In the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, young Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence begins his epic adventure by riding a camel into wilds of the Arabian desert while singing a little song called “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.” Written in the early 1890s, true to the spirit of any good rags to riches story it told the tale of a man of modest origins who struck it rich gambling at Monte Carlo’s world famous casino. According to historian Mark Braude in his 2016 book Making Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle so popular was this British ditty that during the late 19th and early 20th centuries some felt there wasn’t a place in the English-speaking world where people hadn’t heard the song.
While I’ll admit to having a few vices, gambling has never been one of them. Nor have I been fascinated by the sun-soaked and celebrity populated French Riviera. But perhaps Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge is one of those vices since I’m always on the lookout for books I can read for her challenge. So, in keeping with my little addiction, when my public library granted me the opportunity to read a book about the European microstate of Monaco, of course I jumped on it.
As the both the book’s title and subtitle would lead us to believe, Making Monte Carlo is the story of how the tiny principality of Monaco successfully set aside a small cliff side section of its realm for entertainment purposes, chiefly gambling. In order to generate much-needed revenue for the cash-strapped royal coffers, the plan was to sell Monte Carlo as an exotic destination where Europe’s, and later America’s rich and powerful could live like royalty by wagering big money, lose with casual indifference (and by doing so show their just how wealthy and stately they were) and enjoy all the wonderful amenities Monte Carlo had to offer. Before long Monte Carlo also became a place where social climbers, professional gamblers and other aspirants from less regal backgrounds came to win big, find a wealthy spouse or even pitch a lucrative business deal. Legends abounded over the years of broken-hearted losers who committed, or attempted suicide after crushing losses at the gambling tables. Such stories filled Europe’s somewhat tabloid press causing many to take a dim view of Monte Carlo, seeing it as a destroyer of decent men and women.
Braude strikes me as a good writing with a decent attention to detail. Much to my liking he tends to zero in on social history when telling his story. My only complaint is a minor one in that I wish the author would have covered the period up to the present. (The book ends in the 1930s with he first Monaco Grand Prix road race.) But since this is how Monte Carlo became Monte Carlo, I guess it’s a forgivable offense. Overall, I found myself liking Making Monte Carlo.