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Book Review: Chanel’s Riviera by Anne de Courcy

Chanel’s Riviera: Glamour, Decadence, and Survival in Peace and War, 1930-1944, by Anne de Courcy, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2019. Book Review by Mary-Jane Deeb

About the Author

Despite her French name, Anne de Courcy is a British writer, biographer and journalist who lives in London and Gloucestershire. She has been a women’s editor on the London Evening News, a columnist on the London Evening Standard and has written more than a dozen award-winning books, including The Fishing Fleet and The Viceroy’s Daughters. Two of her biographies, Diana Mosley (2003) and Snowdon: the Biography (2008), were turned into documentaries for television.

Book Review Chanel's Riviera by Anne de Courcy

Book Review

Chanel’s Riviera is a true-life account of Coco Chanel’s life on the French Riviera between 1930 and 1944. The book is divided into two parts: the first depicts the lives and loves of the rich and famous who visited or lived in Cannes, Nice, and Antibes during those years, while the second describes how the Second World War affected their lives and transformed France and the French Riviera forever.

Coco, as she was known the world over, was the by-name of Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, born in 1883 in Saumur, France, to unmarried parents. Her mother died when she was eleven, and her father then abandoned her and her sisters in the convent of Aubazine run by Cistercian nuns that were “strict, secluded, monastic and monochrome.” (p.29) Although it was there that she learnt to sew and acquired the discipline and work ethic that would characterize her entire professional life, she rebelled against every other aspect of her upbringing.

Jean Cocteau, the French poet, playwright, novelist, filmmaker, and one of Chanel’s protégés said that he was fascinated by her “’spectacular liaisons, her rages, her nastiness, her fabulous jewels, her creations, her whims, her excesses, her kindness as well as her humour and generosity…’” (91) His apt description captures the essence of her life on the French Riviera. Among her numerous liaisons, for example, was the one with the Duke of Westminster, Bendor, as she called him, the richest man in England. On his various estates in Cheshire and Scotland, she learned to hunt, fish, play tennis, sail, and most importantly, to act the “grande dame” and be the hostess to all his rich and powerful friends.

But the villa La Pausa, on the Riviera, in Roquebrune overlooking Menton, became her real “home”, where she would relax, entertain, and recover from all the stress in her life. She had an architect renovate three dilapidated buildings turning them into a beautiful villa with a grand staircase designed to look exactly like the one in the convent where she had been brought up.

De Courcy relates fascinating stories about well-known political figures, tycoons, writers, musicians, painters, and others Chanel got to know on the Riviera during the inter-war years. For example, she describes at length the courting of the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, until his final abdication in December 1936 to marry her. She also writes about Somerset Maugham, who wrote in the mornings, and entertained in the evenings in his magnificent Villa Mauresque; Vladimir Nabokov, who was hard at work on Lolita whilst carrying on an extra-marital affair; Aldous Huxley, who wrote Brave New World in four months in Sanary; Georges Simenon who wrote three Inspector Maigret mysteries in Antibes; whilst Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht adapted and composed what became The Three Penny Opera in Le Lavandou in the Var.

But, as De Courcy relates in the book’s second part, a storm was brewing as German forces were marching into Europe. On the Riviera, people were not too concerned because they believed that the famous Maginot Line, the defence system in place on France’s borders with Germany, would prevent the German army from invading France. Life continued normally, for a while, until the Germans bypassed the Maginot Line in April 1940 and entered France from the Ardennes on Belgium’s southeast border with France.

The book then tells the harrowing story of how the wealthy and those who served them on the Riviera were forced to flee. The British were told to return to England, which they did on coal freighters, whilst the French fled to Paris but had to turn back again when the Germans entered the French capital on June 14, 1940. France then signed an armistice agreement which split the country into two: with the northern part under German control, and the southern under the French Vichy administration, while an estimated 1.8 million French soldiers were held in captivity until the end of the war. There was rationing of petrol, severe food shortages, blackouts, and everywhere internment camps held thousands of people, many French Jews, under terrible conditions. Four hundred thousand Italian troops invaded the Riviera, where Mussolini claimed Menton as part of Italy, and annexed it to the Kingdom of Italy.

Chanel focused on her survival. She first closed down her couture house, the House of Chanel, and laid off her 4,000 employees, explaining that “’I had the feeling that we had reached the end of an era. And that no one would ever make dresses again.’” (p. 123). However, she kept the money rolling in with a boutique that sold her Chanel No. 5 perfume to German soldiers who queued to buy their wives and girlfriends the famous perfume. She also retained a small suite in the Ritz Hotel in Paris, which was considered a ‘neutral zone’ (because it was Swiss-run, and Swiss waiters had replaced the French waiters), and acquired a new lover, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German diplomat who spoke both French and English fluently, and who provided her with assistance and protection.

Readers will enjoy this book because it is beautifully written and well-researched, with many stories based on diaries and personal recollections.

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Mary Jane Deeb

Mary Jane is multilingual and decidedly multicultural. Born in Alexandria, Egypt to Slovenian-Levantine parents, Mary Jane grew up speaking French at home. Her studies and travels took her from an Irish school run by nuns to Washington, D.C., where she has lived since 1983 with her family.

This mother and now a grandmother is one accomplished lady with a doctorate in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins University. She is currently the Chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division at the Library of Congress.

Her career has included positions as the Editor of The Middle East Journal, Director of the Omani Program at The American University in Washington D.C. and Director of the Algeria Working Group at The Corporate Council on Africa.

Mary Jane taught at both Georgetown University and The George Washington University. She worked tirelessly for the United Nations Economic Commission for Western Asia, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), America-Mideast and Educational and Training Services, Inc. (AMIDEAST), and the US Agency for International Development in Lebanon during the civil war.

In her spare time, Mary Jane has published four mysteries: Cocktails and Murder on the Potomac which is set in Washington DC, and three others that are set in Grasse, Cannes and Nice: Murder on the Riviera, A Christmas Mystery in Provence and Death of a Harlequin. You can find Mary Jane's books here.

The beauty of Provence continues to inspire Mary Jane’s writing.

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