Books

The malodorous politics behind Chanel No 5

Coco Chanel: influenced by anti-Semitism from an early age (Getty)

Chanel’s Riviera: Life, Love and Struggle for Survival on the Côte d’Azur 1930-1944
By Anne de Courcy
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 304pp, £20/$24.50

Ever since Coco Chanel launched her best-selling perfume, Chanel No 5, almost a century ago in 1921, French fragrance has acquired a mystique all of its own. Chanel’s abstract, imperiously powdery parfum changed the industry for good. Previously, the scents commonly available to women had been florals in rose, jasmine or flouncy lavender concoctions. No 5 dealt a blow to the ubiquity of those old Edwardian bouquets. Behind Chanel’s exquisitely modern creation, however, lurked less pleasant odours.

The French fashion designer and businesswoman was “vociferously” anti-Semitic, says Anne de Courcy. In Nazi-occupied Paris she lived at the Ritz with a German officer, Hans Günther von Dincklage, who took her out to dine at Maxim’s when most Parisians had to endure rationing. How a civilised nation such as France collaborated with so evil a regime is a subject in itself.

From an early age, Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel was exposed to the casual anti-Semitism of the French conservative right. Caricatures of ugly, grasping Jews had distinguished the late 19th-century popular novels of Alphonse Daudet, whose Jew-baiting hero Tartarin is a prototype crypto-fascist.

In 1930s France, writers and thinkers advocated racial rejuvenation through the jingoist trinity of travail, famille and patrie. In their dark ministerial suits, many of them later worked for the Vichy government, which colluded in the deportation of an estimated 75,000 French Jews.

De Courcy’s social history of the Côte d’Azur, beginning in 1930 and ending with the Allied landings in 1944, is shadowed by Hitler’s war against French Jewry and the nightmare world of roundups and mass shootings, hunger and collaboration.

By the mid-1930s, the popularity of the Riviera was at its peak among the rich and celebrated. Coco Chanel owned a strikingly white villa at Roquebrune, situated midway between Menton and Monte Carlo. The passing of the Nuremberg Laws in Germany in 1935 was largely ignored by the haute société in which Chanel circulated. Indeed, they cared less for politics than whether the magnificent Blue Train, linking Paris to the Midi, was still running under the Germans.

Curiously it was the English, not the French, who first discovered the coast. For Queen Victoria, “abroad” meant chiefly the French Riviera (rather than any part of the vast empire over which she reigned and never cared to inspect). Her nine visits – the first was in 1882 – were purely recreational. The Côte d’Azur was then attracting crowned heads galore and was a magnet for the Queen’s playboy son “Bertie” (Albert Edward, later Edward VII), who paraded his mistresses at Cannes and tried to keep from under his mother’s skirts.

In its heyday between the world wars the Riviera was a watering hole for Edith Wharton, Aldous Huxley, Somerset Maugham, Churchill, HG Wells and other literary characters from the Anglosphere. Beautiful people from the French beau monde mingled with these intellectuals in what de Courcy, in her cliché-haunted prose, calls the “playground of Europe”.

Inevitably, there is something depressing about rich-people anecdotes from the Riviera: many of De Courcy’s stories concentrate on bouts of materialist extravagance and shopping.

Aware that she is travelling a well-trodden route (Chanel’s Riviera is the third book about the Côte d’Azur in peace and war in the past three years), de Courcy puts Coco Chanel centre stage. She states that while Chanel was self-confessedly indifferent to Hitler’s persecution of Jews, she had “plenty of Jewish friends and clients”, many of who were imprisoned, executed or deported under the Vichy regime.

In 1944, after the Allies had landed on the coast near Cannes and “les Fritz” had fled Paris in a sauve qui peut panic, Chanel was taken in for questioning. After only a few hours of interrogation, however, she was released. Later, it was reckoned that this was due to her friendship with Churchill, or perhaps because she had cleverly arranged for every GI to be given a free bottle of No 5 for a wife or sweetheart. Either way the upshot was the same: Coco Chanel – off the peg.

Along the way, De Courcy tells of the Riviera’s transition from a haven of firework parties and masked balls in the 1930s and early 1940s to the bétonnage, or “concretisation”, which has turned the once-golden coast into a marina-pocked, speedboat-noisy outpost for the sort of crime which shocked Graham Greene into writing his 1982 pamphlet, J’Accuse: The Dark Side of Nice, and JG Ballard into penning his superb late thriller Super-Cannes.

De Courcy’s Chanel’s Riveria, however, is poorly written, with a downloaded or pasted quality and a surfeit of old gossip stories rehashed. If the essence of Coco lingers on, it is no thanks to this book.