ART & CULTURE
Riviera Insider's art writer, Sarah Hyde, met with author Anne de Courcy to discuss her latest book, “Chanel’s Riviera,” one of the latest historical accounts of high society in the French Riviera. Although bittersweet, this vibrant book allows a curious reader to peer through various keyholes of the pre-war decadence of the upper classes - and it is full of delicious anecdotes, glittering jewels and bitchy bickering.
De Courcy depicts in splendid detail how the biggest dilemma in a hostess's life was how to address the new Duchess of Windsor and to diplomatically accommodate the extramarital love lives of her artistic, eccentric, (en)titled house guests. The book also goes beyond the glamour of the 1930s, moving forward through the glittering drunkenness of the pre-war habitués, through a slightly uncanny phoney war and into something much more serious: the Riviera during wartime. It is perhaps in this aspect that the book is at its most fascinating, giving local readers real insight into what happened to the Jews in the region. Using first-hand accounts, it is a brilliantly researched history of the region during World War II. So carefully put together, it seems that history recounted by Anne De Courcy is the sum total of human experience and while this book documents dreadful tragedy, it is also infused with hope and miraculous tales of love triumphing against the odds.
The author kindly invited Riviera Insider for coffee in her Chelsea kitchen and as her beloved cats Lottie and Noah snaked through her legs, she takes the time to share her insight into the life of the legendary Gabriel Bonheur Chanel and commit the ultimate faux pas--talk about the war.
RI: “Anne there are so many sparkling anecdotes, you really capture the decadence of the moment and later the tragedy of the war, if you could travel back in time when would you like to visit the region?”
AdC: “Well I would certainly not like to go there in wartime. I think if I could I would like to be a guest of Somerset Maugham in about 1935.”
On the subject of Chanel, who takes up perhaps a third of the book, Anne is adamant that Boy Capel was the love of Chanel's life: “even though they were not married, it was her first love, tragically cut short. Feelings about that can go on for a long time.”
Anne believes that after the loss of Capel, Chanel’s approach to love became more practical, saying: “she regarded making love as one of life's pleasures, like a good meal.” As we discussed Coco Chanel’s outlook on life as she matured, Anne is not judgemental about Chanel’s life with Hans von Dincklage, adding: “I think surviving - and then surviving well - was Chanel’s primary objective."
When I asked Anne if Chanel was a nice woman - she took a sharp intake of breath before explaining: "nice is not the word for Chanel--she was a survivor. Having lived out her early years in a convent, it’s amazing that she avoided becoming institutionalised. Chanel was dedicated to her own survival and although capable of significant generosity to her friends and chosen charity, she could, of course, be ruthless.”
RI: Anne, it’s amazing how you structure the book, weaving in the stories of people’s lives to create your narrative. How did you get so much detail of what the region was like during the war?
AdC: "I placed an advert in Nice Matin asking for people to come forward with stories of the war and then I made a research trip to the Riviera meeting those who responded. In this way you learn things that you would never find out from a book. For example, I discovered that in the villages the locals cut the tops off their potato crops so that the Germans would not be able to insist on harvesting them. “One person will come forward and tell you part of a story and then perhaps tell a friend about you and so it goes on, one story leading to another.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise in her research was about the Italians: “The information about how protective the Italian Carabinieri were to the Jews was a revelation. As one of my interviewees stated, ‘all the Italians were interested in was food and women.’”
Anne is modest about her French but was able to conduct all the interviews in the local language. She also consulted the Oral Histories at the Imperial War Museum and even travelled to the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Yad Vashem to find out the history of the Jews in the French Riviera. Anne has carefully selected stories that are infused with ‘against all odds’ hope. For example, a story she discovered in Israel was about Marta and Lion Feuchtwanger, who were so happy to be reunited and make their escape together.
“Chanel’s Riviera” is laced with these types of detail, including the fascinating tale of Simone Jacob, who was captured in Nice just after she had taken her Baccalaureate in 1944. Simone took the examination in her own name because the certificate would be so important later in life. That fateful decision led to her arrest and she was taken to the Gestapo headquarters at The Excelsior in Nice and then on to Auschwitz and later Belson. She miraculously survived. It is only by a footnote that Anne discovered her name later changed by marrying Antoine Veil. Simone wound up becoming president of the European Parliament and a minister of health.
“What I am really interested in is social history,” she reveals. “It’s vital to understand the prevalent attitude of the time - you can’t judge the past by modern standards.”
RI: Anne, there is the old adage - don’t mention the war. You certainly did in this book - how was that received?
AdC: "I did talk about the war. I think the French have never really come to terms with collaboration but it’s so hard to determine. Certainly, a repeated theme was how vicious some of the French were in their assistance of the Germans and betrayal of the Jews, but the most poignant comment I heard came from a soldier who was part of the liberating forces in Paris - the most memorable thing to him was all the hair in the street."
- Sarah Hyde
"Chanel's Riviera", published by Weindenfield and Nicolson, is in stock at Antibes Books. They are currently shipping orders placed by phone: 06 46 86 51 64, email: firstname.lastname@example.org and on their website: http://antibesbooks.com
Tell Fenella Riviera Insider sent you!