Review: The Twilight Years: Paris in the 1930s by William Wiser

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For the artists and expatriates, the aristocrats and arrivistes, Paris in the 1930s lost none of its magical allure, as this lavishly illustrated chronicle of a fascinating decade in the city’s cultural history shows. At salons, galleries, palaces, and cafes, Henry Miller, Helena Rubinstein, Anais Nin, Coco Chanel, Salvador Dali, and Katherine Anne Porter joined illustrious exiles of the twenties like Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, Pablo Picasso, Janet Flanner, and Man Ray. Jazz orchestrated the city nights, surrealism flourished, haute couture reinvented itself. James Joyce redefined modern literature with Finnegans Wake and at her Chez Josephine Baker redefined the derriere. In a lively narrative, which is accompanied by a superb selection of period photographs, the award-winning author William Wiser follows Elsa Schiaparelli, T. S. Eliot, Peggy Guggenheim, the Windsors, Collette, Jean Cocteau, and a host of other colorful celebrities and literary luminaries through the ten years that continued to foster the creative revolution of the expatriate era in Paris—an era that began extravagantly with Elsa Maxwell’s famous masquerade ball and ended with perhaps the grimmest event in modern French history: the fall of Paris and the Nazi occupation in 1940.

Read to go along with The Dress Thief, this book delves into life in Paris in the 1930s among the artistic elite and wealthy (which is where the novel takes place). It is hard not to notice the pall cast over this decade even while the rich still attempt to cling to their buoyant attitude and the artistic crowd pours forth work that will make them famous. Paris in the 1930s is like the 1920s with the shine knocked off. It’s as if everyone is rushing to get their last hurrah in before the clouds of war swallow everything up, but it’s not the same. Some choose to simply ignore the obvious looming tension in the countries around them, some choose to leave, and some are locked in the violent political turmoil going on in the city. Any way around it, the decade is unsettling and a sense of exhaustion seems to color everything. It’s as if everyone knows another major war is headed their way and that paired with the world wide depression of the time period freezes everyone into an uncomfortable stupor of uncertainty.

The book is an eclectic mix of artists, designers, politicians, and celebrities and their time in Paris during the 1930s. Even with the political tumult of the decade, major artistic efforts were produced, scandals rocked the public, and the day to day bohemian existence of the time period didn’t change much. It is a snap shot of a city in uncertain times. The Dress Thief captures some of the attitude of the era with perhaps a bit more optimism (I feel fairly certain that the thuggish nightclub owner Serge is based in part on Serge Alexandre Stavisky), but the novel cuts off before the real bloom is off the rose in Paris. It’s an interesting study of the elite at a very contentious time.

4 out of 5

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