As the great songwriter Noel Coward once penned, I’ve been to a marvelous party…Recently, I crossed the pond to celebrate my 50th birthday with friends in Nice, France. For a day’s diversion, we drove to Cap Ferrat, considered the world’s second most expensive residential location after Monaco. W. Somerset Maugham, who maintained a home there, referred to this area as “the escape hatch from Monaco for those burdened with taste.”
While there, we toured the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild. I’m sure you have heard the name Rothschild. It is synonymous with incredible wealth—and style. They had so much style that the term ‘Gout Rothschild’ refers to an interior decoration style that can only be described as over-the-top opulence: a mix of elaborately woven fabrics, patterned wood floors, gilt moldings and lots of crystal and porcelain—not for the minimalist or budget-minded client. Yves Saint Laurent and Robert Denning made this style popular in the 20th century. The best concentrated example in the States is Newport, R.I. Those ‘cottages’ were the monuments of newly amassed fortunes by Americans paying homage to families with centuries of wealth in Europe.
Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild (1864-1934) was born into a family of privilege and wealth. She was the daughter of Baron Alphonse and Leonora de Rothschild. At age 19, Béatrice married Maurice Ephrussi (1849-1916), a Russian-born banker who had done business with the family.
Béatrice was a woman of grace and style. She was the one who commissioned the Rothschild Fabergé egg in 1902 as an engagement gift for her sister-in-law to-be. It was that same year that she paid a visit to her husband’s cousins’ villa at Beaulieu-sur-Mer on the French Riviera. Mesmerized, she decided to purchase a 17-acre parcel of land on the isthmus of Cap Ferrat where she would build her Venetian-style villa with views in every direction of the Mediterranean.
Building began in 1905 and completed in 1912. Béatrice hired Aaron Messiah, court architect to Léopold II of Belgium, to carry out her vision for the home. The interiors were quintessential Gout Rothschild, filled with the most precious of rare porcelains, crystal, Old Master paintings, sculptures, objets d’art, French furniture by the most exquisite cabinet-makers, and the finest textiles, marquetry and parquetry.
British garden designer Harold Peto and French landscape architect Achille Duchene were called upon to design the Villa’s nine gardens, each with a different theme. Reportedly, the baroness had the inspiration for her gardens aboard the ocean liner Ile de France. She wanted to feel as if she were on the bridge of the ship, surrounded by her gardens and then looking past them to the spectacular views of the sea. Thirty gardeners—dressed as sailors, complete with berets with red pompoms—maintained and manicured the gardens.
Béatrice also was an animal lover and had a menagerie that included exotic birds, flamingos (they resembled the color of the exterior of her villa), monkeys, mongooses, antelopes and gazelles.
The baroness later separated from her husband, and died childless in 1934. She left her property and its contents to the Academie des Beaux-Arts. It is now open to the public (villa-ephrussi.com/en/home).