I have been very interested in Coco Chanel’s unlikely path in this world, from neglected orphan to world famous designer. Now Anne De Courcy’s newest book Chanel's Riviera has focused on how the designer helped magnetise the Mediterranean playground from Monaco to St Tropez. Chanel’s lover since 1923, Bendor Duke of Westminster bought her a plot of land in Cap-Martin, after spotting it while yachting together around the Riviera.
I already knew that Coco needed someone with extensive experience in commerce, international business connections, and access to large amounts of capital to successfully market her perfume. In 1924, brothers Pierre & Paul Wertheimer became Chanel's partners in her perfume business. During their partnership, the Wertheimers saved Chanel by buying 70% of her perfume company. But due to Chanel’s absorbed anti-Semitism, the partnership was doomed.
Chanel purchased five acres of holiday estate in 1928. For the rest of the decade, she oversaw the building and design of the home, Roquebrune Villa in La Pausa. The 1.8 million francs she paid was huge, but to Chanel it was a joy; she filled it with the Duke’s furnishings. Chanel's first summer at her villa was amid the glamour of the pre-war parties and casinos in Antibes, Nice and Cannes. Their love affair ended in 1933, ten years after they met in Monte Carlo, but Chanel kept the elegantly appointed villa.
In the charming port towns of Juan-Les-Pins and Antibes, Chanel’s French mariner’s tops and ropes of pearls were the height of chic. But she was also a trendsetter in the garden where she popularised lesser species like lavender. Although Chanel’s life, specifically her fashion inventions and her love affairs, dominated the book, she was not the only icon whose lives were recorded in great detail.
De Courcy began with glamorous descriptions of the summer migration from Paris on the Blue Train. Socialites, artists and writers rented villas and hotel rooms, clearly not anxious about the economic collapse of 1929 and rising Nazism. Evelyn Waugh worked at the Hôtel Welcome in Villefranche, along with Igor Stravinsky, Serge Diaghilev and Jean Cocteau. Chanel’s great friend Lady Enid Furness, an Australian beauty and the third wife of Baron Furness, prowled with her tame cheetah. American heiress Daisy Fellowes entertained the Prince of Wales and a divorcée called Wallis. Salvador Dali joined Stravinsky, Cocteau and Pablo Picasso in this villa when they lounged around on handsome pieces of Provençal furniture chosen by Coco.
In 1938 the Cote d'Azur playground was a world of wealth, luxury and extravagance, enjoyed by a bright cast of stars including Joseph P Kennedy, Gloria Swanson, Mitfords, Picasso, Cecil Beaton and Somerset Maugham. Colette was in a 4-room peasant home in nearby St Tropez and Edith Wharton in a convent in Hyères. PG Wodehouse gambled at the Cannes Casino while Aldous Huxley enjoyed his villa in Sanary-sur-Mer.
Roquebrune Villa on the French Riviera
Did those who settled there think about what was going on in the rest of Europe? Possibly not. It was a glamorous life, far removed from conflict. The elite flocked to the Riviera each year to swim, gamble and escape from Europe’s turbulence - even when the glamour on the Riviera gave way to oncoming war. They continued to party as the Nuremberg Laws were instated in 1935 and the influx of German Jewish refugees grew. The only person warning fellow partygoers about the inevitability of war against Fascism was Winston Churchill, a guest at the Château de l’Horizon.
Chanel had nothing to worry about. After the Nazis took over Paris in 1940, Chanel moved in with Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, an Abwehr/German military intelligence officer. They lived in Paris' Hôtel Ritz, then Germany’s headquarters, and in high society in La Pausa.
Not everyone agreed with her. In waiting for the Germans to invade Britain in 1941, Chanel’s close friends Misia and Josep Maria Sert took opposite sides. Misia, a Russian-Polish pianist who hosted an artistic salon in Paris, rejected intimacy with the German overlords. But her husband, from neutral Spain, used his German contacts to live in Occupied France in luxury.
The later chapters described the deportations, and the struggle of many along the Côte d’Azur to hide Allied prisoners and detention-camp-escapees in their villas. De Courcy showed that sympathy was swinging around to the Jews on the Riviera, despite the flood of anti-Semitic propaganda pumped out by Vichy. Yet the irreconcilability of a] Riviera’s high-society decadence Vs b] the gruesome atrocities of the war… was difficult for the reader.
Chanel’s beauty and intelligence attracted many men, but it was her great talent, work ethic and taste that made her an icon. Chanel’s Riviera focused on the seductive world of the Cote d’ Azur in an era that saw the deepest extremes of luxury and terror, starting in the 30s. When the Nazis swooped down, the glamour of the pre-war parties and casinos gave way to the horrors of evacuation and displacement. Stories of tragedy, sacrifice and heroism emerged from the bitter struggle to survive. Chanel’s Riviera highlighted many peoples’ experiences, but it largely focused on Coco Chanel and the artists, writers and historical figures.
Thanks for the great bibliography and index.