Graham Green, Our Man in Antibes
In Antibes, Graham Green is commemorated by a tiny plaque outside the rear entrance of the Résidence des Fleurs, the modest apartment block in which he lived his last 26 years. Greene, whose publications spanned a period of 67 years, lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor, lunching frugally at Chez Félix on the old port – ‘because’, he said, ‘Félix saves any wine that I leave in the bottle for my next visit’.
The plaque reads: Graham Greene lived here from 1966 to 1990. For the journalist and novelist who has been called the best British writer never to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and who had more of his works adapted into films than any other writer, it seems a modest tribute.
He made effective use of his low profile: it helped him to compartmentalise his twin careers – author and spy – and his voracious love life. Exotic settings from his travels for MI6 often featured as backdrops to his novels, from corrupt post-war Vienna in The Third Man to cloak-and-dagger Cuba in Our Man in Havana.
The motivator for his moving to the Riviera was the Inland Revenue Department. In an attempt to reduce his tax bills, he had become involved with a Brighton solicitor, Theodore Lowe, who specialised in relieving the famous of their wealth on the pretext of investing it in Swiss corporations. His client list included Charlie Chaplin, Noël Coward and Laurel and Hardy. Their money did in fact go to Switzerland, but it got no further than Lowe’s bank account.
Lowe’s shady operations came to light when Swiss police caught him with $100,000 in forged dollar bills, and the Revenue, reluctant to prosecute Greene (possibly for fear of revealing the secret tax-free payments from MI6), gave him until December 31st 1965 to leave the country.
Once in Antibes, he lost no time in rekindling a liaison with a married Frenchwoman, Yvonne Cloetta, whom he had met six years earlier. The relationship was to last until his death 24 years later.
A light sleeper, he used to complain about the nocturnal frolics on the terrace of Le Yacht, the bar directly beneath his apartment, but despite the noise he managed to publish seven more novels from there. He set a number of his works on the coast and captures its winter ambience in his Chagrin in Three Parts: It was February in Antibes. Gusts of rain blew along the ramparts, and the emaciated statues on the terrace of the Château Grimaldi dripped with wet […].
Another story set in Antibes was May We Borrow Your Husband? in which two homosexuals entice a honeymooning husband away from his young bride. Local actor-writer Dirk Bogarde wrote the screenplay and starred in the film. Monaco was the setting for his novel Loser Takes All, an allegorical tale about a middle-aged accountant who wins, then loses, a fortune at the Casino.
But Greene’s most notorious Riviera publication was a 33-page tract in French and English that he wrote in 1982. It was called J’Accuse, and begins explosively: Let me issue a warning to anyone who is tempted to settle for a simple life on what is called the Côte d’Azur. Avoid the region of Nice which is the preserve of some of the most criminal organisations in the south of France.
It was intended as a gesture of support for Yvonne Cloetta, whose daughter Martine was having marital problems. Convinced that Martine’s French husband had mafia connections, Greene borrowed the title from Zola’s historic defence of Dreyfus, and publicly accused him. It was a bold gesture for someone so secretive to knowingly turn the spotlight on himself.
It was also a futile one. Not for the first time in his literary career, he was sued for libel, and lost. The then mayor of Nice, Jacques Médecin, claiming that J’Accuse was a pun on his Provençal nickname, Jacquou, also threatened to sue. Greene later insisted that the book made enough in sales to more than cover his legal costs.
Despite threats on his life following J’Accuse, Greene remained in Antibes until he left in 1990 for hospital treatment in Switzerland. He never returned. He died there on April 3rd, 1991. At his graveside were Yvonne Cloetta and Martine, his daughter Lucy, and Vivien, his wife for the previous 63 years. Greene did not live to savour the sequel to J’Accuse: three years after his death, Jacques Médecin was convicted of fiscal fraud, and after serving a jail sentence in France, died in exile in Uruguay.