Photo Of The Day

Photo: Dominique Tarlé  Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg outside Villa Nellcôte with their son Marlon.

Photo: Dominique Tarlé
Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg outside Villa Nellcôte with their son Marlon.

The Rolling Stones’ French Villa of Debauchery

In the Spring of 1971, Keith Richards began renting a villa on the Côte d’Azur for $2,500 a month. The British government was threatening to confiscate the bands’ funds if they did not leave the country by April 5th of that year as part of the Labour government’s punitive 93% tax on high earners. The Rolling Stones were tax exiles from England and shacked up at Villa Nellcôte, a 16-room mansion of the Belle Epoque that had previously been occupied by the local Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of France in the 1940s.  French photographer Dominique Tarlé documented the six month-long “house party” that ensued; a summer of sex, drugs and most certainly, rock and roll…

During their exile in the South of France, the band would record their classic double album, “Exile on Main St”, laying down tracks in a makeshift studio in the basement of Villa Nellcôte. The other members had also rented or bought houses in the south of France; Bill Wyman in Mougins, Mick Taylor in Grasse, Charlie Watts in the Cévennes and Mick Jagger was in between Paris and Provence with his pregnant fiancé Bianca; but as Keith’s drug habit became a daily habit at his French playground, it was decided that Villa Nellcôte would have to be the band’s hub. “They built a studio in the basement of Keith’s house because the band knew it would be easiest for Keith,” photographer Dominique Tarlé told the New York Times.

After finding his temporary new home in the South of France, Richard’s partner, Anita Pallenberg soon joined her rock star with the couple’s son. She was fresh out of rehab. To fuel the couple’s heroin habit, Keith set up a supply chain with the Corsican mafia based out of nearby Marseille, which is allegedly still active in the area. His dealers were nicknamed ‘les cowboys’ and often hung out at the villa, inviting suspicion from the French police.

John Lennon is said to have partied with the band at Villa Nellcôte and Mick Jagger is rumoured to have bedded Anita there, reigniting his alleged affair in 1968 with Keith’s longtime partner, which Keith himself later confirmed in a biography.

“People appeared, disappeared, no one had a last name, you didn’t know who anybody was,” remembers Greenfield. “There were 16 people for lunch, and lunch went on for three-and-a-half hours. It was an unparalleled cast of characters.”

Nellcôte is one of the most stunning properties along the Côte D’Azur, built in the 1890s with an imposing façade complete with marble Ionic columns; Richards said it was decorated for “bloody Marie Antoinette”. Before the Stones moved in, the house’s history is a little murky following World War II when the Nazi Gestapo used it as their headquarters in the early 1940s. Allegedly unoccupied for decades, the floor vents in the basement where the Stones recorded were still decorated with swastikas.

Dominique Tarlé remembers, “I found a box down there with a big swastika on it, full of injection phials. They all contained morphine. It was very old, of course, and our first reaction was, ‘If Keith had found this box...’ So one night we carried it to the end of the garden, and threw it into the sea.”

When Jagger married Nicaraguan model Bianca at a small whitewashed hillside chapel in St. Tropez, Keith Richards reportedly showed up to the groom’s dressing room in full Nazi SS uniform. The story doesn’t specify whether he discovered the uniform at Nellcôte, but Richards was apparently highly intrigued by the mansion’s sinister history and agreed to rent the house because of it.

Nellcôte’s large palm trees and surrounding woodland gave the Stones privacy and kept the questionable goings on at the house out of the press (and the police at bay). But with Richards’ ever-present entourage of hanger-ons and drug dealers, nearly half of the furniture was missing from the house by the time their stay was over. According to Stones researcher, Jack Vanderwyk, “Villa Nellcôte was such an open house that, one day in September 1971, burglars walked out of the front gate with nine of Richards’s guitars, Bobby Keys’ saxophone and Bill Wyman’s bass in broad daylight while the occupants were watching television in the living room. The crime was reputedly carried out by dealers from Marseille who were owed money by Richards.”

“That’s how loose and stupid it was out there,” remembered Wyman of Nellcôte, who often found himself the only one showing up for their scheduled nighttime recording sessions in the mansion’s basement.

In 1973, Richards and his partner Anita were both charged with possession of heroin and intent to traffic following a police raid on Nellcôte. Keith was banned from entering France for two years, which meant no touring there for the band either. By Autumn 1971, Nellcôte’s halls no longer echoed with rock’n’roll music and in November, Keith and Anita got on a flight to America and never returned to the mansion. They continued paying for the empty house for another year, presumably until it was raided by police.


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