The Artist who came to Dinner and never Left


santo sospir signBy Margo Lestz

What would you do if you invited someone to spend a week at your holiday home and he decided to redecorate it and then he decided to stay – indefinitely?  Francine Weisweiller was thrilled.

In 1950, when Francine met Jean, she was a 34 year old Parisian socialite bored with her bourgeois lifestyle. Jean Cocteau was a 61 year old artist and writer overseeing the making of a film based on one of his books, “Les Enfants Terribles”. When they were introduced by Francine’s cousin, who was an actress in the film, a friendship immediately bloomed between them.

When Cocteau’s movie was finished, Francine invited him and his 25 year old companion/adopted son, Edouard Dermit, to spend a week at her holiday home on the French Riviera. It was in the village of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat which had once been known as Cap-Saint-Sospir after a sixth century monk who had lived in the area. Francine adopted the name and her villa became Villa Santo Sospir.

santo sospir living room cocteau

It started with one drawing
After just a few days of rest and relaxation at Santo Sospir, Cocteau was ready for another project. Since most of the walls in Francine’s newly acquired villa were bare and white, they reminded him of giant canvases and they called out to him to decorate them. He asked Francine if he could make a charcoal design over the fireplace, she immediately agreed and a drawing of Apollo, the sun god appeared.

mosiac at Santo Sospir by Cocteau

One of the mosiacs by Cocteau

He just couldn’t stop
Cocteau decided that Apollo needed to be flanked by two priests, one on each side. Then he took the advice of Matisse who said that if you decorate one wall of a room, you have to do the others. So he did all the walls in the living room. Then he did the doors. Of course the doors led into other rooms and the decorated doors made those walls look bare so he had to draw on them as well. And so it continued for six months all through the house.

The tattooed villa
To Cocteau the walls were like the skin of a person and he didn’t want to dress it but to tattoo it. And this villa got a full body tattoo. He worked his way around the house covering every wall with his art. He didn’t move the furniture, he simply drew around it or, in some cases, over it, making it part of the design. He did the entire house without sketches, drawing directly on the walls. First he drew his designs in charcoal. Then he used coloured pigments mixed with raw milk to make a tempera to highlight his lines.

santo sospir cocteau

Most of the designs are inspired by Greek mythology with a little nod to local culture and the sea. For example, The Apollo over the fireplace has eyes designed as fish and the priests on each side are represented by Villefranche fishermen, wearing traditional hats and carrying their nets. You’ll also see representations of sea creatures and fougasse (a local bread) scattered along the walls.

Cocteau left only one wall “tattooless”. The dining room wall is covered by a tapestry representing the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes. And it was designed by, who else but, Jean Cocteau. He had it made as a gift for Francine. His one week holiday had turned into a six month decorating frenzy. But even when all the walls were covered with his tattoos, Cocteau still didn’t leave. He found more decorating to do. He designed two mosaics at the entry of the house and decided that the tattooed walls made the ceilings look bare so he had to do all the ceilings. He came for seven days and stayed almost eleven years.

armoir at Santo Sospir by Cocteau

One big happy family
It was an unconventional household, but they formed a seemingly happy family unit consisting of: Cocteau, the genius in residence in his sixties; Francine, his adoring friend and patron in her thirties; Edouard, Cocteau’s companion and adopted son in his twenties; and Carol, the young daughter of Francine, who was seven when Cocteau arrived. Carol lived in Paris with her father where she was raised mostly by nannies. But she counted the holiday time spent at Santo Sospir as her real family time. She adored Cocteau and looked at him as a friend and second father. At Santo Sospir, this little blended family painted, read and entertained other famous artists and actors, that is, when they weren’t travelling around on Francine’s yacht.

Santo Sospir by Cocteau

Cocteau’s one week stay ended 11 years later when he and Francine had differing opinions about her new boyfriend. Fortunately for Francine, she liked Cocteau and his art (because she had to live with both for a long time). But let this be a lesson to anyone who might be thinking of inviting an artist for a visit. Be sure to check their portfolio first!

Saint Sospir, Santo Sospir, Cocteau

Saint Sospir, the monk – the villa’s namesake

How to visit
The villa is now owned by Carol Weisweiller and classed as a historic monument. Tours are by reservation only. See the website for prices and contact information:

Other Cocteau sites in the area
The Chapel St. Pierre in Villefranche-sur-mer is the tiny but beautiful chapel of the fishermen of Villefranche. Cocteau decorated the inside and the outside. See this site for visit information.
In Menton you will find several Cocteau sites, including the Marriage Hall (salle de marriage), the new Cocteau museum and an older smaller Cocteau museum, the Bastion. See the Menton tourism site for information.

You might also like:Margo Curious Rambler Signature

Follow this blog

Pierre the Patriot


Tearing down the Bastille

By Margo Lestz

I just recently had two birthdays: My “real” birthday on the 4th of July and my “adopted” birthday on the 14th. When I lived in the US, I liked the fact that the whole country celebrated my birthday with fireworks. I miss that. But since the French also fill the sky with fireworks to celebrate their National holiday and it comes only ten days later, I just claim that as my birthday too. Now if I could just work out how to get two cakes and two gifts… Anyway, today’s story has to do with events that took place on the 14th of July, but long before I was born.     Continue Reading »

French Jazz Fans outsmart Hitler

Statue of Miles Davis by Niki de Saint Phalle in front of the Negresco hotel in Nice
Miles Davis statue – Negresco hotel in Nice.  Photo by Margo Lestz

By Margo Lestz

France has a special place in its heart for jazz and in the summer, you’ll find jazz festivals all over the country. In fact, the world’s first international jazz festival was held in Nice, France in 1948. But France’s relationship with this music started some 30 years earlier during the World War I and developed under some interesting circumstances during the Nazi Occupation of World War II.     Continue Reading »

The Murphys, American Trendsetters on the Riviera

French Riviera beach, Nice France

The beach in Nice, France in the summer. Photo: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images

By Margo Lestz

If you visit the French Riviera in July or August, you might have trouble finding an open space on the beach to put your towel. It’s hard to imagine that up until the 1920s there were no summer tourists here, no hotels were open, and there was certainly no one swimming in the sea.      Continue Reading »

Marketing in Old Town Nice: Cours Saleya and More

1 Comment


Cours Saleya market, Nice FranceBy Margo Lestz

Cours Saleya is the heart of Old Town Nice and it’s always pulsating with life. Striped awnings cover its centre and shelter the products on offer in the daily market. Crowds of locals and tourists come here to do their shopping or sometimes just to look and snap photos of the colourful displays. The scents of fresh produce and flowers seem to put everyone in a good mood and the atmosphere is friendly.  Continue Reading »

Blockhead Building gets a Thumbs Up



blockhead building, nice france, tête carrée,

By Margo Lestz

I have to say that normally I’m not a fan of modern architecture. I prefer the grand old buildings from the Belle Époque, and Art Nouveau just sets my heart aflutter. But there are a few modern structures that I really appreciate and one of them is in Nice, France. I lovingly call it the “blockhead building” but officially it’s known as la tête carrée, or “the square head”. Continue Reading »

Learning Spanish


SpainBy Margo Lestz

I recently spent two weeks in Salamanca, Spain taking a beginner Spanish language class. You might wonder why I would do that since I am already studying two foreign languages (French and Italian). I was wondering the same thing myself just before the trip. My friend, Cathy, has been saying, for a few years now, that she would love to go to Spain to take a Spanish course. So I thought it would be fun to go together and have a “girls’ holiday”… Then after the reservations were made, I realised that this might entail sitting in a class and studying grammar. My enthusiasm waned, but I was committed. Continue Reading »

French Expressions pop up in the Park


Parc Phoenix, Nice, France

By Margo Lestz

We’ve had a home in Nice, France for six years now and for six years we’ve been meaning to go to Parc Phoenix. But something always came up and we just never made it. Now we can finally say that we went, we saw, and we loved it!  It’s a beautiful park with lots of plants, small animals and an aquarium. It would make a great day out with children.

Today, I thought I would share some animal and plant related French sayings and use photos from our day in the park to illustrate them .    Continue Reading »

Tooth Fairy vs Little Tooth Mouse


tooth fairy vs the little mouse

By Margo Lestz

A few weeks ago, I found out that the Easter Bunny doesn’t come to France. And now, I discover that he’s not the only folkloric childhood character who doesn’t come here. His cousin, the tooth fairy, doesn’t visit France either.    Continue Reading »

May First and the Spirit of Labor Day


By Margo Lestzmay day, more chocolate, spirit of labor day

In many countries, May 1st is the International Day of Workers, or Labor Day. It actually started in 1886 in Chicago, with workers lobbying for a 5 day / 40 hour work week – instead of the 6 day / 60 hour one that existed at the time. The US has since changed their Labor Day to September, but in much of Europe it’s still celebrated on the original date of May 1st.

Continue Reading »

American Easter Bunny vs French Easter Bell


By Margo LestzEaster bunny vs Easter bell

As an American living in France, I learned a long time ago that the two cultures have different ideas about many (if not most) things. Still, I was surprised to discover that there was no Easter Bunny in France. But fear not, the French have come up with another method to distribute those Easter eggs to their children. Continue Reading »

Celebrating the Gourd in Nice, France


Celebrating the Gourd, nice, france, gourd festivalBy Margo Lestz

Nice is a French city, of course, but it also has a strong and proud culture all its own. It was Niçois long before it was French and the people work hard to keep their Niçois traditions alive. It has its own language, anthem, traditional costumes, dances, songs, and food. The language is taught in schools and there are dance groups that perform at many events throughout the year. These associations ensure that the traditions are passed from generation to generation. And the calendar is dotted with several events each year that are typically Niçois. Continue Reading »

April Fool or April Fish?


April fool or april fish

By Margo Lestz

In many countries, the first day of April is a day to play harmless jokes on family and friends. This usually consists of telling a farfetched story in such a way that it sounds like it could be true. When the other person falls for our joke, we exclaim, “April fool!” and have a laugh. In France, they play the same sort of jokes, but instead of saying “April fool!” they say, “poisson d’avril!” which translates into “April fish!”. One of the favourite “April fish” jokes among French children is to tape a paper fish to someone’s back without them knowing it. Continue Reading »

Madame Liberté

statue of liberty with baguette

Lady Liberty showing her Frenchness.
Might this have been Bartholdi’s original design ?

By Margo Lestz

The Statue of Liberty is one of the most recognised symbols of the United States.  But did you know that Lady Liberty is an immigrant?  It’s true, she’s a French woman by birth who has made New York her home.  (No wonder she’s so elegant.)

Continue Reading »

Carnival Time in Venice, Italy


Venice carnival

By Margo Lestz

Carnival celebrations take place around the world, but when we think of elegant masks and beautiful costumes, we think of Venice.  So this year my husband and I decided to go and see for ourselves what the Venice Carnival was like.  We weren’t disappointed. Continue Reading »

It Pays to be Polite in France

Nice, France café - being rude is costly
“A cup of coffee” – € 7.00
“A cup of coffee, please – € 4.25
Hello, a cup of coffee, please – € 1.40

By Margo Lestz

At this café in Nice, France, minding your manners can significantly reduce the price of your coffee.

Of course, this was meant as a humorous way to remind customers to be polite, but it’s a great illustration of the French attitude toward good manners.  Continue Reading »

Three Russian Tsarinas leave their mark on Nice, France


Cathedral, Church, Nice, France, Empress, Tsarina Maria

By Margo Lestz

If you weren’t able to make it to Russia for the Winter Olympics, how about a trip to Nice, France?  I know it’s not quite the same, but it’s warmer and you can see a lovely Russian cathedral.  Nice has had a strong Russian community since the mid 1800s when the Russian nobles would spend their winters here mingling with the rest of Europe’s high society.  The Tsars tended to stay home and run the country, but the more delicate Tsarinas would pass their winters in the Riviera sunshine.  In Nice, a church, a chapel, and a cathedral remind us of three generations of Tsarinas who made this their winter home. Continue Reading »

Menton, France celebrates the Lemon


Menton France lemon festival, fête du citronBy Margo Lestz

They say when life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade.  But what if you are a town on the French Riviera and life gives you extraordinarily delicious lemons? You sell them at high prices, of course!  Then you buy truck loads of cheaper ones from Spain and have a big festival.  Well, that’s what the city of Menton does anyway. Every year at carnival time, this small coastal city, just down the road from Nice, holds a Lemon Festival called La Fête du Citron. Continue Reading »

Carnival Kings, Silly Strings, and Blooming Things

nice carnaval yellow face

Photo courtesy of Rose-Marie Morro©

In Nice, France we are preparing for the carnival and that means another royal visit.  Every year in February, a different king comes to town to celebrate the carnival with us and participate in the parade on his own special float.  But it wasn’t always this way… Continue Reading »

Nice, France: Her Relationship with Italy and how she became French


Old Town Nice France

By Margo Lestz

Normally, I write about the city of Nice, but in this article, when I mention Nice, I am speaking of the historic “County of Nice” which was roughly equivalent to what we now call the Alpes-Maritimes.

When you look around the old towns in this region, you will notice that the architecture looks very Italian.  Since this area is close to the Italian border and since it has only been part of France since 1860, you might reason that it must have been Italian before becoming French.  But was it?

Italian? Never! … Well, sort of… Continue Reading »

The King Cake holds a Surprise


king cake, galette des roisBy Margo Lestz

While eating his cake, Jeff pulled out a small white tile, the kind that might be found on a kitchen wall.  He marched up to the counter and indignantly informed the server that they had baked a tile into his cake.  She broke into a big smile and said, “Oh, you found the prize!  You are the winner!”  Continue Reading »

Truffle hunting in Provence

Truffle hunter w dogs

A sophisticated looking truffle hunter with dogs that look very much like the our little sniffers

By Margo Lestz

Our wedding anniversary was approaching and when Jeff asked what I wanted, I didn’t hesitate, “I want to go truffle hunting!”

Looking a bit puzzled, but always the good sport, he said, “Ok…that could be interesting…but what exactly is a truffle and how do you hunt one?” Continue Reading »

Thirteen Desserts? That’s my kind of Meal!


children in front of fire with foodBy Margo Lestz

Christmas time in Provence and the south of France is full of traditions and, as with most good traditions, food is usually involved.

Miniature wheat fieldsChristmas wheat grass
Preparations for the Christmas holiday meals begin on the 4th of December, St. Barbara’s day, with the planting of wheat (in the kitchen, that is).  Continue Reading »

A Girl called Fanny that no one wants to Kiss

santon fanny from side

The “santon” figurine of Fanny
Produced by Santons Magali, Aubagne

By Margo Lestz

Recently, when I was at the Christmas “santon” fairs looking at all of the little figures that make up the Nativity scenes in southern France, there was one that puzzled me.  Continue Reading »

The Little Saints of Provence

Santons: Pizza maker, chef and diners

Santons: Pizza maker, chef and diners
From the crèche in the window of Maison Auer, Nice France

By Margo Lestz

In many parts of the world, Nativity scenes make up a part of the Christmas decoration but in Provence, they are taken to the extreme.  The traditional Biblical figures are only a small part of these sprawling displays.  Here, the whole town turns out for the Nativity.  You will see the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker and every other profession that is practiced in a southern French village. Continue Reading »