The Rake

Arnaud de Rosnay burned hot and bright. His demise at sea only elevated his legend.

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One night in the early fall of 1968, the then-reigning French surfing champion, Jean-Marie Lartigau, not quite out of his teens, was enjoying an après-surf beer with a few friends at le Steak House, the social epicenter of the hip Biarritz surf scene.

During the summer, their apéro would have been taken on the ocean stairs at the bottom of the cliff on which le Steak House stood, way below at the spiritual home of French surfing, la Côte des Basques. But the nights were starting to close in and the bar and bistro offered both camaraderie and warmth.

A motorcycle roared to a stop on the Rue de Madrid outside. Before he had time to really register it, Lartigau watched heads spin throughout the bar as Baron Arnaud Louis Fromet de Rosnay parked his new white Kawasaki with maroon trim and made his entrance in matching white-and-maroon leathers.

“He was always very 16th arrondissement,” Lartigau remembers, a reference to the opulent old-money district of Paris.

Arnaud de Rosnay, then 22, was already more famous for his extravagant Parisian lifestyle, including his much-publicized romances with the most beautiful young women of le tout-Paris, than he was for his surf photography or his modest surfing talents. But this was la cité des surfeurs, and punters in surf tees and flip-flops offered him salutations and a beer or pastis at every table he passed. Arnaud politely declined, greeted Lartigau with a kiss on each cheek, and whispered in his boyhood friend’s ear, “Want to come for a ride?”

“We took off down the narrow streets towards Marbella and up through the winding hills of Bidart at 160 kilometers an hour,” Lartigau recalls. “It was frightening, but amazing. With Arnaud, it was always about speed. That was the last time I ever saw him.”

Arnaud would become just famous enough around the world over the next 16 years to meet his own high expectations. Then he would disappear, presumed dead, as mysteriously as he had lived, while attempting an ocean crossing from the Chinese mainland to Taiwan on a windsurf board. He packed several lifetimes into his 38 hectic years, and his fate—not to mention his flamboyance—remains high on the list when surf and ocean adventurers are discussed today.

But underlying the tragicomic story of the young baron who never grew old is the very real possibility that he spent his life trying to live up to the expectations of an overachieving family to whom he only half-belonged.

Arnaud was born in the spring of 1946, making him a pioneer baby boomer, either in Paris or in Curepipe, Plaines Wilhems, Mauritius, a matter over which there is some debate. His mother was Natacha Koltchine, a Russian aristocrat born in Saint Petersburg in 1915 to actress Natalia Rachewskia, who was the director of Leningrad’s Pushkin Theatre from 1925 to 1949. At some point in the early 1930s Natacha moved to Paris, where in 1934 she married the dashing French-Mauritian painter Baron Gaëtan Fromet de Rosnay. 

Born in 1912, into a sugar plantation dynasty in Mauritius established by his forebears in the early 1800s, Gaëtan was schooled in France and chose to follow an artistic path, joining the rising young artists’ movement called la Jeune Peinture of the School of Paris. He also became an engraver and designer of stage sets, skills he acquired under the tutelage of the renowned artist and designer Paul Colin. But soon after his wedding to Natacha, he was called home to Mauritius to work in the family business. It was at their estate at Curepipe where Natacha and Gaëtan welcomed their first child, Zina, in 1935, followed by Joël in 1937. 

Before the outbreak of WWII in September 1939, the de Rosnays returned to Paris, where they saw out the long and heartbreaking German occupation. At some point before the war’s end, or possibly just after V-E Day in May 1945, Natacha apparently left Paris for an extended stay in the US. In March 1946, Arnaud arrived, almost a decade after his brother and looking unlike any member of the Fromet de Rosnays, past or present. While there may have been some head-scratching conjecture about the round-faced, loose-limbed, hyper-energetic baby at the time, it was soon dismissed.

Gaëtan hit his straps as a painter in the years after the war, holding exhibitions in Paris and New York and dividing time with his young family between Paris, where the children were enrolled in school, and their homes in Biarritz and Klosters, Switzerland, and at the plantation in Mauritius. Before they reached their teens, all three children were adept at skiing, swimming, and diving, spending their winters in Klosters and their summers between Biarritz and Mauritius.

Arnaud surfing La Barre. Photograph by François Irjawski.

In 1956, while Joël was on summer break from his science studies at university, Californians Dick Zanuck and Peter Viertel allegedly rocked into Biarritz while on a break from filming Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in Pamplona, Spain, and, at least in the official version of the country’s surf history, introduced surfboard riding to France. But Viertel’s own story, told in his 1992 memoir, Dangerous Friends, is somewhat different.

Viertel, a distinguished screenwriter, former Marine, and friend of Hemingway, was, like all of Papa’s buddies, a man of action as well as words. He could box, ski, swim long distances, bodysurf, and play tennis at a professional level, but he’d never been on a surfboard in his life before that stay in Biarritz. However, Dickie Zanuck, the aspiring producer son of Hollywood mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, was a weekend warrior at Malibu. Driving a sports car from Paris down to Pamplona one afternoon to begin second-unit filming (the main filming was to be done in Mexico), Viertel told the younger man that he had seen waves there on a previous visit that might be good for surfing, so they made a quick detour to check out la Grande Plage from the terrace bar of l’Hôtel du Palais. 

Pleased at what he saw, Dickie said he’d get his Velzy-Jacobs Pig freighted over from LA and come back to Biarritz to surf after the shoot was done. But Darryl Zanuck had other ideas and ordered his son to fly directly home from Madrid. Viertel returned to Biarritz alone.

He later wrote, “I moved into a small room on the fourth floor of the hotel and collected the surfboard. Although the waves were not very big…I soon discovered that surfing was a sport that would require some expert instruction, and after losing my board on my first few attempts to catch a wave, I was ordered out of the water by the lifeguards who said I was a danger to the other bathers.” 

Across the border and into Franco’s Spain, de Rosnay (behind the wheel), the Lartigau brothers, and Pascal Demont would be some of the first to ride waves in the Basque Country in the early 1960s. Though just a short road trip, it remains an early marker of the baron’s later and wider explorations. Photograph by François Lartigau.

This was not the first time that the French had seen surfcraft badly ridden. Some of them were already riding small wooden “planckies,” similar to paipo boards, and local kahuna Jacky Rott had actually stood up a few times on homemade designs that were more like olos. But when Viertel left without the board at the end of the summer, the genie was truly out of the bottle. Several copies were made during that winter, and in the summer of 1957 the surfer who mastered riding them the quickest was the athletic and handsome Baron Joël de Rosnay.

Joël became the poster child for the group of about 20 French pioneers known as les tontons surfeurs, among them board builders Rott and Michel Barland, as well as Georges Hennebutte, who invented the surf leash a good decade before Pat O’Neill. By 1959, Viertel had become proficient on a surfboard and had returned to Biarritz several times, bringing new balsa boards for les tontons to copy. Another summer visitor was millionaire Peruvian businessman Carlos Dogny, who had founded the Waikiki Surf Club in his native country and soon helped establish one in Biarritz. When the club issued its first membership cards, number one was to Dogny himself, with Joël at number two. At number seven was 13-year-old Arnaud, and in the following summer’s intake, at numbers 36 and 37, were the Lartigau brothers, Jean-Marie, 12, and François, 10.

“When we were small kids, in the mornings we used to go to the Port Vieux for swimming lessons,” Lartigau recalls, “and then we’d walk around to la Grande Plage, where there was more wave activity and about half a dozen surfers, usually including Joël and Arnaud. My brother and I would run along the beach to fetch their boards after they’d been washed in. One day Joël asked if we wanted to learn how to stand up on a board. We said we did, so he told us to come to Côte des Basques the next afternoon. Well, that was it. Arnaud was only a year or two older than me, so we’d hang around together at Côte des Basques, where there was a real social scene. This was 1960, the summer we started riding surfboards, and maybe the third summer of surfing in France.” 

Surfing contests began in France that same summer, and while Joël was undoubtedly the best surfer in the country, his rising stature as a scientist and his recent marriage often kept him out of the events, leaving the senior men’s division a wide-open affair. The juniors, however, were locked up by Jean-Marie, who was soon recognized as the heir apparent to Joël’s dominance, rather than Arnaud, who fought out the minor places with François. 

“I had a gift and I was considered by some to be the new Joël,” says Lartigau. “Arnaud was a good surfer too, but even at that age he was really flamboyant, and his style was all arms and legs. His mother used to look at him on a wave and say, ‘Look at Arnaud, that’s my spider!’ But, you know, Arnaud had balls. He loved big waves.”

Before he became one of the world’s leading fashion shooters, Arnaud cut his photographic teeth by capturing his local surf scene, its name-worthy visitors, its beach-side environs. (Top) Australians Keith Paul, left, and Wayne Lynch, right, La Barre, 1968. (Bottom) Unidentified in more-traditional posturing, Biarritz, mid 1960s.

He also loved a good prank, perhaps figuring that if he couldn’t win the surf contest, he might win the popularity contest. Lartigau remembers, “There was a big surf contest sponsored by one of the major hotels in Biarritz, and they had this huge presentation banquet where everyone wore ties and jackets. Arnaud came second, but only first [place] got a trophy, and that was me, so when they came to take a photo, he picked up a vase of flowers and held it up like a trophy. That was typical Arnaud.”

Starting around 1963, Arnaud began spending more time behind the camera and less in front of it. His interest in photography may have been sparked in 1961, when Joël put together a package of the first photographs of surfing in France and sent them to publisher John Severson at a new magazine called The Surfer. While Arnaud appears in one of the published photos, riding tandem with Dogny, it’s also likely that he shot a group photo of les tontons and one of Joël doing a headstand. Within a couple of years, he owned one of the very first Nikonos water cameras, and a series of his water shots of Lartigau surfing la Barre were featured in the prestigious Paris Match magazine. By then, Arnaud, along with René Le Bègue, had become the leading surf photographer in France. Arnaud’s growing international reputation as a self-promoter was further bolstered when another Severson publication, The Skateboarder, published a huge spread on skateboarding in Paris, in which Arnaud is seen skating past the historic city landmarks in front of amazed onlookers before being hauled in by a gendarme.

Monique Kramer, providing an early study for the type of work in which Arnaud would later make his name, 1968. Photograph by Arnaud de Rosnay.

But this was kid stuff compared with the future Arnaud saw from the darkroom trays in the basement of his Paris apartment. He shortly thereafter not only secured a job as assistant to famed American photographer Richard Avedon on his European assignments, such as shooting portraits of The Beatles, but through Avedon met an aspiring young American model and actress and began dating her. He not only fell in love with Marisa Berenson, but soon had put her on the cover of Vogue

Berenson was a year younger than Arnaud, but was already a renowned seductress of the stars. Fortunately, gangly Arnaud was well prepared. Former South Bay surfer Jim Stephens, who was in Biarritz in the summer of 1966, remembers the surfing rumor mill lighting up with the news that Arnaud was being tutored in the art of love by a famous, beautiful, and much older woman. “It was supposed to be Anita Ekberg,” says Lartigau, referring to the sexy star of the 1960 Fellini scorcher La Dolce Vita, “but we never found out.”

Lartigau says his friend Arnaud had drifted away from the Biarritz surf scene by the summer of love, 1967. “When he was 14 or 15, he used to tell me, ‘I want to be the richest young man in Paris before I turn 21.’ He was on a completely different wavelength to provincial boys from Biarritz like us. When we started turning on and dropping out, he didn’t fit in. He might have had the look, but he was a glamour hippie. He hung out with the golden crust. That year, he showed up in Biarritz in a Rolls-Royce with a chauffeur, panther fur on the back seat, and miniatures on the sidewalls with pearls and gold inlays.”

In his 2014 biography, Arnaud de Rosnay: Gentleman of the Extreme, Olivier Bonnefon goes even further in describing the over-the-top Roller: “Radio K7 8-track, electronic homing and transceiver, six powerful speakers, radar and ice detectors…panther fur on golden leather chairs, Indian prints on the rear doors, and a fridge with champagne and caviar for his meetings or an apéritif facing the sunset and the waves.” (In fact it was Bonnefon’s rather overblown account of Arnaud’s life, published only in French, that first made public the privately held knowledge that Gaëtan was not his birth father.)

With his page-ones, Twiggy and Marisa Berenson included, late 70s. Photograph by Francis Apesteguy/Getty Images.

In 1973, Arnaud married Isabel Goldsmith, the eldest daughter of billionaire Anglo-French corporate raider Sir James Goldsmith, in one of London’s society weddings of the year. The marriage lasted less than two years, mainly because Arnaud had discovered a new passion for extreme windsurfing and decided to cross all of the major straits on the planet, starting with the Bering in 1979.

He made that trip with ease, flying both the Soviet and American flags as he sailed the icy waters between Alaska and Russia. Yet, back in France, skeptics in the surfing community claimed that some of the photos looked very much like the Bay of Biscay just beyond Biarritz. There were doubters again just a few months later, when he tried to sail 500 miles to Tahiti from the Marquesas via the Tuamotus on a parafoil, the precursor of the kitesurfer. Rescued off Ahe atoll on day 13 of a five-day voyage, exhausted and with blistered hands, swollen eyeballs, and tales of fending off hungry sharks, he claimed to have sailed more than 600 miles total. 

Arnaud then took time out to romance American windsurfing ace and model Jenna Severson, the teenage daughter of John Severson, who had turned The Surfer into Surfer magazine. While “Sevo” had the utmost respect for the de Rosnay family, with whom he’d had dealings for 20 years, he thought his daughter too young for marriage. But the two adventurers were wildly in love, and he didn’t object when they tied the knot in Mauritius in 1981.

Within weeks of the wedding, Arnaud had given the record for a windsurfing English Channel crossing a big nudge, and by the end of the year he had plotted a quick-fire succession of crossings around the world. It seems that the doubts about the veracity of his solo exploits made him only more determined, but Jenna managed to hose him down and get him to focus on their life together for a year or two.

In 1984, despite the fact that she was pregnant with their daughter, Alizé, Jenna could hold him back no longer. He crossed the 100 miles from Florida to Cuba, just to get his feet back in the wax, so to speak, then jumped the strait between the Japanese island of Hokkaido and Sakhalin Island in the USSR a few months later. After Alizé’s birth, he was ready for a new challenge.

There was nothing particularly hairy about Arnaud’s proposed 100-mile crossing of the Taiwan Strait, apart from the fact that the Chinese authorities wouldn’t supply a support boat, most of the strait was in an off-limits military zone, and the water was icy. In fact, when he slipped quietly out of Quanzhou in China under the cover of darkness on November 24, he expected to be in Taiwan for breakfast. He was never seen again.

Outside magazine reported: “For 11 days, Chinese and American pilots searched from the air while ships patrolled the sea. The Taiwanese combed fishing villages, thinking maybe he’d made landfall after all. But no one found a board, a sail, or a body. Satellite images later showed no storms had been in the area when de Rosnay disappeared. The wind was strong, gusting up to 37 miles per hour, but those conditions were within the baron’s capabilities. ‘Of course, we can’t discard the hypothesis that he fell from his board and couldn’t catch it again,’ his older brother, scientist and writer Joël de Rosnay, told a French TV network.”

For a few years after, political and conspiracy theories surrounding Arnaud’s disappearance did the rounds. But slowly, everyone who knew him accepted the sad fact that the impossibly glamorous, sublimely reckless brother from another father had simply run out of luck.