After WW1 the French Riviera became the holiday destination of choice for the rich and a number of fantastic villas were built there which seem to have been the venue for endless partying, adultery and general showing off. In The Riviera Set by Mary S Lovell she follows the history of one of those extravagant villas and the people who stayed there and made it their home.
The art deco Chateau de l’Horizon was built by a Hollywood actress Maxine Elliott who, in her day, was very famous and good at hanging onto the money she earned. She wanted to make her mark in society and have good connections so she used the villa to do this. The book actually follows Maxine’s life from her birth, as the daughter of a fisherman, up the building of the villa so we understand who she was and what was important to her. Most of the book looks at who stays in the villa during her lifetime and what we can learn about society during the time. Important guests include the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Noel Coward, Winston Churchill and many film stars and minor aristocrats. Also attending these parties were courtesans and other women not married to the men who were her guests.
Winston Churchill spent a lot of time at the villa during the 1930s when he wasn’t influential in UK politics and he wrote many of his books there. The book gives quite a lot of time to Churchill and his visits to the villa and the affection which Maxine had for him.
Following Maxine’s death the villa became important to Aly Khan who eventually bought it – his father had also been a regular visitor. The book follows his life, his struggles to be accepted by his father, his love for speed and risk, and his interesting marriage to Rita Hayworth.
The idea for the book is a good one and the people that stayed at the villa are important and very famous so it is interesting to read about them, especially Aly Khan whose name I recognised but about whom I knew nothing. I also enjoyed learning about Maxine Elliott. I did think, however, that the book was a little unbalanced in devoting so much time at the beginning to Maxine and her life before the villa and also in the amount of space it gave to Churchill. I also found that the more I read about these famous people, their demands, their affaires and their lives that the more I greatly disliked most of them !