Cannes: The Secrets (and Scandal) of Hollywood's Favorite Riviera Hotel

 Jonathan de Villiers

This story first appeared in the May 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously immortalized the breathtaking Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, perched on a rocky promontory in the Mediterranean midway between St. Tropez and Monaco, when he wrote in his 1934 novel Tender Is the Night about "the large, proud, rose-colored hotel" on the French Riviera that "has become a summer resort of notable, fashionable people."

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For once, Fitzgerald understated it. For much of the past century, the world's most celebrated artists, writers, film stars and politicians have strolled the jasmine-scented gardens of the Hotel du Cap, sipped the signature Bellinis in the bar and stayed in one of the 117 suites, some returning year after year. "You get billionaires, showbiz people and everyone dressed to the nines; it's like one big Vogue spread come to life," says publicist Peggy Siegal, who first came to the hotel during the Cannes Film Festival with Richard Gere 25 years ago. "It's like entering a fairyland. My jaw drops every time I walk in the front door." Even Harvey Weinstein, who presumably has stayed in some pretty nice hotels, is nothing less than awed. "It's truly one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen," he tells THR. "Watching everyone from Nicole Kidman to Jessica Chastain come down those famous stairs of the du Cap has become an iconic sight of the festival."

From Marlene Dietrich to Madonna, the hotel has been a home away from home to the super-famous for 125 years. The Kennedy family summered here in 1938 when JFK was 21 years old (it's where Dietrich began her affair with Joe Sr.). Picasso drew the restaurant's menu in 1955, around the time Hemingway was staying at the hotel. Marc Chagall sketched during the day in one of the waterfront cabanas. Darryl Zanuck and Orson Welles treated the hotel like a second home (and office). The Duke and Duchess of Windsor honeymooned here, as did Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. And it was at Eden Roc, the hotel's seaside pavilion -- with its famous seawater swimming pool, carved out of basalt rock 100 years ago this month -- that Rita Hayworth rendezvoused with Prince Aly Khan (after she stood up the Shah of Iran for a lunch date).

Of course, like every great hotel, Cap-Eden-Roc has seen its share of scandal -- including accusations of embezzlement that still swirl around the former GM, Jean-Claude Irondelle, now 85, who continues to battle charges that he siphoned a million dollars in cash from the till. There's a reason Fitzgerald's contemporary W. Somerset Maugham described the French Riviera as a "sunny place for shady people." Still, even the mischief conducted at du Cap is garbed in the sort of glamour one associates with a Cary Grant movie. In 2007, producer Graham King returned to his villa one evening to interrupt four burglars, all dressed in identical To Catch a Thief-style black outfits. Marvin Davis was robbed, in 1993, of $10 million in cash and jewels at gunpoint in his limo while being driven up the winding roads leading to the hotel in an incident more reminiscent of a Brian De Palma film. And Kate Moss, in 1998, got banned from the du Cap after trashing her room in a tantrum out of a Faye Dunaway movie, because she'd been told she couldn't wear a bikini in the hotel's hallways.

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Decorum has always been a hallmark of the du Cap -- it's no Chateau Marmont -- and these days, order is kept by Philippe Perd, a suave, soft-spoken 45-year-old Frenchman who took over as GM in 2006 and is now the hotel's managing director. "We're all about luxurious simplicity and discretion," he notes while sipping Perrier in the hushed confines of the hotel's Bellini bar. "Our guests like the old-world European traditions, they respect them."

Not that Perd hasn't made some accommodations to the 21st century, overseeing a $67 million renovation that included installing TVs and minibars in the rooms for the first time and finally accepting credit cards and eliminating the former cash-only policy. Given that nowadays the cheapest room at the hotel goes for $1,100 -- and that the villas where stars like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie stay go for $12,000 a night -- accepting credit cards was a smart move.

But, of course, not everybody is in love with the idea of change, even when it's incremental, and some Hollywood people have given up on the du Cap.

"I had the most romantic times of my life there," says producer Robert Evans, 83, who spent summers during his marriage to Ali MacGraw at the hotel. "It was impossibly glamorous. Everyone who was there -- not just Ali but [David] Niven, Taylor, Burton, Johnny Hallyday -- everyone was a star. Now it's been taken over by a bunch of salesmen. It's all about money. I checked out early the last time I was there. It was too good to last."

Producer Brett Ratner checked out 10 years ago after being "humiliated" by being relegated to a room in the dreaded "Annex," a building just off the hotel. Ratner even went so far as to write a scathing piece about the du Cap for Vanity Fair, entitled "Why I Hate the Hotel du Crap."

Turns out one of the main problems Ratner (and others) had with the hotel was its former manager, Irondelle, who ran the place with an iron fist for 50 years. He was as mercurial as he was powerful, and regular guests lived in terror of falling out of his favor (especially if they wanted a well-placed cabana during their stay).

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"He was a very complicated, controversial character," says Charles Finch, son of the late actor Peter Finch, whose family has been staying at the hotel for three generations (and who hosts an annual dinner party at the Eden Roc, for which an invitation is one of the more coveted of the festival). "He would scream at the children if they misbehaved. He threw people out all the time -- if they weren't dressed correctly, if they said something he didn't like. He was a classic Frenchman. Everyone was terrified of him. [Documentary filmmaker] Nick Broomfield was once staying with me in the Royal Suite, and he hung his bathing shorts outside on the balcony. Irondelle found him in the bar, marched him back to the suite by the scruff of the neck and made him take the clothes down."

"It was horrible," agrees Jean "Johnny" Pigozzi, son of Henri Pigozzi, founder of the French carmaker Simca, who inherited from his father a 35-acre villa next door to the hotel. "Under Irondelle, it was nothing but everyone greasing everyone's palms, especially his. Irondelle would even go to Hollywood during the off-season and everyone would throw him parties, hoping to stay on his good side so they could get a decent cabana next year."

Irondelle, who now lives in a stately villa near the du Cap, left the hotel in 2005 amid accusations by its German owners, Rudolf Oetker and his wife, Maja, that the manager had embezzled $1 million, charges made more believable -- and less provable -- by the fact that the hotel accepted only cash. Irondelle staunchly denies the allegations, claiming that the Oetkers are leveling the accusations in order to avoid paying him a hefty retirement package (the case is now being heard for a third time by a Parisian court of appeals). But even Irondelle's lawyer, Jean-Louis Keita, admits his client was a force to be reckoned with in a place where getting the right room in the Villa Soleil (the Napoleon III chateau that is the main hotel building) or the right cabana (they go for upward of $900 per day, include a butler and are not supposed to be used as overnight accommodations, as Italian actress Monica Bellucci once discovered, much to her regret) can seem like matters of life and death.

"Irondelle was the biggest star at the Hotel du Cap," Keita tells THR. "It was like a big high school there, and he was the boss. He told [the stars] where to sit and sometimes what to do."

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Since Perd has taken over, though, the atmosphere has loosened up a bit, though you still can't wear a bikini in the hallways. "Philippe has totally cleaned up the place," says Mike Medavoy, who has been coming to the du Cap, which he calls "the magic spot," since 1975, when "you had to pay to get a certain room or cabana when none were supposedly available." Perd has even computerized the hotel's legendary dossier system -- which used to be kept on hand-written index cards -- that help the staff keep track of the likes and dislikes of special guests. Kevin Costner, for instance, loves the hotel cheeseburgers, while Cameron Diaz orders the gazpacho soup, Tom Cruise has a special organic salad, and Madonna favors a side of strawberries with her cappuccino.

But the key to Perd's success is the personal touch he affords his A-list guests. Like veteran producer Jerry Weintraub, who has been a regular at the du Cap for 30 years -- "The place is better than ever, it's timeless!" -- even though he's seldom technically a guest. Weintraub sleeps on his yacht when he's in Cannes for the festival, going to the hotel mostly to exercise in the gym, swim in its pool or hang out with George Clooney and Matt Damon at the bar. Does Perd make him pay for using the facilities? "No, it's Jerry," he says, as if that explains everything. "He has my mobile number. I hardly give it out to anyone, only special people." Other special people with Perd's mobile number: Brad and Angelina ("Lovely," Perd says, "but a bit unapproachable") and Sharon Stone ("So easy -- not a diva at all").

In return for the special attention, stars sign the hotel's famed "Golden Book," often taking the opportunity to show off their artistic side. Johnny Depp sketched a self-portrait complete with ragged goatee ("Always amazing here!" he scribbled. "Merci pour tout!")

Even Ratner has returned to the fold, staying at the hotel for the festival (presumably not in the Annex). "I met with Brett right after I took this job -- he told me what happened and we laughed about it," says Perd, reaching for a cup of cashews and black olives on a silver salver as the sun starts to set on the shimmering Mediterranean. "But don't forget, we are not only a hotel for the stars and the rich and famous. We are more approachable than people think. Anyone can come to lunch here and enjoy our view."

Just don't leave your swim trunks on the balcony.

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