Biography

Maureen Emerson
Biography

Maureen’s biography as published in The Monaco Woman Magazine

“How truly awful, says Maureen Emerson. “Warships in the Channel to protect us from the French. Britain has been part of Europe for 47 years. This has brought a much treasured peace plus tariff-free trade. Many people who voted to leave do not understand the impact that the loss of the latter will have on our small country. The fact that we now seem to be squaring up to Europe distresses those of us who feel both British and European and are now preparing to mourn the coming rift, which will surely affect us in Britain both economically and even socially.”

For well over a decade the former Valbonne resident has been captivating our minds with biographies about expats on the Riviera in the 20s and 30s and how the Second World War impacted their lives. The author of Riviera Dreaming – Love and War on the Côte d’Azur and Escape to Provence, as well as several published articles, including Before Chanel – The Story of La Pausa and The Affair of the Hotel Martinez, Cannes, shares her own story and what led to her fascination with the history of life on the Riviera.

Maureen’s parents grew up in Dublin (her mother was a model along with Maureen Fitzsimmons, later Maureen O’Hara) and they ran away to get married. “I was born in a cottage in a Somerset village at the outbreak of war. I was never allowed to see their marriage certificate! In 1940 my father joined the RAF and my mother and I returned to Dublin where I spent an idyllic six years where I was even allowed to walk alone to my infant school at the age of five.”

When the war ended, in 1946, the three left for a new life in England and a war torn London. “It was a land of fog, desperately sad blitzed buildings, rationing and shared apartments. I thought the world had come to an end. But the world was West London, and again I was allowed much freedom and grew to love the streets with their varied and fascinating people – and I still do. For, if there is tension in the home, outside the front door in a big town all life is there and anything is possible.”

Young Maureen was sent to a very traditional convent school in Hammersmith where she made many friends and did zero work, leaving at 16 with, “if I remember, two ‘0’ levels. I couldn’t take academic work seriously and tended to challenge rather than learn.” Secretarial college in Regent Street followed, and a job in the post room of J. Arthur Rank Productions, which brought pocket money for coffee in the new and thrilling coffee bars with their handsome exotic waiters.

“If I wanted clothes I had to make them – apart from the vital layers of net petticoats. It was all wonderful, but it wasn’t enough. After college I took temporary jobs with an agency, being fired by the AA and RAC in quick succession, as I was unable to get my shorthand back accurately.”

Her funds, however, bought her a ticket to a very post-war Paris where a friend was working in a parfumerie in the Rue Scribe. “How elegant were the elderly hard-faced manageresses in their perfectly cared-for black suits. Anne lived in the centre of the city in what had been a maid’s room under a mansard roof, with a shared basin and loo in the corridor. Oh, the thrill of it all.”

Back in London, Maureen’s shorthand improved and she returned to temporary work, before having an amazing stroke of luck. She was introduced to a female paediatrician who, although single, had adopted three children and needed an au pair. The extended family spent part of the year in Paris in the rue de Varenne and Sucy en Brie and an ancient farmhouse in Normandy. The parents were rich, artistic haute bourgeoisie, who had known Proust and been friends with the artist Berthe Morisot.

“The practice of chamber music filled the old rooms Normandy and learned international people came and went. The kind of people I had never before encountered. What an introduction to France and, for this, I have never ceased to be grateful,” she recalls.

Marriage and life abroad

Maureen had already met her husband, Philip, at an Imperial College dance – dances or hops were generally how couples met in those days. He was studying geology and was sent to the Algerian Sahara while she remained in England “quickly becoming bored” and insisting she would visit him in Algiers. Maureen shares, “This was not encouraged, as the country was in the throes of a civil war. But the train from Victoria to Dover didn’t leave without me and I found myself at the Gare du Nord boarding another for Marseille. When we are young we have virtually no fear. It was the most sombre of journeys, being basically a troop train packed with enlisted young soldiers who did not want to be there. The death toll among French soldiers was extremely high in Algeria and their fear and unhappiness was palpable. It was the most silent train I have ever been on.”

In Algiers she found a job with the US Information Service for six months. “I rather pleaded with them to take me and how I loved working with those clever State Department people with their dry wit and love of an international life.”

The couple returned, in 1961, to a registry office wedding in Windsor, and a honeymoon at the Lygon Arms in the Cotswolds, followed by a journey in an Air France Caravelle back to an Algeria on the verge of a troubled independence. “My daughter was born a year later in the famous Clinique Laverne, now a deserted, echoing building in downtown Algiers, where I was attended by one of the very few remaining French doctors.”

Then it was on to lovely Tunisia with its kindly people, empty golden beaches, sparkling pure sea and blue and white villages. Here Maureen and her husband watched a Principal Dancer of the Béjart Ballet perform the Firebird Solo on the top of the remains of a floodlit Roman column in Carthage. “Unforgettable. We love North Africa, Algeria is beautiful too and we feel for all of it.”

The following years brought two boys born in Crawley, Sussex, then it was Beirut for two years (“Lebanon also has a special place in our hearts and we think of its people and hope for peace there”), Dallas for another two years and then a posting to Singapore. As Maureen recounts, “In those halcyon days one was allowed to take every stick of furniture, down to the last teaspoon. The packing team came in, packed and sent it all off to the next posting. After a couple of months another team came and undid it all again. For the children it was always an extra Christmas. Now, though never a good coffee party wife, I also became an international house frau, in a bubble bringing up three much-travelled children and becoming slightly brain dead.”

Posted in Provence

Philip, having by then “converted from digging power wagons out of the sand to management,” was asked how they would feel about being posted to Provence. “What could we say? Philip had been born in Bordeaux, having been evacuated on one of the last British ships leaving in 1940. We tumbled over each other to say ‘yes.’”

Near the village of Valbonne, they found a small converted farmhouse set in ancient, open terraces, where, in spite of “three, very neat, burglaries” she never felt unsafe.

This was 1977, as Maureen describes, when the two great plane trees were still in front of the Café de la Place in the village. “These had seats around them and in the afternoons the elderly ladies in their long black dresses and cone-shaped straw hats, would sit and murmur to each other in Provençal. How lucky we were to have known this, for we just caught the flick of its skirts as pre-war Valbonne disappeared around the corner. My brain, formally mired in domesticity, began to show signs of life. It was the hills that entranced me, they were then quieter and gentler.”

During this time, along with many friends, Maureen worked as a local representative in the television festivals held in Monaco and Cannes. For CBS, she “had the great fun” of organising large receptions at the Musée Massena in Nice and the Château de la Napoule. Then on to NBC, which had a more serious, less flamboyant, profile.

Moving back and forth between England and France, she had always done voluntary work with the donated books at the old Sunny Bank Hospital in Cannes. “And what stories that little hospital was able to tell,” she reveals. “In the early years, as the great villas changed hands, many of the books were a bookseller’s dream. Often very old and very learned. Among them was one by an author I had never heard of, and that book changed my life. Who was Winifred Fortescue and what was this book Perfume from Provence? Did she really write five other books on Provence? I must find them, I must find the two houses she lived in, her friends and what happened to her during the war.”

Just who was Winifred Fortescue?

It would take pages to describe the journey from the dusty book room at Sunny Bank to the end of the research eight years later, which enabled her to write the biography of Winifred, her friends and adventures, about her Perfume From Provence house in Magagnosc and her second and last house on the Colline des Anglais in the village of Opio. “I discovered this was the next village to ours, which she had moved to as a widow and where she lived a bucolic existence until the war turned all their lives upside down.”

Maureen adds, “Many biographers say, whether they are spiritual or not, and I am not, that your subject often guides you. Winifred certainly kept an eye on me. But I must tell the truth, that was the condition. During those years the research on the book became a spider’s web of information. Sunset House, set in Opio, said much about an American called ‘Elisabeth,’ no surname. She too, had to be discovered. During those years of research I found that, metaphorically, every relevant door in France, America and England was flung open and my questions and enquiries always eagerly responded to. The generosity was extraordinary. Letters, even original documents from Elisabeth’s family, were sent across the Atlantic from New Jersey. I did send them back.

“The 7th Marquess of Anglesey at Plas Newydd in Wales repeatedly allowed me free range of the exceptional family archives kept two stories deep under the house. Here I found letters, both sad and amusing, full of history, from everyone on the hill in Opio, which had been sent to each other over the years and were now gathered there. I found Fay, ‘the daughter Winifred never had’ living in Petworth, which is not far from us in Sussex. We became great friends and she gave me copyright permission to use Winifred’s writings.”

Sitting under an apple tree in Amberley village in Sussex Maureen read letters from the Front from Elisabeth’s cousin Dillwyn Starr, written during the Great War. Dillwyn was an American who had joined the Coldstream Guards. The letters were written before he died leading his men “over the top.” She met Claude Marcus in Paris, a French gentleman who had escaped from Opio when the Gestapo’s black Mercedes roared up the hill to arrest a Jewish family who had sought sanctuary there. “Claude allowed me to devote an entire chapter to his account of those terrifying years. There were many martyrs in Provence during the war and I visited a boarding school in Ascot in Surrey where one had once been a happy young girl.”

Researching Elisabeth’s years as an ambulance driver in the Great War took Maureen to the Franco-American Museum at Blérancourt in the Aisne, in Paris to the Hôpital Militaire at Val de Grace, the Bibliothèque National and the Archives Diplomatiques on the Quai d’Orsay. The Musée de la Résistance in Nice was the hardest of all to access. The Archives Municipales at Nice and the Archives de Cannes followed. These visits were interspersed with numerous trips to the British Library in London to search their wonderful French collection, which included many books on the Resistance.

She discovered coincidences, too. “In Perfume from Provence, Winifred wrote of the two Italian cypress trees that flanked the entrance to La Domain, her first house in Provence. These were often planted at the entrances to farmhouses and named Peace and Prosperity. According to Winifred, Peace was usually on the left and never as strong and healthy as ‘there was never peace in the world.’”

One day, house hunting in England, she and her husband drove up to a house in a small street in a Sussex village and there, either side of the gate, were two tall Italian cypresses, Peace and Prosperity. “We had to have the house – and liked it anyway. We have lived here for 20 years and three years ago “Peace” slowly died and had to be removed. So now there is only one.

Maureen had discovered Winifred lived in Opio, the next village to us in Valbonne. When she fled France, in her book Trampled Lilies she described escaping to a woodsman’s cottage in Sussex where she would spend the war giving talks on the plight of France in order to raise money for the Free French. “Sussex is large and she named no villages but only her journey from the local station to the estate where the cottage was situated”. I recognised her landmarks and found her cottage in the woods, deserted and just as it had been left. I was able to explore it and see some of the small amendments she had described, before it was finally pulled down. The cottage was, once again, in the next village to ours, but this time in England.

“I have touched on just a fragment of Winifred’s beautifully written and evocative books. The pleasure of working with this departed lady has been a privilege. Her first house, La Domaine, is now owned by Valerie and Pierre who have kept Winifred’s garden design but improved and embellished it so that it is now a garden paradise and has been included as a ‘Jardin de France.’”

Barry Dierks and the rich expatriate community

So that was all about her love affair with the hills of Provence. But what now? “I felt a little adrift. I asked the advice of the biographer Hugo Vickers, who knows the history of, and often met, many of the most interesting personalities in Europe and America, and with the kindness he has shown to so many other authors, suggested someone I had never heard of – an American architect named Barry Dierks.” Hugo told Maureen that Barry had built and/or designed many houses for rich expatriates during the 1920s and 1930s and that he himself had stayed in three of them. “This would be a story of a sophisticated and elegant world, so near and yet so far from Opio. A world from which Winifred and Elisabeth fled at every opportunity until the time they would join the many charity committees at the threat of a Second World War.”

She began with the local archives on the Riviera once again, feeling “rather like a guest” in these new surroundings. Research brought her to discover the first of Barry’s houses, high on a cliff face at Miramar, near Theoule. “It seemed to be closed up so I trawled the surrounding area asking if anyone knew who owned it. This produced two gentlemen who owned a nearby hotel and had known both Barry and his partner Eric. Here was a well of information scarcely hoped for.”

Maureen was then able to contact someone who became my knight in shining armour, the great nephew of Barry’s partner, Eric Sawyer and the godson of both men. Andrew not only gave her, over the next five years, every scrap of information he possessed but also pleasant meals at the Garrick Club and a very clever deal with Taurus/Bloomsbury which enabled the book to be published as a hardback.

Barry and Eric, who was English, had met in Paris in 1921 at the beginning of les anées folles. Barry, from Philadelphia, was studying architecture at the Beaux Arts School and Eric was working In a Paris bank. They would remain partners for life. Their club was the Ritz Bar, a sophisticated American enclave during those years. Eric had been a young officer during the Great War. He was an engineer, which would become vital for the career they would decide on. Helped financially by Eric’s mother, they travelled to the Riviera to form an architectural practice. Now the Carlton Hotel would become both their club and post box and Cannes, to the east, their hometown.

“They were humorous and urbane, ‘those two charmers.’ Accompanied by the frisson, which went with their relationship, they were immensely sociable and accepted virtually everywhere by the international set, if not by the French bourgeoisie. They were also extremely hard working. Le Trident, the iconic house they would build into the cliffs at Miramar, near Theoule, would be a template for their work and their home for life. Here handsome young men, shielded from view, would sunbathe naked on the tiny beach far below. They could not know it, but this happy place would also become the setting for future, very different, events.”

The story of the couple’s work, their clients, friends and adventures, meant that this book would need to be a series of chapters, each telling the story of the person who commissioned the house and the house itself. “A fascinating project. Barry’s clients were drawn almost exclusively from the rich expatriate community, those who had either moved there permanently or wished to have an exotic holiday home to travel to from their own countries,” Maureen says.

Among these were the writer Somerset Maugham, the American actress Maxine Elliott, Lord Cholmondeley from Houghton Hall in Norfolk, the film producer Jack Warner, Paul Louis Weiller, an aviator and one of the founders of Air France, Eric Dunstan with a fascinating background who, through a tragedy, came to wealth late in life, and Beatrice Cartwright of Standard Oil, the mother of Dallas Pratt the founder of the American Museum of Britain. “There were many others, for Barry and Eric would build or remodel around 70 houses on or around the coast. Strangely, they never appeared to work in Nice.”

The architectural practice weathered the Depression – there are always the rich – but the Second World War changed everything. As almost all the expatriates fled, Barry and Eric stayed on. Barry working with the American Red Cross until he was arrested by the Germans who had now occupied the south and sent, on a crowded train, with around 127 other Americans and their dependents to a comfortable, but guarded, hotel at Baden Baden. Eric joined the Resistance, an experience both exciting and frustrating, before escaping to England over the Pyrenees.

“Research for this book was involved more with people than archives. But I did turn up again at the Musée de la Resistance in Nice, where I was no more welcome than before. Again I made many visits to the Archives Municipales and those in Cannes and, back in England, once more to the British Library for their books on the French Resistance. As for people – I chased them everywhere. The affair of the Martinez Hôtel for example, brought me to the family, which had been tricked out of its possession in 1945. Again there was an abundance of help and generosity.

Riviera Dreaming – Love and War on the Côte d’Azur is now out in the world, and I must pay tribute to Peter, my wonderful and creative web master of 10 years, whose expertise has enabled the books, pictures and Riviera Stories to be found at the touch of a button.

“But the history of life on the Riviera with its glamour, intrigue and often drama will not leave me alone. The area has changed fundamentally since the Second World War but the stories of it all are as fascinating as any prize-winning novel – more so as they really happened. And I really should keep telling them,” says Maureen Emerson.

Lesley Blanche, the girl from Chiswick in London, who became an Arabist, an adventurer, enamoured with Russia, and best selling author. She ended her long life in a small villa at Garavan in the hills above Menton.

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Copyright © 2020 Maureen Emerson