Making Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle

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Lurid Tales of Crime and Aristocratic Extravagance

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Hercules, as Mark Braude tells us in his sprightly history of Monte Carlo, was supposed to have stopped in Monaco en route to completing his 10th labor. This feat involved stealing a herd of cattle from Geryon, a six-limbed giant who was assisted in his shepherding duties by a two-headed hound, and ferrying the herd back to Greece as various gods, including Hera, sought to sabotage him. All told, he had better odds than the average visitor to a Monte Carlo casino, the wealth of which is, as Evelyn Waugh put it, “derived wholly and directly from man’s refusal to accept the conclusion of mathematical proof.” Unlike even the most powerful and vindictive of Greek gods, the house always wins.

In Making of Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle, Braude describes how savvy impresarios actualized an illusion of their own devising: Monaco as a glamorous oasis in which “sun-kissed lives played out on clay courts and under canvas sails.” Monte Carlo was a creation of modernity and myth. Braude writes early on that his book is about “how we create places largely through the stories we tell about them, and about how places can in turn be made to suit those stories.” The original casino-resort, which began to take shape after Monaco legalized gambling in 1855, depended on new forms of mass advertising — color posters “featur[ing] fast men and fast women doing fast things in fast machines” — to entice visitors and new rail routes to deliver them to the casino entrance. But as Braude wryly notes, the real Monte Carlo only began to resemble this fantasy land of careless pleasure when “enough people had passed through and lost enough money.” To tweak the famous line from Field of Dreams, if you pretend to build it, they will come.

Braude outlines Monaco’s ancient history as a Phoenician, then Grecian, port and the importance of its fortress, constructed on its cliffs in 1215 to deter pirates. In 1297, an exiled Genoan clan, the Grimaldis, who disguised themselves as Franciscan monks, gained entrance to the fortress and slaughtered its guards. Monaco had its new ruling family. Skipping ahead several half a millennium, the Revolutions of 1848 left the Grimaldis hurting financially. Mentone and Roccabruna had declared their independence from the barren Monaco, taking with them 80 percent of the principality’s territory and, with it, considerable agricultural revenue. (A local saying: “I am Monaco upon a rock. I neither sow nor reap. But all the same I want to eat.”) The reigning monarch’s wife, Princess Caroline, heard of the profits generated by German spa and gaming towns such as Bad Homburg and urged her husband to legalize gambling. In 1855, the SBM, or Société Anonyme des Bains de Mer et du Cercle des Étrangers à Monaco (the Sea Bathing and Foreigners’ Circle of Monaco Company) was created, its namers taking great pains to obfuscate its central mission: “to oversee the gambling concession in Monaco.”

There were some hiccups. Because Princess Caroline wanted the casino far from the palace, a site was chosen at Les Spélugues, a secluded network of grottoes:
Bandits were spotted there from time to time, holed up in the dark caves, coming out to rob anyone foolish enough to wander into that wild stretch of land, where the normal rules didn’t apply.
Should a foreigner wish to be robbed by these cave-dwelling brigands, or by the fledgling casino for that matter, he would have to endure a “nauseating three-hour carriage ride from Nice along the narrow Cornice mountain road, littered with highwaymen, followed by an hour’s walk down rocky hills.” No wonder then that Les Spélugues casino opened in February of 1863 “with little fanfare and to near-universal indifference.” In the early days of Monaco’s gaming industry, customers were so scarce that croupiers “install[ed] a telescope in their smoking spot so they could check every so often to see if any player came down the road, which sent them scurrying back to their posts.” Even a loafing employee can keep his eye on the prize.

Shortly after its opening, the rumor that a bank-busting gambler, Thomas Garcia, was headed to Monaco caused the SBM to panic. They reached out to François Blanc, the man who had turned Bad Homburg into an immensely profitable resort. François was a cardsharp-turned-stock trader who, operating with his twin brother Louis, made his first fortune through illegal machinations that seem almost quaint by today’s standards. Operating from Bordeaux, the Blanc brothers would bribe officials along the telegraph route from Paris to pass on coded messages about the day’s bond activities, thereby giving the provincial traders an edge. François then apprenticed in gaming management in the clubs, called enfers (hells), lining Paris’s seedy Palais Royale — the arcaded palace once belonging to the Duc D’Orléans. When François was approached by Monaco’s SBM to take over its gambling concession, he deployed a curious strategy to maintain the upper hand in negotiations: “He acted aloof and irritable, blaming his mood on a nagging boil that made it impossible for him to sit, due to its unfortunate placement.” Whether the boil was real, or he was merely bluffing, is a mystery the old gambler took to his grave.

Blanc was responsible for transforming the sleepy outpost into a world-renowned luxury resort. Thereafter Monaco became a kind of dual monarchy: “True power in Monaco dwelt not in the House of Grimaldi but in the House of Blanc.” Blanc urged Prince Charles to rename the resort to give it a loftier name, which he did, naturally, after himself: Les Spélugues became Monte Carlo. Blanc also exoticized Monaco, importing vegetation “from Africa and the Americas, turning this gambling town at the fringe of Europe away from the continent and toward the Mediterranean and the New World.” His well-trained staff kept out all the undesirables — criminals, prostitutes, French and Italian officers, priests — and enforced a strict dress code, though some superstitious players managed to sneak in their preferred talismans, including live pigs, cooked pigs, bat’s hearts, and turtles.

Blanc also mobilized the press, “pay[ing] newspapers to present whatever they wanted publicized within the guise of a regular article.” The SBM, Braude calculates, “spent…roughly one franc on publicity for every two francs spent on wages.” As Blanc and his successors would realize, the “tourist trade…was just another form of storytelling,” and Monte Carlo naturally produced great ones: lurid tales of crime; aristocratic extravagances; and “morality tales” involving “the ruin of the beautiful young bourgeoisie, or the seemingly contented patriarch, or the promising and dutiful officer.” (Stefan Zweig’s typically wonderful story, “Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman,” tells of one such fall.)

Blanc peddled the myth that social mobility was only one roll away for anyone who dared chance it, all the while taking pains to emphasize the exclusivity of its clientele — “equal parts access and intimidation” is how Braude glosses this mix of populism and elitism. Braude is excellent on how Blanc used “culture in the service of commerce,” welcoming guests to enjoy free concerts at the first-come, first-seated Salle Garnier:
Such seemingly populist strategies actually lent the performances an air of exclusivity. No money changed hands, freeing some people to believe they’d come to the casino only out of a genuine love of music, and that by doing so they’d be accepted as equals among fellow amateurs of culture
Las Vegas has done away with that pretense. (Of Atlantic City, De mortuis nihil nisi bonum.)

During the 1920s, Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes took up residence in Monte Carlo, “developing new works in the resort [that] built anticipation for their metropolitan debuts.” Monaco, jarringly, was now an incubator of avant-garde, if kitschy, culture. Braude devotes a chapter to a work written by Jean Cocteau and performed by the Ballets Russes, Le Train Bleu, named for the luxury train, equipped with a live eel tank, that ran from Calais to the Cote d’Azur. Coco Chanel dressed the dancers, Pablo Picasso supplied the overture curtain, and the “frothy score” was written by Darius Milhaud. Braude describes the confection spun out by these luminaries as a
…collection of moments, an onrushing flood of pleasures, of posing and of being posed for, of showing off one’s body and the things it could do, of getting into and out of dangerous and brief liaisons, of being entertained by the sight of something shiny and new rushing by and then running off to be distracted by the next novelty.
This is excellent, and strikes me as equally descriptive of Braude’s book, the strength of which lies in a similarly diverting “collection of moments” rather than a sustained narrative. Making Monte Carlo’s short, punchy chapters are usually broken into short, punchy sections with a self-contained anecdote or two, most of which are sufficiently contextualized. The only time Braude missteps is when he attempts to raise the stakes by adopting a sensationalist tone, for example setting up one chapter by intoning that “these same golden years were also marked by scandal, violence, and tragedy.” That may be true, but it is all so breezily recounted that the portentous set-up rings hollow.

The primary pleasure in Making Monte Carlo comes from watching the various eccentrics, lowlifes, high-rollers, and famous artists stroll in to take a seat at the table. Edvard Munch uses his government scholarship money, generously provided to help pay for art classes in Paris, though he did have the decency to produce a painting from the experience, “At the Roulette Tables in Monte Carlo.” Karl Marx, following the advice of his doctor, who espoused the benefits of “heliotherapy,” finds himself frequenting the same resort as sybaritic Russian royals who, “after growing bored with their caviar tasting, made a game of smashing champagne bottles” against the walls. Elsa Maxwell, the American publicity maven known for trotting out trained seals during the fish courses of her parties and traveling with 14 trunks for her press clippings and one hat box for a change of clothes, swoops in to reinvigorate Monte Carlo in the post-WWI years.

Francois Blanc was a rather colorful figure, but he pales in comparison to Sir Basil Zaharoff, an international arms dealer living in a Parisian apartment fortified by bullet-proof glass. Known as “The Merchant of Death” and fictionalized as Basil Bazarov in the popular comic Tintin, he wrested control of the SBM in 1923 for mysterious reasons, then refused ever to set foot in the casino. When one guests interrupts his sun-bathing session to ask for gambling advice, he curtly obliges: “Don’t play.”

Zaharoff brought in his friend Réné Léon, who was terrific at running the casino but had the unfortunate habit of occasionally running over pedestrians in his car. And then there’s this little bit of tax-shelter trivia: In a bid to ease tensions with his perpetually poor Monégasque subjects, who resented the influx of foreign casino workers, Prince Charles abolished the income tax in 1869, a move that “unknowingly set Monaco on the course to becoming the world’s first modern tax haven.” Perhaps we could call this trickle-up economics?

Braude aptly concludes with the inaugural Monaco Grand Prix in 1929, a motor race that wound its way through the principality’s streets, an account chosen for thematic rather than dramatic reasons. The race was relatively uneventful, but Braude sees in the speedy cars circling round and round an “endless loop of self-regard” typifying Monte Carlo’s strenuous commitment to dizzying frivolity.

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