Grimaldi: In a luxury villa perched on a mountain over the Mediterranean, once upon a time, lived a surgeon who grafted ape testicles onto rich old men, in the hope of doubling their lifespan.
His theories have long been discredited as, well, a load of balls.
But the villa, where the Alps meet the sea and France meets Italy, still marks a place visited by people hoping for a new life.
Dr Sergei Voronoff was the child of an oppressed Jewish family in Tsarist Russia. The successful surgeon won international fame after World War I: in his 1920 book La Conquete de la Vie – The Conquest of Life – he lamented that “death shocks man with a sense of the cruellest injustice… [My] present work gives the source of the means to restore the energy which fails us at a certain age, and extend the limit of our lives.
That source was the testicle: the “distributor of energy, which stimulates the immense bee-hive known as our body”, he wrote. “To graft this gland is to participate at first hand in the work of creation.”
He practised on sheep and goats. The book – also an ahead-of-its-time treatise arguing for large-scale organ donation – rued the impracticality of harvesting testicles from young men to help out the old.
“Fortunately we have a near relative in the animal world from whom we may borrow what we need with less scruple... the orang-outang, the chimpanzee and the gibbon,” he said.
“Men who have reached the age when their intellectual and physical faculties begin to decline, when the memory because unreliable, thought is slow, effort more difficult, fatigue more prompt, when all the ardors of life are blunted and dulled and some are extinguished, may borrow from their young relatives of the virgin forests a new source of vital activity.”
“It is an additional sacrifice we must demand of the apes.”
He met with some scepticism.
“Will the man become a monkey?,” a New York Times reporter asked. The doctor laughed in reply.
Soon he was claiming success in the “rejuvenation” of old men – especially old rich men with much younger wives.
Time magazine described Voronoff as a “tall, slender, dark, magnetic” figure who calmly waved away cynics, saying it was “not easy” for physicians to accept progress.
He had married a New York oil heiress, Evelyn, who worked as his lab assistant and translator. She died in 1921 but donated her shares in Standard Oil to his ongoing work.
In 1922 an Englishman (or by other reports a New York actor) called Arthur Liardet, who claimed to be in his mid-70s, said Voronoff’s transplant, left him “full of energy”, his wrinkles had disappeared and hair re-grew.
“Feel this,” he told the Time reporter, flexing muscles described as “biceps which any man of 30 might envy”.
He appears to have been a relative of Voronoff’s ex-wife, and the next year he was dead.
By 1925 Voronoff was world-famous, performing operations for scores of willing recipients even as scientists around the world tried and failed to reproduce his success. His work was even fictionalised in a Sherlock Holmes mystery.
Voronoff bought that beautiful 19th century Italian villa on the Mediterranean coast, whose windows looked on one side towards Menton in France, and on the other the olive groves of Ventimiglia in Italy.
It had a lush garden described by one visitor as an “earthly paradise” where Voronoff set up his ape farm, which at its peak housed about 80 primates.
He put the town on the map, entertaining a string of celebrity and royal visitors. Locals sold monkey-shaped ashtrays (in its right hand a gun and the inscription "Come forward Voronoff if you dare!").
Local children were promised a trip "to see the monkeys" if they were good.
And there, according to local historian Enzo Barnaba, Voronoff helped refugees cross the border.
A path in the mountains above the official customs gates has long been used to flee west – by Italian anti-fascists, Jews fleeing Mussolini, and more recently those escaping war in Yugoslavia.
Voronoff “opened up a path to skip the customs”, Barnaba says, letting people in the front door from Italy and out the back into France. What they must have thought of the ape cage is not recorded.
Voronoff fled the Nazis - by 1941 he was 74 and married to a 26-year-old, a cousin of a friend of the former King Carol of Romania.
His two brothers died at Auschwitz, and Voronoff returned to find his beautiful villa extensively bombed. Soon after he died following a fall from a bathtub.
You can stay at the Voronoff Villa, if you want.
It was restored (minus the ape cages) and split into apartments in the 80s, and one of the owners, Chiorino Giacomo, rents it out to tourists.
“Guests don’t know anything about the story,” Giacomo says.
But, from time to time, refugees from Africa and the Middle East still pass its gates, heading west.