How the Gilded Set Survived Nazi Occupation and Other Moral Tales
The French Rivera was a haven for privileged hedonism, that is, before Vichy arrived. Not everyone reacted nobly.
Despite its title, Anne de Courcy’s characteristically gossipy new book purports to be neither a biography of the iconic fashion figure Coco Chanel nor a snapshot history of the French Riviera.
Instead it seeks to portray an era torn between the interwar era’s ostentatious high life and the horrific moral deprivations and compromises inflicted by the cruelty of World War II. Inevitably, however, de Courcy cannot tell the story without relating a lot about both of the title’s subjects. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Having written a number of books about largely forgotten aristocratic British women and American heiresses who sought husbands among those ladies’ titled male relatives, her style and ability to explore people and their motivations is lively enough to hold the reader’s attention. That’s the case even if it sometimes recalls a boring afternoon spent with a superannuated great-aunt who really kicked things up in Havana two generations ago with a cigarette-holder puffing coterie now long dead.
What can we learn from these faded figures and their trials and tribulations? The book’s warmer early chapters give us a vivid portrait of their world in all its reckless abandon. Readers familiar with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, which is curiously never mentioned, will instantly recognize its carefree milieu. Waughian bright young things, both liberated and traumatized by the spiritual slaughter of the First World War, indulged their senses, created lasting works of art, bedhopped, and spent money in a way that scarcely seems possible even for the most privileged youth nearly a century later.
Coco Chanel, by then well into middle age, reigned over them from her hilltop sanctuary “La Pausa” with a timelessness that affirmed their best qualities possessed of an air that scarcely needed words to convey it. Unlike the annoying vulgarity on display at today’s Oscars or Super Bowl halftime shows, the jeunesse d’orée of that time had poise, confidence, style, and class—qualities that would strike our “woke” youth as impossibly snobbish and suspiciously unencumbered by guilt or class consciousness. Coco’s set were attracted to each other by their talent; their main purpose in life was pleasure. They proudly were who they were—the privileged elite—and not what intrusive social democracy told them they should be.
The rest of the book asks the grand moral question—what happens to these people when their way of life, indeed their very existence, is threatened? Coco Chanel’s legacy is among the more problematic. Remaining in France during the occupation, she continued living in the Paris Ritz alongside pushy German officers and officials who, among other things, requisitioned her suite and consigned her to lesser rooms. Her decision to close her couture shop as soon as war was declared spared her the worst accusations of collaboration, but her record was not always a proud one. Given to anti-Semitic rants that never seemed to intrude on her many friendships with Jews, she nevertheless took advantage of her business partner’s Jewishness to score a better deal in selling her famous Chanel No. 5 perfume (the business partner retaliated by sending an agent into occupied France to steal the formula). She also injudiciously took up with the debonair half-English German diplomat Hans Günther von Dincklage, whom she had known for many years before the war. The match seems to have been one of love and impressive passion for a woman then approaching 60, but enough eyebrows were raised to land Coco in Swiss exile after the war.
Recent suggestions that she was a German agent fall rather flat, but they have put her wartime activities and anti-Semtism back under a microscope. As famous and well connected as she was—Chanel dined with a weeping Winston Churchill as Edward VIII announced his abdication from the British throne over the radio—there was really no information of significance that she could have betrayed to the enemy. Her only mildly political act was a silly attempt to deliver an unrealistic peace offering to Churchill in Madrid, only to find that the British leader had failed to show up.
What of the Riviera? Left in the unoccupied zone of France by the armistice of June 1940, it came under the control of the collaborationist Vichy regime, which proceeded to crack down on its pleasures, now proscribed as symptoms of the “decadence” that Vichy believed had led to France’s defeat. Bikinis were outlawed in favor of matronly one-piece bathing suits. Dancing and casino gambling disappeared everywhere but in Monaco. When Germany and Italy subjected the region to full occupation in November 1942, deprivation set in. Food and fuel were so scarce that the remaining socialites had to barter and improvise their way to survival. The Germans, meanwhile, filled the beaches with mines and barbed wire, sent Jews to their deaths, and pillaged and oppressed everyone else.
Some lost any pretense to principle. The writer Jean Cocteau and choreographer Serge Lifar, among others, happily partied with the “cultured” circles of the German occupiers, while those seeking minor creature comforts or just a power rush acted so reprehensibly that people thought them worse than the Nazis.
Others simply stayed out of the way, following Picasso into a kind of internal exile to await the end of the trial. Still others discovered a fortitude they may never have otherwise known they had. The prewar sexpot Lady Furness, an American-born beauty who once quipped that two of her jilted lovers had committed suicide because they “could not stand the strain,” spent the occupation years caring for her dying husband and helping escaped Allied prisoners of war reach safety.
Coco Chanel’s existence changed irrevocably after the war, but she never shrank from the challenges of life. She eventually returned to grace and even had some fashion successes in her twilight years. She died in 1971 at the age of 87. But the relentlessly petit bourgeois postwar milieu, populated by pusillanimous poseurs, square moralists, and relativistic ideologues, would never again know or fathom the stark moral choices that she and her contemporaries had faced in a vanished world.
Paul du Quenoy is president and publisher of Academica Press.