MAKING MONTE CARLO: A HISTORY OF SPECULATION AND SPECTACLE
By Mark Braude
Simon & Schuster, $27, 289 pages
“Asunny place for shady people” is how W. Somerset Maugham described Monaco and there are plenty of that ilk in this fascinating book by Canadian-born writer Mark Braude, who teaches at Stanford University. But a lot of other types populate these pages, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Elsa Maxwell to the Romanov grand dukes who were so fond of the place that, Mr. Braude writes, “People joked that Monte Carlo should be renamed Saint Petersburg by the Mediterranean.”
For one of the smallest nations on earth, little more than three-quarters of a square mile, Monaco is a surprisingly complicated place, with many parts, as this book’s first paragraph lets us know right away:
“In 1863 work began on a new town at the eastern edge of the tiny principality of Monaco. By the close of the next decade the Monte Carlo casino-resort had emerged as the gambling world’s playground of choice.”
Those amazing years and the next five decades are the focus of Mr. Braude’s absorbing narrative, which, he informs us, “began as a doctoral dissertation, ‘Spinning Wheels: Cosmopolitanism, Mobility and Media in Monaco, 1855-1956,’ at the University of Southern California. But readers need not fear that the text he has spun out of its scholarly roots is in any way dry or dull. The effects of this academic provenance are uniformly beneficial, apparent in his firm grounding of anecdote, fact and interpretation in impeccable sources, as revealed in the more than 50 pages of notes. These are in themselves full of additional, uniformly enhancing material of great value to those whose appetite has been whetted for more.
And what a story there is here, capturing how publicity, posters and almost every conceivable form of advertising from the most blatant to subtle word-of-mouth, grand hotels and even a miniature version of Paris’ Salle Garnier Opera House actually attached to the casino, came to make Monte Carlo — and its distinctive atmosphere and reputation, which set it apart from other gambling resorts elsewhere in Europe. Mr. Braude is adept at showing these differences as well as making apt comparisons with other contemporary phenomena and today’s Las Vegas.
If the people who came to gamble and live it up in Monte Carlo were an amazing grab bag of characters, they almost pale in comparison to the folk who created the place with a fair amount of rough and tumble. They not only catered to royalty, but themselves came to live like it and even to marry into it. One of the Blanc family, who came to own the casino by the end of the 19th century, married a Bonaparte and produced a daughter, Marie who married into the heart of European royalty in the form of a Prince of Greece and Denmark, uncle to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. As if this was not remarkable enough, Princess Marie Bonaparte (as she was known professionally) became a world renowned psychoanalyst, analyzed by the great Professor Freud himself and one of the select group of acolytes who remained close to him. Mr. Braude correctly writes that she used her “position to help many Jews escape the Nazis.” But he does not include the fact that they included Sigmund Freud himself. Had it not been for her prestige and diplomatic contacts and her fierce determination to use them to extricate the great man and his wife from Vienna after its incorporation into the Reich, it is quite possible that they would have perished. Monte Carlo was certainly a playground par excellence for the rich and famous, but there was a lot more to it.
When the South African writer Sarah Gertrude Millin visited Europe for the first time in the winter of 1923-24, the first place she wanted to go on the Continent was Monte Carlo. A snobbish literary friend in London dismissed it as vulgar and told her to go to Mentone instead. But she and her husband found Mentone dull and full of invalids and only slept there, preferring to spend their time at Monte Carlo gambling at its casino, which the distinctly unfrivolous Millins (he was a barrister, later a Supreme Court judge) “did not find at all vulgar. The Casino on the contrary seemed to us like a cross between a bank and a church.”
The perspicacious Millin put her finger on the salient quality about Monte Carlo and its crown jewel: its seriousness, a quality which Mr. Braude establishes authoritatively in his gripping account of its development and heyday. But along the way he never loses sight — or lets the reader do so — of its chief draw, which Mrs. Millin perceived along with all its more solemn aspects: “I won all the time, and my husband lost all the time, and the final result of our gambling was a profit that covered the cost of two first-class sleepers on the Blue Train.” One of the many delicious stories Mr. Braude has included is the pivotal role that this iconic train deluxe played in making Monte Carlo not merely a destination on the Riviera, but the destination, only one among many such delights in a book which pulsates with them.
• Matin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.