Marbella in the 20th Century
The first hotels were built in Marbella in the early 20th Century between 1918 and 1926. During this period, Marbella experienced major social changes driven by contentious political parties.
At the start of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the anti-clerical violence in Marbella was amongst the worst in the province of Malaga. Several religious buildings in the city, including the Incarnation Church and the Church of San Pedro, were set on fire after the failed uprising which led to the Civil War. With the aid of troops from fascist Italy, Marbella was seized by Nationalists in the first few months of the war.
It then became a haven for prominent Nazis such as Degrelle and Jugler. It was also a getaway for personalities like Jose Antonio Giron de Velasco and Jose Banús, both personal friends of Francisco Franco. These two were largely responsible for the urban development of Marbella in the 1960s.
After World War ll (1939-1945), Marbella was still a small village with less than a thousand inhabitants. Ricardo Soriano (Marquis of Ivanrey) came to Marbella in the late 1940s and it started to become a popular haunt for his rich and famous friends. As its undisputed promoter, the main road through Marbella has been named after him. In 1943, he purchased an estate between the old town and San Pedro called El Rodeo. He later built a resort which heralded the beginning of tourism in Marbella. Soriano was a genius, spotting the potential in business and sports. Among his creations were the 90hp outboard motor, bobsleigh and snowmobile.
In 1947, Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe, who was the son of Prince Maximiliano von Hohenlohe and Princess Piedad de Iturbe, arrived in Marbella. Born into an ancient German family he was also connected to Spanish nobility from his mother´s side of the family. His first marriage had ended in divorce in 1961 and he then married the American actress Jackie Lane. He was later married for the third time to Marilys Haynes, a British citizen, and he died in Marbella in 2003. He was named a ‘Favorite Son of Marbella’ and one of its main streets is named after him. He acquired the Finca Santa Margarita and it became his private residence. There were so many visitors to the property, it was developed and it later became the Marbella Club. The luxury hotel opened its doors in 1954 and literally catapulted Marbella into the destination in southern Spain for the international jet set. It was popular with the Duke of Windsor, James Hunt, Rock Hudson, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Prince Rainier lll of Monaco and his wife Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner, the Aga Khan, Brigitte Bardot, Audrey Hepburn, Aristotle Onassis and many more. Don Jaime de Mora y Aragón, tall and elegant, loved life. Having played in many Spanish movies, he loved to drive the streets of Marbella on a Harley. He first came to Marbella in the early 1960s and stayed until his death in 1995. Other hotels opened to cover the area and attract tourists such as El Fuerte, San Nicolas, Los Monteros, Don Carlos (formerly the Hilton) and the Hotel Don Pepe.
Over the next couple of decades, many other famous people including Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Adnan Khashoggi, who purchased a large hunting estate in Sierra Bermeja, today known as Las Zagaleta. Princess Soraya and Deborah Kerr bought homes in Marbella. Due to Alfonso’s family connections to Spain’s titled aristocracy and the royal courts of Europe, it quickly became popular with these elites for being casual and discreet.
During the 1970’s, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia arrived in Marbella. This hugely wealthy monarch later built a palace here in the 1980s which was modelled on ‘the White House’ and his yacht was so large, it didn’t fit into the marina at Puerto Banús. Due to his large entourage, he was more than welcome in Marbella helping to create a mini boom whenever he stayed here.
Puerto Banus was opened 2 August 1970 attended by Prince Rainier and Princes Grace of Monaco, along with Karim Aga Khan as guests of honour. With a final guest list of 1300 people, who were entertained by the highly acclaimed new artist Julio Iglesias. With the continued work of Banus he held luxury galas and events all with the aim to make the port and Marbella known all over the world. It worked the yachts arrived, one of the first ‘Atlantic’ owned by Greek shipowner Stavros Niarchos. Followed by Rockefeller and ‘Sea Star’, Aristotle Onassis and ‘Cristina’, the King and Queen of Belgium, the Duchess of Alba as well as the Duke of Windsor and the Kennedys.
Then followed the A list actors and actresses, Audrey Hepburn, Sydney Poitier, Deborah Kerr, Rock Hudson, Gina Lollobrigida, Maria Callas, Sean Connery, Brigitte Bardot and many more.
During the 1980s, Marbella continued to be the destination of preference for the jet set. Even after it became the focus of international media scrutiny with the kidnapping of Melodie Nakachian, the daughter of local billionaire Raymond Nakachian, in 1987. The President of the Atlético Madrid football club, Jesús Gil y Gil was then elected Mayor of Marbella in 1991. A lavish fundraiser was held at the Marbella Club Hotel for AIDS relief in 1998, attended by many of the rich and famous and European royalty which included Princess Marie-Louise of Prussia (the great-granddaughter of Káiser Wilhelm ll) and her husband Count Rudolf von Schonburg-glauchau, who eventually took over the Marbella Club Hotel from Prince Alfonso.
During the 1990’s, under Gil´s administration, Marbella experimented with extensive building activity, improving its infrastructure, cultural centres, sports, parks and much more. There were many complaints that construction was performed without any regard for the existing urban plan. Gil was not to be thwarted and continued ‘developing’ Marbella with little regard for town hall formalities. Although he was strongly criticised by the other major political parties, they did not persuade enough voters to oust him. As celebrities and the social elite continued to vacation here, people turned a blind eye to what he was doing and the town grew in popularity. Unfortunately, the period resulted in a complete reappraisal of the city’s finances and there were also investigations into corruption. Jesús Gil was forced to resign in 2002 after being jailed for diverting public funds, where he died in 2004.