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Swellboy on… the jet set

Looking back fondly to an age when being rich was still a minority pastime

Swellboy on… the jet set

Image: Brijesh Patel

June 04 2011
Nick Foulkes

As I am sure you will have realised if you read Swellboy, I am a hopeless nostalgic – happiest when looking in life’s rear-view mirror, fondly imagining that life was somehow better back when. It is of course a fallacy, a fallacy that Woody Allen has used to great effect in his latest film, Midnight in Paris, which I was fortunate enough to find time between parties to see when down in Cannes for the festival.

In it, the utterly brilliant Owen Wilson, acting almost as a young Woody Allen, plays an American in Paris who believes that the 1920s was the best time in the City of Light. He then travels back in time to the Jazz Age, hangs out with Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Picasso, a brilliant Dalí (Adrien Brody) et al, and meets a woman who believes that the Belle Epoque was the best time, whereupon the realisation dawns that trying to escape life by wishing one had lived it in the past is fruitless.

Of course I have long grasped this truth; however, while I can deal with it intellectually, I have trouble really believing it: take the jet set. The sad news of the death of Gunter Sachs has inevitably prompted me to think about this group of shiny sybarites of the 1960s and ’70s.

Although the currency of the term has been devalued over the past couple of decades, I still like the ring it has to it, but given the ubiquity of jet airliners one might as well talk equally meaningfully about the “indoor lavatory set” or the “colour television set” (geddit?). There was a time when airports were exciting places to be. As a child I remember waiting for a relative at Heathrow and watching travellers arriving from Kennedy airport. In particular one man in a suede safari jacket (similar to the one worn by Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno), some form of fedora and a carton of cigarettes jutting nonchalantly from one of his patch pockets, left a lasting impression: as a 10-year-old I found the casual glamour of the image oddly arresting.

But moments of personal Damascene revelation aside, I think it is high time someone set some ground rules as to when the jet set started, when it ended and what the high points were.

Just as the Cretaceous followed the Jurassic, so the jet set followed Café Society. But of course history is not conveniently compartmentalised and members of Café Society lingered on long into the post-jet set age.

Broadly speaking, the jet set era began in the 1950s; one possible start date marks the introduction of the first passenger jet, the Comet that went into service in 1952; but as there were a number of accidents associated with early models of this aircraft owing to metal fatigue and faulty fenestration, this is not perhaps the happiest of associations. You could date it much later in the decade, 1958, the year that the Boeing 707 started commercial flights. However, given that I like to begin with an ending, I choose 1956, the last year that more people crossed the Atlantic by boat rather than by air; although 1953 is a contender as it was then that the Marbella Club first opened.

I am less sure as to when the era can be said to have ended. Some people say the oil shock years of the 1970s and the Air France hijack of 1976 that ended with Israeli commandos storming the plane at Entebbe mark the beginning of the end. But then Concorde, the ultimate jet, did not enter service until 1976, when it flew the London-Bahrain route, signalling the jet-set purchasing power of the petro dollar. On balance I would say that the era really ended in 1995, with the arrival of Easyjet and the coming of the budget airline era, although even this is not definitive, as Freddie Laker got in on the budget airline thing as far back as the 1960s.

The high points are of course things like the celebrations at Persepolis, the party given by the Shah in 1971 to mark the 2,500th birthday of his country; the opening of Puerto Banus; the inauguration of Tramp nightclub; and so on. Harold Robbins was the jet set Dickens; Burton and Taylor were its signature couple, theirs an epic relationship that spanned a generation. The anthem of the era was Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?. Gunter Sachs, Alfonso von Hohenlohe, Heini Thyssen and the Aga Khan were among the apostles of the movement. Jackie O, Marisa Berenson, Jacqueline de Ribes and Brigitte Bardot were just some of its beauties.

It was a time when being rich was still a minority pastime and when a millionaire was still something remarkable. It was also a time of some style. One of my favourite stories is the exchange between Stavros Niarchos and Ari Onassis. After a good lunch, the two men walk past a Rolls-Royce showroom and see the then new Rolls-Royce Corniche. Both men want to buy one, but as the bill is presented, Onassis reaches out and says something along the lines of “No, no Stavros, I will get these – after all, you paid for lunch.”

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