Every August, Deauville becomes one of the most important cities in Europe, as Deauville Polo Club, founded in 1907, attracts thousands of sporting fans. Over the years, thanks to the influence of founders Barón Robert de Rothschild, Captain Joubert, and the club’s first President, the Duke of Gramont, the club welcomed the most important members of European aristocracy. King Alfonso XIII of Spain, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Sir Winston Churchill, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Porfirio Rubirosa, are only some of the illustrious figures who graced the fields at Deauville, alongside the most important polo professionals in the world at the time.
Polo at the club is complimented by action at the splendid Le Touques racecourse—the racetracks surround the polo fields—making Deauville the equestrian capital of France. But of course, Deauville, located in the province of Calvados, on the Normandy coast, a city which dates back to the Middle Ages (circa 1060), not only shines through horses and polo, and the prestigious Coupe d’Or, which has been played from 1950 onwards. The city is also particularly relevant and noteworthy in terms of history, art, fashion, and culture, topics which are certainly worth exploring further.
1860 – ELITE TOURIST DESTINATION
In the second half of the nineteenth century, Deauville became a popular tourist destination among the upper class and aristocracy. At the time, Emperor Napoleon II had begun visiting the city, bringing his royal court with him. Luxury hotels, houses and palaces soon followed, as did the necessary infrastructure to host these elite members of society, who were looking for a place near the coast to enjoy the health benefits of fresh sea air.
1913 – THE CONSECRATION OF MADEMOISELLE
In 1909, French socialite and heir Étienne Balsan, born into the family of wealthy industrialists from Châteauroux, noticed Gabrielle Chanel in Notre Dame school, in Moulins. The young Coco, as she was known, was gifted at sewing and working with textiles. Etienne, who would later become her lover and protector, invited her to live at his castle in Royallieu, a former abbey in Compiègne where he kept a racing stable. Later, they moved to París, where he payed for her to have a small hat shop in the city. Through Etienne, Coco met several members of the British aristocracy, particularly Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel. Boy, who in 1912 became a director at Deauville Polo Club, was Coco’s great love, and later financed Maison Chanel, on rue Cambon, in Paris.
Alongside Boy, Coco travelled to Deauville in 1913, and opened her first boutique, a place that was popular with the stylish ladies of the aristocracy, those who frequented the polo grounds and the racing at Deauville. They were fascinated by Chanel’s revolutionary designs, and original hats and dresses. It was in Deauville where her brand took off, and the inimitable, eternal style of Chanel found its voice.Today it is still one of the most relevant brands in fashion.
1914 – A MASTERPIECE
Locked up in his Parisian apartment on rue Haussmann, in a room covered with cork paneling to drown out the exterior noice, Marcel Proust wrote one of his literary masterpieces. While undergoing treatment for asthma, he wrote À la recherche du temps perdu [In Search of Lost Time], a seven volume novel.
Up until 1914, Proust spent his holidays in Cabourg—located in Lower Normandy, almost 23 km from Deauville—a city that heavily influenced the stories in his writing. Cabourg is referenced numerous times in the novel, under the name Balbec.
His loyal housekeeper, Céleste Albaret, accompanied him on his last trip to Cabourg after another asthma attack. It was on his return to the city that he confessed that he would never go back. Albaret explains this in her memoir, Monsieur Proust: “‘My dear Céleste, there’s something I must tell you, I’ve just been to Caborg with you, but that is all over. I shan’t ever go again, to Caborg or anywhere else. The soldiers do their duty, and since I can’t fight as they do, it is my duty to write my book, do my work. I haven’t the time for anything else.’ And that same night, in September 1914, when he voluntarily locked himself in and began his life as a recluse… dedicated to his work, I… locked myself in, too, without suspecting for a moment that it would be that way until the end.”
Cabourg now has a museum dedicated to Proust, known as the Cabourg Balbec, honouring both the novel and the writer.
1921 – THE PROMENADE & MOVIE STARS
From fashion and literature, to film and movie stars. Deauville has always been a city chosen by Hollywood actors, and they are honoured on the Promenade des Planches. This coastal boulevard is 643 meters long, and was designed in 1921 by French architect Charles Adda. The promenade is created using wood from Madagascar, and it is flanked by cabins which are named after the most recognised film stars, on both a national and international level. The art deco style is highlighted by concrete and mosaic Pompeian baths.
In 1966, Les Planches became an emblem of the seventh art after it was featured in Charles Lelouch’s Un homme et une femme. In 1975, the Deauville American Film Festival was founded; the event is still held every September, and the most renown movie stars to flock to Deauville to attend.
1944 – OPERATION OVERLORD
Every season, the horses at Deauville are ridden on the sands of the city’s dreamy beaches. Those same beaches once witnessed one of the most important events in history—D-Day, also known as Operation Overlord—where the Allied operation launched the successful invasion of German-occupied Western Europe during World War II.
The bold military operation was launched on June 6, 1944, on the coast of Normandy, northwestern France, with the Americans assigned to land at sectors codenamed Utah and Omaha, the British at Sword and Gold, and the Canadians at Juno. The legacy of D-Day resonates through history: it was the largest military naval, air and land operation ever attempted, and marked the start of the campaign to liberate Nazi-occupied north-west Europe. Deauville was one of the cities that suffered the most damage during the terrible occupation.
Argentine writer Victoria Ocampo, who visited Deauville in 1946 during a trip to war-torn Europe, remembered what she saw on those beaches: “I saw the battlefields near Falaise, Argentan, Secqueville… On the way, we found two cemeteries full of white crosses…. On either side of the road…abandoned, upturned tanks. …Carlingas, aeroplane wings, military cars…. The bodies of machines… are witnesses to the crisis of this drought. A drought of love, of kindness, of brotherhood.”
1951 – THE ARRIVAL OF THE PLAYBOYS
No aristocratic holiday destination can be complete without a playboy, and Deauville sure had its own. In the 1950s, every August, the city welcomed the ultimate playboy of the time, both on and off the field: the Dominican sporting diplomat Porfirio Rubirosa.
Those who knew ‘Rubi’, as he was referred to by his friends, agreed that he was blessed with good looks, athleticism, and irresistible charm. The exception to the rule was the Hollywood beauty Zsa Zsa Gabor, who ‘dared’ deny Rubi’s advances.
Rubirosa was also a very good amateur polo player, making it to 5-goals. In 1951, Rubirosa, with his team, Cibao La Pampa, won the second Coupe d’Or in history. The lineup included his friend Charly Menditeguy, another charmer and gifted athlete, who reached 10-goals. Menditeguy was a fundamental part of El Trébol, the team that dominated polo in Argentina until the mid-1940s.
Of course, the memory of the great playboy Rubirosa was recalled a couple of years ago, when Cibao La Pampa made a comeback to polo in 2017, winning the Coupe d’Argent and the Coupe d’Or.