In the 1920s, the French Riviera was a glamorous secret: a haven for Americans escaping Prohibition and a particularly Anglophone summer idyll (the French went in the winter). In Chanel’s Riviera, Anne de Courcy’s focus is on the turbulent years that followed, through the war and occupation and on to a recovery that saw the region transformed into a mass tourist destination. It is a fascinating period, but presents a problem of tone. Even if one is predisposed to care about the antics of the very privileged in times of plenty (and readers of de Courcy, whose books frequently document the lives of aristocrats, may be assumed to care more than most), it becomes increasingly difficult to sympathize with the characters’ cushioned losses as the political climate darkens.
Coco Chanel is among those privileged characters, but her centrality isn’t quite what the title suggests: she’s in Paris much of the time, and “her” Riviera is closely centered on the house Chanel built in 1930 in Roquebrune and the intimate circle with which she shared it. What the story does underscore is Chanel’s power and prominence at this point of her career as an icon of the globally dominant French fashion industry, and how astutely she wielded that power to protect herself. It’s an instinct de Courcy traces back to her childhood, confined to a strict convent orphanage after her mother’s death. After the invention of Chanel No. 5 perfume, her wealth and independence were assured, but she continued to work tirelessly, and always wanted a man about.