Sunday, December 9, 2012

What Happens at The Negresco...

With its dazzling Belle Epoque facade and famous pink dome, the gracious Negresco Hotel in Nice is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. It’s one of only three five-star hotels in Nice and it fills up a full city block—in both directions--on the Promenade des Anglais, facing the sweeping Baie des Anges of the Mediterranean Sea. While the Negresco may not be the largest or flashiest hotel on the Cote d’Azur, it definitely has one of the most colorful histories. Like the time Richard Burton forgot Liz Taylor’s million dollar emeralds on a bar stool...or Michael Jackson dressing up like a hooker so he could slip out of the hotel unnoticed...or James Brown chasing his wife around the hotel in a jealous rage in the middle of the night...

Those are just a few of the many stories that got out. Imagine the ones that didn’t!

A bit of backstory: In 1893, a young Romanian named Henri Negrescu, the son of an innkeeper and a gypsy violinist, arrived in Monte Carlo to seek his fortune.  Through his jobs at the Helder Hotel and the Municipal Casino of Nice, he met the celebrated French/Dutch architect Edouard Niermans (creator of the Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergères) and financier Alexandre Darracq. Negrescu talked up his dream hotel with Darracq, who agreed to back him, while Niermans was signed on as the architect. None other than Gustave Eiffel was chosen to construct the framework of one of Europe’s most beautiful glass domes, which became the centerpiece of the hotel’s Salon Royal. For the hotel’s name, Henri chose his given name as a French citizen.

The Negresco first opened her doors in 1912, then after a brief hiatus, officially launched in January, 1913, boasting innovations such as a steam autoclave, electric switches, and an internal tube system for distributing mail to every room. The hotel quickly lured a glittering international clientele and had an enormously successful first season, “earning a profit of 800,000 gold francs.’’

When World War I broke out, Henri (by then a Knight of the Legion of Honneur) transformed his beloved Negresco into a hospital, paying for the upkeep of 100 beds himself. Later, the hotel fell into severe financial difficulty, was seized by creditors and was then purchased by a Belgian company. Meanwhile poor Henri died penniless in Paris in 1920, aged 52.

Fast forward to 1957, when Monsieur Jean-Baptiste Mesnage and his wife bought the Negresco and moved in. Their daughter Jeanne Augier, today age 89, still lives on site and is involved in every aspect of operations. I’m told she’s the last private owner of any Riviera palace hotel...and that the Sultan of Brunei and Bill Gates, among many others, have tried to buy her out. An endowment fund was set up long ago to ensure the Negresco’s future, with beneficiaries including humanitarian causes, French art programs and animal welfare charities. (Pets are very welcome at the hotel and Madame Augier’s beloved cat Carmen spends most of the day dozing in a leather chair in the bar.)

Passionate about French art and antiques, Madame Augier was already a serious collector by her early 20s.  And the Negresco’s walls have always been the perfect backdrop for her collection. Today, the Negresco is the only hotel in France that employs a full time curator (Mr. Pierre Couette) for its art and antiques, a collection that numbers roughly 5,000 pieces. And Jeanne Augier is still adding to it, her goal being ‘’to present an overall view of the great periods of French Art.’’ 

Artists, of course, figure prominently in guestbook; Dali, Matisse and Picasso were regulars; Chagall and Cocteau loved the hotel. Show biz types have long treated the Negresco as their base on the Cote d’Azur: Alain Delon, Cary Grant, Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Elton John, Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour...the list goes on and on. Ava Gardener and Ernest Hemingway have been guests, as have Jacques Chirac, Winston Churchill, countless Royals and heads of state.

Stories of the Negresco’s rich and famous clientele—and their hijinks—could easily fill a book. Indeed, the hotel has always indulged quirky behaviour. 

Prince Turki, brother of the King of Saudi Arabia, arrived with a 50-person entourage, 1,000 pieces of luggage, and his own furniture...all of it packed in a moving van. There were 15 cases for the Prince’s shoes alone. The local fire brigade was called to clear the entrance hall, so the Princely possessions could make it through the lobby.

Once during a power outage, the pianist Arthur Rubinstein refused to climb the four floors to his room. He asked for two pillows, a blanket, an 8 am wake-up call with breakfast and Champagne...and then settled in for the night in the Salon Louis XIV.

Anthony Quinn arrived with 20 suitcases containing 100 of his wife’s evening gowns...and an unusual request. He wanted a white Cadillac--with chauffeur--and a bicycle. He used the bike throughout his stay in Nice, disappearing each morning into traffic...followed by his wife in the Cadillac. Quinn stayed at the hotel three months while shooting A Star for Two with Lauren Bacall.

It was around 1970 when Richard Burton, in love and rather distracted, was chatting to the barman and showing him the fabulous emerald necklace and earrings he planned to give his wife Liz Taylor, when she called down and asked her husband to come up to the room. A half an hour later, the barman discovered the jewels on a bar stool, where Burton had forgotten them.

Michael Jackson came to stay in 1988, bringing his own chef.  After having transformed one of the rooms into a kitchen, he installed a dance floor in another room so that he could rehearse. In order to leave the hotel unnoticed, he disguised himself “as a hippie, an English gentleman, a delivery boy and a prostitute.’’

Once, a passing student stopped to admire a magnificent Hispano Suiza parked in front of the hotel and allegedly said, “You have to be a King to own such a car!’’  Rudolf Valentino tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “Would you like to be King? Then get in, my chauffeur will drive you wherever you want. You’ll be a King for a day.’’

And then there was the rock band that stole one of Madame Augier’s favourite paintings, a present from her parents on her 21st birthday. I can’t say who the band was or how the heist was found out, but the band was apprehended at the airport and the painting was returned in perfect condition.

Late this summer, the Negresco threw itself an enormous birthday party, with Madame Augier playing elegant host to 500 guests, friends and local dignitaries. Other celebrations and promotions were being staged throughout the year, but the most joyous gift of all came in March 2012, when the folks at the Michelin Guide called to say they’d be giving the Negresco’s restaurant Chantecler its coveted second star back after bumping them down to one star in the Guide Rouge eight years ago. (The hotel’s first two-star review had originally been earned back in 1980 by the wildly talented but notoriously eccentric Jacques Maximin, chef at Negresco from 1978 to 1988. (Maximin now has the Bistrot de la Marine in Cros de Cagnes, ten minutes from the Nice Airport.)

Credit for the second Michelin star goes to Negresco chef Jean-Denis Rieubland, who joined the hotel in 2007 and immediately set out to win it back. Born in Agen, France, Rieubland trained at the Lycée Hôtelier in Nice, then went on to work at top hotels and restaurants such as The Carlton (Cannes), La Tour d’Argent (Paris), and the Four Seasons Resort Provence at Terre Blanche (no longer a Four Seasons, it’s now called just Terre Blanche). Rieubland earned his Meilleur Ouvrier de France (‘’Best Craftsmen in France’’) title in 2007.

Among Rieubland’s many contributions to the Negresco is the farm-to-table system he set up, turning his family’s own farm--about 35 minutes from the hotel—into his private potager. Rieubland works closely with his father, Jean François, to select the varieties they’ll grow each season, on 17 hectares of terraced, hilltop beds. Jean François drives the produce down to the Negresco twice a week and Rieubland says that cooking with just-picked ingredients grown to his exact specs is “one of the greatest luxuries of all.’’

Hearty kudos also goes out to restaurant manager Olivier Novelli, who was hired to run the Chantecler dining room in late 2009. Before that, he’d worked at Château de la Chevre d’Or (Eze), Le Mas Candille (Mougins), and with Rieubland at the Miramar Beach Hotel. Novelli earned his own Meilleur Ouvrier de France title in 2011, one of just four candidates (out of 59) to attain the impressive distinction that year.

The Chantecler is now Michelin's highest rated restaurant in Nice. (A list of all the starred restaurants in the Alpes Maritimes region appears here.)

In honor of the 100th anniversary, the Negresco completed a €10 million, 18-month renovation in June 2011. Among the upgrades were an entire kitchen re-do and a transformation of the restaurant La Rotonde, which now has a lovely terrace facing the sea. The façade was also restored and 30 guestrooms were redone.

If you’ve never experienced Negresco, there are a few nice ways to do it even if you can’t spend the night. You can dine at Chantecler of course, or the more-casual, family friendly La Rotonde, which serves brasserie fare all day. (They’re currently offering an 18€ plat du jour at lunch; a 22 lunch special including main course, little desserts and coffee; and a full à la carte menu.)

Live music continues in the Le Relais bar, every night from 7:30 onwards. Jazz Night is the first Thursday of the month, at 9 pm.

A small but worthwhile exhibit covering the Negresco’s colourful 100-year history remains on view in the Salon Royal, free and open to the public, from 3 pm to 6 pm daily, until January 5.  

Meanwhile, the centenary celebration runs through June 2013 with a series of events this spring ‘’highlighting French creativity.’’

According to the Negresco’s director, the charming Pierre Bord: ‘’There are few hotels on the Cote d’Azur—few hotels anywhere—that have seen what the Negresco has….and lived to tell about it! While independent hotels up and down the coast continue to be acquired or replaced by chains, Negresco remains steadfastly independent and highly personal. And after an amazing 100 years, the hotel’s original personality remains intact:  formal but friendly, rich in history and ready to party! There are always surprises here…you never know what will happen. And now that this Grand Dame has had her face lift, she’s as glittering and sparkling as ever. Here’s to the next century!’’

For info, rates and reservations at the Negresco, click here.

Photos: 1. The Negresco has been likened to a giant wedding cake. 2. Executive chef Jean-Denis Rieubland loves to tromp around his father's farm, where produce is grown to the chef's exact specs. 3. Madame Augier's cat Carmen is a fixture in the Relais Bar. 4, 5. The dining room and a typically lovely presentation in the restaurant Chantecler. 7. You know who, on the beach at Negresco, June 30, 1965. 8. Image once used on luggage tags and posters. 9. The 100th Anniversary Birthday cake, made by pastry chef Fabien Cocheteux. 10. Seen from the sea. 11. Bienvenue a Negresco!

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7 comments:

  1. What a wonderful story! I wrote about le Negresco on my blog a few months ago, but did not mention the "juicy" stories you have here about the hotel's prestigious guests. Loved reading them today! I have been lucky enough to visit la Rotonde, but have not paid "Chantecler," the Michelin-rated restaurant, a visit yet. Saving this for a special occasion... maybe when I finally get to my pied-à-terre Niçois in a few years (don't think I will be able to put up with Seattle winters much longer once my son if off to college :-) Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

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  2. Such an iconic Nice hotel & very special! Been there many times and always enjoy it.

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  3. Great stories, Julie, and brava for another great blog. The Negresco remans one of our favourite hotels and well worth the visit along the coast to Nice. Jackie Pressman, www.FrenchRivieraPropertySearch.com

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  4. Such fun and interesting stories. Thank you for posting them

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  5. Wonderful Julie, thanks. We love stopping in the Negresco for a coffee even or just to see the gorgeous lobby when in Nice. Joyeux fetes!

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  6. Thank you Julie for sharing this wonderful story with us. Even though I have not been I can just imagine all the goings on. Splendid!

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  7. Love the Negresco, all the pink, the guy in the second picture.. :) ... and all your stories...

    bisous mon ami!

    Kit

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