The narrow track alongside the railway at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin is becoming well worn. It was always busy, being patrolled by customs officers in the late 19th who were on the lookout for smugglers. Below the grand houses of the area, in one of which the Empress Eugenie lived, there were little shacks used by fisherman and others. It was here that Eileen Gray built a house for her boyfriend Jean Badovici.
When finished in 1929 – and shown off in Badovici’s own magazine, L’Architecture Vivante – it was a sensation. Badovici continued to use it after his relationship with Gray ended and it was here that he entertained his friends Le Corbusier and his wife Yvonne. They loved the setting so much that in 1951 Le Corbusier built a very modest holiday cabin as a present for Yvonne. Next to it was a snack bar, the Ėtoile de Mer (starfish), which had been opened by a plumber from Nice, Thomas Rebutato. He had always wanted to provide simple food – pasta, fresh fish and salads – for the holidaymakers and fishermen who visited this hidden-away part of the Cote d’Azur. Le Corbusier and Yvonne enjoyed a warm friendship with Thomas and his wife, Marguerite, and their two children, Robert and Monique. When young Robert decided that he would become an architect, Le Corbusier guided him through his training and took him under his wing in Paris.
I love the whole story of that friendship. Le Corbusier designed a little terrace of holiday cabins for Thomas in exchange for the land to build his own holiday house. When I first visited it, we were also allowed into the Ėtoile de Mer but couldn’t take photographs of the interior as it was still used by the Rebutato family. Next door, E-1027 was all boarded up, with signs promising that it would soon be renovated.
Now, of course, E-1027 is the jewel in the crown of this magical corner, open to tours. The station at Cabbé houses a proper visitor centre and the whole enclave – E-1027, the cabanon, l’Ėtoile de Mer – is open, operating under the collective term Cap Moderne.
When I completed my novel Loving Le Corbusier, one of the things I was most conscious of was that, although it was a work of fiction, the main characters were real. Most had died, of course, but Robert was still alive. And so I contacted him in his home in Paris, and told him what I had written. I asked if he would like to read the scenes in which he appears and gulped when he said yes. Waiting was agony.
At the beginning of the year, he wrote to apologise for taking so long getting back to me. He said that he had been interested in all the research I had done and said that, although he had not witnessed all of what I had written, it seemed ‘likely’. He wanted, however, to point out two mistakes I had made. The first was (and I shudder even at the memory of it) a simple typo – I had called E-1027 E-1017. The other was that I mentioned Jean Badovici’s girlfriend Madeleine coming to the Ėtoile de Mer and he told me that by the 1950s Jean had a different girlfriend. I knew this but had decided to keep Madeleine simply because it was only one scene and it seemed complicated to introduce someone else after her character had become so familiar in the war years. But after Robert had pointed it out, I decided I must correct it, and added in Mireille, the real girlfriend of the time.
I was incredibly moved that Robert had read my words. I kept thinking how fond Yvonne had been of him, and that he had been one of the last people to see Le Corbusier alive. And so I was saddened to learn that he died a month after writing to me, before the novel was published. I wish he had lived to see the UNESCO listing of Le Corbusier’s work but I suspect he knew it would happen.
He has left a fabulous legacy, supporting Cap Moderne, and handing over ownership of the Ėtoile de Mer so that it will be preserved forever. If you read French then I can recommend his memoir Robertino, l’apprenti de Le Corbusier, written by Louise Doutreligne, which was published last year. And if you’re in the south of France then do visit Cap Moderne (and check out the photos on its website). It’s a paradise that echoes to the many voices of the past and it will always shine brightly in my mind.