Thursday, September 1, 2011

Notable Homes: La Fiorentina

The previous post of The Devoted Classicist profiling decorator Ruby Ross Wood, mentor to the legendary Billy Baldwin, is a prelude to this essay.  I had asked my friend and Baldwin authority James Archer Abbot for a comment about La Fiorentina, the Saint Jean Cap Ferrat villa that Baldwin had decorated for Mary and Harding Lawrence. The Living Room is one of the iconic rooms of 20th century interior design, and influential in decoration to this day with new versions appearing often with only minor variations.  James had participated in a special Panel Discussion sponsored by Sotheby's in 2001 on the topic of American interior decoration of the 1960s and 1970s so I knew he would have an interesting contribution to this story.  As usual, Mr. Abbott did not disappoint.  But first, some background on the notable home.

The Gallery of La Fiorentina during the ownership of Roderick Cameron and Lady Kenmare.  Note the Martin Battersby painted ceiling, appearing to be drawings pinned in place.
 Source of Google image is not identified.
The Devoted Classicist has been enthralled by La Fiorentina since he was a youth, seeing black & white photos of the remarkably chic villa in French magazines and books published by Librairie Hachette.  A classical villa handsomely furnished with a notable mix of Louis XVI antiques as well as good reproductions and decorative exotic pieces, my most memorable impressions were how elegant yet comfortable the house appeared.  And most of all, I was impressed by the decorative trompe l'oeil paintings by Martin Battersby that represented classical architectural drawings that appeared to be pinned in place.  Following a career as an actor and theatrical set designer, Battersby became a muralist after World War II.  In addition to his work at La Fiorentina, he was known for his murals for Lady Diana Cooper's chateau near Chantilly and for the Carlyle Hotel in New York City.
A trompe l'oeil mural by Martin Battersby in the Gallery. In the Dining Room beyond, Lady Kenmare, once a scenic painter in Hollywood, painted a curtain (not seen in this view) to match the mural.
Photo:  La Decoration by Librairie Hachette, 1962.
The house as I first knew it was home to Lady Kenmare and her son Roderick Cameron, known as Rory to his friends.  The many-times-married-and-widowed mother was nicknamed "Lady Kilmore" by her neighbor Somerset Maugham but there was no evidence she had anything to do with the deaths of her husbands.  The Cote d'Azur has been a sea-side destination for international society and titled heads of Europe, not to mention American millionaires and their marriageable daughters, since the end of the 19th century and continuing to this day.  This house began as the winter residence of the Countess Therese de Beauchamp, built starting in 1914 as a Florentine palazzo and hence the name.  Originally, Aaron and Gaston Messiah were hired as the architects with Harold Peto to design the gardens, but they were replaced by writer, architect, and garden designer Ferdinand Bloc.  By the early 1920s, the countess had moved on to one of the most spectacular villas in the area La Leopolda, designed by Ogden Codman, Jr., as his own residence, (see my December 11, 2010 post for more about Codman), and sold La Fiorentina to Sir Edmund Davis.  Although not well-known today, Davis, 1862-1939, was an Australian-born mining financier and art collector who had a number of notable houses in addition to this one and bequeathed a large part of his exceptional collection to museums in Paris and Cape Town.  Lady Kenmare, also Australian-born, bought the villa in 1939.  But when Enid, Lady Cavendish as she was then known, returned to the Riviera after World War II, she found that the villa and gardens had been virtually destroyed by the retreating Nazis.

The Living Room of La Fiorentina during the ownership of Rory Cameron and Lady Kenmare.
Source of Google image is unidentified.
It was decided to rebuild, or rather recreate, a neo-Palladian villa, and Lady Kenmare and her son Rory combined their efforts to create a magnet for the haut monde.  An elaborate Guest Book recorded the experiences of the celebrated visitors and much about those days is conveyed in Cameron's 1975 book The Golden Riviera.  A record of these heady days were also remembered by Cameron's half-sister Pat Cavendish O'Neill in her memoirs A Lion in the Bedroom (with the title referring to her days in Africa).  Over years and decades, Cameron worked to build the collection of furnishings, buying from top Parisian dealers as well as the bazaars of Tangiers and Bombay.  But as his mother spent more time on her stud farm in South Africa, Cameron decided to move into an auxiliary building on the estate called Le Clos Fiorentina, and rented the villa, and eventually sold it.  The story of this remarkable house and its owners could fill a whole book, but it is the following phase of ownership and decoration that is the thrust of this essay.

American advertising legend Mary Wells was scouting locations for a TV commercial for Betty Crocker to promote their packaged casserole mix named "The Riveria" when she first saw the villa from the water about 10 years before she came to own it.  She founded Wells Rich Green in 1966 and was one of the highest paid women in business.  In 1967, she married a client, Harding Lawrence, a Texas businessman and president of Braniff International Airways.  Together, they were one of the most dynamic couples of the late 60s and early 70s.   In the next few years, they bought a big Dallas house on Turtle Creek Boulevard at the entrance to Highland Park, a sprawling Arizona ranch, and a Manhattan penthouse triplex, all decorated by Billy Baldwin.   Looking for a sea-side retreat that would also serve as venue for entertaining their international clientele, Mary Lawrence remembered the house and had Billy Baldwin arrange the deal to buy it from his friend Cameron in 1970.  Baldwin had often been a guest in the house, and stayed with Cameron in Le Clos Fiorentina for periods while the house was being redecorated for the Lawrences.

Billy Baldwin's decoration of the Living Room of La Fiorentina.
Source of Google image is not identified.
 Baldwin wrote "Not one thing did they wish to see.  I was to buy everything".  But he was also to respect Mary Wells Lawrence's single comment, "Remember . . . we bought the house because of what it is.  Let's not revolutionize it."  Although The Devoted Classicist liked the classic decoration of Rory Cameron's home, he must admit that Baldwin's reinterpretation was fresh and appropriately up-to-date.  The new scheme was most apparent in the Living Room.  Instead of Old Masters, contemporary paintings were sparingly placed.  The former neutral palette was infused with blue in geometric prints and blue and white export ware to give a refreshing lift, and a touch of Baldwin's trademark American pizzazz.  It was James Archer Abbott's comment that made me really appreciate the room in a different light, however.  In the Panel Discussion held in conjunction with the 2001 auction of furnishings at Sotheby's New York, James told me that Albert Hadley, himself a devotee of Billy Baldwin, had remarked on the comparison to the theme of decoration introduced in the Living Room of the Wolcott Blairs in Palm Beach that had been decorated by Ruby Ross Wood with her new assistant Billy Baldwin.  The spaces were similar with French doors on both sides necessitating that there be some floating groups although one sofa could be placed against an end wall.  Interestingly, a desk is centered in both schemes, but that is a placement Baldwin came to use frequently.  The relatively bare walls is one of the more telling comparisons, as is the placement of planters between the French doors.  I had always thought the use of those planters was an interesting choice for Baldwin's scheme at La Fiorentina, although not unusual for the time.  But it really hit home when I saw the tubs of lilies used in Wood's scheme for the Blairs;  it was part of bringing the outdoors in.

The Harding Lawrences lived in La Fiorentina for almost thirty years, and achieved their goal of entertaining there in high style.  Enlisting the help of David Niven, who had done voice-overs for Wells' commercials, introductions were provided to bring Princess Grace as a frequent guest to dazzle the business clients.  Also, Frank Sinatra, Helmut Newton, and Andrew Lloyd Webber were frequent guests.  The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 ended Braniff and Mary sold her business in 1990.  No longer needing to entertain on such a lavish scale, they sold La Fiorentina in 1999 and moved about 100 yards to Le Clos Fiorentina.  In a New York Times interview by William Norwich, May 17, 2001, they said they had rented Le Clos from Hubert de Givenchy for summer visits and added central air-conditioning along with a satellite TV dish.  La Fiorentina had been sold furnished for an unconfirmed $40 million to an undisclosed buyer.   Although the exterior was protected, the interior was completely demolished.  The Lawrences were not particularly pleased with the auction of the furnishings and the publicity surrounding it.  The auction lots included not only the Baldwin acquisitions but also the furnishings that had been included in the sale from Rory Cameron as well as some added by the new owners.  In the article, Mrs Lawrence is quoted, "What I resent about the Sotheby's auction is that it forces us to live in the past."

I was fortunate to have met Rory Cameron shortly before his death in 1985.  Related to my former Parish-Hadley co-worker Libby Cameron, he visited the office once while in New York decorating the Sutton Place apartment of billionaire media empire owner Anne Cox Chambers.  Decorating professionally came late in life, as I understand, and he was formerly better known for this travel writing and the iconic book The Golden Riviera.

The gardens the work of British landscape architect, Russell Page, perhaps the foremost garden designer of his day.
The next post of The Devoted Classicist will feature the furnishings of La Fiorentina from the 2001 auction.

Note the white-washed tree trunks that reflect the light while guarding against insects.

The recollections of Rodrick Cameron's THE GOLDEN RIVIERA, Pat Cavendish O'Neill's A LION IN THE BEDROOM, and Mary Wells Lawrence's A BIG LIFE (IN ADVERTISING) can be purchased here.  Copies of the vintage Billy Baldwin books including BILLY BALDWIN REMEMBERS can be purchased here. 


  1. Adore Jim Abbott! And love this post! That whole era fascinates me. I just finished the bio of Elsie deWolfe, and have also just read BB's bio. I think that I now have all of BB's books.


  2. Thanks, Meg. I am sure the whole Baltimore area appreciates all the wonderful work Mr. Abbott is doing at Evergreen Museum.

  3. Swell post, I am adoring this series. Marvelous! Makes great reading in combination with The Blue Remembered Hills' pieces on RC and his circle. Thanks for the education. RD

  4. Thanks, Reggie, for your kind words. This post turned out to be a bit more ambitious than I first anticipated, trying to fact-check and confirm information as well as keep it to a manageable blog length. The house and its whole story is truly deserving of a whole book of its own. Much has been blogged, by Blue and many other respected scholarly writers, but I hope to add a bit more about this property and its colorful owners, in addition to introducing it to an even wider audience.

  5. D.E.D., if you or any other readers know any up-to-date information on La Fiorentina, I am sure it would be appreciated. I was not even able to confirm the identity of the present owner of this main house on the domain.

  6. Dear Readers, a direct message from one of the most respected of the design blog commenters, Toby Worthington, advised me of a mistake I had made in the caption of the photo showing a view into the Dining Room. It was not the mural that Lady Kenmare had painted, but rather a curtain that continued the wall design onto the fabric. He kindly included a photo which will be included in a future post which addresses the Billy Baldwin decoration of the Dining Room.

  7. Wonderful tell us more when you have time!

  8. C.J., I often enjoy a closer look at the furniture, so I hope you too will enjoy seeing some selections in more detail from the auction catalog.

  9. What a great post!! I do know what you mean about starting one and it then turning into something more ambitious but I'm so glad it did. One of the most beautiful and iconic vacation homes ever!! Looking forward to reading about the furnishings!!

  10. Here I am! all these years later!

    this is my favorite house on earth!

    When we went to St Jean Cap Ferrat.......I swam out and damn near drowned treading water trying to see this house from the sea!!!

    I have a great husband who rescued me in a boat!!


    ps how could anyone buy this and auction off the contents?

    Do we know who did buy it?

    1. Penelope, we have Mitch Owens to thank for the information that the owner is a Heineken heiress, if I am not mistaken.

  11. I take care of Pat Cavendish O Neill and am visiting france this year and stumbled across this site while doing some research on france. The owner is quite an old man and is known to be in the beer business his granddaughter lives in cape town and having read the book a lion in the bedroom by Pat Cavendish o Neill she contacted her at Broadlands where she lives at 89 (sister to Rory) he came to visit her two weeks ago but all she got out of him was the house has changed completely and he is in the beer business but I don't think the daughter owns it yet because the grandfather is still alive and was in cape town recently, but Pat is still alive her story is remarkable. I have made contact with the granddaughter and am visiting the grandfather in June at La fiorentina. Pat still has some of Rorys work and furniture but most of the precious jewels and furniture was stolen Pat was never good with money.

  12. Does this villa have history with Sao and Pierre Schlumberger?

    1. In the mid 70s, the Schlumbergers bought Le Clos and hired David Hicks to decorate.


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