A Day In Monaco
( Originally Published 1936 )
Across the Mediterranean from Algiers to Monaco requires about a day. We made the passage on Easter Sunday and when I awoke next morning the ship was slowly swinging at anchor under the Casino. Behind it the town rose in steep terraces toward the background of the Maritime Alps. The Tete de Chien stood guard over sea and shore like a great, crouching, beast. The oceanographic museum of the Prince of Monaco clung to the cliff that marks the end of old Monaco and beyond were the palace and cathedral. Undeniably it is a beautiful coast, worthy of its great reputation.
A friend living in Villefranche had asked us to use his car during our stay and we now came into contact with the French telephone service. On the quay was a small railway station and the interpreter here tried to put through the call. We did not have the number of the telephone, but as there are only eight customers of the Villefranche exchange this did not seem a very formidable obstacle. However, after trying for fifteen minutes he gave up. We went to a hotel and asked the concierge to try his hand. For another half hour we sat around, studying the rose tapestries and ivory walls of the lounge. Finally the concierge came in and said: " I can't get the call now, but if you give me time I will put it through. Leave your message with me and come back at eleven o'clock."
With two hours on our hands we started up the stone stairway that leads to the upper town. It followed the side of a deep gorge. There were many grottos filled with flowers in the wall opposite and the chasm was crossed by a narrow arch whose purpose I could not fathom. The climb was very tiring, but at every turn we were rewarded by a new vista. The villas perched like eagle's nests on every shelf of rock, and wherever space permitted there was a garden of palms and roses.
The season was nearing its end, and it had been a bad one at best. The story of high prices in the Riviera hotels had spread all over the world and kept many away. The English are the best patrons of this coast, and nobody is more sensitive to imposition than an Englishman. The fault was largely with the hotel-keepers. During the rapid fall of the franc they kept advancing their rates, which they finally stabilized on the basis of forty francs to the dollar. When the franc recovered and nearly doubled in value the inn-keepers did not reduce their prices, with the result that the Riviera was last year one of the most ex-pensive places in the world. One man in our party was charged $43.00 for luncheon for five; but this was in one of the most exclusive places.
The business quarter of Monte Carlo is given up entirely to hotels, cafes and other enterprises that cater to the traveler. Most of the people strolling in the streets were British, and there was that in their manner that made me wonder whether they were getting much fun out of their holiday. In a resort so cosmopolitan and so much frequented by the English I thought our language would be generally spoken. This I did not find to be so. There was a sign reading " English Library" over a stationer's shop; but within no member of the staff then present could speak a word of English. This was also true of the cafe where we recuperated from our long climb.
We returned to the lower town by the winding motor road that leads past the gardens of the Casino. The great beds of pansies are their finest feature, and nowhere else have I seen these lovely flowers in such profusion or perfection. Yet how many sordid tragedies this peaceful spot has witnessed. A last desperate staking of all on the wheel, a loss and a pistol shot under the palm trees has marked the end of many an eager hope.
Back at the hotel we found our friend waiting. Our message had reached him and on the drive to Villefranche he told us his own experiences with the French telephone. " Last year I wrote my caretaker to have a telephone put in, but when I arrived six months later he said that he could not get it, though he had been to the post-office many times. I thought I knew what was the matter, so I went down to the post-office and told the local manager that if he would install a telephone in my house in three days I would give him 200 francs, and that if he didn't I would report him to Paris. I got the telephone; but I have been wondering ever since whether I am any better off. The exchange closes every evening at nine and is never open on Sundays and holidays. You have seen for yourself what kind of service you get during the hours when it is open. It is just another example of the efficiency of the public ownership of utilities."
The villa at which we finally arrived was a three-story house overlooking the naval harbor of Villefranche. It was high up the hillside and its gardens, with pansy beds and a gnarled old fig tree, were divided into two terraces. There was good turf, kept alive by constant watering.
The young couple stopping here were, I fear, all too typical of life on the Riviera. They were both of wealthy family and so inoculated with the germ of pleasure that they had lost all desire to return to America, much less to do any serious work.
The life they were living was a continuous round of dinners and dances at all of which the drinking was heavy. They were always out until three or four o'clock, slept until mid-afternoon and then got ready for another party. Just how long it takes for this kind of a life to demoralize a normal young person is uncertain; but if I wanted to become utterly worthless I think a year on the Riviera would be a good preparation.
The very house in which we were stopping was of itself an object lesson. It had belonged to a young Englishman of wealth and social position who had married a French woman. In about the usual time he had squandered his inheritance and drunk himself to death, leaving his widow with this villa and the habit of gambling. She mortgaged the property and the proceeds soon disappeared over the tables of the Casino. My friend picked up the handsome place for $20,000, though I doubt not that it cost its former owner thrice that sum.
We drove along the Lower Corniche Road to Nice and lunched in the Casino, which is really a pier built out over the sea. The restaurant has a good name, and if it is not the most exclusive, it is at least the best for situation. There could hardly be a pleasanter place, with its vista of deep blue waters and palm-lined shore. Except for the intervention of an English woman I should have lost my coat and hat. A waiter had carried them away to a coat room whose location I had failed to note, so after luncheon we wandered toward the door. We passed through a gate at which a man had taken post. There was no coat room beyond and when I attempted to return the gateman refused to let me pass. The woman explained in French my predicament and I was finally permitted to return and claim my property. It transpired that the annual costume party for children was about to open and an admission fee was being charged.
Nice is now a city of 200,000, and its wide boulevard along the sea, lined with pleasant hotels, is to my mind the finest spot in the French Riviera. But with the fashionable crowd Cannes is now in favor. Its plain Casino is reputed to have the highest play in the world, excepting possibly Deauville in the brief summer season. The fleets of big, expensive British motor cars before the hotels left no doubt as to where the rich British crowd did its playing. How influential the English are in this resort was shown a few years ago when it was proposed to add bull fighting to the winter attractions. Many of the British winter residents threatened to boycott the town if this were done and the French authorities discreetly allowed the project to die.
The three Corniche Roads are an inheritance from Napoleon, and the Upper road is a tribute to the skill and daring of his engineers. It clings to the mountain sides twelve or fourteen hundred feet above the sea and challenges the claim of the Amalfi Drive to be the chief scenic road of Europe. I could not enjoy it, just as I can find no pleasure in riding in an aeroplane. My confidence in the integrity of machines has not yet reached a point that enables me to contemplate with satisfaction the scenery below. While we were in Monaco an American lost his life in a motor slip on this road.
Cape Ferrat is unquestionably the most exclusive place on this fashionable coast. It runs far out to sea to form one shore of Villefranche harbor and as most of the land is held privately it is comparatively free from hotels and public places. The Duke of Con-naught is the most conspicuous resident here and young Prince George, of England, was stopping with him at the time. The King of the Belgians also has an estate, but I was informed that he does not occupy it with any regularity.
The side streets of all the Riviera towns are steep, winding and narrow. Returning to the villa for tea a Ford truck piled high with bales of hay, held its back for some time. At a sharp turn the load upset and our driver, Mario, was forced to help the truckman re-place it before we could proceed.
As we left toward evening my heart went out to my host. He is a man well on in years and he has accumulated a fortune by a life of hard work and hard sense. He had bought this villa as a winter home and had spent some peaceful times there with his handsome and stalwart young son. He returned now to find the youth married and the atmosphere of the place was changed from repose to hectic gayety. I did not think that he would remain long and my surmise proved correct.
"I have secured a promise from my boy that he will come back to America and go into business," he said as we parted. " I believe he will keep his promise and I know that if he stays here much longer he will never leave. You have no idea how this place affects people. Two years ago I met an American family at the hotel in Switzerland where I was stop-ping and I invited them to spend a few days with me here. The family consisted of the father, mother and two daughters. The man was more than sixty years old and he told me that he had accumulated a reasonable fortune as a merchant in St. Louis and was now making his first visit to Europe. It was in fact the first vacation he had ever taken. I know they were well-to-do for each of the daughters carried a letter of credit for $5,000, and they were in every way nice people.
" On the first night down here they wanted to go to the Casino, as nearly everybody does who has not seen it before. Toward the end of the evening the wife came to me in considerable distress and asked me to speak to her husband, as he was playing too heavily. I told her that I did not feel at liberty to do this, and as the table was to close in a half hour it was improbable that anything serious would happen, and she could then talk to him herself.
"Going home the merchant was highly excited. He had won $6,000, and he said to me: 'I never dreamed that there was a place like this in the world. I have worked and denied myself for forty years in St. Louis to accumulate what I have, and I could have made more here in a month.'
"I knew then that the man was in danger. The next evening he could hardly wait for the Casino to open. His wife was without influence over him and when we finally left at closing time he was about even. He went the third night, and the outcome of it all was that I had to lend him $500, until he could get to Paris and send home for more.
"The game is entirely square, but there is an advantage of about three per cent. In favor of the house. This is not sufficient to prevent many individuals from winning, but it will eat up any sum of money in the course of time, for the law of averages never fails. All that one-has to do to lose his capital is to play long enough for the law of averages to apply. When anyone asks me why I do not play I always remind him that the citizens here pay no taxes and the money for all these beautiful improvements comes from those who play. That is all the proof I want that there is no such thing as `breaking the bank of Monte Carlo.'"
Dinner on shipboard was served early and all the Italian officers got into their shore clothes. The tender was crowded and we made an imposing pro-cession as we climbed the ramp to the Casino. Ordinarily visitors are required to deposit their passports and sufficient money to insure them against becoming stranded, but as we were all in a cruise party the restrictions were waived. A ticket of admission cost ten francs and there was another for checking our coats, but this done we were quite at liberty to go broke at our pleasure.
The " salle " of Monte Carlo is not quite such a center of fashion as tradition pictures it. For example it is generally believed that evening clothes are required, but of the five hundred or more who were present when we arrived not one in three was dressed. On the contrary it seemed to me that the players, particularly the women, were a little on the slovenly side. The preponderance of women players was to me the most unexpected feature. There were a number of beautiful girls in evening gowns, but for each one of these there were several dowdy old women whose big note books and intense manner marked them at once as confirmed habitues. In the adjoining bar there were always groups of these female addicts poring over their records of the turn of the wheel, which in many cases were as voluminous as bank ledgers. They all entertained the delusion, I suppose, that they could develop a winning system, but I noticed that some of them were not above pilfering a few chips from the green players at their sides. In the end, no doubt a successful " system " will be discovered—on the same day, no doubt, that perpetual motion is invented.
The great room is of palatial size and dimensions, but its decorations begin to look a little dingy and the crystal chandeliers shed none too brilliant a light. Each table is placarded with a notice giving the limit of play and the hour of closing, which varied from midnight to 2 A. M. The minimum play was ten francs and the limit twelve thousand francs. There is, however, a smaller room in which the limit is doubled. It was possible, therefore, to stake almost $1,000 on the turn of a wheel or card.
To me the scene seemed rather sordid than gay, but I lack the gambling instinct. I could only feel sorry for the rapt; deluded oafs who were so intent on setting aside the law of averages. The croupiers were usually young men, but the dealers at the baccarat and vingt et un tables were in some instances past sixty, and nearly all of them were dressed in morning; coats. Their distinguishing characteristic was not their coldly sophisticated manner, but their exceeding skill. The speed and accuracy with which they adjusted the complicated play was worthy of a better cause. I saw but a single " incident." A young English girl in evening dress had been playing with feverish intentness. Suddenly she arose, put her hand-kerchief to her face and turning from the table burst into a spasm of sobbing. The other players merely glanced at her and resumed their play; but I noticed that an usher followed as she left the hall.
The Italians are good gamblers, and the officers of our ship came away that night with more than thirty thousand francs of the Casino's money. It is no vast sum, to be sure, but it takes a good many days to pick it up in the Italian merchant marine. I was amused by the purser. His earnings were not great, but he put one hundred francs on zero and on a single turn of the wheel pulled down at least two months' pay. When next I saw him on the following morning he was assisting the priest serve mass.
The Principality of Monaco is not merely the smallest independent country of Europe, but from all accounts the most peaceful and happy, so far as its fifteen hundred citizens are concerned. Within their eight square miles of rock, which grows scarcely a single pound of food, there are two blessings that one must go to Europe to fully appreciate. There are no taxes and no compulsory military service. The public peace is kept by the seventy-five professional soldiers attached to the Court of Prince Louis, who is descended from the family of Cardinal Mazarin. The Rue de Midi is the boundary line, and the merchants on the Monaco side pay no taxes, while their competitors across the road bear the heavy burdens of France. The dwellers in Arcadia understand their good fortune and habitually rub it in by referring to France as " the Land of taxes."
But if the citizen pays no taxes the visitor makes up the deficiency, disguised, it is true, in the form of admissions. There is a tax on hotel rooms, a tax on restaurant meals, a fee for visiting the palace and museum and even for seeing the fishes fed in the aquarium. The profits of the Casino remain, however, the one great, stable source of revenue, and to this no citizen of Monaco is permitted to contribute, for the Casino is closed to the local pop ulation.
In these conditions it is natural that the life of the burghers is a quiet one. They have no politics to quarrel about. Since there is no par] ament and no elections there can be no issues upon which to divide. The family council runs everything, and the single minister of state holds his appointmen from the Foreign Office of France. Of course Monaco, while nominally independent, 'is really a protectc rate of France. It is not permitted to go there without a French consular vise. The; Principality issues a vise of its own, and has a Consul General in N :w York and a representative in Chicago. The former is a lawyer and the latter a bank clerk. I took the precaution to secure a Monaco vise before sailing. It can only be issued when a French vise has p eviously been secured. It was not really necessary, for as soon as we came into port some local officials boarded the ship and stamped passports at the rate of twenty francs each. In any case the Monaco vise is only required if one comes in from Italy or by sea.
But one cloud overhangs this happy land, and that is the menace of Italy. If war ever comes between France and Italy the whole resort coast is certain to be overrun, and Monaco will share the fate of Belgium. There was extreme anxiety there in the autumn of 1926, when tension between France and Italy be-came acute at the time of the Garibaldi episode. It was generally asserted by the residents of Monaco that Italy had massed enough troops on the near-by frontier to have easily rushed the French Riviera. The French authorities were very watchful and Mario, my friend's Italian chauffeur, was kept under the closest surveillance. A single incident might have started the conflagration, but fortunately for the world it did not occur. I am glad the Riviera escaped, for to have despoiled it would have been like dashing acid into the face of a beautiful woman.