BY: NENA IVON
If you want to know how the international, wealthy, famous, infamous artists, writers, etc. reigned by the glamourous Haute Couture designer Gabrielle Chanel lived between the two World Wars and during the German occupation of France, then this is THE book for you! Be prepared that this isn't a fluff piece, nor is it totally about Chanel, but rather how she fit into the hedonistic lifestyle on the Riviera and in France at the time between the wars.
What I liked about the book was its detailed and thoroughly researched telling of a different side of Chanel...and in my opinion, it is two stories that tragically twist into each other. The book begins in the late '20s and early '30s when France was still recovering from World War I. The mood was carefree, clothes have changed dramatically, think about the "casual" feeling of the hot designer of the time. Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel's home La Pausa became THE place to be, and Jazz was the music of the day. Think about writers and artists creating new works, thus changing decades of familiar themes making everything modern. Think about all the aristocracy, led by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (we meet them before they are married), in one place mixing socially with the bohemians. This is the world we find ourselves at the beginning of the book.
It is a book that you have to jot down the names of who is who...there are a lot of names to remember. As we progress through the '30s, we find the climate becoming very dark (to say the least) with the rise of Hitler, his followers, and the looming threat of another war. For a while, it doesn't affect the "carefree" group enjoying the pleasures of this extravagant paradise until it does. It goes into all the tragedy we now know WWII brought to France and, of course, the world.
Chanel set up her apartment at the Ritz before the invasion, which becomes her Paris haven and where she lives with her Nazi lover, Hans Günther von Dincklage. She encounters him when she is trying to get her nephew released from prison and forms a lifelong relationship with von Dincklage until his death. By this time, Chanel was deep into morphine and kept a syringe by her bed. She has been branded as a sympathizer; this book questions this. She most definitely was a survivor and always had a lover. We learn about them in the book as well (I must have missed Salvador Dali as one of them in previous tellings!!). She was anti-Semitic, not because of the Werthheimers, which were her partners in Chanel No 5. She had always been anti-Semitic, even though many of her close friends were Jewish.
A quote from the book sums it up for me: "What mattered to her was survival, if possible, in comfort, with the structure of her life depending on financial independence." Much like Karl Lagerfeld, she was extremely generous buying homes for her friends, paying debts, financing ventures, launching musicians, artists, and on and on. She directed that all American GI's in Paris be given a free bottle of Chanel No. 5...extraordinary!
She always had to have a man in her life. She said after the launch of Chanel No.19 in 1971, "Work has always been a kind of drug for me, even if I sometimes wonder what Chanel would have been without the men in my life."
Chanel's Riviera is definitely worth reading and adding to your growing fashion library.
Subscribe to our newsletters, fashion travel guides, fashion news, events, and fashion exhibition updates.
More from THE FASHION MAP