For nearly 100 years, visitors have flocked to the Le Negresco hotel, the famous Belle Époque landmark that graces the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. For some, a photo with the famously dressed hotel employees would have to suffice, for others who could afford it, a chance to stay at one of the most unique hotels in the world. Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke and Dutchess of Windsor and the Beatles have all slept here. So have Ava Gardner, James Dean, Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway and Edith Piaf. It was used as recently as 1998 for the film Ronin, starring Robert De Niro and Jean Réno, and it’s rumoured that the death of the American dancer Isadora Duncan in 1927 happened just in front of the building, when travelling as a passenger, her silk scarf became entangled in the wheel of the car.
Le Negresco was built in 1912 by Henri Negrescu, the son of a Romanian innkeeper. Negresco (as he became later known as a French citizen) arrived in Monte Carlo in 1893 and worked in hospitality, eventually managing the restaurant at the Municipal Casino in Nice in 1905 when he met architect Edouard Niermans, to whom Negresco entrusted his dream hotel; Alexandre Darracq financed the project and Gustave Eiffel was brought on board to design the glass dome, still as visibly glorious 100 years later in the Salon Royal.
Opening its doors on January 8th, 1913, the grand palace of the Riviera made a profit of 800,000 francs in gold its first year. Yet this success would be short-lived and with the outbreak of war, Negresco
transformed his hotel into a hospital, himself paying out of pocket for the expense of 100 beds. Within seven years, and at the age of 52, Negresco, a decorated Knight of the Legion of Honour, France’s highest medal, died from cancer, a penniless man.
Negresco’s Riviera was now subject to a Golden Age not so golden. Across the city of Nice, Belle-Époque buildings were being razed, as owners could no longer afford them, nor could they divide an individual property into enough small apartments to rent. A Belgian group fortunately purchased the Negresco, and the rich and famous reclaimed their place on the sunny Côte d’Azur (a name coined by Stephen Liegard, which, in 1887, officially replaced the term French Riviera). Again, though, prosperity quickly faded as World War II became imminent.
A tragic road leads to the Negresco
Meanwhile, Jeanne Mesnage, the daughter of a Breton butcher who had transformed himself into a real estate developer in Nice, was witnessing her father’s depression from a financial setback on property he owned in Bordeaux. Eventually Jeanne Mesnage, an only child, had to take over the family business at the age of 20. Engaged to future Congressman Charles Ehrmann, she met the Sorbonne-educated lawyer Paul Augier through the Bordeaux incident, and they married in July 1957. (An active niçois politician and businessman, Paul Augier in 1979 received the Knight of the Order of Merit; he died in 1995.)
That same year Jeanne Augier’s mother became paralyzed after an operation. The lift in the building on the Promenade des Anglais where she was living couldn’t facilitate her movements. Down the street, the rundown Negresco, a shadow of its former glory, had the only wide lift in Nice, and so in 1957 Jeanne Augier and her father purchased their new home.
For eight years, Jeanne Augier took care of her mother day and night until her death, while determinedly rebuilding the legendary hotel with her father. She increased the number of employees from 76 to 260, created two renowned restaurants (one of which, Le Chantecler, received a second Michelin star in 2012, the only rating of its kind in Nice), and built a showplace for artists. The hotel-cum-museum has been a listed Historical Monument since 1974, and is home to 3000 objets d’art including 1600 original paintings (one of three full-length portraits of Louis XIV is in the Versailles Ballroom, the other two being the Louvre and Versailles). “I’ve never bought something for the signature,” Jeanne Augier said, before explaining why she has no Chagalls: “He and I were friends, but I did not understand his painting: he made donkeys fly!”
An icon and her legacy
In April 2009, Jeanne Augier announced the creation of her “Mesnage” foundation, an endowment fund that will inherit her wealth upon her death. Part of the profits will go to the hotel’s development, and the rest to three charities close to her heart: animal rights, disability awareness and contributing to the “influence of French art”.
“The Negresco is intended to relieve human and animal suffering,” Jeanne Augier stated at the time. “As an only child, I always had a dog at my side to replace the brother or sister that I didn’t have.”
The foundation will receive the family legacy, which includes a villa in Saint-Vallier, near Grasse, and two George V apartments in Paris.
Over the years Jeanne Augier, now 89, has turned down multiple offers to purchase the hotel, including from Bill Gates and the Sultan of Brunei who were told “You’re not rich enough” or “the memories are not for sale”. “I want this hotel to retain its spirit and Frenchness,” she explained, and “to prevent the dismantling of the last independent luxury hotel on the Côte d’Azur.”
From July 2012 to June 2013, Le Negresco will be celebrating its centennial, starting with a gala dinner June 30th and closing next year with a Talente Finale of musicians, chefs and artists. Hotel guests will be treated to a limited-edition art book, numbered and signed, while special meals, la Cuvée du Centenaire champagne and exceptional hotel packages will be available. “I am not enthusiastic,” Jeanne Augier, who has resided at 37 Promenade des Anglais for 55 years, commented about the festivities. “I’m not 20 anymore and it’s a lot of work.”
One of the Leading Hotels of the World, Le Negresco underwent a €12 million renovation in 2010: restoring the façade, a facelift for a number of the 117 individually decorated rooms, while some suites, 31 total now, were enlarged. Room rates were revamped and there are very affordable online specials now.
Photography © by Roy Cox
Le Negresco: A Nice Centennial
- Nancy Heslin