The fascination of Venice made the nearby beach resort of the Lido a natural extension of its attractions in the summer. Although it was popular from the turn of the century it suddenly became ultra-fashionable in the mid 1920s and world renowned as the ‘Pajama Beach’.
The Lido is a 12km long (7.5 miles) sandbar that separates the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. Its name comes from “Litus” meaning both shore and entrance harbor. It did not feature much in the history of Venice but was a crucial part of the lagoon system that protected it and was a useful place to anchor ships. As we all know, through history, Venice has always been a magnet for a certain type of cultured and fashionable traveler and in the early 19th century, Byron and Shelley found the flat strip of land that was the Lido and used to ride together along the beach. However, it was not until bathing in the sea became a fashionable pastime in the mid-19th century that the Lido began to be utilised more extensively and in 1857 the first bathing facility was set up and after the turn of the century it became one of the most fashionable beach resorts in the world giving its name to the generic modern term for a beach or bathing place.
The great hotel building phase on the Lido seemingly started after 1900 with the construction of the Grand Hotel Des Bains followed by the Ausonia (later named the Hungaria Palace Hotel) built in 1905. In March 1906 Count Giuseppe Volpi founded the well-known chain of hotels called Compagnia Italiana Grandi Alberghi or CIGA for short (Italian Grand Hotels Company) by acquiring the Venice Hotel Limited with five hotels in Venice: the Hotel Royal Danieli, the Grand Hotel, the Roma and Suisse, the Vittoria and the Beau Rivage. Volpi decided to exploit the literary myth of the Lido and its position near Venice and with the architect Nicolò Spada, built the extravagant and luxurious Excelsior Hotel that opened in mid 1908 and transformed the Lido into an even more desirable location.
Before the war more Germans than anyone else were attracted to the Lido although all of Europe began to fall in love with it. The growing railway network across Europe enabled easier access and the Rome Express connected Paris with Venice. Cultured, well-to-do members of British society also succumbed to its spell and Diana Cooper and her circle of friends who travelled extensively especially favoured Venice and the Lido as it ‘provided the apotheosis of these festive years.’
The First World War effectively ended these ‘festive’ years and the CIGA must have suffered considerably. But, after the armistice business resumed and a new era dawned. It was the new Managing Director of CIGA Alfredo Campione who pulled the de luxe chain out of the hole after the War and later, in the early 1920s, managed to pay a 5% dividend when most of the world’s hotels were lucky to pay taxes. By the mid 1920s the chain comprised hotels in Rome (Excelsior and Grand), Naples (Excelsior), Venice (Royal Danieli, Grand, Regina and Vittoria), Lido (Excelsior, Grand Hotel des Bains, Grand Hotel and Villa Regina), Stresa (Grand Hotel and Des Iles Borromees), Genoe (Bristol, Palace and Savoy Majestic), Palermo (Grand Hotel and des Palmes and the Excelsior) and Rhodes (Grand Hotel des Roses).
Of great significance was the opening of the Simplon Orient Express in April 1919 in addition to the Orient Express, using the southerly route from Paris (Gare de Lyon) to Lausanne, Milan, Venice, Trieste, Belgrade, and (from 1920 onwards) Istanbul. The journey time to Venice was 32 hours but in luxurious surroundings and with the benefit of sleeping cars and a restaurant.
The season was usually from May – September, and although the Excelsior Hotel was the premier location there were many other excellent places to stay. Another first class hotel was the Grand Hotel des Bains also facing the Adriatic with 600 rooms, a restaurant, café, bar, park, terrace and tennis court. Other hotels included the Hungaria Palace Hotel (formerly Ausonia built in 1905 and inland on the main road linking the Venetian lagoon and the Adriatic shore), the Grand Hotel Lido (situated on the Venetian lagoon side), Alb Grande Italia, Hotel Wagner and Parasiso, Hotel Pension Riviera, Hotel Villa Regina, Hotel Eden, Hotel Dardanelli and the Hotel Della Spiaggia.
Although it was easy to walk everywhere along the broad avenues lined with trees that provided good shade, there was a superb tram system with three lines starting at the landing port-stage of Santa Maria Elisabetta. The first to the Grande Stabilimento Bagni and then onto Excelsior Hotel, the second along the side of the lagoon via Malamocco to the Excelsior and the third from Grande Stabilimento Bagni to the Ospizio Marino (marine hospital) and then the Bagni Populari.
One of the main centres of entertainment was the Kurcasino that was connected with the Grande Stabilimento Bagni, the principal bath establishment at the west end of the Gran Viale S. Maria Elisabetta. This contained a large first class restaurant with daily concerts and film presentations in the open air on the terrace. However, the Lido was no public bathing resort. It was a very private bathing resort. Its two miles of beaches were punctuated every hundred yards by fences of barbed wire creating sections of private bathing beaches. Some were attached to Venetian or other Italian clubs and were for use by members only. Others were attached to the hotels and for guests only.
The Lido quickly found international favour and there were numerous reasons for this. Firstly, it was a superb location, the weather in the summer perfect and Venice was close. It was also part of a huge desire by many to have fun after the war and a general boom in enjoying seaside resorts. With prohibition in operation in the USA and the cost of living much lower in Europe, thousands of Americans crossed the Atlantic to take advantage of all the wonderful sights of Europe. One reason for its popularity among Americans was that Italy was more affordable than any place on the continent and much less than London and Paris. The Lido was not cheap but apparently you got more for your money.
As the years rolled by, many well to do people began to feel that the Northern French resorts such as Deauville were becoming vulgar and as a result the Lido became more palatable. Indeed it was sometimes described as the Deauville of Italy. It also became the new mecca for the Beau Monde – the younger, more fashionable set who loved the fantasy setting where frivolity prevailed and wild hedonism prevailed.
The international press became fascinated with the Lido, particularly because of the unusual trend that emerged there in the early 1920s of wearing pajamas during the day. It became such a hot topic that the Lido became known as the Pajama Beach. Who started this fad is not known but Syrie Maugham, wife of writer Somerset Maugham, the noted interior decorator who popularized the all-white room in the 1920s, was often regarded as setting the new beach fashion with her astonishing pyjamas and high, high heels. Equally, Mrs Lydig Hoyt was hailed as another Pajama Queen.
Alfredo Campione of the CIGA clearly promoted the Lido and his individual hotels, particularly the Excelsior, along with help from other local notables. He also staged a range of events through the season and was responsible, for example, for putting the cabaret in the Exclesior hotel (called Chez Vous) on the map and attracting international entertainers. The two women who helped most to turn the Lido into an international summer resort were the red-headed Countess Nina Morosini, the vixenish friend of the Kaiser who ruled the roost of the old Venetian aristocractic society and Princess di San Faustino, American-born Jane Campbell, who held court among the Italians like a Medici at the Lido. She was a described as a perfectly charming woman but when it was called for she could be so nasty that she could frighten people to death. Allegedly, the regal Countess at first loathed the Lido, while the livelier Princess championed it but within time the Countess also came to see its social importance. The Hotel Excelsior was where the Princess, an imposing figure with white hair and a long flowing white dress presided. Each year she organised an annual benefit gala for tubercular children of Italy by staging amateur entertainment in the ballroom of the Excelsior Hotel. The charity event was always one of the highlights of the season and raised considerable sums of money for a good cause.
Lastly, there was the influence of key international figures, namely Cole Porter and the ebullient party organiser Elsa Maxwell, who helped popularise the resort especially to the American and British elite. Sadly, the myth that Elsa Maxwell single-handedly made the Lido still endures. Elsa believed this herself and was fond of making sure other people believed it too. So much so that Fortune magazine in the early 1930s devoted an entire issue to Italy and wrote ‘something happened to the lido that changed it from a pleasantly smart Adriatic Beach to the place – magnet for the celebrities of two continents, perhaps the best known beach in all the world… just what that something was remains an argument. Some say it was nothing more complicated than the world boom, some say Fascism. And some insist it was just plain Elsa Maxwell.’ Elsa also liked to take credit for reconciling the two factions of the Countess and the Princess and suggested that the events she staged in the Lido were so prestigious that the Countess and her entourage felt they could not miss them. One must not forget that it was not just Elsa organising parties, events and galas.
Elsa Maxwell’s first party was staged in the Summer 1921 for Queen Marie of Romania which was an alfresco dinner affair on the beach at the Lido. A grand piano was moved outdoors so that the American classic pianist George Copeland could play Debussy’s Claire de Lune as the moon rose over the Adriatic. In 1922 Elsa and her companion Dorothy Fellowes-Gordon (Dickie) took Noel Coward to the Lido where she arranged a party for His Royal Highness the Duke of Spoleto.
In the Summer of 1923 Cole Porter and his wife rented the 14th century Palazzo Barbaro in Venice and began entertaining on a grand scale in Venice and the Lido. The following summer they rented the Palazzo Papadopolim a 16th century palace and continued their extravagant party-giving. In the summer of 1926 they rented the most majestic of Venetian Palazzi – the Palazzo Rezzonico and if we are to believe press reports the gorgeousness of their entertainments vied with the historical fetes of the Doges. One of their more spectacular balls was the legendary red and white ball where gondolieri in red and white costumes guided tguests into the Palazzo Rezzonico and onto the dance floor. With the help of three titled Italian aristocrats, one of their more bizarre ideas was to take over an ornately domed barge originally owned by the Excelsior Hotel and transform into an evening rendezvous illuminated brightly and moored out in the lagoon. A negro jazz orchestra headed by Leslie Hutchinson was brought from Paris to play. It was designed as an exclusive club for only 150 people but ‘The ‘Arca di Noe’ made only one journey. The band was retained throughout the summer to play at other parties and Porter also asked Bricktop, the legendary black performer to come and join the party.
Noel Coward was a visitor that summer and believed that the sunny sands of the Adriatic close to Venice were peppered with the best people. ‘The wealthy, exclusive nucleus of cosmopolitan self designated ‘sheik set’ migrate with a slightly un-called for air of superiority from Venice to the exclusive Excelsior Hotel on the lido. Here for long days on end the placid shallows of the Adriatic are peppered with bobbing and gesticulating figures.’ Celebrities in evidence included Lady Duff Cooper and her husband, Baroness D’Erlanger, Lady Comebroke, Lady Cunard, Lord Berners, Mrs Harriman Russell, Serge Diaghileff, Serge Lifar, Suzanne Leglen, Prince Frederick Leopold of Prussia, Baroness d’Erlanger, Baroness Gunzburg, Lady Wimborne, Billy Reardon, Lord and Lady Northesk, Peggy Joyce, Florence Walton, Grace Fisher, Mary Corday, Dora Duby, Contessa Frasso and Marchesa Sonuni-Picciardo, Tallulah Bankhead, Oliver Messel and Elsie de Wolfe.
The Lido offered two kinds of bathing – the sea and the sun and people came to unwind and relax. ‘People do not come here for excitement, They come here to wallow in the uneventful – at least by day.’ It is a place to enjoy a lazy carefree life. ‘It is essentially a lazy man’s paradise. And unless you are able to do nothing – and do it very well – there is no reason for remaining here.’
The almost tropical sun came up as regularly as the dawn and shone from a cloudless sky without interruption. The day started late. After some late breakfast everyone headed for the beach where by the mid 1920s sunbathing had become an excepted norm. ‘You lie on the velvety yellow sand bronzing in the sunshine. You rise and walk through a creaming surf into a blue sea.. you come out on to the sand and are dry again almost before you lie down. Nothing matters except to remember when you have bronzed nicely and evenly on one side to turn over and give the other side a chance.’ After a swim, a refreshing drink and a light lunch, some took a walk perhaps to one of the piers for a view of the Lido in panorama to observe the two miles of private beaches, bathing cabins, terraces and tennis courts, the vast hotels and clubs behind them and the open sea in front. Many simply returned to the fun and frolics on the beach followed by playing backgammon or bridg before cocktails, dinner, dancing and cabaret.
Exotic beach wear was essential and all a lady required for a season at the Lido was a collection of brilliantly coloured pajamas or kimonos that replaced the usual sports suits and other afternoon frocks, a few bathing suits and a few evening dresses. It became an accepted fact that ‘The Less You Wore The More Fashionable You Were’ and the fear of appearing in public practically in the nude lost its terror. ‘For at the Lido one can roll out of bed and stroll directly into a fashionable restaurant for breakfast clad only in one’s pajamas with attracting the slightest notice. For the duration of their stay at the lido American and European tourists have reduced clothing to the nothingness of that of South Sea islanders.’
Such was the attraction of the Lido that various nightclubs opened in New York, Miami, London and Paris using the name and trying to capture the allure of the resort. The Lido–Venice club (53rd Street) and the Lido club (52nd Street and 7th avenue) were opened in New York in mid 1924 and a Club Lido in Miami in early 1927. When the Lido Club opened in Newman Street in London in October 1926 its walls had freizes and frescoes representing scenes of the Lido, the Adriatic and Venice plus up to date panels of bathing beauties and sun bathers. A little later the musical play Lido Lady was launched in London which was big success. Finally, another Lido opened in Paris on the Champs Elysees in January 1928, a venue that still retains its name and worldwide fame.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
Take a look at the page about the Excelsior Hotel
New York Times, Vogue (UK), L’Officiel de la Mode, Eve, Variety
Venice Revisited by Sandra Harris
RSVP Elsa Maxwell’s Own Story
Cole Porter by William McBrien
Grieben’s Guide book to Venice and Lido (1929)
Noel Coward: A Biography by Philip Hoare
The Long Party by Stella Margetson
Bricktop by Brickstop
Diana Cooper by Philip Ziegler
Pleasure if Possible by Karl K. Kiichen