Friday, October 01, 2004

A Côte d'Azur retreat for a café society singer


Roll up the steep driveway to Bobby Short's Villa Manhattan; pass through the high, electronically controlled gates, jog a few short steps uphill to the right and find yourself overwhelmed by the luxurious profusion of his garden.

Ringed with cedars, olive trees, cork oaks and stands of mature oleander, the garden offers lush green perspectives of the region that has stirred the souls of Picasso, Man Ray and Jacques Brel, among others.

At almost 5,000 square meters, or 1.2 acres, it unfolds up a pleasant incline and ends at a terraced hillock, compensating for what is sorely absent in most New Yorkers' lives: outdoor living.

"I spend most of my time sitting on a terrace at the table," said Short, a popular entertainer who has spent the past 36 years performing at New York's chic Café Carlyle.

"In New York, being out of doors poses a problem."

Short, who turned 80 in September, suffers from neuropathy, a nerve disorder that makes it difficult for him to climb to the far reaches of the garden.

So he has put the house up for sale, at E1 million, or $1.2 million, and has announced that this is his last season at the Carlyle.

"I have reached a kind of crossroads," said Short. "I am not young anymore. I have property in New York, and I have to make up my mind where to live."

In a telephone interview, Short said it was by accident that he discovered the modest home, which has 205 square meters, or 2,200 square feet, of living space and an additional 100 square meters in the sous-sol, or lower floor.

He had spent time entertaining in clubs in Paris in the early 1950s, before he became known in New York.

He visited friends in the exclusive hilltop village of Mougins, a discreet resort for the wealthy and artistic some five kilometers, or three miles, north of Cannes, and felt comfortable there.

So he rented houses for two summers and, finally, the villa became available.

For a man who dons a tuxedo every night during the season, the atmosphere at Villa Manhattan is a decided contrast.

The house is modest and relaxed, with the emphasis on gracious, even luxurious, outdoor living. It was built in the 1960s of stone and glass, with terra cotta tile floors.

"What attracted me was the size," he said. "It is ideal for one person. Many of the villas on the Côte d'Azur are very large."

The house has four small bedrooms, although the bedroom adjacent to Short's has been converted to an office, and four bathrooms.

They have housed some celebrities, including the socialite and designer Gloria Vanderbilt and Stefanie Powers, the actress.

He also fondly recalls that Jean Sablon, one of France's top cabaret artists, once joined him for lunch.

Most of the real work, imagination and investment have gone into the garden. Living in the south of France means "your garden is expensive and the water is expensive, because you use so much of it," Short said.

Scattered around the site are three sitting areas, or conversation corners, two of which take special advantage of the panorama of the city of Grasse to the north and the Maritime Alps beyond.

Music has always been integral to Short's life. His cupboards spill over with CDs. In the living room, he has a Japanese-made Kawai piano, finished in black lacquer, that he says he uses a lot.

Still, "I would think if I sell the house, I would leave the piano here," Short said. And, for the right price, he would throw in the rest of the furniture and the sculptures as well.

After all, he said in those gravelly tones that New York café society knows well, "I see no reason to go into the furniture business."

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