It Was ‘Chanel’s Riviera’ in the 1930s. Then Came World War II.


Glamour, Decadence and Survival in Peace and War, 1930-1944

By Anne De Courcy

Raise your hand if you can resist the temptation to read yet another account of the glittering Côte d’Azur on the eve of World War II. For today’s real estate-obsessed, much of Anne De Courcy’s retelling of the characters, events and properties of the French Riviera in the 1930s reads like a Sotheby’s International catalog punctuated with Page Six-style rundowns of who’s sleeping with whom and banal descriptions of what F. Scott Fitzgerald famously described as “the diffused magic of the hot, sweet South.”

It was Coco Chanel who helped magnetize the Mediterranean playground that stretches from Monaco to St. Tropez when she built her Roquebrune villa, La Pausa, in 1928 and filled it with the furnishings of her lover, the Duke of Westminster. In the quaint fishing towns of Juan-Les-Pins and Antibes, Chanel’s minimalist mariner’s sweaters and ropes of pearls were the height of chic, but the couturière was also a trendsetter in the garden, where she popularized “poorer” species like lavender and olive trees as opposed to the usual roses and lilies. Although sketches of Chanel’s life, specifically her fashion inventions and her love affairs, are woven throughout the book, she is not the only icon whose habits are chronicled in meticulous detail (making it slightly odd that her name is featured so prominently in the title).

De Courcy (“The Husband Hunters,” “Margot at War”) begins with the glamour: intoxicating descriptions of the summer migration from Paris on the Blue Train. Socialites, artists, writers and expats lodged in rented villas and hotel rooms, apparently undaunted by the economic collapse of 1929 and the looming specter of Hitler. We meet Colette in a four-room peasant mas in nearby St. Tropez, and Edith Wharton in a 17th-century convent in Hyères. P. G. Wodehouse gambled almost nightly at the Cannes Casino while Aldous Huxley enjoyed servings of thinly sliced brown bread in his cube-shaped villa in Sanary-sur-Mer, writing to his brother-in-law that “all is exquisitely lovely. Sun, roses, fruit, warmth. We bathe and bask.”

Some basked; some worked. The Waugh brothers toiled away at the Hôtel Welcome in Villefranche, along with Igor Stravinsky, Serge Diaghilev and Jean Cocteau, who was hooked on opium. Even Chanel had picked up a morphine habit by 1935. Her great friend Lady Enid Furness, an Australian beauty and the third wife of Baron Furness, prowled around with her tame cheetah. The American heiress Daisy Fellowes entertained the Prince of Wales and a then-unknown American divorcée named Wallis, who was doing some social networking of her own. Other socialites with names like Fruity and Baba indulged in daily helpings of bouillabaisse, rascasse farci and plenty of gin.

But the glamour on the Riviera would soon give way to a fight for survival as the Germans invaded France and the horrors of history took hold. It’s hard to imagine that so many boldface names refused to acknowledge the darker world beyond their villas and continued to party as the Nuremberg Laws were instated in 1935 and the influx of German Jewish refugees grew. Seemingly the only person among the summer crowd to warn fellow partygoers about the dangerous rise of fascism and the inevitability of war was Winston Churchill, a guest at the Château de l’Horizon.

The second half of the book describes in equally meticulous — and gruesome — detail the deportations and persecution of Jews, and the struggle of many along the Côte d’Azur, including Chanel’s architect, to hide Allied prisoners and detention camp escapees in their villas, and then to help them find other safe houses or couriers. That’s the problem with this meandering, occasionally repetitive account: The awkward juxtaposition of the Riviera’s high-society decadence and the gruesome atrocities of the war is difficult to reconcile.

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