a great painting that took three years, 1503-1506, to complete, a complex portrait, a remarkable example of the genius and technique of Leonardo da Vinci, the use of sfumato, subtle gradations of light and shadow. Yet, there is no one simple explanation for its overwhelming celebrity. Perhaps it is due to its air of mystery, about the identity of the lady about whom historians and art experts differ, or because it was once stolen and was the object of international search. Or it is a case of celebrity worship, of what the American historian Daniel Boorstin termed a “pseudo-event,” famous for being famous, and well known for “well-knownness”?  Today this is familiar as in the cases of Kim Kardashian, media personality and social media presence, and the late Zsa Zsa Gabor, with her extravagant Hollywood lifestyle and nine husbands, whose activities and clothes are international news, if not contributions to intellectual achievements.  

Celebrity emulation, even worship, goes back a long way. Amusingly, Madame Pompadour exemplified this when on the ballroom floor, she was said by gentlemen to have the cutest personality. But it became more significant post-World War II when increasing numbers in Europe followed the pleasures limited in an earlier period to celebrities when travel was limited.

Those pleasures and the accompanying lifestyle became more known as the result of media attention by professional writers.  We are fortunate to learn more about those pleasures from recently available newspaper articles and photos by a well-known journalist of the day, Charles J. V. Murphy.  Murphy had a distinguished career with various journals, which included the New York Evening Post, the World, the Washington Post, and thirty years with Fortune, Life, and Time magazine, published by Henry Luce. He was a biographer, author of a number of books including children’s books, and articulate on the Admiral Richard Byrd expedition, the role of Chiang Kai-shek, and public relations for the U.S. Air Force.

Murphy was a correspondent covering the French Cote d’Azur, famous for its beaches, views, perfect water, luxury, yachts, a playground for the wealthy. The Riviera, now overrun by tourism, was in earlier days the celebrated place of the international jet set, and the place where the bikini was first displayed. The Promenade des Anglais in Nice in the 1930s was the center of glamor, of gossip, sex, and scandal, the venue of Marlene Dietrich, Joseph P. Kennedy, Gloria Swanson, and Coco Chanel.

Some of the most interesting articles by Murphy deal with this international set at play and leisure. Murphy tells the story of the fashionable Hotel du Cap  d’Antibes, owned by Andre Sella, which catered to British and  Russian aristocrats, a place of bankers, royalty, tycoons, and also the writer Anatole France.  One famous occasion at the hotel occurred when Rita Hayworth stood up the Shah of Iran for lunch. Instead, Rita was lunching 15 miles away at the equally famous Chateau de l’Horizon with the 38-year-old Ali Khan, son of the Aga Kahn, who had bought the establishment. Sella, with the genius of a great hotelier, solved the dilemma for the sad, agitated Shah by producing for him a beautiful young woman, Mademoiselle Cote d' Azur of 1947.  Meanwhile, the lunch relationship between Ali and Rita went well, and led to their marriage in 1949.

The most interesting association was between Murphy and the Duke of Windsor, who had abdicated when Edward VIII on December 10, 1936, in the Cap d’ Antibes where the Duke at the time rented a villa. Windsor, first in 1945 and again in 1946, asked Murphy to help him write his “autobiography.” Windsor had liked the long article that Murphy had written on Winston Churchill, at one point a friend of Windsor. Murphy agreed to collaborate, and the result was a three-part story, The Education of a Prince, supposedly written by Windsor but “edited” by Murphy and  published in Life in December 1947. This was followed by a sequel, A King’s Story, on the making and ending of a king.

Windsor as a youth enjoyed the social world of the 1920s, flying his own plane, dancing, and drinking gin, more than the order and perfection of  the British court. Murphy recounts the meetings and relationship between David and Wallis Warfield Simpson, and the interviews of Edward VIII with the Archbishop of Canterbury and prime minister Stanley Baldwin, leading to scenes when the PM tells Edward that  the Empire would not approve his marriage to Simpson,  and then to abdication. In addition, Murphy helped write, in essence wrote, the autobiography of the Duchess of Windsor, The Heart has its Reasons.  

One of Murphy’s photos shows an unusual arrangement of a dinner party of celebrities of Hollywood and others,  with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, Linda Christian (engaged to Power), Darryl Zanuck, Jack Warner.  Others floating around were Orson Welles, Sonja Henie, Annabella, ex-wife of Tyrone Power, Pamela Churchill, ex-wife of Randolph Churchill, and Rita Hayworth.

These writings by Murphy are a valuable reminder of the elite jet set of two generations ago before the tourist overload. It would be enticing, perhaps disillusioning, to have a comparison of the past set with the present celebrities of the Cote d’Azur: Leonardo  DiCaprio, Beyonce, Bono, Elton John, and Kate Moss.

Image: National Media Museum UK