They were talented, brilliant, and indomitable. To celebrate International Women’s Day, Monte-Carlo Société des Bains de Mer is honouring four unforgettable women who have had a profound impact on the history of Monaco. Along the way, we pay tribute to all of the women who work tirelessly, out of the public eye, to ensure that this jewel of the French Riviera endures.
The wife of the founder of Monte-Carlo Société des Bains de Mer left an indelible mark on the country. But in the beginning, there was nothing to suggest where her life would take her. Born in 1833 to a modest family in Frankfurt, the only business she ever knew was her father’s shoemaking trade. Everything changed in 1847, when she entered the service of one François Blanc, a French entrepreneur who managed the casino in the spa town of Homburg. Intelligent and lively, Marie soon attracted the attention of her employer, who offered her an education...then married her once she was of age. In 1863, the couple were invited by Prince Charles III of Monaco to develop the principality’s tourism potential. It was then that Monte-Carlo Société des Bains de Mer was first created, and with it, the Monte Carlo Casino. As gifted in business as she was in public relations, Marie Blanc played an active role in growing the casino, and was also involved in a number of large-scale projects. The first of these were the wine caves of the Hôtel de Paris, which she financed out of her own pocket. Then came the construction of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo, designed by architect Charles Garnier. Her last project was the casino gardens, which later became the splendid Jardins des Boulingrins. After the death of her husband, she took control of the company, which continued to prosper under her stewardship. Anyone who wishes to pay their respects can go to 17 avenue d’Ostende and admire its magnificent, Belle Epoque villa—a neoclassical, 100-room building that served as her private residence.
Born in 1883, Elsa Maxwell was an American music hall pianist. After the First World War, she specialised in throwing high-society parties in Europe. Gifted with an exceptional eye for entertainment, she helped put Venice’s Lido beach on the map. In the 1920s, she was asked by Monte-Carlo Société des Bains de Mer to boost summer tourism in Monaco. She performed her task brilliantly: on 16 July 1928, during the grand opening of Monte Carlo Beach, she threw a raucous party whose extravagance has since gone down in history. There were ornate yachts, motor boats towing gladiators on water skis, illustrious guests dressed as emperors...all against a backdrop of outrageous excess. The whole world was talking about it: Monaco had joined the highly exclusive club of summer destinations. Today, the Michelin-starred restaurant on Monte-Carlo Beach is known as Elsa, in honour of this bright, beaming visionary.
When this famous headliner of La Revue Nègre arrived in Monaco, she was already 63, with a long career behind her full of twists and turns, from Broadway to Havana, from Montmartre to the French Resistance. In 1969, at the height of her immense celebrity, she was invited by Princess Grace to stay free-of-charge at her Villa l’Aiglon in Roquebrune. While there, she quickly took to life in the principality. In 1974, she returned to the stage in Monaco, after spending years out of the public eye, turning in a triumphant performance at the Monte Carlo Sporting Club. In 1975, she passed away in Paris, and was interred in the Cimetière de Monaco in accordance with Princess Grace’s wishes.
For many critics, she remains the greatest tragic actress of the 19th century. Indeed, it was she who inspired Jean Cocteau to coin the term monstre sacré (“superstar”). Born in 1844 in Paris, Sarah Bernhardt was accepted into the Paris Conservatory at age 14. She spent several years at the Comédie-Française, before being dismissed for slapping another company member. This did nothing to deter her, however, and she continued to pursue her career with passion and vigour. It was in 1879 that she first discovered Monaco, during the grand opening of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo, a historic event with nearly 800 guests from among the biggest names in Europe. Following her warm reception from spectators and Monte-Carlo Société des Bains de Mer, she appeared regularly on this stage until her death. As an enduring tribute to her immense talent, the Salle Garnier is adorned with a sculpture made by her own hands, Le Chant. Sarah, it seems, was also a talented sculptor, something that her patrons in Monaco were quick to recognise.
And since history is written every day, Monte-Carlo Société des Bains de Mer would like to pay tribute to all of the women who work hard to make it a success. Croupiers, managers, decorators...every one of them embodies the values of Monte-Carlo Société des Bains de Mer: excellence, audacity, inventiveness and passion. From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you.