Seeing the forest for the trees

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Central Park South from Fifth Avenue. Photo: JH.

Monday, March 2, 2020. It was another bright and sunny Sunday, yesterday in New York. With temperatures reaching to the mid- and upper-40s. That’s not exactly warm but it’ll do in this non-Winter we’ve been getting used to. Although March…you never know.

This piece of street art was something I photographed a few years ago one day when I was over at Zabars. This was on the pavement at the corner of 80st and Broadway. The artist made several of them over a period of months. They’re on the ground that is  hard, cold, dirty, marked up and looking worn. The artist’s message “cleans” everything up in your head and puts your mind at ease no matter the message, at least briefly.

I’m running it today because although many of us know the story of Gilda Radner and loved her work and her talent, we also know that her life ended up short-lived. This “quote” most likely was written (or spoken) by her when she also knew about her life… We’re living in a time where her thoughts are cogent and helpful.

The second paragraph is universally applicable. Take heart.

I’m taking the risk of running this photo that came in the mail this past week from my friend Evelyn Tompkins.  The glamorous lady looks familiar, although I don’t know her/never met her. But great to look at anyway. She is Evelyn’s mother, Mrs. Tompkins. This photo was taken last summer on her centennial birthday, and obviously true to her fashion. Remember fashion?

I spent the better part of the weekend reading a book called “Chanel’s Riviera” by Anne De Courcy. The subtitle is: “Glamour, Decadence, and Survival in Peace and War, 1930-1944.”  The subtitle is really the story. Coco Chanel was an important character in world of money, business, and society but like everyone else in the story of the Riviera, she was only one aspect of its history in those years of peace and war. The author’s use of Chanel as a “main” character gives a serious history a personal, accessible thrust. 

I wondered at first why I picked it up; barely looked at it and decided to buy it. On a whim. I’ve read biographies of Chanel (interesting she was always), and of the times of the Riviera thanks to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and the Murphys et al. But the cover also drew my curiosity. And this one is a winner – the seven girls/ladies promenading on the boardwalk with all their fashion and je ne sais quoi. 

Click to order Chanel’s Riviera: Glamour, Decadence, and Survival in Peace and War, 1930-1944.

Back at my desk, I put it in the pile of those tomes waiting to come off the shelf. Later in the afternoon, still wondering why I bought it. $28.99. Doing a little self-chastising, I took it back off the shelf and opened it up. Coco Chanel led the way. 

Her history is very affecting and effective in understanding her. Her mother died when she was a young girl and her father put her and her siblings into an orphanage and basically disappeared from their lives. She learned to sew in the orphanage, and when she was old enough she moved out. Fate was on her side. Through a series of chance incidents, she launched a small business. Its success gave her entrée to more prosperous worlds of artists, actors, bankers and aristocrats. She was perhaps the most successful businesswoman of her time and generation. 

The author quotes Jean Cocteau, a friend whom she often supported, wrote about her: “Her spectacular liaisons, her rages, her nastiness, her fabulous jewels, her creations, her whims, her excesses, her kindness as well as her humor and generosity, all these were part of her unique, endearing attractive, excessive and very human personality. She looks at you tenderly, then nods her head and you’re condemned to death.”

Amidst her flourishing success she also fell in love with the Riviera and built a house here which she named La Pausa. 

La Pausa, Coco’s house in Roquebrune.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor made their first marital home there in the Chateau de la Croe. Somerset Maugham had a house which he first used as a seasonal retreat. Later in his life he lived there full time. It was a resort for all who visited or made homes there — the rich, the famous, the chic and the shameless.

If you were one or the other or simply a working person who liked the area for its climate, it was a kind of paradise. It had harbors for the yachts and fishing boats, the casinos for the gambling kind, and the beaches for the Sun with the Mediterranean on its shore. Tanning as a fashion was new in the 1920s and ‘30s. Coco took to it, and kept the habit most of her life.

Coco with Serge Lifar. Photo Jean Moral © Brigitte Moral

De Courcy’s portrayal paints a kind of paradise that historically sounds like a romantic novel (complete with its scandals and tragedies). Although things began to change in the world in the mid-1930s. In Europe and especially Germany, the changes began to take on desperate sides. Hitler. War was in the air all around. Changes in government and leadership were rife. There were new leaders — Mussolini, Franco. Then in the late 1930s, the Germans under Nazi leadership invaded France and Paris, dividing the country in two and occupying Paris as their city. 

In the first couple of years, life in the Riviera seemed untouched by the invasion and the growing warfare of the Germans elsewhere in Europe and England. Then Germans began mining the harbors of the Riviera to control the traffic and prevent people from leaving/escaping their jurisdiction. The area was now in flux: many people were on the run, escaping the Nazis in the Vichy/France, as well as political prisoners escaping Spain and Italy. The Riviera was becoming a no-man’s land.

Americans were no longer welcome under the Nazi authority. Many other residents were threatened. Shortages began, small at first and then all encompassing: food, water, electrical power, coal. All residents were included — with exceptions, of course. Coco, when she was there, like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and others of that celebrated ilk, were not included. Their lifestyle needs remained intact.

Until, that is, people were told to leave for their own safety. Those who were not allowed to leave began to find ways of escaping. The British demanded that the Windsors evacuate. The Riviera became a hodge-podge of desperation for all kinds of people, most especially Jewish people who were being hunted down, robbed, victimized and imprisoned, or sent to Germany to work in factories.

Coco Chanel and Bendor, the Duke of Westminster.

It’s all history well known now, but at the end of the War when the Allies and Russia were closing in on the Germans and France was being liberated, what shocks and astounds is how almost to the closing hours of conflict, the German military was still taking prisoners — men, women and children, mainly Jews — and sending them to Auschwitz and their deaths; as well as stealing everything they could find in private properties as they withdrew. For what? For the hell of it!

The madness of it all. De Courcy lays it all out for us with such variety of detail that you are there, as if in the neighborhood, taking it all in.

Coco Chanel’s affairs, her businesses, her allure to many powerful men, including Churchill (who was always an admirer), demonstrates the new world of the 20th century when Women were finally liberating themselves. Until the economics of the times failed, after which came the deluge of insanity. All now a very dim memory in the world and the Riviera; but a reminder.

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