Living in a Fool’s Paradise – Histories of Gambling Experiences in 19th and 20th Century Monte Carlo
Paul Franke | Philipps University Marburg and the Centre Marc Bloch
When British Travel Writer C.N. Williamson visited Monte Carlo in 1924, he wrote spellbound: “You stroll up the beautiful public gardens from the Casino, for instance, under the long, straight lines of shady palms. Every trickling fountain, every well-tended flower-bed on the emerald grass, tells you that you are in Monte Carlo.” Reading these lines, one can imagine how the legendary casino town enchanted its numerous visitors. Even today, Monte Carlo is a brand, it communicates hedonism and otherworldly pleasure. Williamson’s quote also touches upon the supposed uniqueness of Monte Carlo. He states that walking through the district one could not mistake the casino town for any other place in Europe or even the world. He was not the only one to think so, and many travel guides, letters, diaries, and published books about Monte Carlo from the nineteenth and early twentieth century speak of a special atmosphere. The British journal The Graphic described Monte Carlo in 1873 as completely removed from “ordinary life and the countries of reality.” Monte Carlo “obliterate[d] the mind and obscure[d] reason.”
These perceptions were by no means coincidental, but rather the result of a historical process. Just as the casino building, the town of Monte Carlo represented a carefully designed and built experience. The casino administration planned and governed it to guide people towards the gambling house. This was made possible by an alliance of private entrepreneurs and the casino company with the political authorities in the form of the ruling dynasty, the house of Grimaldi. This private-public partnership allowed the casino to shape the town for the purposes of tourism and hedonistic gambling. The unique atmosphere served to bring people to the gambling tables and convince them to wager money, ultimately losing most of it. Paul de Ketchiva, former croupier, meaning dealer, at the casino wrote in 1928: “I have been a croupier from the beginning of 1912 until late 1925 and I say emphatically that anyone who thinks they can visit a casino and take away a fortune – and keep it – is living in a fool’s paradise.”
François Blanc, a Frenchman in charge of the casino in Homburg, Germany since 1841, witnessed how the most prominent powers of Austria, Prussia and later the revolutionaries of 1848 became increasingly hostile towards commercialized gambling. After a long process of negotiating, plotting, and bluffing on both sides, the reigning house of Grimaldi of Monaco and Blanc finalised a deal in March 1863. Blanc’s manoeuvres included sending agents to Monaco beforehand, so they would report to him on the state of the principality. He financed a political campaign in the kingdom of Sardinia, that helped to support a ban on gambling there, making sure Monaco remained without competition. He “leaked” his interest to invest in Monaco’s gambling venture discreetly, in the hope of being approached by the Grimaldis. Still, he threatened to withdraw his offer mere days before its finalization as a power move.
Blanc’s aim was to gain leverage to build a casino in tandem with an urban pleasurescape that he would have control over. Already in April 1863, he announced in the Journal de Monaco: “A whole town remains to be built! To work, then!” The experienced gambling entrepreneur wanted to develop an urban pleasurescape to go along with his casino. The SBM of Monte Carlo thus built a whole town around the casino. It was a cosmopolitan, sanitized, mock-metropolis in emulation of Paris. Blanc and his successors urbanized large parts of Monaco, but did so always as entrepreneurs, building an urban space dedicated to consumption, gambling and pleasure.
The Grimaldis, on the other hand, wanted a casino entrepreneur willing (and able) to operate a lavish casino, and finance the infrastructure of the micro-state. They also argued for a strict separation of the local populace from the casino: Monegasque were not to gamble or live near the gambling house. Losing at the tables was to be a privilege for the increasing number of foreign tourists. Urbanization and casino operations were thus connected from the beginning, for both Blanc and the Grimaldis. Blanc’s casino company would operate most urban utilities, would build and finance the opera house, pay for the police of the town, and publish its official newspaper. This new company, the Sociéte des Bains de Mer et Du Cercle Étranger de Monaco (SBM) would become the pillar for Monegasque development and transformed the Blanc clan into a dynasty that more than once clashed with the Grimaldis of the Rock on the other side of the bay.
Designing experiences for visitors through urbanization aimed at creating the illusion that tourists would spend time and money in a big cosmopolitan city, while banning most aspects that would have diminished the enjoyment of it. That included heavy industries, working class locals and other urban phenomena. The SBM took inspiration from idealized places and colonial destinations, or imagined spaces of the belle époque elite. “Life of a rich man today,” observed one enthusiastic visitor, was “a sort of firework! Paris, Monte Carlo, big-game shooting in Africa, fishing in Norway, dashes to Egypt, trips to Japan.” The new casino town, independent from the Old Town of Monaco was thus a new project, but also part of a larger historical trend of amusements and pleasure as guiding principles of urban development. Blanc had a particular idea of what he wanted to achieve with his town and could only succeed because the casino’s power was extensive, making it as much an investor as it was a de-facto city government.
Officially founded in 1866, Monte Carlo was named after the reigning Prince Charles III. Every aspect was linked to the casino in some way: public transport and the large boulevards were built so that visitors would be channelled towards the casino after arriving at Monte Carlo. It had its own train station for tourists. Blanc wanted boulevards featuring more than a dozen jewellers, a multitude of wineries, many flower shops, boutiques, and cafés, and fine dining opportunities all neatly lined up and always leading back to the casino. The gambling house was visible from all points, via the visual axis of the boulevard cutting through the urban district and the lavish nightly illumination.
In 1882 the writer Thomas Pickering captured the opinion of many visitors to Monte Carlo: “It [Monte Carlo] has been described as a concentration of the noise and movement of the Paris boulevards within the limit of a hundred square yards.” The purpose behind this was clear: Monte Carlo was designed to evoke hedonism, to gently guide people towards the casino. One nineteenth-century newspaper stated: “Those who pour molten wax into their ears are tempted through their vision, and those who are purposely blind are overcome by the delicious odours which pervade the place.” This experience also changed how gambling itself was felt and was perceived. As French travel writer Bénédict Révoil stated in 1878: “M. Blanc dreamed of an earthly paradise to soften the rough edges of the demon of gambling, and he succeeded beyond his own vision.”
With the help of letters, travel accounts, and guidebooks, it is possible to reconstruct a typical day for a visitor to Monte Carlo. Gambling took front-and-centre-stage. Usually, guests walked around Monte Carlo, enjoying the urban amenities. After lunch, people gambled and met friends in the casino. To them, it was a different world all together: In 1912, Adolphe Smith wrote an extensive book on Monte Carlo capturing the experience: “The atmosphere thickens” he wrote, “heavy and overpowering like a drug”. The atrium was the first room. It featured twenty-eight black marble columns, chandeliers made from bronze, and gold ornaments. It connected the theatre in the south with the gambling rooms in the east. Entering visitors who turned to the left could immediately see the gambling rooms, as the doors to them were always open. In the atrium people already encountered other gamblers, talking in hushed voices, socializing, and planning how to beat the gambling tables. Similar to the urban district of Monte Carlo, gambling reached out and into adjacent spaces. Smith goes on to describe that everyone seemed to be drawn to the gambling tables, like they were “magnets”. The SBM planned the atrium as the entry point to the “dream world” of the casino: As such, it was intended to expose visitors to gambling and put them into an emotional state of hedonistic excitement, transforming from mere visitors into gamblers. Austrian writer Arnold Blankenfeld wrote the atrium was both “smart” and “diabolically” planned. It guided effectively because it did so with “a soft touch”.
Stepping into the main gambling room, one visitor from 1882 remarked, it was like stepping into a fantasy. He recognized what role architecture played in this, pointing out that it had a “dreamlike effect” on him. The gambling tables, mostly roulette, were located at the middle of the largest gambling room, with dozens of people wagering at the same time. Four fully trained croupiers would sit in pairs on both sides of the table, taking turns spinning the wheel. A head croupier would sit on an elevated chair to supervise the gambling. Most players stood around the table, as the provided seats would never suffice for the gathered crowds. They were expected to gamble in a controlled manner. European gambling of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was marked by silent tension, rather than emotional outbursts. Entering a gambling room in Monte Carlo, patrons heard the “casino murmur”, the whispers of the gambling masses, only broken up by the ritualized phrases of the croupiers. This created an atmosphere of thrill and anticipation, which many felt hard to resist. At the walls of the richly ornamented casino room, chairs were lined up, so people could watch others play. The casino hoped that in time spectators would join the gambling crowd at the tables after being exposed to it for longer periods of time, examining a similar spatial design logic as the atrium.
Even the game of roulette was chosen and cultivated for the sake of this specific experience. It was non-competitive, so players were not pit against each other but chance itself, it was a spectacle people could watch, easy to grasp and play. The bank won by offering, rather than playing the games. Experienced gambling entrepreneurs like François Blanc were never spooked by big wins, as the very structure of modern casino gambling ruled out the chance of a player’s breaking the bank. As Blanc put it: “The house must either have more capital than any individual player or must establish a limit so that superior capital can never be brought into play against it.”
Paul de Ketchiva called Monte Carlo a “fools paradise”, because both the urban district and the casino represented a carefully designed space for pleasure and leisure. Both represent highly specialized architectural projects, built for the sea of consumption. This extended beyond providing necessary infrastructure. Their design was meant to guide visitors to the gambling tables and put them in a mood to play games of chance. Their urbanization and aesthetics were conceived with economic goals in mind. Players generally did not feel manipulated though. Victor Bethell observed in 1910, that many regarded playing as a legitimate leisure activity, especially in Monte Carlo where gambling held unique allure: “They gamble to amuse themselves, and few of them lose more than they can afford. Some take it up in the same way that many others take to cycling, playing golf, and bridge, i.e., more or less because they are driven to it.”
In this Monte Carlo represents an example of pleasure and leisure driven urbanization, and the growing importance of gambling and mass tourism. It was a tourist town, build and sustained by a casino company, offering gambling to a mass market of a highly mobile, middle class in search for metropolitan amenities and gambling outside its traditional courtly framework.
Braude, Mark, Making Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle (New York: Schuster & Schuster 2016).
Jackson, Stanley. Inside Monte Carlo. (London: W.H. Allen.Fielding 1975.).
Fielding, Xan. The Money Spinner: Monte Carlo and its fabled Casino. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company 1977).
Paul Franke is a historian and postgraduate researcher at the Philipps University Marburg and the Centre Marc Bloch. His work focuses on urban history, cultural history of economics and consumption, illegal economies, criminal entrepreneurs and gambling.