Swellboy on… the Venetian Lido

Harking back to the heady days of 1920s Venice

Image: Brijesh Patel

The first glimmer of spring has an almost pathetically enlivening effect on me. I am ludicrously susceptible to a few rays, and when the sun shines my mood improves and thoughts turn to the lotus-eating days that lie ahead. Although this is only a fancy, as in reality I am too restless to cultivate the repose of the “lotos” eaters in Tennyson’s poem, I nonetheless have to say that there are plenty of times when I wish I could, as the 19th-century poet laureate put it, rest my “weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel”.

Still, it means that I can busy myself with my summer wardrobe. This year I have decided to rekindle my love for the Lido collar – a sartorial refinement to which I was first introduced by Mr Rowley at Budd getting on for a quarter of a century ago. The Lido collar is an elegant spread collar that has a slight scimitar-like curve to it. It is as much like a modern polo shirt as a 1950s Bentley R-Type Continental is like a VW Golf.

More than a way of cutting a leisure-shirt collar, it is a wearable madeleine capable of summoning up the ghosts of the Roaring Twenties, when the Venice Lido emerged as European pleasure plage number one and Lido mania gripped Europe. As well as my shirt collar, one of the unlikely by-products was a profusion of homonymous art-deco leisure centres across Britain.

For centuries the Venice Lido had been a more or less uninhabited sand bar, a strip of land that kept the Adriatic at bay, the place where the Doge welcomed important visitors who arrived by sea and at which, once a year during the time of the Republic (on Ascension Day), the mystical ceremony of “marriage to the Sea” was carried out. Oddly enough, it was only after Venice surrendered its nationhood – first to Napoleon, then the Austrians, and eventually becoming part of biscuit-eponym Sig Garibaldi’s new-fangled kingdom of Italy – that the Lido came into its own.

While they may have lost their independence, Venetians never lost their sense of style, and from the second half of the 19th century the Lido became increasingly fashionable, reaching its Death in Venice apotheosis in the years before the first world war. However, it was only after the Great War that the Lido phenomenon went viral, as they did not say on Grand Canal back then.

Most emblematic of the Jazz Age habitués of Venice was Cole Porter. Sometimes with his wife, and sometimes without, he came to Venice to have fun and live in progressively more impressive palaces on the Grand Canal. By 1925 he was to be found at the 200-room Rezzonico with its Tiepolo fresco. He brought food and wine from Paris (British politician Duff Cooper was most impressed with the Pommery 1911 served at one dinner) and the flappers and bright young things of New York.

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The chief aim of this brittle decadent crowd was to keep boredom at bay, and so one year Porter set up a floating nightclub. Called the Dance Boat, it was run by Harlem nightclub hostess Bricktop and was towed down the Grand Canal and out to the Lido, where the musicians and dancers caused a furore at the Excelsior by teaching guests the Charleston on the beach.

Indeed, it was quite the height of chic to lash a few barges together and create your own floating party venue. In 1922, for instance, Cooper recalls a fancy-dress party held by the Mosleys. “The general effect was really extraordinarily pretty. The barges were hung with Chinese lanterns – most of the people were in fancy dress – there was a piano on one of the barges – Olga and other people sang and there was dancing. There was quite a good cold supper and plenty of good champagne.” Thus refereshed, the party moved on to a hotel “where Elsa Maxwell gave us coffee and eggs, and then went on dancing there”. Cooper was a party pooper, calling it a night at 4.30 am, leaving plenty of others to continue the carousing until daybreak.

Elsa Maxwell was the prototypical modern celebrity-gossip columnist: more famous than most of the people she wrote about. Large, how should one say… homely looking and tirelessly energetic, she enjoyed a breadth of acquaintance that is surely unrivalled (except perhaps by Nicky Haslam today) and was described by George Bernard Shaw as the eighth wonder of the world. She is credited by many, including herself, for bringing new zest and piquancy to the Venetian scene of the Roaring Twenties (although, to be honest, events like the Venice Film Festival might also have something to do with it).

Among the attractions the party girl claimed to have introduced were a regatta and a golf course, as well as brokering a peace deal between rival social groups. “Venetian society was divided into rival camps that had to be reconciled”, she wrote in her first volume of memoirs. “One set centred around Countess Annina Morosini, who represented the old Venetian aristocracy. A livelier crowd that made its headquarters at the Lido was headed by Princess Jane di San Faustino. In my unofficial capacity as peacemaker, I brought the two troupes together by staging formal dinners, beach parties, a fête on Cole Porter’s galleggiante, or floating night club, and a treasure hunt.”

Whatever it was she did, it worked, and by the mid 20th century the place was stuffed with Café Society types such as Charlie de Beistegui, who bought the Palazzo Labia and filled it by taking his motor launch out to the Lido each morning, reclining on a pile of cushions surrounded by adoring young women who would arrange them on the beach so that the Beistegui body would not come into contact with a single grain of sand.

It was only in the latter half of the century that Monte Carlo and the rest of the Côte d’Azur reasserted themselves, and it cannot be entirely coincidental that Elsa also claims to have been approached by Monaco to work the same magic on the pint-sized principality.

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I think that she might even have made it to Marbella, where I tend to spend the summer trying my best to eat a little “lotos” and do a little less, but it appears that any of us who has ever enjoyed a chic Mediterranean beach holiday owes a debt to this extraordinary supersized socialite. And, even if I will not be starting a regatta or holding any parties on board floating barges, I will think of her when I put on my first Lido collar of the season.

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