Monday, March 3, 2014

St Jean Cap Ferrat

St Jean Cap Ferrat 

A story of Kings, mistresses and local councils

I love how one story can lead to another without it having been the original intention. It is like cooking a meal and then realising the  recipe is no longer what you set out to create, but you end up with something delicious nonetheless. So, thinking about a recent frustrating work experience in  St Jean Cap Ferrat has led me on another path altogether. 

First, apologies to my client who will be reading this as he does not need the original story retold! We are both still exasperated with St Jean Cap Ferrat Marie over a situation of pre-emption. Pre-emption is a peculiar French system whereby the local council decides to buy the property/land from under your nose once you have had an offer accepted. It is not common in urban areas for an apartment to be pre-empted, so most buyers in cities should not be concerned. In most cases it will involve empty plots of urban land (which the council can turn into something - be it a park, car park, recreational centre) or agricultural land (which a body called SAFER oversees and is intended to protect rural France). There is also a third option to do with tenants' rights. A long-term tenant in France has first option to buy the property they are living in if it comes up for sale.

My experience, thankfully, is rare on the Côte d'Azur. And I hope it will be my last. The reason given for pre-emption in this case was St Jean's need for 'social housing'. Do I believe this? No comment. But apparently my negotiation skills were too good, the price too keen and the Marie could not resist. It was just bad luck.

What I did stumble across, however (as I waded through reams of legal documents and case histories trying to find a solution to our pre-empt problem), is the story of King Leopold II  of  Belgium and his 16-year-old mistress Caroline Delacroix.  It was light-relief from all the legal work.  I had known about the King's connection to the Côte d'Azur, but had never read the story. The most recent news-worthy story about Leopold was that his original Villefranche estate  - the Villa Leopolda -  had been  bought by a Russian oligarch for a record €390 million in 2008. The Russian buyer later reneged on the deal and had to forfeit his €39 million deposit plus interest to the current owner.

The story of King Leopold and the Côte begins the end of the 19th Century when he arrived here and fell in love with the beauty of the coastline.  He began to buy up land, especially around St Jean Cap Ferrat. This was bought with blood money - the profits made from his cruel conquest of the Congo. His 16-year-old mistress Caroline Delacroix - a courtesan from Paris also known as Blanche Lacroix (the 'De' was added later to give her a more aristocratic air) - was settled in a villa on Plage Passable, now a popular St Jean beach. The villa is still there today.

Caroline is the more interesting story because, although she plays a back-seat in history, it shows the tenacity of a woman from humble beginnings who rose to become the mistress-wife of a King and (seemingly) manipulated the situation to ensure that she gained millions. Although she was no great beauty, Caroline was picked out for the King's pleasure. However, rather than a dalliance to be cast aside like his other mistresses, Caroline managed to capture the King's heart and remained with him until his death. They were married while on his deathbed (his unloved Queen having already died) although this was never formally recognised by the Belgium State. Caroline bore him two sons, neither of whom were officially acknowledged as legal heirs, yet most of the King's money and assets went to Caroline and their sons upon his death. This was highly contentious at the time as he had three legitimate daughters who were to all intents and purposes disinherited.

Not much  is known about Caroline's early life. She is thought to have been born in Romania in 1883, the daughter of a Frenchman. She later became a high-class prostitute in Paris, pimped by her lover Antoine Durrieux, a former Army Officer and gambler. She first encountered King Leopold, an aging man of 65, when she was 16.

When the King set Caroline up in the villa at Plage Passable in St Jean Cap Ferrat, she effectively became a prisoner in a gilded cage, Caroline would wait for the King - who was unhappily married - to make nocturnal visits. The grander estate in Villefrance later became one of her residences until, after Leopold's death, she was shut out by members of his family. Indeed, she was locked out from most of her homes across Europe after his death.

Caroline DelaCroix with her two sons

Caroline was hated by the King's family, the Belgium public and the European elite. She was jeeringly referred to as 'La reine du Congo' - in part because of the large sums of bonds, property and money given to her by the King acquired through his vicious exploitation of the African state and its people. Even by the standards of  the time, King Leopold shocked his fellow Western colonialists with  his brutality of the Congolese. The cutting off of hands being one of the less severe forms of punishment for workers (including children) who did not meet quotas on the rubber plantations.

It seems that in a bid to leave nothing to his legitimate daughters, King Leopold did his best to  unburden himself of money and assets during his final years, putting as much as he could in the name of Caroline and her sons, and spending what he could, including the purchase of big swathes of land in St Jean Cap Ferrat.

What is interesting, however, is that eight months after Leopold's death in 1909, and having returned to France (or fled, depending on the source), Caroline, now Baronesse de Vaughan - a title given to her by Leopold after the birth of their first son Lucien  - married her former lover/pimp Antoine Durrieux. Durrieux then officially legitimised her two sons.  Durrieux helped her after the King's death to claim her inheritance and to fight the legal battles with his daughters. Their short marriage ended in divorce in 1912 and he accepted  a handsome settlement. The trail of Caroline seems to go rather cold after this time. She never remarried and died in France in 1948.

It would seem, then, that Caroline remained in contact with her former lover Durrieux throughout her relationship with the King, which makes one wonder whether Leopold was the ultimate cuckold husband. Was Caroline's seeming devotion to the King perhaps a clever plot conceived by the two lovers who both knew it was just a matter of waiting for his death?

So a story of pre-emption in St Jean Cap Ferrat, becomes a story of Kings and mistresses mixed with a little intrigue. Even with my frustration over legal matters with St Jean, I'm happy to have uncovered some more history of this area. I will see Plage Passable with new eyes next time I visit and think a little of Caroline Delacroix. 


  1. Great post, Rebecca. One of the best books I've ever read was King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild. An incredible insight into the King, Belgium, the Congo and a bit about his connection to the Côte d'Azur. Your extra detail is much appreciated! Chrissie

    1. Thanks Chrissie for your comment. Hochschild's book is excellent and I should have said I used it while researching this! The details on Caroline Delacroix are surprisingly quite vague, so I pieced what I could from various sources. I hope accurate! She seems to have been a steely woman...

  2. I absolutely love stories like this about the French Riviera! The drama and history of it all!!
    Thank you!