The Meaning of Monaco
When one's trust fund implodes, there's no better place to run than a gathering of the still-rich in Monte Carlo.
My small but helpful trust fund lost 40 percent all at once, and then another 20 percent, leaving me, practically speaking, destitute. I suddenly needed something more than an Internet writing job (Internet writers need trust funds) at the exact moment when there were no jobs. Either that or a man of means.
Part of the beauty of a trust fund has been the freedom to avoid such a man, those incredibly rich but invariably dull hedge funders and private equity guys, bean counters and bureaucrats, so available in New York and urged on all single girls. But now not only did I not have a meaningful trust; there was no longer a surplus of boring young men with instant fortunes and tedious hours at Blackstone or Goldman or Morgan Stanley.
That is how I recently found myself in Monaco, "a sunny place for shady people," as Somerset Maugham described it.
His Serene Highness Prince Albert was hosting a conference, meant to attract investors to the principality, to which my friend Ian—a much too earnest and, I detected, slightly panicked money manager—had been invited. Understanding my situation (he had urged me to sell the WaMu shares that made up the last 40 percent of my holdings), he proposed that I come along as his factotum and keep careful notes on every detail of every conversation so that he could follow up knowledgably. "This is an incredibly important group of people," said Ian.
"In what way?"
"They still have money."
Monaco is best remembered as it was portrayed in To Catch a Thief, one of my favorite movies, in which a languorous Cary Grant lives an idyllic life with the spoils of his former career as a cat burglar and in which Monte Carlo is a place of scenic and treacherous roads overlooking the Mediterranean. When Grace Kelly's husband Prince Rainier (whose mother really did run off with a jewel thief) came to power in 1949, the state coffers were empty because the casinos, which then brought in 95 percent of the national revenue, had been abandoned by the clients hit hard by World War II. It was Rainier, aided by Aristotle Onassis' aggressive backing, who rebuilt the economy by promoting Monaco as a tax sanctuary and, otherwise, a safe and hospitable place for the wealthy. It reached its height of glamour in the 1960s, when, in the fond recollection of Taki, the chronicler of wealth's true hierarchies, Monaco was "not only Russian- and vulgarian-free … but also looking like Ruritania-sur-mer rather than Las Vegas-on-the-sea."
During the age of international deregulation and liquidity and great public fortunes that began in the 1980s and continued for two decades, Monaco's reputation suffered. As the world became rich, Monaco chic-ness and élan fell on hard times—it became, at best, a mail drop and, at worst, with its teetotal sheiks, a kind of Riyadh on the Riviera (as boring as the desert one). Along with its glut of bad condo developments, the two signpost events of its decline have been the death of Princess Grace in 1982 and the death of banker Edmond Safra in an arsonist's fire in 1999. The latter was an event so unappealing and macabre that, after many efforts to imbue Safra's death with a note of mystery and glamour, Dominick Dunne was banned from writing about it in Vanity Fair. Nobody was interested.
The conference, attended by a few hundred men in Brioni suits, was held in one of the prince's hotels. (He owns the choicest ones in Monaco.) He arrived midway through the first night's buffet dinner. Albert II is 50 and never married, though he has at least two illegitimate children. Albert and his sisters Stephanie and Caroline are "train wrecks with very good handlers," said Ian, meaning it as a kind of compliment.
Victoria Floethe is a freelance writer in New York City.
Photograph of Prince Albert II of Monaco by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images.