Riviera Dreaming: The Story of an American Architect on the Côte d'Azur.
Maureen Emerson
Riviera Dreaming: The Story of an American Architect on the Côte d'Azur.

The Ritz Bar
Synopsis of Chapter One

My new book is on the story of the American architect Barry Dierks, his partner Eric Sawyer, and the stunning houses they built on the French Riviera in the 1920s and 1930s - for those interesting clients who could afford them.

The Great War was over. Paris was humming with life, for the Jazz Age had begun. Barry, studying architecture at the Beaux Arts school and Eric, recently demobilised as a colonel from the British Army, first met working at a bank in the city. They would stay together for the next 40 years. Sharing Eric's comfortable apartment on the Boulevard des Italiens this stylish, sociable couple would spend almost every evening at the Ritz Bars on the Place Vendôme. In the frenetic gaiety of post-war Paris this was the place to be seen. Full of young Americans and the international set it was a melting pot where 'French was hardly ever spoken'. At this time only men were allowed in the main bar, the women being confined to a small paneled ladies' bar - the salon de correspondence - in spite of the sterling work so many had carried out during the war. Much went on at the Ritz bars. Somerset Maugham roamed the rooms, Chanel strolled through to her apartment on the floors above. Noel Coward wrote a play called The Ritz Bar (Semi-Monde) banned in England as immoral. The author Beverley Nichols composed a scathing poem Ladies of the Ritz about rich and elderly women waiting watchfully, for the 'stallions' of Paris.

Investing well in companies about to deal with post-war Germany, Barry and Eric decided to make their home and career in what was virtually another country - Provence. At Miramar on the Riviera beneath the Corniche d'Or and between St. Raphaël and Theoule, on a wild, almost uninhabited stretch of coast, Barry designed a Moorish-Modernist villa. This was to be both their home and show house for many years. White, flat-roofed, with patio arches on slender columns, they placed it on a ledge among the flame-red rocks of the Esterel, far above the sparkling Mediterranean. They called it Le Trident. Barry as the architect in the partnership, with Eric as garden designer, built or remodelled almost 100 houses in the south of France. These villas, which styles ranged from sleek Art Deco to Provençal to Palladian were occupied by Americans, British and French, many of whom had their own fascinating stories.  Handsome and sociable, Barry and Eric were 'the two charmers' of the Riviera scene in the years of après guerre and avant guerre, leading a pleasurable social life until the Second World War changed everything and revealed their determination and courage in their respective adventures.

And Somerset Maugham came up trumps.



Opio and Chateauneuf villages in the Alpes-Maritimes
MAUREEN EMERSON
The American architect Barry Dierks
The American architect Barry Dierks
In 1930 Maxine commissioned the American architect Barry Dierks to build her this ground-breaking Moorish-Modernist villa at Golfe Juan on the Riviera. It had the largest private swimming pool of that time and a spectacular slide into the Mediterranean
In 1930 Maxine commissioned the American architect Barry Dierks to build her this ground-breaking Moorish-Modernist villa at Golfe Juan on the Riviera. It had the largest private swimming pool of that time and a spectacular slide into the Mediterranean

A Little from: A Summons from Somerset Maugham

The Paris Herald, the forerunner of the Herald Tribune, declared 'the twenties were an era of wonderful nonsense'.  Small wonder, as there was so much to try to forget, if even for a short space of time. During the Great War the area had become a vast hospital and convalescent home for the wounded and was now slowly beginning to return to a semblance of its former self. But gradually the old life of catering to privileged visitors returned, although in an increasingly different form. Suddenly everything seemed possible. Moving pictures, wonderfully designed automobiles, new music, liberating fashions, were all exhilarating. By the time the American architect Barry Dierks and Eric Sawyer, his partner in business and life, left Paris and built their iconic house on the red rocks of the Esterel in 1925,  the towns along the coast were alive with a fevered post-war excitement. Among the palm trees, oleander and bougainvillea the belle époque, characterised by its ornate architecture and amply dressed winter visitors, was over. Barry at twenty-six and Eric, ten years older, were about to make an enduring architectural influence on the Riviera.

Whereas in the chic towns of Cannes, Nice and Menton, the British and Russian aristocracy had formally held sway, the 1920s was the era of the Americans.  The Gerald Murphys at the Cap d'Antibes, the Scott Fitzgeralds, the barefoot dancer Isadora Duncan, Josephine Baker 'the Black Pearl' cabaret artist, Frank Jay Gould who created Juan-les-Pins as a new, informal holiday resort - the list could go on.

Before Barry Dierks could embark on his ground breaking modernist designs for those clients who were open to such new ideas, he was more than grateful, also in 1925, to receive a commission to remodel an existing house for a name soon to be reckoned with on the coast - the author Somerset Maugham.  Maugham had bought a run-down house on Cap Ferrat, once owned by the confessor of King Leopold II, tyrant of the Belgian Congo.  Dierks redesigned the overtly Moorish-style house into a fined-down version. While Maugham lived at the Villa Lawrence on the ramparts at Antibes, Barry swept away the façade, creating a two-story house of clean lines designed around a central courtyard open to the sky, where one would be able to dine al fresco under the stars.  Around the courtyard ran two galleries with French windows giving onto balconies.  Barry's lovely white vaulted ceiling graced the entrance hall, suspended above black marble floor tiles. From here a curved marble staircase led up to five bedrooms with large multi-paned windows, and four bathrooms. Downstairs were two further bedrooms and another bathroom. Inside the twelve meter long, high-ceilinged drawing room was installed a large fireplace of Arles stone. A staircase tower, with a roof of Roman tiles, was built into the side of the building, housing a round  dining room and service rooms. Such towers fell far short of modernism so in incorporating them Barry may have considered they enhanced certain buildings, or he may have simply bowed to the wishes of his clients - for this would not be the only one he would include in his designs. Extending from the tower was a flat roof, upon which was built Maugham's very private writing room, plain and rectangular, whose only access was by a wooden staircase.  All was white and cool apart from the black tiles of the entrance hall.
    
Eric designed an enchanting garden full of fruit trees and oleanders. Although Maugham himself was proud of his hard-to-maintain lawns, Barry and Eric would lure expatriate clients away from expanses of grass to embrace elegantly designed swimming pools.  Maugham's was large and set into a terrace at the top of the garden. They were the first to launch the craze for garden pools.  On the wall at the entrance to the property was a sign, created by Maugham and based on a Moorish symbol designed to ward off the evil eye.  A sign also printed in the first edition of many of his books.

For the rest of his life, punctuated by a second world war and much travelling, Cap Ferrat became Maugham's only home. Not universally liked but much sought-after, he settled down to hold court at La Mauresque.  Invitations were received gladly, although situations could occasionally become rather tense.  But as long as guests behaved comme il faut and didn't irritate their host, visits were enjoyed and most left hoping to be invited again.

So who were his neighbours in the great houses on the Cap during those years of the 1920s? Among them was Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, the third son of Queen Victoria, who had the villa Les Bruyéres on the same road as La Mauresque. A widower and President of the Boy Scouts Association he was held in high esteem by all who knew him. Accompanied by his mistress Leonie Leslie, the sister of Winston Churchill's mother Jenny Jerome, the Duke would occasionally dine at La Mauresque.

Others were Therese de Beauchamp who built her Italianate Villa Fiorentina  in 1917 on  the point of the Cap St Hospice at Cap Ferrat. At the beginning of the 1920s, before going on to buy La Leopolda at Villefranche, she sold Fiorentina to an Australian, Sir Edmund Davis, a mining millionaire and art collector. It is Davis whom one must thank for creating much of the littoral path around Cap Ferrat, which walk gives pleasure to so many people.  Davis was also the owner of Chilham Castle in Kent. At the Venetian-style Château St Jean at the entry to St Hospice Vilma Lwoff-Parlaghy, an acclaimed artist and an Hungarian princess, took long walks with her lion cub Goldfleck.  At the Villa Maryland the British ship owner Arthur Stanley Wilson, of the Wilson Line Shipping Company, held grand receptions among whose guests were Winston Churchill, that devotee of the great houses of the Riviera.

Commissions for remodelling of other Riviera houses came hot on the heels of La Mauresque, but it was not until the beginning of the 1930s that Barry's talent for the pure white, flat-roofed, symetrical or sinuous creations, so admired by architects today, was allowed to develop fully.

La Mauresque, Somerset Maugham's house
La Mauresque, Somerset Maugham's house.
Photo from Ted Jones - 'The Literary Riviera'
Opio and Chateauneuf villages in the Alpes-Maritimes
Cookies & Copyright © Maureen Emerson 2010-16 All Rights Reserved
To contact Maureen Emerson click here
website by www.perfumefromprovence.com


The Riviera Embraces Modernism

In Cannes on the Riviera in the early 1920s the hotels and restaurants were filled with voices of diverse nationalities. These included le gratin - the royalty and aristocracy of Europe (the Russians being notably absent) who chattered to the accompaniment of the clinking of ice in newly created cocktails and the tinkling of Irving Berlin or Jerome Kern tunes on a baby grand. Later in the evening there would be dinners in private houses or at fashionable restaurants. The women chose their garçonne-look, drop-waisted gowns from Poiret, Molyneux or Vionnet, worn over silver hose and, to keep off the chill of a Riviera winter evening, cloak-coats edged with fur. For the young, and sometimes not-so-young, it was mandatory to spend the rest of the evening dancing, often frenetically, in one of the newest creations of the 1920s - the nightclub, which de Faucigny-Lucinge in his Memoires called 'the fever of the age'. How better, if one had the means to forget, even for a moment, those lost forever?

Periodicals such as L'Hiver à Cannes and Le Journal des Etrangers  detailed the arrival of rich visitors to the coast. These visits were an opportunity for glamour, sophisticated entertainment and the chance to meet old friends and make new ones. Enjoyment was enhanced by starlit nights beside the rippling Mediterranean and the frisson of a Latin environment. It was not for nothing the couturier Jeanne Lanvin named her perfumes, created in Grasse, My Sin, Scandale, Rumeur and Prétexte. And there was no Prohibition.

This new, younger set, La Bohème Chic, began increasingly to realise there was much pleasure to be had in lying languorously on a beach.  Although many different nationalities now returned to the coast after the war this was the era of the Americans. During the war many thousands of young servicemen from the United States had been cared for and convalesced in the great hotels of the Riviera, requisitioned as hospitals and nursing homes - and many would return as tourists. In 1921 and 1922 the musician and song-writer Cole Porter and his wife Linda rented the Château de la Garoupe on the Cap d'Antibes, an estate with which Barry would later become much involved. They invited another American couple, Gerald and Sara Murphy, whose subsequent sojourns on the Cap have passed into Riviera history. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night was born when he and his tempestuous Zelda joined the Murphys and their circle, and set the astonishing trend for summers in the sun. The body beautiful became almost an obsession, the beaches along the coast playing host to exercise and dance classes. Golf, tennis, polo, swimming and sailing were pursued with great enthusiasm. 'Young people, slim and beautiful of line, flash from rock to sea in a sparkle of diamonds' so wrote Grant Richards in his Coast of Pleasure of 1928. The freedom of a tanned body, caressed by the sun, was a new and voluptuous experience dignified by the fashion designer Coco Chanel who soon acquired a glamorous tan of her own.

As far as architecture was concerned, while the cities of Europe had been enthusiastically discovering Art Deco and Modernist designs from the early 1920s, the French Riviera had stuck firmly to its Belle Epoque or Provençal Regionalist styles.  Of the very few modernist villas of that time on the coast, only two really stand out. In 1923 the French architect Robert Mallet-Stevens had designed the Villa Noailles at Hyères in the Var, with its Cubist garden, for Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles.  In 1925 the Anglo-Irish designer Eileen Gray created at Roquebrune what was perhaps the most evocative of  early modernist villas on the coast - the ill-fated 'E1027'. She built her iconic house on rocks above the sea. A purist design, in the shape of an ocean liner, it caused the architect Le Corbusier to be consumed with envy. E1027, sadly neglected for so long, is being restored with private funding and will eventually be open to the public.

The great Belle Epoque hotels or palaces of the Riviera stood proudly, as they do still today. The Carlton on the Croisette in Cannes was built in 1911, the Negresco on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice in 1912.  The Hôtel Hermitage in Monte Carlo graced the municipality as early as the 1890s, with a lobby designed by Gustave Eiffel. These grand buildings were resplendent with their embellishments, domes and turrets, as was the Monte Carlo Casino of 1893, built by Charles Garnier, the architect of the Paris Opera. They were the admired edifices of the coast favoured by those who could afford their luxury.

On the Croisette at Cannes, the Art Deco Hotel Majestic was, in 1926, the first to have a more streamlined design.  In Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night Dick Diver records walking past the Majestic as it is being built. Now the last two years of the 1920s saw an upsurge in the building of large hotels, and they were almost all in a modern style. The most striking grand palace of this period was built by Frank Jay and Florence Gould, American entrepreneurs from Juan les Pins.  Their Hotel Palais de la Méditerranée on the Promenade des Anglais at Nice was begun in 1927 and opened to great acclaim in January of 1929.  It was the epitome of Art Deco glamour. The façade of the Palais, with its row of arcades was decorated with large bas-relief figures by the sculptor Antoine Sartorio. The interior with its splendid entrance hall, enormous stained glass windows and white marble staircase illuminated with Art Deco crystal chandeliers was breathtaking. Mainly conceived as a gaming house with rooms, its accompanying theatre attracted such music hall stars of the day as Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf and Josephine Baker.  Eventually falling on hard times and lying in the wilderness for many years, it has now been resurrected in another form, only its façade surviving.

In 1928 came the construction of the Miramar Hotel on the corner of the rue Pasteur and the Croisette at Cannes. And here was created the first artificial sandy beach on the Croisette. Eventually, as the years went by, all the beaches of the Croisette would lose their stones and be covered by soft and cared-for sand. The Miramar opened its doors to the rich and famous in January 1929 but only survived as a hotel for 17 years,  becoming an apartment block. In 1927, Emmanuel Martinez, son of an Italian baron from Palermo in Italy built, also on the Croisette, the enormous Art-Deco Hôtel Martinez. Beaten by one month by the Miramar, the Martinez opened its doors in February 1929 and would always remain a hotel. A hotel which would have a history almost as complicated as that of Palais de la Méditerranée in Nice. The Riviera was becoming comfortable with Modernism and striking Modernist and Art Deco apartment blocks began to be built in towns along the coast, particularly in Nice, and are generally much appreciated today.

The hotel owners had not anticipated the stock market crash of 1929 and the following Depression. Happily for the economy of the Riviera, soon the city-dwelling middle-classes of France realised they did not have to take a chance on the weather in northern resorts such as Deauville and Le Touquet. With the growing acceptance of a golden skin, they turned their faces to the south - and changed the Riviera for ever.

In 1925 Barry Dierks, as architect and Eric Sawyer as his business partner and landscape designer, both newly arrived on the Riviera, felt the pulse of the times. The great villas of the coast had to be equipped for entertaining. The constant ebb and flow of socialising from house to house was a way of life that only came to a permanent end with World War Two. It was all as Edward VII observed 'like a constant garden party'. Salons had to be large and welcoming and, with the vogue for vacations in the heat of summer, dining on large candle-lit terraces became de rigueur.  Barry, instantly in tune with Riviera life, understood this. He also felt that, with the new mode for spending summer on the south coast, houses should be designed to be cool. He and Eric became instrumental in encouraging outdoor living, suggesting that every new client should have - a swimming pool.

It was imperative his own house should act as a showcase for Barry's talents, a place so striking it would draw potential clients to first admire and then commission his designs. Winston Churchill wrote: 'We shape our dwellings and afterwards our dwellings shape us'. This certainly applied to Barry and Eric for the house they would build into the terracotta rocks of the Esterel was intertwined in the story of their lives. Even accessing their new home was dramatic. One entered by a simple gate from a slip road off the Corniche d'Or at Miramar, and descended around thirty steps to reach the house entrance, with its panelled double front door framed in stone and heavily nailed in the Provençal style. The door handle was in the shape of a sinuous sea creature in bronze, the keyhole underneath framed by the head of a sea nymph, flanked by two fishes. The door opened onto an upper floor of seven bedrooms and five bathrooms. Over the narrow bedroom corridor and the top of the stairs were Barry's exquisite arched and grooved ceilings. Starkly white, the contrast with the black tiled floor below was dramatic, while above the stair head a Moorish lamp hung from the centre of a star shaped vaulting.

Living quarters were on the lower floor. Along with the office the couple would use for so many years, there was a library and a large and spacious salon to be furnished in English style with comfortable sofas and armchairs. From here French windows opened onto a dining loggia, the salon d'étè, with three arches, supported by columns, giving onto a large terrace looking over the rocks and the sea far below. A small star-shaped pool was inserted into the curve of the terrace into which guests, in the spirit of the Trevi fountain in Rome, would fling coins in the hope they would return. At a critical time in the future this act would gain a more than usual poignancy.

The whole house was rendered white, startling against its background of red rocks. The view was spectacular. To the east lay Cannes where, at night, a necklace of twinkling lights, like miniature diamonds, lit up the long promenade of the Croisette. To the west the vast expanse of sea was interrupted by the headland of Cap Roux. And, very rarely, immediately ahead and with the right atmospheric conditions, one could just see the island of Corsica 170 kilometers distant.

A very long, rather tortuous, flight of narrow concrete steps was built below the house, winding its way steeply down the hillside before reaching the two secluded coves where the sea foamed around the fingers of rocks. When it was all completed in 1926, Barry was twenty-seven. It was an extraordinary achievement. Not only was it the first house he had ever designed, it was situated precariously on a ledge on a steep cliff, looking as if it was preparing to fling itself down into the sea. They named their villa Le Trident and carved an emblem of the three-pronged spear into the keystone above the front door.




Martinez Hotel Cannes in the 1930's
Martinez Hotel Cannes in the 1930's
© Maureen Emerson
How to look beautiful in 1900. The American actress Maxine Elliott, 30 years before she commissioned her Modernist villa on the French Riviera from her compatriot Barry Dierks
And, later, working with Belgian refugees in 1916
How to look beautiful in 1900. The American actress Maxine Elliott, 30 years before she commissioned her Modernist villa on the French Riviera from her compatriot Barry Dierks
And, later, working with Belgian refugees in 1916

THE MILL HOUSE IN THE HILLS
1938

The Story of Eric Ciprani Dunstan

In 1935 Dunstan had asked Barry Dierks to restore an old mill house in the hills almost 13 kilometers above Cannes.  Although the house itself was tumbling down it was set in a virtual Garden of Eden.  Twenty hectares of water meadows were flanked by hills of cistus, cork oaks, mimosa and vines. On red soil and limestone, wild flowers such as marsh orchids, Canterbury bells and anemones flourished. The property was flanked by the fast flowing six meter wide river, clean and sparkling in the sunshine and replenished by its own small cascade. Its sluices would ensure that Dunstan was able to create wide expanses of lawn, evoking an English garden.  One wonders whether his earnings as commentator and journalist would have permitted him to commission the restoration of the old mill to the high specifications of the elegant and comfortable house it became once Barry and Eric Sawyer had eventually finished their work.  But by then he had met Flora.

Dunstan owed his exotic middle name to the composer Philip Cipriani Potter who, in turn, was named after his godmother, the sister of Giovanni Battista Cipriani the painter and engraver of 18th century Florence. The connection was through Dunstan's mother Edith Rose Turner who  had been a friend of Philip Cipriani Potter. Edith was herself  a talented painter of landscapes. In 1891 she married Malcolm Rowley Dunstan, who would have a distinguished career as director first of the Midland Dairy Institute and then of Wye Agricultural College in Kent.  Their son Eric was born in 1894 at Hamilton Drive in the shadow of Nottingham Castle.  A tiny baby he would grow to a slim one meter 90 (six feet three inches). Eric would have no children but his two sisters, Joan and Hester, ensured the continuation of the Dunstan line.

Sent to Radley College in Oxfordshire which, at that time his prep school considered the 'Home for Lost Dogs', Dunstan, in his engaging and typewritten autobiography writes that his years there were uneventful, 'at games I was a wreck'. His final report on leaving said he had, 'a positive genius - for doing the minimum of work and escaping detection'.  But he had a good voice, good enough to gain a singing scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford where, in 1912, he became an Academical Clerk, singing Bass with a grant of £95 a year, having beaten fourteen other candidates to the post.  An Academical Clerk became a member of the College choir but was also expected to attend lectures, tutorials and graduate like other students.

So one damp October evening in 1912, searching for his rooms he found his way through 'the dim-lit foggy Cloisters to my door'. Here his path was partially blocked by packing cases containing glass and silver ware - Edward, Prince of Wales, was moving into the rooms next door. Dunstan and the Prince would become casual friends at Magdalen.

When war was declared in 1914 Dunstan, like so many other eager young men, joined up two days after the declaration of hostilities, leaving his studies abruptly. His first posting was as 2nd Lieutenant with Kitchener's 2nd New Army. After training he spent six months on the Italian Front and through the subsequent retreat. But it was not long before he was writing to the President of the College 'Magdalen seems like a vivid dream', asking that his place be kept open in the event of his return. Back in England he transferred to the 7th Service Battalion East Kent Regiment, known as The Buffs, and was sent back to France with the rank of Captain. Posted again to the Front, he went on to run a Bombing School as Brigade Bombing Officer - 'a perilous experience, but I was lucky and so were my pupils'. Tuberculosis put an end to his time in the army and probably saved his life. In 1916 he escaped the 1st July battle of the Somme where his battalion lost 22 officers. Accepted back into Magdalen, he graduated finally in 1917.  Now, cured of tuberculosis, he had to find a job.

Meanwhile Dunstan began the first stages of his long career. Beginning as a lowly assistant to the British consul at Seville he was appointed a Sub-Commissioner in the Red Cross, on the Italian Front. In 1917 he became involved in the Austrian attack on Caporetto in which the Red Cross would lose 80 of their 130 ambulances. Returning to London he jumped at the casual offer of assistant to the Governorship of the Fiji Islands, setting sail for Australia on a Union Castle freighter transporting 300 Australian soldiers' English wives going to join their husbands - an interesting journey during which six babies were born. From there it took three months to travel by sea to Suva, the capital of Fiji. He was entranced by Fiji 'our pleasures are Arcadian'.

But feeling he must at last try and earn some proper money he eventually returned to London where he took a job in the Basement Department of Selfridges on Oxford Street, working his way up rapidly to become private secretary to Gordon Selfridge. An enormously successful and innovative retailer, Selfridges's one weakness was women, the more expensive and extravagant the better. His long suffering wife had died in the influenza epidemic of 1918 but his formidable mother kept him more or less on the straight and narrow until her death in 1924, thus avoiding the worst of the scandals which would later beset him. Dunstan lived with Selfridge and his four children in his rented Landsdowne House on Berkeley Square. He became an excellent and supportive private secretary, staying with the store for six years during a period when Selfridges ruled the roost among stores in London.  Flamboyant displays and promotions constantly drew crowds to the windows and into the store.

Feeling himself 'always lucky', Dunstan then met a friend who worked in the BBC and so began an eventful life as an announcer, journalist and commentator. He made the point that announcing in those far off days was a novelty which gave the person concerned a mysterious glamour, though requiring 'no more than a clear speaking voice and a modicum of common sense'. A formidable presence in the BBC at that time was the complicated and dictatorial Director General, John Reith.  Although Dunstan compliments him for having fought for the integrity and dignity of the Corporation, his eventual clash with Reith would make BBC history. But in 1926 he was sent to India to set up the poorly funded Indian Broadcasting Company. From Dunstan's correspondence of that time it is clear how hard he worked to make the Broadcasting Company succeed and how much and how often he tried to encourage investment, but in vain.  After three years he resigned, mortified at the failure of what he felt had been an inspired idea. The company went bankrupt, later becoming the Indian State Broadcasting Company, and Dunstan returned again to England. Back at the BBC once more and now a Senior Announcer, he had a rather spectacular falling out with John Reith. This was over the way in which Reith was announcing the General Election results of 1929. Listeners began to telephone the company to complain about Reith's unclear and too-fast style. When Dunstan undertook to inform him of this a clash of well-developed egos resulted in him being out of a job once more.

He was out of work for all of several hours. That afternoon he received a telephone call inviting him to visit the Editor of The Star newspaper, run by the Quaker Cadbury family.  He became one of their journalists and the first radio critic on a daily newspaper. Launched in 1888 the Star would always be a liberal paper 'championing the cause of the underprivileged and highlighting the needs of working class families'. Something new for Dunstan, but he had a happy, well paid, relationship with his new bosses, a relationship which would last for eight years.  He deemed the Cadburys and their associates 'the best employers in Fleet Street' and was gratified to see 'Read Eric Dunstan in The Star' twinkling in lights in Leicester Square. Lucky again.

British Movietone News was launched in 1929 and became the first sound newsreel in Britain. The parent company was Fox Movietone News in America and British Movietone went into competition with other newsreels, such as Pathé. Dunstan joined them soon after the launch and so began to present once again. He was now a commentator, providing commentaries on events, national and international, rather than an announcer relaying the news of the day. Known as 'the man with the golden voice' to present day ears his delivery seems clipped, even staccato, but that was of his time and his voice is very clear. He would say this was 'something between a butler's and a bishop's' which meant he was in demand for solemn occasions such as important funerals and international events. He commentated on the events of the Abyssinian-Italian war, the Silver Jubilee of King George V in 1935 (which showed the first colour newsreel) and the funeral of the King in the following year. This was followed by the Coronation of King George VI, the father of the present Queen, in May 1937.  Now famous, admired and well paid, he was settled and happy.

Dunstan would take his holidays on the Mediterranean and one year, planning to visit Morocco, he found himself stranded in Marseille - his boat having been shipwrecked. Instead he took a plane to Tunis and from there to what was then the small town of Hammamet, 76 kilometers south of Tunis, and built on the Gulf which bears its name. He found a simply furnished white room and felt it was all perfect. And it was here he met Flora. Flora Stifel was from West Virginia, and what she lacked in good looks she made up for in extravagance. She had married previously an aristocratic Romanian with light blue, slightly unnerving eyes and the profile of a Greek statue. Karl Georges Sebastian was then 33 and Flora 52. This marriage of convenience would produce one of the most stunning private houses in North Africa. Their marriage was, for a while, a fruitful partnership. Sebastian was homosexual - a fact which seemed to suit Flora very well.  Social life was far easier with a husband in tow. The third person in their marriage was Sebastian's enduring friend, the American artist Porter Woodruff, responsible for many of the covers of Vogue magazine of that time.

The house created by Flora and Sebastian on the Bay of Hammamet near Tunis was designed by Sebastian and built by an Italian builder. It had all the elements of a perfect Moorish building.  Flat-roofed, sharp edged and sparkling white, it contained arches, arcades, courtyards, large cool rooms with wide groined ceilings, terraces, studded doors - all the romance of North Africa was there.  They called it Dar Sebastian. It is now the Hammammet Cultural Centre. Many artists, actors and celebrities visited Hammamet during the 1920s and 1930s, lured by its beauty, simplicity and those expatriates who had built elegant houses on its shores. Among these visitors were Ernest and Wallis Simpson. In 1932 the Simpsons were in straitened circumstances and Sebastian, wishing to show them his Hammamet home, sent them two return tickets from London. The trip was to be in March and would include a journey to the edge of the desert. Wallis wrote to her aunt, Mrs Buchanan Merryman, that she would buy only 'one light coloured flannel suit for the trip, which could be used here [in England] in the country afterwards'. By the time Flora and Georges Sebastian visited her in London in 1934 Wallis was worrying less about clothes. Her affair with Edward, Prince of Wales, was well under way and she had 'bought a coat and dress with the $200 the Prince gave me … along with some leopard skins'.

Eric Dunstan returned to Hammamet several times but was not at ease with the cosmopolitan, pleasure-seeking set who built their attractive houses in the bay:

     'As there so often is with those exquisite beauty spots which attract intelligent, idle people … the intimate friend of one day is the bitter enemy of the next'. I could never be sure from one year to another who would be friends with whom - which was a pity'.

But he valued the country for its culture and Roman and Phoenician history, evident in its many, then scarcely explored, ruins.  He always appreciated the people of the places in which he travelled saying: 'When people say to me "I loathe the French or the Italians or the Egyptians or the Americans" I know that person has mostly himself to blame. Bad manners breed, and vice versa'.  One possible enemy was Georges Sebastian, for in January 1936 Flora divorced Georges in the United States, presumably taking her fortune with her, and by September 1937 had married Dunstan, her friend from Hammamet. It was a short-lived marriage, three months later Flora died in a tragic accident in Mexico. Her death left Dunstan a rich man.

Later that year Dunstan returned to Provence and began work on the shell of the old mill with Barry Dierks and Eric Sawyer whom he counted among his friends for, 'rare is the architect like Barry Dierks who combines his own taste with a capacity to satisfy the personal taste of his client'.  With no lack of funds, building work moved quickly in those days and by Christmas of 1938 the Moulin had its house-warming party. By then Wallis Simpson was married to the now Duke of Windsor and had become his Duchess. The couple had rented the Château de la Croë on the Cap d'Antibes and entered into the confined social life of the Riviera.

Set in its idyllic valley the house, built within the old walls of the mill, was large and ancient. Outside it had the air of a traditional French country house, ochre-coloured and Roman-tile roofed. Only the large, many paned windows differentiated it from a typical Provençal mas, or farmhouse. The simple entrance door was set in a rustic porch behind a rough stone arch, the whole having a very campagnard air.  Barry seemed to be always effortlessly in tune with each of his many different commissions. The wide sitting room, both elegant and welcoming, had the usual large stone fireplace to guard against damp, Provençal winter nights. No Moorish arches here, rather a set of white regularly spaced painted beams in a low ceiling. The whole house was comfortable and welcoming. Virtually the only nod to modernism was the striking narrow stone staircase, flanked by solid banisters rendered white. In contrast, the slender supporting pillars were composed of narrow red bricks, this feature being echoed in the large pergola on one of the terraces behind the house.

As far as garden design was concerned, the land was a blank canvas.  Eric Sawyer, as designer, used the water in many ways, gushing out of the mouths of fauns and satyrs, in shady pools and under bridges and, in a lower part of the garden, a round swimming pool with a pool house echoing the traditional design of the main house above. A rough, arched stone bridge led to the upper part of the garden and the cascade above the river meant that one always heard the gentle sound of falling water.

Idyllic it all was - for 18 months before, as Dunstan said, 'that lunatic bastard of a "house-painter" set the world in flames'.
Eric Ciprani Dunstan
Eric Ciprani Dunstan