Stanford scholar explores the glitz and glamour behind Monte Carlo
Stanford lecturer Mark Braude examined how physical space factored into the rise of Monte Carlo as a playground of the rich and famous.
When the gambling impresario François Blanc arrived in Monaco in the spring of 1863, he encountered a barren, barely developed patch of land. There were three churches, a shabby hotel and a failing two-story casino.
By the end of the century, Blanc had transformed the casino and built a train station, hotel, beach promenade and opera house to create the first modern casino resort – Monte Carlo.
It quickly became a place associated with glitz, glamour and gambling.
“Monaco had a monopoly on legalized gambling in southern Europe, but Blanc realized he’d eventually lose that advantage, so he built up a town to offer much more than just the casino,” said Mark Braude, lecturer in French and Italian and in history at Stanford.
“That seems like an obvious idea today, when we look at places like Las Vegas or Macau. But Monte Carlo was really the first example of an entire town funded by gambling while presenting itself as a modern resort.”
His new book, Making Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle, explores the story behind Monte Carlo from 1855 until 1929, the period that laid the foundations for the city today.
Wealth, power and physical space
Braude’s research took him into the Monte Carlo casino archive to research the inner workings of the resort, marking the first time that the archive has been so extensively explored.
“In the archive I saw how Monte Carlo went from being this craggy outcropping of land known as Les Spélugues”– loosely translatable as “the caves” – “to a resort destination in a matter of years,” he said.
It was more than just a building and infrastructure project.
“Connecting Monte Carlo to the French rail network was vital, as was all the development. But most important was Blanc’s ability to see that people were changing how they thought about the links between money, identity and social status – and he knew how to capitalize on those changes,” Braude added.
“How does wealth and power operate in relation to physical space? That’s the question that guided my research, and it led me to casinos, and eventually to this tiny, somewhat bizarre principality.”
Gambling and glamour
Just how tiny? “The whole of Monaco spans less than half the size of [New York City’s] Central Park,” Braude said.
The principality – which houses Monte Carlo and its famous casino – straddles the French and Italian borders and has been ruled by the Grimaldi dynasty for nearly eight centuries.
“How is it that this small and remote place became so associated with the high life? That was due to Blanc’s savvy as a publicist, just as the mass illustrated press was coming into its own,” Braude said.
In his archival research, Braude pored over the casino’s business records, dating back to the struggles in the eight years before Blanc took over the operation in 1863.
“Blanc came in and changed the perspective. By building a resort to surround the casino, he made it about more than just escaping the laws of your home country to gamble legally. He glamorized that escape,” Braude explained.
“It was a place to come and see a show in the opera house, a place to walk on the promenade, and a place that had great weather, grand hotels and thermal baths.”
His other archival research took him to Nice, just outside Monaco, and to Paris. There he found various anti-gambling pamphlets that portrayed Monaco as an immoral place where gambling losses led to suicides and the breakdown of families.
“Monaco was criticized as a decadent principality whose culture threatened the moral fabric of France for its dangerous lifestyle. For critics, Monte Carlo’s maxim seems to be ‘come be selfish and do what you want,’ which was the antithesis for building civil society,” Braude said.
Braude’s narrative starts in 1855 when gambling was legalized in Monaco as a means for the state to make money.
“The royal family, who have always owned a stake in casino operations, saw that legalized gambling could form a good economic basis for Monaco. So they convinced Blanc to come and create the first resort of its type.”
As Braude found in the archive, it was in Monte Carlo that gambling went from being a small-scale affair to a much more extensive and organized operation for the first time.
In earlier iterations, gambling was popular among the nobility in spa towns such as Bad Homburg in Germany, which Blanc had operated before moving south.
“The dynamic then was typically adversarial, and the idea was to perform one’s disdain for wealth. They would play head-to head games without so much of a desire to win; it’s hard to believe, but a lot of it was about how casually you could bear the loss of a great deal of money,” Braude said.
When Blanc arrived in Monaco in 1863, one of his first steps was to change the name to Monte Carlo in honor of Prince Charles, the head of the royal family. He also quickly changed how gambling worked.
“With the earlier spa gambling, the money tended to pass back and forth between the players, with a small concession going to the resort’s owner. Blanc helped bring about the rise of industrial gambling; that is, players who would play games – such as roulette, which until then hadn’t been that popular of a game – against a faceless house,” Braude said.
“Now the casino business started to look like other industries, based around efficiency, security and steady, predictable profits – but all within this luxurious environment that still projected the image of a traditional aristocratic spa casino.”
That image also charmed the booming bourgeoisie who were attracted to the glamour and associated lifestyle of gambling.
Today, gambling accounts for a fraction of Monaco’s income, but its image of glitz and glamour remains intact.
As for Blanc, “In many ways, he was at the forefront of packaging lifestyle as a commodity that could be bought and sold like any other,” Braude said.