Some people and places have an almost mesmeric fascination. For me, living in England as I do but ardently Francophile, two of the most magnetic are Coco Chanel and the Riviera – so much so that I am writing a book about them.
It focuses on the years 1930 -1944, the time during which Chanel spent almost every summer on the Côte d’Azur. In 1930, her long affair with the Duke of Westminster, the richest man in England, had finally come to an end, and her villa, completed to her design the year before, was both a pleasure and a symbol of her independence.
It was named La Pausa, as the ancient olive groves in which it was built were said to be the spot where Mary Magdalene had rested on her journey from Jerusalem after the resurrection. Done up in Chanel’s favourite neutrals – huge beige chamois leather sofas, ivory curtains at the long windows – it reflected the discreet, pared-down elegance of the clothes she designed.
It was her only real home (from 1934 onwards she lived at the Ritz) and here she entertained the leading intellectuals, writers, dancers, painters and composers of the day – among them Picasso, Stravinsky, Dali, Jean Cocteau, Serge Lifar – many of whom were her lovers.
By 1930, when my book will begin, Chanel was already rich and famous. Smart women everywhere came to her for their clothes; on the Riviera she put them into creamy beach pyjamas with striped fisherman tops, worn with strings of pearls.
But what had really made her so wealthy was not her clothes but the creation of what was then the most famous scent in the world, Chanel No. 5. She had come to it through one of her lovers, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovitch, a tall, handsome blond Russian exiled for his involvement in the death of Rasputin. Dmitri had introduced her to the parfumeur whom she commissioned to produce the sort of scent she wanted. She chose the fifth sample he brought her.
By the Thirties the custom of visiting the Riviera for the summer rather than the winter had taken hold – and during those months film stars, millionaires, gamblers, the most expensive and exotic of the courtesans and the aristocracy of several countries flocked to what had become the playground of Europe.
Along the coast lived many of the rich and famous, from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor – most of whose courtship had taken place on the Riviera – and writers like Somerset Maugham and Aldous Huxley to press barons like Lord Rothermere (‘Old mistresses are more expensive than Old Masters,’ he remarked gloomily, after pensioning off his latest on the discovery that she was in the pay of German Intelligence).
Winston Churchill frequently stayed with the former actress Maxine Elliott at the Château de l’Horizon, painting and expounding on the steadily worsening situation in Europe.
It was a time of glamour – fuelled, of course, by wealth – from the Hispana Suiza and Bugatti cars, with their custom-made fittings of ivory, tortoiseshell or silver to the exquisite clothes, with the rich so accustomed to constant service that its absence was noteworthy.
‘My dear Maxine,’ remarked Churchill on one visit. ‘You have no idea how easy it is to travel without a servant. I came all the way here from London alone and it was quite simple’. To which Maxine replied in her deep voice: ‘Winston, how brave of you!’
But apart from the gilded summer visitors, there were of course those for whom the Riviera was home – the fishermen and their families, the country people in the hinterland, the communities of expatriates, some of whom had retired there because of the climate or the cheapness of living compared to home.
For most of these, from the Italian waiters in the big hotels to those going quietly about their business, the steadily growing threat of Germany held little meaning. Was not France untouchable, with its impregnable Maginot Line, of such effective design that military experts from all over the world came to learn from it?
So when, on 3 September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany, the sun-baked reaction was mild. The Duke of Windsor, summoned to the telephone to be told by the Prime Minister of Britain that his country was now at war, merely returned to his poolside party, told them in a single sentence – and dived into the pool.
Some of the English left, others stayed, and during what became known as the drôle de guerre (the phoney war) little changed. Then, to French horror, the Germans simply went round their famous Maginot Line…and advanced on Paris. At the same time, the Italians took over Nice and a flood of refugees, mainly Jewish, escaping from the countries over-run by the Nazis and fleeing from Paris, came to the Riviera.
Many of their stories make compelling reading, especially when the Germans took over the Unoccupied Zone and the brutal round-ups began. Meanwhile Chanel had closed her couture house and in her efforts to bring home her favourite nephew from his prisoner of war camp, had taken a German lover, Baron Hans Gunther Von Dincklage.
Almost up to the liberation, in August 1944, the two summered on the Riviera, its people suffering from lack of food (the Germans siphoned off lorryloads daily to Germany) and everyday needs such as shoes.
No wonder Allied troops were greeted with such enthusiasm. ‘We drank champagne all afternoon,’ said one British soldier dropped about ten miles inland, behind San Rafael. ‘We go back every August – the people are lovely’.
Let me conclude with a plea. Nothing is more exciting for a writer than to hear first-person recollections or to see contemporary journals or letters – and nothing makes a book more vivid or accurate.
I would be incredibly grateful if anyone reading this who has letters, diaries or family stories of those years (1930-44) would contact me, confidentiality assured, by email.
Lead image © RIVIERA BUZZ