VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Before Las Vegas or Atlantic City, there was Monte Carlo.
A new book looks at the founding of the world’s original casino-resort.
Vancouver-born historian Mark Braude is the author of “Making Monte Carlo: A History of Spectacle and Speculation,” his first book.
NEWS 1130 reached him on the line from Stanford University in California, where he is a lecturer in modern European history.
What made you tackle this as your first book?
“It started with this fascination for gambling, which I just thought, it’s so weird we all go into this place, the casino, kind of knowing that we’re going to lose money, mathematically speaking, the chances are at the end of the day, and yet we still go in and we still have a good time doing it, and I wondered, why is that? Why do casinos look the way they do? That led to Monte Carlo, which was really the first casino-resort there was and that’s where the story actually got even weirder. You know, this place that was really desolate at the edge of Europe becomes, and was a backwater when it started, became this fabulously wealthy place. So, the question was, why there and how did they do it?”
So, we can’t overstate the fact that Monte Carlo was the template of all casino destinations, from Las Vegas to Atlantic City.
“Exactly. And that was kind of driven by desperation because [Monte Carlo] was really hard to get to and there was nothing there. The founder, this guy named Francois Blanc, he hits on this very groundbreaking idea at the time which was, it has to be more that just gambling itself. We have to give them a spa resort, we have to give them fine restaurants, hotels, everything that has nothing to do with gambling but will draw people in and keep them coming back. Now, that all sounds quite obvious to us today when we think of Vegas, as you said and Atlantic City, but he’s really the first one to hit on that idea and also to really glamorize the sense that, when you come to Monaco and to Monte Carlo, you’re escaping the boundaries of your home life [and] your homeland. You know, gambling is illegal for most of the time of Monte Carlo’s early years. And he makes that whole act of escape something that’s glamorous, something that’s enviable.”
We talk about Monaco being the first modern casino-resort. Culturally-speaking, how big did it loom in Victorian-era Europe?
“I think that it was really this site of fascination in terms of all sorts of crimes and espionage and illicit activities that were supposed to be going on there and the funny thing is, of course, that that really didn’t match up with reality. And, so that was in itself an interesting story. Why do people project on to these places these fantasies? So, it was definitely something people were really talking about a lot, about prostitution, about crime, about suicide, but not borne out by the archives themselves. And I think it was this idea of, well, you know, being away from home, being away from family, being away from one’s country was inherently dangerous and yet thrilling at the same time.”
The book then goes into how the whole thing kind of goes south after World War I only to be reborn in the Jazz Age. Who sort of helped drive that then?
“There is a woman named Elsa Maxwell who was an American and she starts off as a kind of party planner and then a Hollywood publicist and she gets invited to Monte Carlo actually by the prince and sits down with the casino people and really says, ‘Listen, you guys are missing out on your biggest draw of all which is the ocean, which is the summer season.’ Europeans, at that time, really didn’t suntan or swim for fun and it takes this American woman to tell them, ‘you’re doing it all wrong. This is actually the glamourous thing that is waiting to be discovered: the beachfront, the ocean, all that stuff.’ And so, that, to me, was really an interesting part of the book and finding that out was this moment where, finally, Europeans, and especially old money Europeans, are turning to North America for new ideas for new styles, new tastes, and kind of pushing the culture forward. I think [it was] such a great moment.”
The book ends with the staging of the first Monte Carlo Grand Prix. Why did you choose to end it there?
“For me, that’s really the high point. I mean, the irony for the reader hopefully will be that they see, while I don’t put it right on the nose, this is just a few months before the Wall Street crash. So, it’s both this idea of this is really the culmination of all these ideas that built the resort, this whole thing that it could be about more than the gambling. And, I call the race a parade. I say this is really more of a parade of all the cosmopolitan and luxurious lifestyles on display than it was just a competition about who’s going to drive the fastest. And yet, underlying all of this is this darkness, this sadness that this is all really going to come to an end when so much of this wealth is wiped out.”
Making Monte Carlo is your first book. Any plans for book number two?
“The project that I’m really interested in more broadly is looking at how spaces change when they start to turn themselves over to outside influence. In the case of Monaco, it’s a place that’s completely governed by outside money. The profits all have to come from outside the principality because the people of Monaco are actually banned from entering the casino. Actually, that might be quite pertinent for Vancouverites, this idea of what happens to a place when so much money comes from outside. What does that do to the landscape, what does that do to the locals? What does it even mean to be local? So, I like to look at small places that are undergoing change from outside. So, the next project is about Napoleon when he’s in exile on Elba, this tiny little Italian island. He’s there for 10 months and then he escapes and it’s usually not really written about in depth and I really want to go in quite deep into that little moment and trace out another microhistory that I think, hopefully, tells a bigger story about empire, about politics, [and] about power.”