Historical Notes

Beach Parties, Mistresses, Villas, and Tennis – Author’s Notes for “Murder at the Grand Hotel”

If you are a regular reader of historical fiction, you know that a fair amount of background research goes into each historical novel.

“Murder at the Grand Hotel” takes place on the French Riviera in the month of April (see why that is significant below) in 1925. Here are some of the historical facts that made it into the story, in no particular order.

The milky orchid

The milky orchid, Neotinea lactea, which makes its appearance in the story, is a real flower found on the Riviera. And just as stated in the story, it is rare. It is found only in the extreme south of France, and blooms early in the season. The flat-winged bumblebee and the requisite stick, however, are figments of the author’s imagination.

The Blue Train

The Blue Train, thus nicknamed due to the color of its carriages, was introduced in 1922 and whisked wealthy travelers away from London to the French Riviera overnight. The sleeper train, known alternatively as “Millionaires’ Train”, thanks to the luxury it offered its passengers, and the accompanying price, was First Class only, and over the years transported Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII), Coco Chanel, Winston Churchill and F. Scott Fitzgerald to the Riviera, among many other wealthy travelers.

The train departed Calais at 1pm, stopped in Paris, at Gare du Lyon in the early evening, and reached Marseille early the next morning. It stopped at Saint-Raphael, Cannes, Juan-les-Pins, Antibes, Nice, Monte Carlo, and finally, Menton.

The train pays a central role in Agatha Christie’s novel “Murder on the Blue Train”.

Fashionable months to be on the Riviera

The French Riviera became a fashionable winter destination for the English gentry in the 19th century. By the late 19th century, the area was firmly established as a place for convalescence. Others traveled to the Riviera for a chance to play tennis outdoors during the winter months (see below). The Riviera season began in January and ended promptly on May 1, when all hotels shut down.

In “Murder at the Grand Hotel”, Lady Caroline alludes to the fact that by 1925 the fashionable time to be on the Riviera was shifting, and bemoans that April is such an unfashionable month. This was due to the arrival of two Americans on the Riviera in 1923 (see below).

Tennis on the Riviera

The mild climate of the Riviera offered a chance to play tennis outdoors during the winter months. In fact, so many Britons traveled to the Riviera to play tennis, that the tournaments organized on the Riviera gave rise to the French Championships, later becoming the French Open.

Suzanne Lenglen

One of the few historical figures to be mentioned in the book, Suzanne Lenglen was a French star tennis player. During her relatively short career, she died in 1938, aged 39, she won numerous Grand Slam and tournament titles, including The French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open, and Olympic medals. During 1925 she would have been at the height of her career.

As mentioned in the book, her style of play was as legendary as her tournament titles. The photographs of her leaping across the court are fascinating.

Flower Greenhouses

The Victorian Era and the Belle Epoque ushered in an increased interest in exotic flowers and plants. The Riviera’s mild climate and abundant sunshine were ideal for the establishment of greenhouses, where exotic plants from across the globe could be acclimatized and bred. These flowers then made their way as showpieces into the gardens of the rich and famous. Exotic flowers made their growers immensely rich, and some of these flower businesses still exist today.

Fields of flowers were also grown in the area to supply the perfume industry, which for centuries has centered on Grasse.

£50 a week (spoiler alert – skip if you haven’t finished reading the book)

While £50, paid weekly for information, may sound outrageous, especially considering that an average factory worker in 1920 would have made about £205 a year, the sum is based on historical fact. Benito Mussolini, yes, he who would become the Italian dictator, was paid £100 a week by MI5 during 1917 to advance British interests in Italy. I reduced the lavish sum somewhat for the informant in the novel.

London Scavenger Hunts

A group of wealthy young people in London, in the 1920s, was labeled the Bright Young Things. They loved parties, Jazz and taking part in outrageous scavenger hunts, dashing across London, first on the Tube and later in fast cars. Lady Caroline would have undoubtedly belonged to this group.

Lady Caroline’s Swiss Hiking Boots

Lady Caroline wears of pair of handmade hiking boots from a shoemaker in the village of Zermatt, Switzerland. There is indeed such a boot maker in Zermatt – the business is now in its third generation. These boot makers have supplied shoes to climbers trying to conquer the Matterhorn since the 19th century.

Swiss muesli and Toblerone

The cereal we now recognize as muesli was invented in 1900 by Bircher-Benner for patients in his hospital in Switzerland.

Toblerone was introduced in Switzerland in 1908, by the 1920s it was advertised in society magazines such as The Tatler.

Folies Bergere

Folies Bergere is a cabaret music hall in Paris. Manet painted its barmaid in 1882. Josephine Baker danced at the Folies in 1926 in her infamous banana skirt.

In fact, the triangular shape of the Toblerone bar, long associated with the Matterhorn peak in the Swiss Alps, might actually have been inspired by the finale of a show at Folies Bergere.

The Murphys, Americans on the Riviera and the beach craze

When Gerald and Sara Murphy, American emigres, arrived on the Riviera in the summer of 1923, they discovered the Riviera abandoned and shut up for the summer. But they fell in love with what they saw and their decision to spend the summer there forever changed the Riviera season.

They persuaded the owner of Hotel du Cap to remain open past May and invited their glamorous friends to spend the summer with them, lounging on the beaches and playing in the turquoise water of the Mediterranean.

Thus, their stay sparked a trend for spending the summer months on the Riviera, and for beach parties, sunbathing, and bathing suits.

That same year, 1923, Coco Chanel arrived in Cannes wearing a silk beach pajama and sporting a tan.

The confluence of these events, coupled with a strong dollar, cheap beach villas, and Americans looking to escape prohibition, made the Riviera the summer destination of choice almost overnight. The region’s popularity grew at such speed that by 1926 the American millionaire Frank Jay Gould was building hotel Le Provencal to accommodate the throngs of rich American tourists.

Mistresses, villas and boutiques

It is a historical fact that peers of the British realm have gifted their mistresses with land for villas on the Riviera and financed their business ventures. The most famous example is Coco Chanel, whose various boutiques were financed by Captain Arthur Capel and who received land on the French Riviera for a villa from the Duke of Westminster.

Russian Emigres

In addition to the British, the French Riviera was also a favorite destination for wealthy Russians. Even the Tsar’s family vacationed on the Riviera. Following the Revolution in 1917, those lucky enough to escape – some with their wealth, others with only with lives – made their way to the Riviera where a large enclave of Russians expats already existed.

To this day, the beautifully ornate Russian churches are a defining feature of the French Riviera.

Les Corniches

The Les Corniches are three roads that run parallel to the Mediterranean Sea. The Corniche Inférieure, which Lady Caroline utilizes on several occasions, is the lowermost of these roads, following the coastline closely, and runs from Nice to Menton. In the book, it takes Lady Caroline about an hour to drive from Nice to Menton. It would take a modern traveler about as long, if not longer, since the Riviera is even more congested with cars now.

Belladonna

Belladonna, the poison extracted from the Deadly Nightshade, in addition to being used as a beauty enhancer by women since Roman times, has also been used as medicine for various ailments over the centuries. The uses enumerated in the book are factual, even though they might sound fictional.

Boston Brahmins

A term used in the book, which a reader may not be familiar with, is “Boston Brahmin”. It refers to a member of Boston’s social elite. A term first used in the 19th century, it was applied to families of industrialists, who went to Harvard University, were Federalist (later Whigs and then Republicans), and lived in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, among many other uniting characteristics. Though its social, business, and political influence might have diminished somewhat since the 19th century, Boston’s upper class remains one of the most difficult to marry or break into.

“Murder at the Grand Hotel” is available now on Amazon.

Murder at the grand hotel isabella bassett 1920s mystery on the Riviera

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