The Girl from the Grand Hotel: A Novel

  • By Camille Aubray
  • Blackstone Publishing
  • 312 pp.
  • Reviewed by Anne Eliot Feldman
  • May 9, 2024

An American in pre-WWII France navigates a daunting mix of starlets and spies.

The Girl from the Grand Hotel: A Novel

The first Cannes Film Festival was scheduled to open in France on Sept. 1, 1939, but never did; Germany invaded Poland that very day. This hidden gem of history offers a thrilling backdrop to Camille Aubray’s latest novel, The Girl from the Grand Hotel. Its first sentence aptly sets the stage and the stakes: “In the summer of 1939, Hollywood invaded the French Riviera…”

A year before, Adolf Hitler had pressured the jury at the Venice Cinema Mostra festival to award its top prizes to two propaganda pieces, a German film by Leni Riefenstahl and an Italian war film. This infuriated the non-fascist world, and the idea of creating a new festival that transcended politics was born. One year later, Cannes brimmed with excitement. Despite “warning signs all along,” writes Aubray, “…everyone was either too busy or having too much fun to notice that, this summer, they were all on a collision course with history.”

With this tidy prologue, we enter a story steeped in glamor and espionage, seen through the eyes of 20-year-old Annabel Faucon, a born-and-bred New Yorker. Recently orphaned following her photographer father’s death, Annabel comes to Cannes in August 1939 to work for her French uncle at the Grand Hotel, a fictional place inspired by the histories of three famed hotels on the Cote d’Azur. Oncle JP has booked Annabel a room at a nearby boardinghouse, from which she can ride her bicycle to work and visit JP’s handicapped 8-year-old granddaughter, Delphine, during her off hours.

The “dazzling gaiety” around the hotel excites Annabel, but “an apprehensive feeling of impending catastrophe” soon tempers all she does. With some experience in theater, she is handpicked to keep an eye on two Hollywood types: a hardworking writer (with a reputed drinking problem) named F. Scott Fitzgerald and renegade leading man Jack Cabot, who appears bent on luring his German actress/girlfriend, Téa Marlot, away from her studio to work for him.

Annabel types up Scott’s voluminous screenplays and ponders his generous wisdom. The devilish Jack takes her to scout shooting locations, often when Téa is unavailable because she’s been summoned by the Nazi guests who come and go from a ship anchored off the Riviera. Then there is the stunning Rick Bladley, son of a wealthy American who may buy up the entire Grand Hotel. Rick is staying in its penthouse, and while his arrogance annoys Annabel, no one is kinder to tiny Delphine.

As Annabel struggles with falling for Jack and wonders where Téa’s political loyalties lie, a murder is discovered, a secret Nazi communications system comes to light, and everyone appears to be watching everyone else. Annabel exists at the center of the intrigue. She feels “as if everything she’d thought of as solid fact was actually a dream…like being in her father’s photography studio and staring at a negative of a picture — where black was white and white was black.”

As the month moves along, the push to ferret out details of the homicide and of the Nazi communiques reaches a fever pitch; war seems imminent. Following the book’s inevitable climax, a postwar epilogue stretches to the year 2000, illuminating Annabel’s colorful life after Cannes.

The beauty of Aubray’s uncluttered prose describing the South of France — its lemon-yellow sun, brilliant azure sky, bright-blue sea, grey-violet mountains, and fragrant gardens lends credence to the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote she uses to open the novel’s first part: “I…would give my life for three years in France.” The numerous real-life luminaries who pepper the story add comforting gravitas and depth to the narrative, and Aubray hews close to their actual stories and personas.

Fitzgerald is in poor health and will die in the next year. Joseph P. Kennedy serving in 1938-1940 as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom — comes across as the glamorous studio financier he really was. Wearing “the longest false eyelashes Annabel had ever seen,” Mae West flirts with the likes of Kennedy and Gary Cooper. And Marlene Dietrich, “so deeply suntanned that she seemed like a bronze statue, behind sunglasses with round, shocking pink frames,” adds even more glitz.

The Girl from the Grand Hotel offers an imaginative glimpse into recent history, one that entertains as it gives perspective. It took courage and vision for organizers to put forth Cannes’ first film festival amidst an unstable world not dissimilar to our own. Since 1939, Cannes has hosted 76 such festivals, and we look forward to the 77th later this month.

With a B.A. from Colgate University, an M.A. from Georgetown University, both in Russian area studies, and a UCLA certificate in fiction writing, Anne Eliot Feldman has worked in the Library of Congress and the defense industry. She’s currently at work on a writing project of her own.

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