La Pausa

BEFORE CHANEL
THE STORY  OF LA PAUSA

Riviera Insider Magazine 2020

The First La Pausa

There is a plateau above the seaside town of Roquebrune Cap-Martin where, so the legend goes, the Blessed Virgin and Holy Child had once rested, when invited to do so by an old peasant woman. The old woman had beseeched her to do so saying ‘Take my place. You are young I am far on in years, but you have a child to carry and I have only a load of wood.’  In gratitude the Virgin blessed the place, which the local people then named La Pausa, ‘The Repose’. Only mule tracks led up to the plateau at that time, but once at La Pausa one arrived at ‘a secret fairyland of ancient olive trees, with views of Monte Carlo and the Italian mountains in the distance.’

Charles Norris Williamson, an Englishman, and his wife Alice Muriel Livingston, an American, met in London and married in 1894. A much-travelled couple who seemed to tumble from one adventure to another, they were prolific writers and motoring journalists. Alice Williamson, in particular, was known for her witty novels, which became widely popular in the 1920s and 1930s.

The couple had a great love of the French Riviera, living in several houses in the Roquebrune area before buiding La Dragonièrre at Cap Martin. Always needing to rearrange their finances, they eventually sold this on to the newspaper owner Harold Harmsworth, the 1st Lord Rothermere. It was Mary, Lady Rothermere, who fell in love with La Dragonnière and persuaded her husband to buy the house, although eventually she would move to the Domaine de Pibonson in Mougins, leaving her husband to socialise as he wished.

The Williamsons were determined to build a new home on the plateau where, as Alice wrote in The Inky Way, at night there was ‘a river of fireflies pouring their gold through the moon silver of our olive groves.’  While they stayed in a friend’s nearby villa, the negotiations with the local people who owned various parcels of land surrounding the plateau was long and fraught and took many months. Once accomplished, as the Williamsons had paid handsomely for various small parcels of land and were considered to have behaved so well, the villagers of Roquebrune took them to their hearts, and the couple became both benefactors and godparents to many local children.

They hired two reputable local builders  and  designed ‘a glorified bungalow’ with a fountain court and a large loggia. They wanted a soft pink house ‘among the jade-green olive trees’. Although the stone to build the house came from their land, all the other materials, including the water for building, came up the hillside on the backs of mules. Apart from an ancient well, with violets growing up the inside walls, there was no proper water supply. In the face of the Williamson’s scepticism an old water diviner, summoned from Menton, found eleven springs on the land of which the one nearest to the house was harnessed.

The idyllic days of the first La Pausa ended with the Great War of 1914 to 1918, when the Williamsons left France and the house was bought by a Frenchman. Later, with the building abandoned and dilapidated, in 1929 the land was acquired by Coco Chanel, already acknowledged as the designer of exquisite and trend-setting women’s clothes. The actual acquisition was paid for by Chanel’s lover, Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster, one of the richest men in Britain. The architect was Robert Streitz, whose warm and elegant Italianate villas dot the Riviera. On the site of the much-loved ‘bungalow’ of the Williamsons, there rose a splendid new La Pausa. The plateau, with its charming legend, has been much loved.

As for the Williamsons, they spent their last years in Bath in Somerset. Charles died in 1920 and Alice in 1933. They are buried together in Bath Abbey.

Copyright © Maureen Emerson
2020 ‘Riviera Dreaming’ All Rights Reserved

Sources:

  • The Inky Way. Alice M. Williamson. Chapman and Hall.  London 1931.
  • Marc Streitz.
  • The Villas of Barry Dierks.