In the opening chapters of “Chanel’s Riviera: Glamour, Decadence, and Survival in Peace and War, 1930-1944,” we’re enveloped in the drama and gossip swirling around fashion designer Coco Chanel. The setting is the French Riviera of the 1930s, a “glamorous, golden, sun-filled coastline famous for uninhibited enjoyment,” as historian Anne de Courcy describes it.
The idylls and excesses that consumed the lives of the wealthy, though, soon shift to far grimmer concerns, as World War II progressed from an ominous shadow to a terrible reality.
Previously pressing topics – King Edward VIII abdicating the throne for love of Wallis Simpson, Chanel’s business rivalry with Elsa Schiaparelli – give way to Germany’s stunning breach of the Maginot Line and the despair of the 1940 Franco-German armistice.
“France was defeated after only six weeks of fighting. When she learnt this, Chanel went to her room and wept,” de Courcy writes.
De Courcy, author of several other books on the aristocracy and on the same time period, fills the book with boldfaced names who frequented the Riviera, such as Pablo Picasso and Somerset Maugham, along with high-society heirs and heiresses who are little known today. Chanel was among the celebrities, famed for both her revolutionary women’s clothing line and for her eponymous perfume. She provides a focal point for the book, but comes off neither as a hero nor a villain.
Staying in Paris at the Ritz when the Maginot Line is breached, Chanel flees the city along with millions of others, though in different style: “Paying her bill for two months in advance, she left in her chauffeur’s car, as her blue Rolls-Royce would have been too conspicuous, taking with her several of her female employees to seek refuge in the south.” (When she returns, she is unconcerned to live among Nazis at the Ritz, and de Courcy writes: “Odd though it sounds, to Chanel the war was an interruption, rather than a life-or-death conflict in which one had to choose one side or the other.” At one point Chanel attempts to “act as intermediary in a peace settlement between the Allies and the Axis powers,” and she is taken at war’s end in for questioning as a potential collaborator. (She may have escaped retribution in part because she had offered every American GI liberating Paris a free bottle of Chanel No. 5.) At the end, de Courcy notes that “How much or how far Chanel collaborated is still a matter for conjecture. ... What is certain is that while she was both pro-British and pro-French, she was above all pro-Chanel.”
While some of her fellow jet-setters exhibit valor and loyalty throughout the war, the book’s characters who represent the best of the Riviera tend to be the ones who never would have appeared in the society pages.
Some of their stories are drawn from the files of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem, and from papers and oral histories in other archives.
They include the desperate bravery of characters like Henri Korb, a young Jewish man who used the “slow and tortuous byways of French bureaucracy” to escape to Nice. He joins the Resistance, where, “arriving in two Citroëns and threatening its guard with a Sten gun, they raided an arms factory in St-Étienne for guns.”
There are multiple diary entries from Elizabeth Foster, “an elderly American confined for health reasons to her apartment in a smart part of Nice.” She writes of the “terrible little notice” that appears almost daily in the newspaper “giving the names of men shot by order of the German High Command.” We see the chilling account of 600 Jews rounded up in Nice, where “captives were bundled into trains, with children as young as three separated from their mothers and the gendarmes using batons and hoses,” shipped to a notorious departure point for the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The rich are different from you and me, as F. Scott Fitzgerald (another Riviera visitor) was credited as having said, and the book shows that holds true even in wartime.
When Enid Furness, the “notorious” and dazzling third wife of the fabulously wealthy Lord Furness, must boil down candles for soap, saving her scant food rations for her daughter and sick husband, she also unironically observes that “Never in living history have women been so badly dressed.”
It seemed a long time, de Courcy wrote, “since the day less than a year earlier when Enid had lain back luxuriously in her bed in the London Clinic after a facelift, her cheetah sprawled across her, seriously disconcerting the famous Sir Archibald McIndoe when he came to see how his patient was getting on.” (In fairness, Enid also eventually helps Allied prisoners escape.)
De Courcy doesn’t judge her subjects, but seems deeply familiar with them, describing scenes with such confidence and intimacy the reader is practically viewing them through a peephole. Even for relatively minor characters, we learn vivid details about topics from their landscaping to their scandalous entanglements, from pets (one had a “vicious male lemur with needle-sharp teeth”) to plates (Florence Gould, a friend and client of Chanel’s, kept piles of “marvellous Chinese flower-decorated porcelain” in the pantry to feed notable figures like Matisse and Colette, while “[s]tacked in the silver cupboard were a dozen superb silver plates made in 1770 for Catherine the Great to give to one of her favorites.”)
The book includes a lengthy bibliography and acknowledgments page, but specific footnotes would have been a treat: I especially wanted to know how de Courcy found the architect who employed “cunning and split-second timing worthy of a French farce” to measure a client’s “enormous rump” for a slide that dropped from her chateau’s swimming pool into the sea.
The mix of humor and horror can be discombobulating, along with the piecemeal narrative: One character is introduced with a chilling prophecy about her fate, for instance; we don’t hear more until the prophecy is fulfilled more than 100 pages later.
Still, we are warned of this approach early on: De Courcy states in her prologue that she did not intend to write either a biography of Chanel or an account of the Riviera, but to just tell the story of the years when Chanel summered there. It’s a framing device of space and time, making for a fascinating kaleidoscope of a story – one that works because of the glitter of each individual piece.