Legend has it that back in the mid-1960s, a happy, holidaying German couple were sailing their yacht along the French Riviera. As they rounded the tip of Cap d’Antibes, Maja, a beautiful young woman, glimpsed a building through the trees – and announced that she wanted it. Rudolf, her new husband, followed her gaze: “Darling, I’d love to buy it for you, but it is the finest hotel on the French Riviera and we can’t afford it“. However, 5 years later, Maja Oetker got her way and the pair was given the keys to 5 star Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc. Rudolf may be no more, but Maja is still an active owner and has recently led the redesign of this longtime vacation retreat for heads of state and hideaway choice for film stars during the Cannes Film Festival. I was recently commissioned to photograph Madame Oetker, the grande dame of luxury hotels.
150 years of luxury
L’Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc is celebrating its 150 year birthday this year. The managing editor of Bunte, a reference for celebrity news and Germany’s best-selling magazine, had been wanting to interview Madame Oetker for years. The anniversary finally gave editor Katrin her reason for flying to the South of France to do so. Just before our rendez-vous with Maja, Katrin told me that in order to improve the chances of Maja granting her an audience, she had sent her request as a handwritten letter, using a fountain pen and gorgeous handmade paper. Maja’s love of beauty indeed prevailed, and I found it rather pleasing that non-digital correspondence still has its place.
Paradise: punctuality and pastels
If Maja is anything to go by, living a crème de la crème lifestyle as owner of one of the France’s finest 5 star hotels, is good for the health. With her upright posture, tall stature and astuteness, I had trouble believing that this lady was really 85 years old. Her billionaire hubbie, who, by all accounts, had doted on her before he passed away over 10 years ago, may have been known as the businessman of the piece (family fortune made through pizza, reputation slightly complicated by former membership of the Nazi party), but Maja, while discreet, has shown herself to be more than capable of leading her hotel from strength to strength.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that Maja likes punctuality, and writer and photographer were ushered to her villa through private grounds of watered lawns and olive trees, exactly 2 minutes before the allotted hour. I was surprised, though, by the simplicity of her home – and its faithful dedication to the hotel’s brand. Apart from a family photo on the sideboard, and a painting of a leopard, the decoration resembled that of the hotel rooms. Beige, pastels and quiet floral patterns dominated, and the only item on the side table was a luxury photo book celebrating L’Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, identical to one displayed in the lobby. It was as if the Lady was simply inseparable from the Hotel.
It was going to be tight for me to take two portraits within our allotted time slot – one at her villa, as Madame wished, then a second with the hotel in the background, as per my photographer brief. I would have all of 15 minutes to take down my light stands after the first portrait, transfer my kit to the main hotel gardens, and set up again. The concierge had arranged for a golf buggy to whisk me and my equipment from A to B, and had promised that a mains electricity supply would be in place.
However, when I jumped out of the buggy to set up the light at the second location, it became apparent that the groundsmen had not received the message about electricity. While they sprang into action on urgent walkie-talkie instructions from the valet, progress wasn’t quick enough to beat Madame’s famous punctuality. When I saw her approaching, I knew that a backup lighting plan was unavoidable, and trusted in Katrin’s goodwill to act as a last-minute light stand.
Maja posed for me with grace. No photographer would need to remind her to stand up straight. If a little fluidity was lacking, I hadn’t really expected she would comply to my lighthearted suggestion that she adopt a surfing stance. The fact that Madame had never surfed in her life didn’t stop her getting into a position stable enough for a surf board though, and we agreed that it wasn’t too late for her to try to catch a wave one day. Resplendent in impeccable white, she didn’t bat an eyelid when I then asked her to get into the flower bed either. In the sea of blue of the Agapanthe flowers she’d told me she loves so much, Maja may not have been surfing, but a softness came into her eyes, and the rich colour gave her a sparkle that I hadn’t seen until then.