American playground is tourist hotspot

Known world-wide for its 7km Promenade des Anglais, Nice also has strong links with the US – dating from the 1780s when future president Thomas Jefferson paid many visits while ambassador here and advised Americans to “spend a few days here”.

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Other future US presidents who loved Nice include Theodore Roose­velt, who visited as a youngster with his family in 1869-70, and Harry Truman who came as a US soldier on leave at the end of the First World War.

Mr Truman said in a letter to his wife: “The view from my window is simply magnificent. There isn’t a painting in existence that could do it justice. There is no blue like the Mediterranean blue.”

Now a global tourist destination, many Nice streets bear the names of wealthy Britons and Americans who spent their winters by the sea.

The US boom started after the First World War and now, as part of the war centenary commemorations, an exhibition, 1917: Nice l’Américaine, looks back to the year when America joined the fighting.

Just as the Promenade des Anglais was named for the British who paid for the seaside walk to be improved, another part of the seafront was named for Americans, with Quai du Midi becoming Quai des Etats-Unis as thanks for the US turning the tide of fighting that seemed without end.

It was a popular rest and recreation point for US troops and word quickly spread of its attractions.

Great numbers of Americans arrived on the French Riviera after the war and ended up outnumbering and outspending the British aristocrats who, helped by the patronage of Queen Victoria, had created what the city of Nice says in its recent Unesco heritage bid was the first holiday destination.

The Americans brought with them waves of culture and art, creating a jazz scene that is still much-loved, American bars, American writers, painters, celebrities... and money.

Wealthy investors played an important role in the start of tourism in the city in the 19th century when multi-millionaires like the Vander­bilts, Spangs, Morgans, Cornells, Hamiltons and Gordon-Bennetts spent regular and long holidays

They helped create a new cultural and leisure scene and many joined clubs such as the Club Nautique (Yacht Club), Tennis Club, Bridge Club – which had as many American members as British.

It was said that as many as 180,000 British and 50,000 Americans spent their winters in the area at the time.

In the 20th century, Americans opened bars, restaurants and organised opulent, in-demand events.

The jewel of the seafront was the luxury Palais de la Méditerranée hotel where Harry Truman stayed (now owned by Hyatt Regency) opened in 1929 by millionaire Frank Jay Gould.

Its white marble Art Deco facade made the Promenade des Anglais so popular it supplanted Cimiez above the city where wealthy Britons lived. The Americans were popular along La Prom with their pyjama-style outfits.

They made their mark in other ways too with the first dog water fountain, the American church, an eye hospital... it was also in Nice that dancer Isadora Duncan died in 1927, strangled as her scarf caught in her car’s rear wheel.

Nice made a name in US arts as painter John Singer Sargent, writers Henry James, Louisa May Alcott, Frank Harris, Edith Wharton, Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway all holidayed there before film-makers such as Rex Ingram and Orson Welles used the Victorine Studios in Nice to film.

The 1917: Nice l’Américaine exhibition at the Palais de Marbre in Fabron gathers archive documents with photos, paintings, event posters and letters. It continues until September 28.

Guided walks are hosted on the theme ‘Swing and Red Cross’ and the event marks when Nice had its own New York American Bar, but also Thomas Jefferson’s 18th century visits and his love of the city’s Bellet wine, which he gave as “the best table wine in the world” at the White House.

Millionaires in Riviera films

One cultural event during the exhibition will see the city’s Cinéma­thèque arthouse cinema focus on US millionaires with two films in English:

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) set in Nice with Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert and The Great Gatsby (1974) with Mia Farrow and Robert Redford which F. Scott Fitz­gerald wrote on the Riviera.

All change for troops

Although US troops mostly saw the Riviera as a few days’ rest after action in the trenches, many discovered France in the Centre region where there were vast US training camps.

But the largest site – the world’s largest air base – was built in 1917 at Issoudun in Indre where Uncle Sam trained its air crew, including aces such as Eddie Rickenbacker.

Issoudun aimed to please l’armée du million de dollars and its 10,000 ‘Sammies’... so became American-French.

Some of its 24 cafés, 12 inns and 21 clubs stayed French but many opted to become American; Bar Américain at Boule­vard Nicolas-Leblanc and the American Bar on Rue des Alouettes, others included Teddy Room, Criterion Bar, Liberty Shop, Au Rendez-vous des Sammies and the Café des Alliés.