The name of the villa came from the old name of Cap-Ferrat peninsula that once were called Cap-Saint-Sospir. The legend says that it derives from a name of the Benedictine monk Hospitus. He lived in the neighborhood in the sixth century. The monk could heal people and was able to tell the fortune. Once Hospitus predicted the invasion of Lombards. He warned people, but didn’t try to escape himself. Although invaders wanted to kill him, they couldn’t do that due to mysterious circumstances. When a barbarian tried to harm the monk, his arm suddenly paralyzed.
There is another version of the origin of the name. Santo Sospir means “a sacred sigh”. Originally the neighborhood was home to families of fishermen. Every time men went to the sea, their wives worried. So, when women saw the boat on the horizon, they breathed with relief. Hence the name.
Francine Weisweiller, the owner of the villa, found out the old name of the neighborhood by chance. One day she and Jean Cocteau were looking at 18th century map of the region that Ms. Weisweiller bought a while ago. Accidentally they learned that the name of Cap-Ferrat was Cap-Saint-Sospir in the past. The artist proposed to give that name to the villa. Since then the estate on the Côte d’Azur is known as Villa Santo Sospir.
The romantic beginning
The history of the villa is strongly connected to the Weisweillers, a wealthy family with Jewish origin. During the invasion of France by Nazi Germany the Gestapo came to arrest Francine and her husband Alec. The couple run into the forest. Alec hide his wife from the enemies in fallen leaves. At that precise moment, he whispered that if they will survive, he would buy her a dream house.
Several years later, the couple escaped to the South of France, where they found a shelter at the free zone of the Côte d'Azur. To survive they hide they Jewish background and used a nickname Lelestrier. In 1946 Francine and Alec were sailing around peninsula Cap-Ferrat. From a boat, Ms. Weisweiller noticed the villa. At that very moment, she realized that finally found her dream house. Soon the couple became the owners of the estate, that was built shortly after the war. Alec kept his word and bought an ideal house for his wife. He was an American millionaire related to the Rothschilds, with whom the Weisweillers became neighbors in Cap-Ferrat.
The neighborhood quickly turned into luxurious holiday resort that was dotted with villas of rich and powerful people, like King Leopold II of Belgium. Cap-Ferrat attracted millionaires, aristocrats and creative minds, like Rainier III, Somerset Maugham, Winston Churchill, Hubert de Givenchy, Charlie Chaplin, Isadora Duncan, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Thanks to the Weisweillers the number of famous guests increased even more.
With the villa of Santo Sospir the Weisweillers started a new chapter in their life. Francine invited her good friend and the legendary designer Madeleine Castaing to work on interiors of the villa. She was often called an eccentric decorator. Some people even said that she had an insane sense of style. But everyone agreed that Madeleine had its own unusual manner that later was followed by many aficionados.
Francine became part of bourgeois circles. She was art patron to Christian Dior, Balenciaga, Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent. In 1949, Ms. Weisweiller met Jean Cocteau. He was shooting “Les Enfants Terribles”, the movie being made of his famous novel. The leading role belonged to Nicole Stéphane (born Baroness Nicole de Rothschild), the French actress of the banking clan and the cousin of Alec Weisweiller. She introduced Cocteau to Francine.
Shortly after that meeting Ms. Weisweiller invited the director to spend a vocation in villa Santo Sospir. Jean Cocteau kindly accepted the offer and arrived together with his adopted son Edouard Dermit, who played the role of Paul in “Les Enfants Terribles”. Very soon the artist felt that he is tired of idleness. “I wither here,” he told Francine and proposed to draw something above the fireplace in the living room. The first image turned to be Apollo’s head, the Greek god of music, poetry and art. That is how Cocteau began painting the walls of the villa.
The villa as a piece of art
In seven days, the whole house was covered with drawings, that Cocteau used to call “tattoos”. He said: “I didn’t have to dress the walls. I had to paint on their skin, that’s why I treated the frescoes linearly, with few colors that enhanced the tattoos. Santo Sospir is a tattooed villa”.
When Cocteau made the very first tattoo, he showed it to his friend Henri Matisse, who had been living on the French Riviera. The painter found it beautiful and told Jean that he should continue to draw. Matisse had told him: “When you decorate a wall, you decorate the others”. Pablo Picasso also supported Cocteau and advised him to go on painting. Cocteau said: “Picasso opened and closed all doors; so it remained to paint on the doors: this is what I tried to do. But the doors open in the rooms; the rooms have walls, and if the doors are painted, the walls look empty…”
The artist covered almost every wall of the house. Cocteau decorated the entire house without sketches. He tattooed the walls in charcoal and after that he put colored powder, that was prepared specially for him by Italian workman. Those pigments were mixed with raw milk. This technique is called frescoes in tempera. In total Cocteau created around 200 tattoos. Sometimes he didn’t move the furniture and draw over objects.
The artist also decorated ceilings and created two mosaics for patio. Tapestry, one of the main attractions of the villa, was designed by Cocteau as well. It was made on the legendary Aubusson tapestry manufacture, that is known since 16th century. France's Aubusson tapestry was granted the status of Royal Manufacture. Now it is inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Jean Cocteau made a sketch of the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes and sent it to the manufacture. It took five years for weavers to make it.
Jean Cocteau returned to the villa every summer and stayed there almost eleven years. He once said: “When I was working at Santo Sospir, I became myself a wall and these walls spoke for me”. The artist even made a 35-minute film about the estate, “La Villa Santo-Sospir.”
No wonder why Santo-Sospir was called one of the loveliest villas on Cap Ferrat. It hosted many iconic visitors, including Pablo Picasso, Pierre Cardin, Alexander Calder, Charles Aznavour and Marlene Dietrich. Romy Schneider and Alain Delon spent their first romantic weekend in Santo Sospir.
But the idyllic period came to its end in 1962, when the relations between Ms. Weisweiller and Cocteau cooled. The reason was a new romance of Francine. She started relationships with the writer and screenwriter Henri Viard. Cocteau found that as a betrayal and moved out the villa.
Francine Weisweiller stayed in the villa until 2003, when she died at the age of 87 in arms of Eric Marteau. Eric is long-time housekeeper of the villa. Around 30 years ago he came to Santo Sospir to be a private nurse for Ms. Weisweiller. Later, her daughter Carole proposed Eric to stay in the villa and be its caretaker. He is watching after the estate and its heritage up to this day.
After the death of Francine, Carole Weisweiller became the legal heir of the villa. She allowed private excursions, but on request. With time Santo Sospir became worn-out. The tattoos were facing damages. Carole could neither kept the estate in good condition, nor afford taxes. She decided to sell the villa to people who will be able to breathe new life into the estate.
New rebirth of the villa
Several years ago during the excursion the villa hosted Marina Melia, the professor of psychology and top-ranked coach for Russia’s wealthiest businessmen. Interesting that she was born almost at the same time when the Weisweillers bought Santo Sospir and Cocteau immortalized it with his drawings. Ms. Melia was deeply impressed by the villa and its heritage. She even said to her son Ilya that this is the only house she would like to connect her life with. She even couldn't dream that one day her wish come true.
No wonder Marina Melia felt a strong connection to the villa. Her Russian-Georgian family was always attached to France since the times of Russian Empire. Ms. Melia loves France and the books of Jean Cocteau. Her son Ilia Melia went to French school and was always interested in French culture. Her daughter, Marina Melia Junior, is a long–time ballet lover. She discovered the talent of Jean Cocteau thanks to his collaboration with Sergei Diaghilev and Ballets Russes. She learned a lot about Cote d’Azur and the Belle Epoque from her grandfather Solomon Melia, who was of Georgian origin. He visited French Riviera at his teen age in times when Russia and his native Georgia was still part of the empire.
All of a sudden, in a conversation with a friend Ilya Melia found out that villa is up for sale. The Melia family felt it was their destiny. In 2016 when Carole Weisweiller sold Santo Sospir, she said that it was a deal made in heaven and that Jean Cocteau himself would have approved it.
For the owners of Santo Sospir, the new turn in estate’ history comes with the great responsibility. When they bought the villa, it was listed in the Supplementary Inventory of Historical Monuments. Melia family does its best to preserve the heritage of the villa with unique works of Jean Cocteau and original design by Madeleine Castaing.
Ilia Melia, being a successful international property developer, is in charge of everything that is connected to the reconstruction. Having a great experience in working with luxurious real estate, Mr. Melia decided to take personal responsibility for preserving the memory of the mansion and its legendary guests. For the grandiose project he invited the most experienced professionals. Among them is Antoine Bruguerolle, the architect from «Cultural Heritage», one of a few specialists with such a high level of competence in France. The team includes Florence Cremer, acknowledged expert in the restoration of historic frescoes. Madison Cox, world-famous landscape architect, and Jacques Grange, a well-known decorator and interior designer.
“Santo Sospir is the heritage not only for France, but also for the whole world. Apart of that, it is also a unique chance for our family to rebuild the bridge between our countries and bring back the best of the Belle Epoque”, the Melia family concludes.