The kindest, most elegant man I have ever known was Aleco Noghes, monégasque tennis champion and bon vivant in exile. He died in his 80s, a decade after having happily returned to live along the Corniche overlooking Cap Ferrat, repatriated with the menagerie of stray dogs and cats he had collected over his years in California. In California he'd had a large garden that kept him busy with the lawn and roses and two or three orange trees - "mon allée" - shading the little path from his patio to his pool alongside his tennis court.
"Do you miss your garden in LA?" I asked him soon after he moved back to Eze.
"No, it is a paradise here. The ten acres of hillside around the house are too steep for gardening and the dogshit rolls downhill!"
When I first met Aleco he was in his mid-50s and looked like Hemingway at the same age, with an affable French-accented charm that disappeared when he went to work on the tennis court. On one of his birthdays, after we drank my gift of Dom Perignon, I challenged him to a tennis match in which, to handicap him and lower the hopeless odds against me, he would play against my racket with the empty champagne bottle. He laughed, but his eyes narrowed at the challenge and suddenly he was someone else as we took to the court and he gave me set point, 40-love, 5 games to 0, his serve. All I needed was to take that first point or somehow just the first game for the match, which, of course, I did not. During the rest of the set I may have won a trimphant point or two, but he demolished me 6-0 with his repertoire of aces and topspin and trick bounces, power and junk.
Of the top players then in tennis, Aleco particularly admired Ilie Nastase. "Nastase is something somewhere else, "Aleco said, "playing a game all his own, an artist. But his genius is temperamental and this keeps him from being a champion."
"What makes him a genius?"
"I watch him receive the ball and I see three possible returns. He sees five."
My favorite memory of Aleco is one day on the court when he wore an old, beautifully faded milky red sweater. I asked him how long he'd had the sweater; he told me it was older than I was and, seeing how impressed I was, he summoned me to the net for one of our typical philosophical discussions, during which he always reached over the net to hold my forearm while he made his wonderfully lengthy point.
"Do you remember the blazer I wore to our soirée on your birthday?" Aleco asked me.
"Yes; double-breasted; beautiful. In your white trousers, you looked like a tennis yachtsman."
"Exactly me, in a former life. My tailor made that blazer for me before the World War II."
"Michael, listen to me. You, I, we both love our dogs who will not live as long as we love them. Our children grow up into their own lives and leave us. Never mind what women do to us all our lives. Michael," Aleco said squeezing my arm, "everything we love will break our heart. Take care of your clothes. They
are your only friends!"