Chanel’s Riviera: Glamour, Decadence, and Survival in Peace and War, 1930-1944 by Anne de Courcy
Genres: History, Non-fiction
Maturity Level: 4
(content warnings: harm to children, holocaust)
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The Cote d’Azur in 1938 was a world of wealth, luxury, and extravagance, inhabited by a sparkling cast of characters including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Joseph P. Kennedy, Gloria Swanson, Colette, the Mitfords, Picasso, Cecil Beaton, and Somerset Maugham. The elite flocked to the Riviera each year to swim, gamble, and escape from the turbulence plaguing the rest of Europe. At the glittering center of it all was Coco Chanel, whose very presence at her magnificently appointed villa, La Pausa, made it the ultimate place to be. Born an orphan, her beauty and formidable intelligence allured many men, but it was her incredible talent, relentless work ethic, and exquisite taste that made her an icon.
But this wildly seductive world was poised on the edge of destruction. In a matter of months, the Nazis swooped down and the glamour of the pre-war parties and casinos gave way to the horrors of evacuation and the displacement of thousands of families during World War II. From the bitter struggle to survive emerged powerful stories of tragedy, sacrifice, and heroism.
Chanel’s Riviera is almost two books in one. Partly it is the story of Chanel’s Riviera home, La Pausa, and partly it is the story of France in World War II. While these two things are linked, the different narratives had very different tones and themes. The Chanel aspect of the book was like reading a decade’s worth of gossip magazines: affairs, fashion, betrayals, becoming rich and gambling it all away. The WWII half was like reading a war book: factual, full of first-hand and second-hand accounts, death, hunger, terrible deeds. Together they show a France that is both gilded and war-torn. Like Chanel, the country is far more complex than we make it out to be.
De Courcy’s writing and research are impeccable. Beautiful descriptions, attention to detail, full of little factiods that made me say “interesting!” to myself. And throughout with a readability that was pleasantly surprising. My first critique would be that there were far too many names to keep up with, as someone unfamiliar with the time. Perhaps either some individuals’ stories could have been left out or a person-glossary provided. My second is that more pictures were needed. This book is so heavily dependent on fashion, but it is incredibly difficult to Google the clothes Chanel was making in any particular year. While de Courcy’s writing was vivid, I wanted to see the iconic dresses and hats being written about. And while there are some pictures included, none were of fashion.
Overall, one’s enjoyment of this book is going to come down to interest. If you’re interested in fashion and history, you will enjoy this book. If you don’t you won’t. Personally this is neither a time period nor topic I’m particularly interested in, so I would never have picked this book myself. However, the writing was good enough that I felt like I learned something and enjoyed doing so at least a little.