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.