Marbella and Prince Alfonso zu Hohenlohe
Until the 1940s Marbella was nothing but a village of 900 inhabitants on the Spanish coast. That all changed when, according to legend, a German prince’s coal-powered Rolls-Royce broke down there. Prince Alfonso zu Hohenlohe fell in love with the place and decided to stay.
Born into one of the oldest noble families in Europe (he was godson to the king of Spain), Hohenlohe was a successful businessman and notorious playboy, fluent in five languages and skilled at sports such as rally-driving and tennis. After his fateful stop in Marbella he decided in 1947 to build a grand private residence there – the Finca Santa Margarita, with traditional whitewashed walls, red-tiled roofs, charming patios and terraces and wonderful, sprawling gardens with fountains, thousands of old trees and manicured lawns. There he played host to a constant flow of glamorous visitors with names such as Bismarck, Metternich and Thyssen, many of whom eventually bought adjacent plots to build their own homes.
But Hohenlohe had even grander plans. In 1954 he sold his own home (to his friends the Rothschilds) and used other parts of the estate to build the famous Marbella Club, which quickly became synonymous with Europe’s mid-century elite “jet set” lifestyle. (Indeed Hohenlohe was often credited with having “invented” the jet set.) Regular guests included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Formula 1 driver James Hunt, photographer Patrick Litchfield, actors Sophia Loren and Sean Connery and many others.
Soon the former village was a fully fledged international resort, with Hohenlohe still a driving force. As head of the Costa del Sol Promoters’ Co-operative, he successfully lobbied for improvements to roads, airports and water supplies in the region. He continued to run the Marbella club and eventually set up another estate, not far away in the hills near Ronda, where he planted Bordeaux grapes and produced his own award-winning wine under the “Principe Alfonso” label.
By the late 1970s, however, Hohenlohe had become disenchanted with Marbella’s move toward mass tourism and so he sold the club to a consortium of Arab businessmen. Yet he was still proud of his accomplishments and in 2003, only days before his death, he accepted a medal for merit in tourism from the Spanish government.
One of Hohenlohe’s famous quips was: “I have lived in castles, in Venetian palaces and the world’s finest hotels. I have watched the sun rise over the beaches of five continents and I have looked into the eyes of the most beautiful women of the universe.”
The latter group included Princess Ira von Fürstenberg, a Fiat heiress whom he married when she was 15, actresses Ava Gardner and Kim Novak, with whom he had affairs, and actress Jackie Lane, whom he married in 1970. But his greatest love was probably Marbella.
Bel Air and Alphonzo Bell Sr
Los Angelenos describe the three neighbourhoods of Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills and Bel Air as the “golden triangle”. Beverly Hills started out as a dry oil well of the Amalgamated Oil Company; Holmby Hills was founded by wealthy retailer Arthur Letts Sr. And Bel Air, on the west side of the city, was the brainchild of Alphonzo E. Bell Sr.
Bell was born in 1875 into a family of entrepreneurs; his father created Bell Station Ranch, now the City of Bell, in Santa Fe Springs, while his uncle was Ed Hollenbeck, founder of the First National Bank and a driving force behind the creation of LA’s first public transportation system. Alphonzo first found fame as a champion tennis player, winning bronze and silver medals at the 1904 summer Olympic games, then went on to become a successful gentleman farmer in Santa Fe Springs.
But his life changed dramatically in the early 1920s after oil was discovered on his land. The profits allowed him to buy a 4,500-acre ranch in the LA area, the Danzinger Estate, complete with a Spanish-style mansion. Inspired by the views from this house, he realised he could use the land to create a magnificent, upscale community. And the idea for Bel Air was born.
Engineer Wilkie Woodward planned the houses and roads, while landscape architect Aurele Vermeulen co-ordinated the plantings. Bel Air officially opened on more than 600 acres in October 1922 and was a success right from the start, thanks in part to the growth of Hollywood. Huge iron gates marked the entrance to the new community and uniformed guards checked in visitors, a novelty at the time. Bell built a sales and development centre in Stone Canyon and worked in an office that is today a large suite at the Hotel Bel Air. He also built the elegant Bel Air Beach Club in Santa Monica and the Bel Air Country Club in 1924. Land purchasers in Bel Air were required to spend a minimum of $20,000 on home construction and most early residents built in Spanish-Mediterranean style. Nowadays, the community’s architecture ranges from classic Californian to mid-century modern and contemporary. The neighbourhood has become one of the most exclusive in LA, with notable residents including the late US President Ronald Reagan.
Belgravia and Richard Grosvenor
The UK’s Grosvenor family, currently headed by the 6th Duke of Westminster, dates back to the Middle Ages. But it owes its first title to Richard Grosvenor – an Oxford graduate and member of Parliament from Cheshire who was knighted in 1617 and made a baronet in 1621 – and its immense fortune to Sir Thomas Grosvenor, 3rd baronet – who in 1677 married Mary Davies, heiress to 300 acres of land on the outskirts of London. As the city grew, the land quickly became prime real estate, laying the foundation for even more wealth and more titles. Today, 500 roads, squares and buildings bear the names of titles, people and places associated with the family and the Grosvenor Group has billions of pounds worth of real estate under management.
The first neighbourhood the Grosvenors developed, in the 17th and 18th centuries, was Mayfair. But by the time Richard Grosvenor, 2nd Marquess of Westminster, became head of the family work there was mostly complete. So he turned to another area he owned: a rural swamp south-west of Buckingham Palace known as the “five fields” and the “lagoon of the Thames.”
In 1826 a special act of parliament was passed, empowering Lord Grosvenor to drain the site. He did and then commissioned master builder Thomas Cubitt, who would later be responsible for the east front of Buckingham Palace, to lay out the new neighbourhood, Belgravia. Cubitt was chosen for the quality of his work – unlike other builders at the time, who used sub-contractors, he employed his own large staff – and the classic white stucco houses around Eaton Square and Belgrave Square that he built are still coveted.
Grosvenor himself continued to live in Mayfair, in Old Grosvenor House, on Upper Grosvenor Street, overlooking Hyde Park, which was eventually demolished in 1927. But there’s no question that building Belgravia was his legacy.
Monaco and Aristotle Onassis
Monaco has been ruled as a constitutional monarchy by the Grimaldi family – originally from Genoa in Italy – since 1297, when François Grimaldi disguised himself as a monk and seized it. By the middle of the 19th century the 495-acre micro-state had developed into a renowned seaside resort with its own casino but, after the second world war, it was in crisis. The upper classes that had frequented its clubs and beaches before the war emigrated or lost their money. The resort’s beautiful belle époque buildings began to crumble. Its swimming pools had no water and it was rumoured that the income from the casino barely covered the electricity bill for its chandeliers. Of course there were still people living there, including old European aristocrats and international businessmen taking advantage of the tax-free regime, but it was a far cry from its heydey. This changed when “Ari” Onassis arrived in the early 1950s.
Born in 1906, a member of the poor Greek minority in Smyrna, Turkey, Onassis and his family had to flee for Greece during the Turkish civil war. He then emigrated at the age of 16 to Argentina, where he laid the foundation for his fortune by selling Turkish tobacco and investing the proceeds in several old tankers, which would soon be carrying Allied war materials across the Atlantic. After the war Onassis began building the first supertankers and was soon dubbed the “tanker king”. His fortune grew to a then-almost unimaginable sum of $1bn.
In 1954 he moved to Monaco for the tax advantages and fell in love with it in spite of its postwar malaise. In fact, he saw an investment opportunity and acquired a 52 per cent stake in the Société des Bains de Mer, which owned major parts of Monaco, including the Hotel de Paris, the Hotel Hermitage, the casino, the opera, restaurants, bars and land, for the unbelievably paltry sum of $1.5m. He subsequently put more money into renovation and restoration of the properties and encouraged the construction of the high-rise apartment buildings that now dominate the landscape. Monaco’s fortunes began to turn and, in the aftermath of Prince Rainier’s fairy-tale wedding to Grace Kelly, it was again a hotspot for the international rich and famous.
Onassis himself usually lived and held court in the Hôtel de Paris and also stayed at the legendary Château de la Croë, now owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, at Cap d’Antibes. But his real home was the Christina, a sleek, 325ft, shimmering-white yacht named after his daughter.
Rainier and Onassis later had a rather dramatic falling out, disagreeing on their visions for Monaco’s future and engaging in a fierce legal battle, which Rainier eventually won. As a result, Onassis’s legacy in Monaco is now just a faint memory. But his impact was undeniable.