THE LEOPOLDA VILLA IN BEAULIEU/MER | ©Pool Lafarguel/Merillion/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
A Property Fit for a King
Few properties invoke the spirit of Belle Époque quite like Villa La Leopolda in Villefranche-sur-Mer, in the Alpes-Maritimes department on the French Riviera. Built on land once owned by Kings, the villa became a billionaire's party pad, the beautiful backdrop to several notable films, including one by Hitchcock, and received mentions in some popular books.
Villa La Leopolda sits in 18 acres of land. Perched in a prominent position with sweeping views of the sea, and overlooking a verdant valley with pine forests, overall it paints a breathtakingly picturesque vista.
The History of Villa La Leopolda
Once a much larger estate, it was owned by King Leopold II of Belgium (1835 – 1909), from whom the present villa derives its name. He gifted the estate to his mistress Blanche Zélia Joséphine Delacroix (1883 – 1948). The King was 65 when he met the 16-year-old Blanche in Paris, where she was allegedly working as a prostitute. She was probably the most prominent and notorious of Leopold's mistresses and was very unpopular, possibly in the light of all the extravagant gifts that Leopold lavished upon her, including land, jewels and the noble title Baronne de Vaughan. When Leopold died, Blanche was evicted from the villa, and his nephew King Albert I became the new owner.
During World War I, the villa was used as a military hospital. And In 1919, French aristocrat Thérèse Vitali, Comtesse de Beauchamp, acquired the property and commissioned various modifications.
It was the American architect and interior decorator Ogden Codman, Jr. (1863 – 1951), who designed the stunning neo-Palladian villa that stands majestically on the site today. He purchased the dozen existing structures that comprised the property and set about creating his vision with its amazing architecture, stunning vista, and lavishly landscaped gardens. The original architectural drawings, together with various letters and the photographs of the newly completed property are in the collections of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, also known as "Historic New England," and headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts.
Codman began work in 1929, and it was completed two years later. However, possibly due to his demandingly high standards and lavish spending, he got into financial difficulties, and he could not afford to live there. He had to resort to renting it out to wealthy clients.
The Duke and Duchess Of Windsor (formerly the British King Edward VIII and the American socialite Wallis Simpson) tried to lease the villa. However, they insisted that they would have to make many changes to the property which went against Codman's architectural aesthetic and strict protective clauses. Negotiations in a Paris Hotel broke down over the many restrictions imposed by Codman, to which his response was: "I regret that the House of Codman is unable to do business with the House of Windsor."
When Codman died in 1951, the estate was sold to Canadian financier Izaak Walton Killam (1885-1955) whose wife Dorothy J. Killam inherited it following his death a few years later. In the late 1950s, Mrs. Killam sold the villa to Fiat president Gianni Agnelli (1921–2003) and wife Marella Agnelli. The Agnellis then sold the villa to Dorothy J. Killam in 1963, and she lived there until she died in 1965.
EDMOND AND LILY SAFRA | ©Globe Photos/zumapress.com via Alamy.com
Edmond & Lily Safra
Despite owning a penthouse apartment just 10 miles away in Monaco, Lebanese-born Brazilian banker Edmond Safra and his wife Lily purchased La Leopolda in 1987 to add to their portfolio of properties.
They commissioned the award-winning Italian architect, interior and product designer Renzo Mongiardino to create the opulent interior design. Style guru Mica Ertegün was commissioned to create her magic on the decoration of the second-floor bedrooms.
The Safras were renowned for hosting large and extravagant parties at the villa. In one such event in 1988, the guest list was so extensive that there was a party on a Friday and another on Monday. Female guests were given an ornate enameled box with a portrait of the villa. Tulips were flown in from Holland, famous chef Roger Verge of the Moulin de Mougins arranged the food and the music was provided by Safra's favorite musicians, the Brazilian band leader Sergio Mendes, who had flown in from California with his entire orchestra, and pianist David Wood who had flown in from the UK with his quartet. The party was described by author John Fairchild as the "ultimate in conspicuous consumption.”
Security for Safra at the villa was provided by a team of former Israeli commando soldiers.
FILM STILL THE RED SHOES | ©The Criterion Collection
Gallery La Leopolda
See film and image footage of Villa La Leopolda. Swipe or click to enlarge.
French Monument to Class & Culture
Mikhail Prokhorov - The €39 million deposit
The Russian billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov made several attempts to purchase Villa Leopolda via Belgian real estate entrepreneur Ignace Meuwissen. Lily Safra finally accepted his offer €370 million (plus €19.5 million for the villa's furniture) in the summer of 2008.
Initial reports on the villa's sale in July 2008 had falsely identified fellow Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich as the purchaser.
Prokhorov attempted to withdraw from the sale in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which led to a lawsuit between Prokhorov and Safra over the €39 million deposit that he had paid on the villa. A French court ruled against Prokhorov in November 2012 with Safra subsequently announcing that she would donate his deposit to various global charities.
MIKHAIL PROKHOROV | ©Natalia Kolesnikova via ANP/AFP Photo
Villa La Leopolda is registered as a French
In the 1948 film 'The Red Shoes,” La Leopolda was used as the setting for lead character Lermontov's villa. The flame-haired heroine climbs the steps to the villa thinking that she's been invited to dinner. Instead, she is given the starring role in a new ballet.
Alfred Hitchcock used La Leopolda as a set in his 1955 movie 'To Catch a Thief'. Starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, this romantic thriller tells the story of a retired cat-burglar who attempts to redeem his character by catching a jewel thief who preys on vulnerable visitors to the French Riviera.
In his 2014 memoir “Red Notice,” the banker and financier Bill Browder recounted visiting Edmond Safra at the Villa Leopolda with billionaire Beny Steinmetz.
Riviera view through the main portal of Villa La Leopolda | ©Ullstein Bild via Getty Images