1 of 2
Antoni Crosa Mauri
Ava Gardner (second from right) with Spanish dancer, La Chunga,in the late Fifties
2 of 2
Antoni Crosa Mauri
Madeleine Carroll with her husband on the seafront in Palamós in the Forties
Change is inevitable. Change is good. Change is sometimes hard. No matter how one sees it, change—drastic, rapid and continuous—has had quite a grip on the Costa Brava lately. During the past 50 years, it has arguably become the area’s most definitive characteristic, shaping and re-shaping the people, customs and geography from Llança to Blanes in a constant, and quick, evolutionary display. And it all started when someone in Hollywood decided the area would be ideal for making a film with one its biggest stars.
The Spain of 1950, though more than 10 years removed from the immediate horror of the Civil War, was still caught in the grips of the trauma it effected and the dictatorship it left behind. It was not an age of economic growth, self-promotion or tourism. Most Costa Brava families still supported themselves off the sea, food staples were sold in strict rations and lives were incredibly localised—even non-Catalan Spaniards were a rare sight.
With all the natural beauty and sunshine that it has to offer, it’s surprising that the Costa Brava remained covertly poised for discovery for so long. But by the early Fifties, this shining jewel in the already heavy crown of Spanish holiday-making was still all but unknown to outsiders.
So what was the catalyst that unleashed generations of adoring tourists and saw a dramatic metamorphis envelope the region? Like most great transformations, this one started with a beautiful woman. But not just any woman, and she wasn’t just passing through the area. Her name was Ava Gardner, and she was a celebrity among celebrities, the lover of Frank Sinatra and popularly considered the most beautiful woman on the planet. And her reason for coming was the making of a big-budget Hollywood movie.
The announcement came in 1950. Tossa de Mar, at the time a small fishing village, was to host Gardner and fellow film star James Mason for two months during the filming of Albert Lewin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.
By the time the finished film was shown in Girona cinemas in 1952 (having been hotly anticipated by the local population for nearly two years), the first Pandora tourists had already arrived on the shores of the Costa Brava. An exhibition held several years ago at Girona’s Museu del Cinema, in honour of the film’s 50th anniversary, looked in depth at this unexpected effect of the film. Included in the show was a particularly telling anecdote from a Tossa de Mar local, Señor Fàbrega, who remembered the time well: “Several months after the filming, when the village had again become a lonely place, came the first group of English tourists who had seen the film in England. Because of the film, they had discovered a country. Just a little while later, the first busloads of Germans made the rounds of local villages for the same reason. The boarding houses started turning into hotels, and the village people rented out their houses to a tourist population that was already becoming massive […] It was the birth of the Costa Brava.”
Hyperbole aside, Pandora did have a real and lasting impact on the region. But though it may have opened the floodgates for tourism, its filming did not actually represent the first time that Hollywood royalty came into contact with the comarca. Madeleine Caroll, the English rose with the charm and good-looks that made her a favourite of many American film-makers, first came to the Costa Brava in 1934. At the time, however, she was little known outside of Britain—this was one year before she played Pamela in Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal The 39 Steps, which catapulted her to superstardom and helped make her the highest-paid Hollywood actress of her time.
Both Carroll and Gardner continued to be fascinated by, and involved with, Spain and Spanish life after the cameras stopped rolling. In the years following the unmitigated success of The 39 Steps and Carroll’s resulting rocket-like ascent to the top of the Hollywood pecking order, the Costa Brava would serve the actress as a constant refuge. She bought an estate in Calonge (where her home, the Castell Madeleine, was constructed) and returned again and again between one filming and the next, finding in the Catalan coast the tranquility she needed to overcome the stresses of her particular line of work and the pressures of celebrity.
But the region was soon torn apart by the Civil War—the first bloody campaign to keep the actress from her second home. The second was World War II, which claimed the life of her only sister. Not content with horrified and idle observation, Carroll temporarily broke from Hollywood in 1944 to join the Red Cross as a field nurse; this blonde bombshell, the first Briton to be offered a major American film contract, worked with injured soldiers and orphaned children in French and Italian field hospitals, and was even honoured by both France and the US for her wartime efforts. It comes as no surprise that her adopted home, the Costa Brava, was as enamoured with her as she was with it.
A sculpture now stands in her honour in Calonge, where she maintained her home until the area’s ever-burgeoning tourism forced the conspicuous Madeleine to seek more hidden pastures elsewhere. She died in Málaga in 1987, but is buried in Calonge’s Cemeteri de Sant Antoni.
But the list of old-Hollywood imports to take pleasure in the Costa Brava does not stop with leading ladies. Author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, American novelist and journalist Truman Capote, discovered the Costa Brava in the early Sixties, some time after Gardner and Carroll first visited. However, despite the time difference, the friend who originally told Capote about the allure of the area, writer Robert Ruark, had in turn heard about it from Madeleine Carroll; and while visiting the region, Truman Capote paid a visit to Ava Gardner’s ex-husband Artie Shaw, then living in Begur.
The beach town of Palamós served for months at a time as Capote’s writerly den, and he stayed in two different houses there, one overlooking the Platja de la Catifa and later at the private cove, S’Anià. The author, who was known to have an appetite for glamour, debauchery and the company of the fantastically rich (and like-minded), was also often spotted around Platja d’Aro. While in Catalunya, Capote worked on his now infamous book, In Cold Blood. It describes the true story of a gruesome crime and the disturbing end effected on its perpetrators; strangely, or perhaps necessarily for the sake of the author’s own sanity, the book was written largely in this idyllic coastal setting.
Olympic swimmer and actor Johnny Weismuller, best known for his repeated portrayal of Tarzan, was also a frequent guest of the area, as were Kirk Douglas, Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson and a young Elizabeth Taylor. Indeed, the golden age of American cinema, and its stars’ affinity for the Costa Brava, corresponded directly with the dissemination of the enviable reputation that the Catalan coast enjoys to this day. As is so often the case, it was Hollywood’s interest that piqued that of the rest of the world—and the area has never been the same.
Please note that this article was first published in Barcelona Metropolitan's sister article, Costa Brava Resident in February 2008