A socialite reclines on her chaise longue in Nice, France, recovering from plastic surgery and snuggling with her pet cheetah. You couldn’t make that louche anecdote up, and Anne De Courcy, who wrote “Chanel’s Riviera: Glamour, Decadence and Survival in Peace and War” didn’t have to, because it happened.
“Chanel’s Riviera” is best when it remembers Chanel, the Riviera and the pervy excesses that characterize both. The former, of course, is legendary designer Coco Chanel, whose beloved home on the Mediterranean, La Pausa, was a gathering place of most of the big names of midcentury Europe. Winston Churchill broke bread there, W. Somerset Maugham brought boy toys there, pal Enid Furness fretted that “never in living history have women been so badly dressed” there and it’s at least possible that Chanel did a little light spying from her home base there.
De Courcy offers choice gossip about many of these people and paints vivid images about how this playground for the rich adjusted when World War II dropped off its calling card. A personal favorite: Within 24 hours of the Soviet Union and Germany signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of nonaggression, Monte Carlo’s casinos were empty and the harbor master at the Bay of Villefranche had ordered all of the swells’ yachts to vamoose because the French Navy needed the bay.
An anti-Semite who counted Jews among her friends, a collaborator who somehow emerged from the war without being ostracized even though she had a Nazi lover, and a sometimes-beloved boss who nevertheless used the onset of war as an opportunity to can virtually all of her company’s employees, Chanel emerges as a fascinating and contradictory woman. Plenty of biographers have tried and failed to figure her out, so it’s a smart choice for De Courcy to depict the designer/perfumer’s competing impulses and admit that she’s un-figure-outable.
I enjoyed “Chanel’s Riviera” but, too often, it’s about neither the creator of the little black dress nor her adopted home. De Courcy offers some surprising specifics about the impact of war on the Riviera — for instance, it was under Italian rather than German control, and the Italians were much easier to deal with — but she gets distracted by war stories that have nothing to do with her topic, devoting chapters to the Vichy government and behind-the-scenes maneuvering in Paris.
It’s disappointing, too, that “Chanel’s Riviera” is not illustrated. When a book tells us that so-and-so was the handsomest man in Europe or that such-and-such’s house was the most beautiful one in France, it’d be nice to have a photo of Nice. A map of the Riviera would be helpful, too, since De Courcy often refers to Saint Tropez and Cannes (which had to cancel its inaugural film festival in 1939 because of the war) without giving us the lay of the land.
There’s good news, though, because another, wittier book exists that boasts lots of photos and that features many of these same characters and stories: Mary S. Lovell’s “The Riviera Set.” I highly recommend it.
Chanel's Riviera: Glamour, Decadence, and Survival in Peace and War
By: Anne De Courcy.
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 293 pages, $28.99.