Many of the inhabitants of this world, superbly brought to life in Anne de Courcy's sparkling, gossipy book, faced a rude awakening on the outbreak of World War II. Hedonists accustomed to luxury found themselves packed aboard ships 'black with coal dust', as they fled the Nazis. Chanel herself spent the war in Paris pursuing a controversial career under the Occupation which involved liaisons with high-ranking German officers and rumours of collaboration with the German intelligence services.
De Courcy's book moves skilfully from pre-war glamour and decadence to the terror, misery and upheaval that followed the Nazi invasion of France.
De Courcy, in this gripping, rousing study, sees Chanel as a Marie Antoinette figure, simultaneously shrewd and other-worldly, protected by an armour of absolute self-interest. The only good deed she performed, that I can see, was when she financed Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1920. But that was probably because she was sleeping her way through the Ballets Russes.
But the book is weirdly out of focus from the beginning. There is a short introduction, followed by a short prologue, which more or less repeats what the introduction says. The text proper opens with an account of Chanel’s affair with Bendor Westminster — which took place in the 1920s and ended in 1930, the year this book supposedly begins. Chanel is described as ‘beautiful, elegant, witty and fiercely independent’. She wasn’t beautiful, but she was smart. And Bendor is ‘tall, blond and good-looking’. He wasn’t blond but, yes, he was good-looking. As for the Riviera, it is repeatedly characterised with similar lists of film-treatment platitudes: ‘That era of bias-cut satin evening dresses, Hollywood films, beach pyjamas, exotic cocktails, harbours crammed with yachts and super-stylish motor cars. ’
Anne de Courcy claims that her book Chanel’s Riviera is neither a biography of Coco Chanel nor a history of the Riviera, but it certainly reads like a biography of this glamorous part of the world that continues to capture the imagination... De Courcy’s sparkling, anecdote-rich narrative takes a darker turn with the onset of war.