The meek shall inherit the Negresco

The eccentric owner of the Nice hotel has bequeathed it to a foundation for animals and the poor

John Lichfield
Wednesday 22 July 2009 00:00 BST

For almost a century, the Hotel Negresco in Nice has been the holiday destination of choice for film stars, millionaires, royalty and Soviet commissars. How many hotels can boast a metal chandelier designed by Gustav Eiffel? Or mink bedspreads in every room? Or a portrait of King Louis XIV, whose only counterparts are in the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles?

The octogenarian owner of the palatial, art-encrusted hotel, classified as a historic monument by the French state, has just re-written her will. On her death, the title deeds will be handed over to a charity which rescues homeless people and unwanted animals.

The Hotel Negresco, the 96-year-old queen of the Promenade des Anglais, is not going to become an animal shelter. Friendless animals and fundless humans will not be accommodated in its 141 bedrooms and suites which cost from €290 to €1,880 a night (£250 to £1,625). However, the ownership, and the profits of the hotel, have been bequeathed to a new foundation which is devoted to animals and the poor, created by the 86-year-old, animal-loving Negresco owner, Jeanne Augier.

Her motives are three-fold: To help the wretched, both man and beast; to keep together the staff of the last privately-owned luxury hotel in France; and to prevent the much sought-after Negresco from falling into the hands of an international hotel chain.

"I want to be sure, when I go, that my 260 colleagues are not sacrificed on the altar of profit," she said. "It is my house and the staff are my children. I have received dozens of offers from international hotel groups. Some of them were very attractive indeed. But I was not tempted and, at 86, nobody is going to change my mind. I want this hotel to keep its soul and remain French-owned. Everything here is authentic. Nothing is fake."

Mme Augier, a childless widow, has also bequeathed the rest of her property portfolio in Paris, Nice and Grasse (said to be worth more than €100m) to the Mesange-Augier-Negresco foundation.

One of the charity's missions will be to campaign for animal rights and, in particular, to attack what Mme Augier calls the "barbarous" practice of bull-fighting. There may seem to be a contradiction between animal rights and mink bedspreads but the luxury hotel business is the luxury hotel business and fur is not shunned in France.

Mme Augier, a tiny woman with a will of iron who lives in the top storey of the hotel, has been talking of crea-ting a foundation since the death of her lawyer husband, Paul Augier, in 1995. Now that the papers are signed, she said, she will be able to "die with a light heart".

"I was an only child," Mme Augier said, "when I was a little girl my only friend was Michou, a Pomeranian my mother gave me for Christmas. I always had a dog with me to replace the brother or sister I never had.

"Now I am alone again. And despite what other well-heeled people might think, I know that you can bring nothing with you to the two square metres which is our final home.

"There are lots of practical things the foundation can do, such as helping the animal refuge owner who just called me saying she has no more space for all the abandoned dogs that she receives."

Unlike many luxury hotels, the Negresco actively encourages guests to bring their pets with them. The hotel's website states: "He can share your room where special equipment will be provided to ensure his well-being, including a rug and a water bowl. Our concierge staff is at your disposal to take your favourite animal for a walk. Price per animal, €17."

The Negresco was a struggling hotel when Mme Augier's father, Jean-Baptiste Mesnage, bought it at her suggestion in 1957. Even then, her motives were charitable. Her mother had become paralysed after an unsuccessful operation. Apart from hospitals, the Negresco was the only building in Nice with lifts wide enough to allow her mother to be taken outside while lying in her bed.

Mme Augier and her husband increased the staffing of the hotel four-fold and toured auction houses to buy scores of art works. Among her acquisitions was the Hyacinthe Rigaud portrait of Louis XIV which is hung with portraits of Louis XV and Louis XVI, giving the "Versailles Room" the appearance of a museum. The "Royal Room" boasts the Gustave Eiffel chandelier, with glass work by Baccarrat, one of two commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II.

Mme Augier's work in restoring the grandeur of the Negresco was especially admired by two celebrated guests, who asked her to advise them on their own tourist undertakings. The first was the Shah of Iran. The second was the 1960s Soviet leader, Nikita Khruschev. As a result, Mme Augier was – improbably – an adviser to the Soviet tourist board, Intourist, for two years.

The Negresco is one of the great landmarks of the Promenade des Anglais, the thoroughfare which runs along the seafront in Nice.

Most of its rooms have sea views. It has its own beach, a Michelin-starred restaurant and a curving reception room with magnificent views over the "Baie des Anges".

The hotel was built by a Romanian entrepreneur, Henri Negresco, in 1913. At the time it was regarded as a wonder of modernity, equipped with early vacuum cleaners and a pneumatic tube system to distribute letters to each room.

The First World War – when the Negresco became a hospital – helped to push its owner into bankruptcy. The hotel recovered in the 1920s and 1930s under Belgian ownership to become the most elegant hotel on the Côte d'Azur but slumped again during and after the Second World War.

Guests of the Negresco over the years have included Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Ernest Hemingway, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Michael Jackson, Anthony Quinn, Catherine Deneuve, Charles Aznavour, Yves Montand and Gina Lollobrigida.

And, presumably, their pets.

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