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The Riviera Set, 1920-1960

The Golden Years of Glamour and Excess


Mary S. Lovell


London: Little, Brown 2016

Hardcover. viii+437 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates. ISBN 978-1408705209. £25


Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen




Prima facie, when one reads the subtitle of The Riviera Set on the dust cover, ‘1920-1960: The golden years of glamour and excess’, and even more so the ‘blurb’ on the flap, ‘Mary Lovell uncovers the glittering lives and loves of those at the centre of extraordinary luxury’, one fears the worst: another hastily-collected string of prurient, unsubstantiated gossip published for titillation rather than edification – the exact opposite of what the serious reader expects. Now, without being an austere academic book, there is far more to The Riviera Set than that. For one thing, the author does not rely on innuendo and hearsay. Admittedly, she has ‘saucy bits’ on the wild sexual mores of many of her protagonists – but she is careful to say so when there is no evidence to support the claims or accusations that have sometimes been made about them. In fact, she has extensively searched or checked the sources: biographies, autobiographies, contemporary newspaper reports, extant correspondence – always pointing out when they do not agree. For Churchill, the endnotes are full of ‘CHAR xyz’ or ‘CHUR xyz’ – references to the Chartwell and Churchill archives deposited at Cambridge University.

Arguably, the central character in the book is in fact a place: the château de l’Horizon, in Vallauris, on the Côte d’Azur, built by Maxine Elliott (1868-1940), who is herself the central female character, with other famous hostesses (Daisy Fellowes, 1890-1962) and guests (Doris, Viscountess Castlerosse, 1900-1942) situated close to the foreground. Among the male protagonists, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) has undisputed prominence, with the Duke of Windsor (1894-1972) and Aly (1911-1960), the prodigal son of the Aga Khan, ranking next. The château de l’Horizon occupies a pivotal position in the narrative in that the first part of the book centres round Maxine Elliott, how she came to acquire it, and why she hosted so many members of the Anglo-American élite in it, while the second concentrates on the period from her death (1940) to that of Aly (1960), who had bought the château after the war and restored it to its former festive glory.

While not strictly a rags-to-riches story in the American style, the career of Jessica Dermot, ‘reared and educated in a white clapboard cottage [in] Rockland, Maine’ [7], seems to be attributable to two of her outstanding gifts: a beauty which most men found irresistible, and a business acumen which allowed her to retire in 1920, living on the opulent income drawn from the wise and considerable investment accumulated when she was a highly-paid star of the Anglo-American stage, and later cinema studios, under the nom de scène Maxine Elliott. With great skill, she exploited both her beauty and her stardom to climb into British high society in the early 1900s, declining the attentions of Lord Rosebery, but encouraging those of the King, described as a ‘serial womaniser’ [33], to whom she had been introduced – in the best tradition of that milieu – by Alice Keppel, the King’s ‘favourite mistress’ [31], herself married to George Keppel, Maxine’s lover, who asked his compliant wife to act as a go-between. The wealthy actress bought and modernised a country estate in Hertfordshire, Hartsbourne, among other things to provide Edward VII with a dignified love-nest – but he died in May 1910, only a few weeks before he was due to pay her his first royal visit. By then, she was established as a fashionable country hostess, part of London society.

That she should have been a friend of ‘Lady Randolph’, Winston Churchill’s pleasure-seeking mother (now widowed and remarried) comes as no surprise. What is more surprising is that Clementine, Churchill’s wife (from 1908), known for her strict moral standards, should have been delighted to accept Maxine Elliott’s invitations to Hartsbourne for ‘Saturday-to-Monday house parties’ (Lovell tells us that ‘the term “week-end” was not then in common use’ [37]). After a time, however, Clementine tired of the superficiality and artificiality of the atmosphere and only went when she was sure of meeting superior tennis partners – setting a pattern for future invitations to the Côte d’Azur. But Churchill was platonically conquered by Maxine Elliott’s good nature. Plenty of women in his circle used their seductive power over men to try to rise in society – but few, he believed, had her inherent kindness, as was demonstrated when she financed and personally ran a relief barge in Belgium for homeless refugees during the Great War. After that, she replenished her depleted savings by a number of acting engagements –but she abandoned the stage and film studios for good in 1920.

In 1923, she sold Hartsbourne and settled in Paris, where she met many of the artists who became regular guests at her superb château de l’Horizon, a villa built for her by the famous Art Déco American architect Barry Dierks, ‘who was part of [Somerset] Maugham’s intimate circle of gay men’ [86] and had made a great success of the novelist’s modernisation of his Villa Mauresque on Cap Ferrat. The rocky plot of land she bought was awkwardly nestling between the Cannes-Nice railway line and the coast down below – but she somehow obtained planning permission to build the only bridge over the track leading to a private residence on that stretch.  Dierks came up with a spectacular design, including a chute taking bathers straight from the swimming-pool down to the sea. Photographs of Churchill sliding down the chute feature in many biographies – and an amateur film survives on the Web. From the summer of 1932, when the villa was half-finished, it never emptied until September 1939. The list of great – or notorious – names from London society now reads like Who Was Who, including Curzon, Guinness, Mosley, the Aga Khan. Churchill came with Clementine and their daughter Sarah for the first time in August 1933. He became a regular visitor until 1939 – but most of the times without Clementine, who was ill at ease among all the unmarried, adulterous, or ‘LGBT’ (as one then did not say) couples who graced Maxine’s dinner parties, as Lovell explains:

Clementine did not wish to be associated with this raffish crowd, even though a number of them were kinsmen or close friends who were personae gratae at Chartwell. Her fastidiousness made her disapprove of the way Maxine and her guests sat around and gossiped about their peers. [122]

At one stage – in the spring of 1936 – it was announced that the new king, Edward VIII, had rented the château de l’Horizon for a month’s holiday there. Court circles knew that Mrs Simpson – in the process of divorcing her second husband – would naturally be with him, and promptly dissuaded him from taking such a defiant move. Probably, Churchill would have been among the guests – but not Clementine, who included the pair in the ‘raffish crowd’ of regular British visitors to the Riviera, described by some contemporaries, Lovell tells us as ‘a sunny place for shady people’ [227].

One such ‘shady’ person is no doubt viscountess Castlerosse (née Doris Delevingne, 1900-1942), and Lovell devotes several pages to an examination of the rumors which have it that this celebrated society beauty literally assaulted Churchill in his bed in August 1935 at the château de l’Horizon, with the sexagenerian yielding to her charms and congratulating her on her exceptional prowess in bed afterwards [142]. If Lovell had found concluding evidence to substantiate the hearsay, she would have hit on a sensational ‘scoop’, since Churchill marital fidelity has never been found in fault – but she has to confess that one can only rely on very flimsy clues and precarious conjecture. In other words that there is nothing in the story. But the time was not wasted – neither hers nor ours: she thereby satisfactorily puts paid to all these old tales which continue to find their way into current publications.

Another inexhaustible source of unverified yarns is the private life of the Windsors – the former King and his Duchess after 1936. Here again, Lovell strives to stick to facts – which are piquant enough to provide her with an intriguing narrative, beginning with their initial plans to get married in the rented Château de la Croë, found for them by Daisy Fellowes on the tip of the Cap d’Antibes. Apparently, ‘the new King advised the Duke that a wedding in a villa on the French Riviera might appear too frivolous’ [155]. In the event, the final choice was even more unfelicitous in the long run, since the wedding admittedly took place far from the ‘sunny place for shady people’ – near Tours, in central France – but in a château owned by a French businessman who committed suicide in 1944 while awaiting trial for extensive collaboration with the Germans: the last thing the Windors could have wished for considering the suspicions of treachery which had been attached to their name since their first warm encounters with Hitler. Though not concealing this aspect of their life, Lovell rightly insists on their connection with ‘the Riviera set’, with invitations at the château de l’Horizon as early as January 1938 – at Churchill’s request when he was staying there. From May 1938, when they signed a three-year lease, the Windsors provided lavish entertainment at La Croë, ‘with the help of thirty-three uniformed employees’ [170], the Duke wearing ‘formal Highland evening dress’ in Stuart tartan [183]. At a large dinner party in January 1939, the guests noticed how the conversation turned into a polite, but heated argument between the former king and Churchill on the latter’s recent advocacy of an alliance with Soviet Russia: in other words, the wider real world sometimes intruded in this artificial small world – and more, and worse, was to come in the following months and years. Among the guests was Lord Rothermere, the owner of La Dragonnière on Cap Ferrat, where Churchill also occasionally stayed when not at the château de l’Horizon or Daisy Fellowes’s Les Zoraïdes. The ‘Press Lord’ owned the influential Daily Mail – then as now a xenophobic rag which made an exception for Hitler almost to the end of the 1930s.

When the Appeasement policy actively supported by all these ‘Press Lords’ showed its inanity in September 1939, and even more so in June 1940, with the Italian invasion, the British expatriate community had to flee the Côte d’Azur. Lovell has done excellent research into what became of the deserted villas during the Italian and later German Occupation, until August 1944 and the swift Liberation following the Riviera Landings of the 15th. Her description of how Barry Dierks organised a local Resistance network from the château de l’Horizon when its Gestapo occupants were busy elsewhere and how Aly, the Aga Khan’s son, and the future owner, found his way into it with the U.S. Army in August 1944, is both highly entertaining and informative. Two prominent members of the ‘set’ were absent, however, when the former life of pleasure on the Côte d’Azur slowly reappeared: Maxine Elliott had died in Cannes in March 1940, following a stroke a few months before, and Doris Castlerosse had committed suicide at the Dorchester, London, in 1942.

In 1947, Aly Khan bought the château de l’Horizon from Maxine Elliott’s nieces for a song: £65,000. ‘With almost limitless funds – or at least limitless credit – Aly was intent on creating a perfect bachelor residence’, Lovell writes [237], adding that the newsreels of the time usually described him as ‘the millionaire playboy’ [251] and that ‘the Aga deplored his son’s way of life’ [254]. Apparently, the Aga did not object to Aly’s ménage with Pamela, the divorced wife of Churchill’s son Randolph, because he was an old friend of Churchill’s and knew that he supported Pamela against his roguish son. Aly lost interest in her in 1948, fascinated by the actress Rita Hayworth. After a tempestuous courtship ‘the wedding of the century’ [278] finally took place with a grandiose reception at the château de l’Horizon in May 1949. It not unexpectedly ended in bitter divorce proceedings from 1951, only acrimoniously settled in 1953. Meanwhile Pamela found solace in the arms of Aly’s good friend, Giovanni Agnelli, another ‘millionaire playboy’, heir to the FIAT fortune, and another prominent figure of the post-war Riviera set. ‘During those five years when Pam was wife to Gianni in all but name, it certainly was not a one-way street because, indisputably, she was a social asset to him. Pam knew everyone worth knowing in English, European and American society and politics’, Lovell argues [281], giving a splendid example of the superficiality of the life led by all these people:

Still, although socially adept, Pam needed help when asked a tricky question for a party at Beaulieu-sur-Mer. Who took precedence, the Aga Khan or the Duke of Windsor? She knew whom to ask, though, and the response from Duff Cooper was very precise: ‘His Highness the Aga Khan is regarded as God on Earth by his many million followers. But an English Duke, of course, takes precedence’. [282]

But then, for various reasons the Duke of Windsor sold La Croë to Stavros Niarchos, the Greek shipping magnate, making his bois de Boulogne villa his main home. Rita Hayworth also disappeared from the scene. But new, younger faces appeared in the château de l’Horizon. One was ‘Debo’, the youngest of the Mitford sisters (born in 1920), Duchess of Devonshire from her marriage in 1950. She wrote a book of memoirs in 2010 in which the château and its occupants and visitors feature prominently. A letter which she sent in 1954 described her fellow guests as ‘a very odd collection of people […] a Frog general, an Irish stud manager and some of the Marquis de Cueva’s ballet dancers’ [316]. The French of that time would have spoken of le demi-monde to describe the people whom Aly invited to stay. When he got killed in a car accident in 1960, it was a watershed for that life of tinsel. As Lovell puts it, ‘The château de l’Horizon was never the same again after Aly’s death’ [375]. Gone for ever were ‘the days when the worst possible behaviour was to be boring […] on Maxine’s terrace’ [376]. By then, for his part, Churchill had found more than adequate substitutes – at Beaverbrook’s La Capponcina, at the Reveses’ La Pausa, and finally on Onassis’s yacht.

There is no doubt that The Riviera Set can be read as a serious, thoroughly researched social document which sheds light on the leisure pursuits of the British upper classes on the Côte d’Azur and the social climbers of all kind who revolved around them. Ultimately, all these people were constantly looking for recognition: wealthy people by poor but promising artists and intellectuals of talent, business leaders by political leaders, aristocrats trying to prove that their success was not only due to their high birth. All were peacocks striving to shine before their self-imposed audience – and in this the book is also a fascinating psychological document.



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