A gleaming social history of the French Riviera in the 1930s, “probably the heyday of the Riviera in its modern sense.”
In her latest, De Courcy (The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married Into the British Aristocracy, 2018, etc.) delivers portraits of a variety of wealthy social circles with the voyeurism of a who’s-who society column. The author portrays American vacationers and European artists, writers, socialites, intellectuals, and public figures, including the Prince of Wales, Wallis Simpson, Jean Cocteau, and Winston Churchill. Coco Chanel—who, according to De Courcy, embodied "France's prestige"—is an alluring if elusive narrative hook. Accounts of her La Pausa home, her lovers, and her stays at the Ritz in Paris punctuate the text, from which she's often absent. The author gives much attention to extramarital affairs, entertaining affectations, and opiate addictions. Quotations from period diaries and letters enliven the narrative, though the overall effect is light and gossipy. De Courcy’s discussion of Chanel's fashion rival, Elsa Schiaparelli, briefly brings the focus back to the titular character. At times, the author fetishizes the bygone glamour that characterized the landscape; Marlene Dietrich, for example, is deemed "the blonde to end all blondes." The rise of the Nazis serves mostly as historical background, and the author offers a reasonable consideration of Chanel's anti-Semitism. Later sections about English expatriates' struggles to flee, deportations, and collaborators in France revisit horrors and miraculous survivals, showing a clear rift between the rich—who experienced minor deprivations yet carried on much as before—and the people who were severely impacted. The unavoidable disjuncture between Chanel's privileged world and the one just outside it leads to a somewhat uneven narrative that will turn off many readers but appeal to those fascinated by the rich and famous.
In its copious details, this lovingly researched portrait of paradise highlights the colorful glitz and too-familiar blindness of the ultrarich.