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The Glory Days of Marbella

An important part of Marbella ’s mystique and fame is built on the attraction it has always had for the international jet-set. In a tradition that goes back to the glamorous days of the 1950s, the town continues to be a favoured playground of the rich, the famous, the beautiful…and those who want to be near them.

If today’s celebrities are among Marbella’s most important marketing icons, drawing lesser mortals to the town in their wake, things were very different in the early days. Back in the early 1950s, Marbella and indeed the Costa del Sol had not yet attained the resort status attributed to a tourist area. Like most of the coastline of southern Spain, this was a relative ‘wilderness’ of rolling hills, sugar cane fields and deserted beaches, punctuated by the occasional fishing village. When Alfonso von Hohenlohe—the man generally credited with putting this part of the world ‘on the map’—arrived on the scene, the area had seen some tourism, mostly in the form of small numbers of Andalusians taking to the beach or wealthy families owning summer estates, but it was all on a very small and innocent scale. The area was impoverished and backward, still reeling from the Civil War and poor in services and communications.

All of this changed when von Hohenlohe, godson of King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria Eugenia, founded the Marbella Club Hotel among the coastal pine trees that stretched westwards just outside the little town of Marbella. The jet-set were looking for new Elysian Fields, and von Hohenlohe gave them one. Quite apart from the established Rivieras, this unpretentious natural paradise with its wonderful climate and earthy ambience was a refreshing getaway that soon attracted not only the European aristocracy, business tycoons and beautiful people of the day, but also Hollywood icons such as Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. Before long, the earlier simplicity was replaced by an increasingly sophisticated atmosphere, but right through to the 1970s Marbella’s main charm was that it retained a sense of innocence and privacy, free from the prying eyes of celebrity hotspots such as Hollywood and the Côte d’Azur.

Throughout this period, Marbella’s reputation grew apace with the long list of famous people who visited, bought summer homes or even settled here, adding its name to the imagination of the masses for most of whom it remained out of reach. For almost three decades, therefore, Marbella was pretty much a domain of the rich and famous, and while some became regular visitors—like Omar Sharif, who loved to visit friends and play at the glamorous old casino in Puerto Banús—others bought villas between the pine trees and came to spend a lot of their time here. Deborah Kerr was among the earliest members of this celebrated ex-pat community. The actress, who became one of the leading female stars in Hollywood with such classics as An affair to remember and From here to eternity, settled in her villa in Los Monteros in the 1950s. For almost four decades, she and her husband Peter Viertel, the novelist and screen writer responsible for films like The African Queen and The old man of the sea, were residents of Marbella, entertaining the cream of Hollywood here and attracting other illustrious couples such as Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer. They bought a summer home here in 1965, at a time when Marbella was at the height of its powers, and the likes of Jean Cocteau, Guy de Rothschild, the Von Thyssens, Princess von Bismarck and Romanian-born film director Jean Negelescu were among the little town’s residents. Negelescu, who had produced Three coins in a fountain and How to marry a millionaire, even made a film, The pleasure seeker, here, no doubt inspired by the stylish hedonism of the place.

In 1970, Sean Connery and his then new bride Micheline Roquebrune became perhaps the most emblematic celebrity residents of Marbella, when they bought a derelict house on the beach near San Pedro and transformed it into their personal Mediterranean paradise. Casa Malibu, as the stylish, almost Adobe-like whitewashed villa was called, became one of the hottest Marbella properties of the 1970s, when Sean and Micheline entertained the likes of Richard Burton, Omar Sharif, Michael Caine, Honour Blackman and Sean’s close friend, James Hunt, who also spent much time here. By now, the locals had become quite accustomed to seeing them play golf or sail into Puerto Banús, while the paparazzi tried desperately to catch Prince Andrew, Princess Caroline and other royalty at play. The latter category was also well-represented, with Spanish aristocracy, Marie-Louise of Prussia and the von Bismarcks as long-time residents, but Marbella has also always had an important connection with the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, who built a huge palace and a pretty little mosque along the now famous Golden Mile.

Not as well publicised were the visits of Princess Diana, who would stay at the estate of the Goldsmiths, in the valleys behind Benahavis. By now, however, the atmosphere was starting to change. Yes, people like Sting, Rod Stewart and Princess Caroline’s ex-husband, Philippe Junot, were still regular visitors to the Marbella Club and La Zagaleta, but with the growth of tourism and the influx of larger numbers of residents and tourists, Marbella had started to lose some of its intimacy and charm—at least, from the perspective of the jet-set. The old glamorous set was therefore slowly replaced by a new generation, and type, of celebrity. Where they had owned large beachside villas and had the free run of the golf courses, fine restaurants and the social events at five-star hotels, the older celebrities felt increasingly marginalised and claustrophobic in a rapidly growing and modernising town. Marbella, which had largely been created by them, was now coming of age and starting to outgrow them.

Some left and some withdrew into an ever-shrinking circle, but by the late 1990s the scene had definitely changed. The smoking jackets and tuxedos, De Tomasos and Aston Martins, valet-parked at the old casino, were replaced by outrageous designer wear, fast Lamborghinis and stretched limousines. Old decorum and discreet promiscuity were exchanged for wild behaviour—often played out before the cameras. The new jet-set of football players, pop stars, models, soap stars and tycoons from newly capitalist countries may be called garish and nouveau riche by some, but they are the ones who fill the glamour pages today, pursued by paparazzi just as their predecessors were before them. Visiting or living here, they share Marbella with the ‘normal’ tourists and residents who are still thrilled to catch a glimpse of them or enjoy a sample of the glamour that surrounds them. The era of Audrey Hepburn, Omar Sharif and Deborah Kerr came to an end when, after almost 30 years, Sean Connery sold Casa Malibu and moved back to Scotland. Some of the old glamour remains, now represented most aptly by Julio Iglesias, but for most of us it was a sad moment at least; yet younger generations are much more enthusiastic about the prospect of spotting David Beckham, Antonio Banderas, Melanie Griffiths or Isabel Pantoja. They are the new generation of stars whose presence—however long or short—continues to give Marbella panache. The world and its concept of stardom and glamour has changed, but within the new order Marbella continues to be as glamorous as ever.