“You can be gorgeous at thirty, charming at forty, and irresistible the rest of your life.”
The LC Bag of French Riviera Reading
If you have postponed your plans to join the crowds chasing eternal youth and trust-funded savoire-vivre this summer – opting instead for a staycation – that does not mean you can’t still enjoy the classic gossip immortalised by some of its most famous revelers, or smarten up about the lives and times of the artistic luminaries who made this sun-spoilt part of the world their home. We have packed a little bag of books that will have you read about all of it in style.
Saint Tropez’s exploding fame of the 1950s was prefigured by the art-struck glamour of the Golden Twenties, when everyone who sought (and thought) to be anyone summersaulted to get an invite to the legendary parties thrown by the glitterati who summered in the grand hotels of Nice. As always, the art set had been first to discover the beauty of sunbathing on the beaches of La Belle, as the capital of the Alpes-Maritime region was dubbed at the time, but Hollywood was soon to follow.
French Riviera and its Artists, by John Baxter
It all began with the opening of the first casino in Monaco in 1856 and the district’s renaming as Monte Carlo ten years later. Then Paul Signac bought a house in St. Tropez in 1892. And towards the end of World War I, Henry Matisse, by leaving a Paris under German bombardment for Nice in 1917, effectively relocated the European Avant-Garde from the French capital to the Côte d’Azur. John Baxter tells the history of glitz and glamour of the French Riviera, from its beginnings in the olive-groves roamed by Auguste Renoir to the first time that the red carpet was rolled out in Cannes, in twenty crisp chapters that succeed – aided by a great amount of original photographs – to bring Riviera feeling all the way to you.
Chanel’s Riviera, by Anne de Courcy
The almost mythical arrival of Coco Chanel at the French Riviera is dated to 1923, when she stepped ashore at Cannes from the ‘Flying Cloud’, the famous super-yacht owned by her lover, Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster. Yet the years in which Chanel religiously spent her summer at the Côte d’Azur did not start until 1930, when the fashion designer commissioned Robert Streitz to build her a villa in the hills of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, upcountry from the Bay of Monaco. Set between orange groves on the former hunting-grounds of the Grimaldi family, Chanel had Streitz model the house on the twelfth-century convent in Aubazine where she had spent her childhood (only that it turned out a little bit more luxurious) and called it ‘La Pausa’. Anne de Courcy charts the years in which Chanel summered at the all-beige La Pausa with her many glamorous friends and life at the French Riviera turned from golden, undisturbed Arcadia, far removed from the political conflicts of the day, into days of hiding detention camp escapees and Allied prisoners in those same villas during the years of Vichy France.
Riviera Cocktail, by Edward Quinn
If browsing beautiful images is what you feel like, this black-and-white photobook from the archive of Edward Quinn will be a treat. The son of an Irish Guinness brewery worker got his hands on a professional camera just at the time when Monaco became the playground of an international jet set hungry for fun in the years following World War II. Befriending all the concierges of Monaco’s Grand Hotels, Quinn caught the glamour of the French Riviera’s post-war parties and the sweet life of the luminaries flocking to its most fashionable spots on camera like no other. Brigitte Bardot, Grace of Monaco, Edith Piaf, Aristotle Onassis, Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor – the list goes on; do we need to say more?
The Riviera Set, by Mary S. Lovell
A true book for the summer: light, sun-tan-themed and – hello darling! – full of gossip, Mary Lovell’s thoroughly researched account of ‘The Riviera Set’ takes us further down the glitzy coast to Cannes. While telling the story of the American actress and businesswoman Maxine Elliot, the book is really an account of British revels at her outrageously decadent Art Deco villa, Château de l’Horizon. (Sometimes the name says it all.) The Windsors, the Aga Khan, Cecil Beaton, Richard Burton, David Lloyd George and, of course, Winston Churchill – to name but a few – all enjoyed the spectacular dinners and decadent parties at the villa that was later bought by Aly Kahn. Kahn famously held the reception of his wedding with Rita Hayworth there in 1949, perfuming the swimming pool with Eau de Cologne. But that is a story for another book.
Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald’s final book grows on you long after you have put it down – at least provided that you have read it (not just taken home from your trusted bookseller of choice because you liked the cover so much). The latter, to be fair, it quite possible, as Penguin has done an extraordinarily good job in finding beautiful covers for this title for decades now. In fact, it has happened that a second (and third) copy was bought years after the first one, simply because it looked so dashing in the shop…
More to the matter at hand, however, Fitzgerald’s nocturnal classic, undeservedly less famous than his earlier The Great Gatsby, is the not very well veiled story of the author’s own, exotic lifestyle and tragic marriage to the novelist, painter and socialite Zelda Sayre. Like the book’s characters Dick and Nicole, Fitzgerald and Zelda holidayed at the Côte d’Azur – as did all fashionable Americans in the 1920s – and it is the narrator’s unique tone in describing the opulence and ease of the Riviera lifestyle teaming with flappers, alcohol, and American Jazz during the interwar years that make the book the charming read it is. The fact that it was written by a Fitzgerald who had a little more life experience than the one who scripted the greatest party that Long Island had ever seen, ultimately makes it the better of the two. And you can always, of course, re-read Gatsby after, before, and even in between – just for the fun of it.
The Woman Who Says No, by Malte Herwig
Much in the sense of serving the best for last, we cannot leave out of our bag one final title for the Riviera Reading list: It is the short, but substantial (always the best combo) biography of Françoise Gilot, the French painter who walked out on Pablo Picasso after spending ten years of her life with him – causing the outraged artist to prophesy her a life in oblivion. That nothing of the sort happened might be the reason that the convention of describing Gilot entails the word ‘feisty’, though ‘willful’, the word found some years ago by Dodie Kazanjian, is a so much better one.
Gilot decided early on in life – which for her started with a very disciplined upbringing of being tutored at home and beginning every day with an early morning ride in the Bois de Boulogne – that she wanted to be an artist ”with a big A”. Some years back, Gilot recorded the memoirs on her life with Picasso and the years the couple spent discussing art with their friends – among them Henry Matisse, Georges Braque, Gertrude Stein, and Alberto Giacometti. Herwig’s more recent, leisurely visits to Gilot’s ateliers in Paris and New York have enhanced this account by the protocol of a conversation with a female artist who stood her ground in the arena of the great artistic egos of the past century. Coco Chanel would have cheered much of what she says.