The Riviera Set by Mary S Lovell

Riviera Set

Little, Brown Book Group|November 2016|448 pages|Library book|3.5 rounded up to 4 on Goodreads*

When I read Cath’s review of The Riviera Set: 1920 – 1960: The Golden Years of Glamour and Excess on her blog Read Warbler I thought it sounded fascinating, so I reserved a copy at the library. I has taken me almost a month to read it, but I did enjoy it.

Mary S Lovell explains in her Introduction that this is ‘less of a biography, more the story of a house and those who peopled it between the years 1930 and 1960.‘ The book begins with Maxine Elliott, telling of her early life  – she was an American, born Jessica Dermot in Rockland, Maine in 1868. She was a most remarkable woman who became an actress, famed for her beauty and her pure speaking voice. She came over to England, had successfully entered the Edwardian social scene in 1899 and after divorcing her husband, actor Nat Goodwin in 1908 she established herself at Hartsbourne, a country house in Hertfordshire. During the First World War she bought a barge and fitted it out as a first-aid clinic and soup kitchen to help with the war relief effort, bringing food and medical supplies to thousands of displaced people in Belgium. Many of the people who socialised at Hartsbourne flocked to visit her there. 

And then in 1930 she commissioned the architect Barry Dierks to build  the Chateau de l’Horizon on the land she had bought on a narrow stretch of rocks with a small promontory between Cannes and Juan-les-Pins. This is the part of the book I enjoyed the most, first of all about Maxine herself, then the description of the construction of the Chateaux and the years that Maxine owned it and lived there. Maxine really came into her own there as a superb hostess.

chateau de l'horizon

Regular visitors included Winston Churchill, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham among many others – famous actors and actresses as well as members of the aristocracy and politicians. I was interested in Clementine Churchill’s reaction to the Riviera set – she disapproved of their behaviour and often didn’t accompany him on his visits.  She also disapproved of Winston’s gambling at the Casino. Then there were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who lived nearby before the Second World War – the picture painted of them is not flattering – and there was much talk about how to address Wallis and whether the women should curtsy to her. By the time the War approached Maxine had lost her sparkle, suffering from ill health and she died in March 1940.

And after her death nothing was the same – and my interest in the book began to wane. The Chateau was bought by Aly Khan, the Aga Khan’s heir presumptive at the time. There is quite a lot about his time there, his womanising, his marriage to Rita Hayworth and the social scene of the post-war period up to 1960. Nevertheless it is a fascinating and entertaining book about a pampered, luxurious and decadent world.

Reading challenge: Virtual Mount TBR as it is a library book.

12 thoughts on “The Riviera Set by Mary S Lovell

  1. It was a book of two halves really. Like you, I loved the first half and found all the details about Churchill’s visits very interesting indeed. I knew he painted and loved the South of France, but didn’t know where he stayed when he was there. I must get and read the book about his painting… I think you’ve read that? But like you my interest waned when the book moved on to Aly Khan and what he got up to, I found myself hankering after the past! (Although, having read several of Deborah Mitford’s book with her mentioning Aly Khan quite a lot, it was good to get some background on him because I wasn’t quite sure who he was.) All in all, I enjoyed the book but her book about the Mitfords was *much* better.

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  2. I liked the details of the Churchills’ visits too, showing a different side of Winston. I liked Clemmie’s opinion too and would like to more about her. I have read his book on painting as you wondered, but I don’t think he mentioned his visits to Maxine’s. Maybe I should get her book on the Churchills? What do you think? (I wasn’t quite sure who Aly Khan was either.)


    1. I’m definitely going to try and get hold of something about Clemmie, I’ve a feeling there are several biographies available. (Think I put one on my ‘Churchill’ shelf on Goodreads.) I have a huge doorstep of a book of Winston and Clemmie’s letters to each other too. I do actually have Mary Lovell’s book on The Churchills, given to me for my birthday, so that’s on the ‘to read soon’ list. I use the term ‘soon’ loosely of course…

      As to Aly Khan, I thought it was the Aga Khan, but Deborah Mitford was familiarly using his christian name, turns out it was his son, who never did get to be the Aga Khan because of his loose living and penchant for actresses! Amazing what you learn from some of these books.

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      1. That’s a good idea for a shelf on GR – I hadn’t thought of doing that. I see you have one on there by Sonia Purnell – and another one by her is on the county library catalogue here – First Lady : the life and wars of Clementine Churchill, so I’ve reserved it. It shouldn’t be long to wait for it as there are 4 copies in the county and they are all available (just not at the branch nearest to me).


        1. That’s right, Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill. And the one you’ve reserved from the library sounds interesting too so I’ll add that to my shelf. Well, I’ve just been to look on Goodreads and it tells me I already have it on my shelf. I thought not *but* when I looked properly, I actually think our two books are the same book but with slightly different titles. Confusing.

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  3. That’s an interesting idea, Margaret, to use the house itself as the context for telling those stories. And the setting sounds appealing, too. As you say, though, if the people themselves aren’t interesting, it’s hard to stay engaged. Still, I’m glad you found things to like about this one.

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    1. Yes! Hartsbourne could have a book all to itself!

      I don’t think Lovell gives the date that Maxine bought Hartsbourne at Bushey in Hertfordshire – I worked out it was sometime in 1908/9. She had it completely redecorated installed central heating, large built-in wardrobes and a bathroom in every guest room and a new modern kitchen with refrigeration. She had met Edward VII and had a luxurious suite built in the parkland, with a room known as the King’s Room on the first floor, and her own suite on the ground floor. The redecoration was almost complete late in 1909 when she received a note from the King suggesting he should visit her for a quiet weekend and she arranged a royal visit in early May 1910, inviting other suitable guests. But the King died on 6 May 1910 and never occupied the King’s Room.

      Hartsbourne became a leading political salon in the four years prior to the outbreak of war as well as a fashionable venue for the ‘haute monde’ to gather. The men went shooting and hunting and whilst some women hunted most spent their time reading and gossiping. It was all very luxurious and lavish.

      The Churchills were the first guests and became regular visitors – Clementine was a competitive tennis player and enjoyed playing on the grass and hard courts at Hartsbourne, even so Hartsbourne was a bit too flamboyant for her and she faintly disapproved, although Winston enjoyed it hugely. Regular visitors included politicians from all parties as well as powerful landowners, including the Duke of Rutland, Lord Roseberry and Lord Curzon, the former Viceroy of India. Anyone who was anyone went to Hartsbourne.


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