Title: Chanel’s Riviera
Author: Anne de Courcy
Genre: History, Non-Fiction
Publisher: Hachette/Weidenfeld and Nicholson
Published: 11th June 2019
Synopsis: Bestselling social historian Anne de Courcy reveals the glamour and grit of the Second World War on the French Riviera
Far from worrying about the onset of war, in the spring of 1938 the burning question on the French Riviera was whether one should curtsey to the Duchess of Windsor. Few of those who had settled there thought much about what was going on in the rest of Europe. It was a golden, glamorous life, far removed from politics or conflict.
Featuring a sparkling cast of artists, writers and historical figures including Winston Churchill, Daisy Fellowes, Salvador Dali, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Eileen Gray and Edith Wharton, with the enigmatic Coco Chanel at its heart, CHANEL’S RIVIERA is a captivating account of a period that saw some of the deepest extremes of luxury and terror in the whole of the twentieth century.
From Chanel’s first summer at her Roquebrune villa La Pausa (in the later years with her German lover) amid the glamour of the pre-war parties and casinos in Antibes, Nice and Cannes to the horrors of evacuation and the displacement of thousands of families during the Second World War, CHANEL’S RIVIERA explores the fascinating world of the Cote d’Azur elite in the 1930s and 1940s. Enriched with much original research, it is social history that brings the experiences of both rich and poor, protected and persecuted, to vivid life.
1938 Europe was awash with the rise of Nazism, the threat of war, and the unsettled nature of the European continent. Yet at the same time, there was a section of society living along the Riviera in France – for a time, untouched by Nazism, where the biggest concern was whether to curtsey for the wife of the Duke of Windsor, who had abdicated two years earlier to marry her. This latter world was that of Coco Chanel, and a wide, and varied cast of artists, people involved in fashion, an d many others for whom, until the German occupation of France, and Vichy’s increasing anti-Semitic laws in the 1940s, war was not a reality. Until the worlds of luxury and terror clashed, nobody thought much of the threat facing people in other parts of France or Europe. Chanel was focussed on her fashion designing, and fashion house. She did not appear to care that rights were being cut down for Jews, despite employing them and claiming to have Jewish friends, there was evidence to suggest she was anti-Semitic and later in the war, she was spied on under suspicion of collusion with the German side. Yet evidence for this is inconclusive and could never been proven by French and English spies and investigators.
For Chanel, the interruption of war was an economic inconvenience for her fashion house and empire, rather than the completely traumatic upheaval it was for the rest of society. She was put out by the fact that she had to shut her business down and move out of her apartments at the Ritz, which, when she returned later, she found overrun by Germans and this led to the suspicions that she was working with them. One possibility – based on her view that she was merely economically inconvenienced in my reading – was that her meeting with Churchill towards the end of the war was motivated by her desire to simply get back into business. That does not exclude any other motivations or her collaboration with the Nazis as a spy. Economy is one possibility for why she did what she did – but it should not be a reason to excuse her views either. However, as De Courcy mentions, it may never be known what her true motivations were, even if there is proof of her anti-Semitism and Nazi connections, which aren’t really touched on in this book too much, as it is more of a history of the Riviera during the 1930s and 1940s than a biography of Chanel herself. Still, it is important to remember that she was an anti-Semite and she was a Nazi supporter and spy. Looking further into Chanel herself will reveal more about this for those interested.
This is not just about Coco Chanel though, nut she appears throughout and not in the most flattering light, given she was a Nazi supporter and spy. It is more about the social fabric that made the Riviera the place it was before and during World War Two, the people who lived on the Cotê d’Azur, and the elite world they lived in – far removed from the realities of what most people were dealing with. But as the threat of war and war itself progressed, these people found themselves at threat, running and hiding until the war was over, keeping their art and literature away from the Nazis. In some cases, those with Jewish heritage did what they could to hide that heritage, often at great cost or pain to themselves and their families. But the fear and knowledge of what could happen made people desperate.
It was a dark time in European history, and a time filled with contradictions, where the French under the German rule found subtle, subversive ways to rebel against the rules imposed upon them. If they could not wear the French standard as it was, they found ways to wear all three colours together, so that each looked innocuous but really, they were making a point – and nothing could be done. Overall, it is quite a complex book, with many individuals and events creating the environment that went dead for the duration of the war but was lively again following liberation and the end of the war. It shows a society that was at first so far removed from war, they didn’t think about what might happen until it affected them. In a lavishly rich society, these people were cushioned and protected to some extent by their belief that France wouldn’t fall, that war would not touch them. History certainly tells a different story, and the idyllic Riviera would be changed for a time, and those who lived there altered as well.