The Girl From the Grand Hotel by Camille Aubray: Hollywood, Cannes and Nazi Germany

BY CAROLINE WILSON

Camille Aubray’s newest novel, The Girl from the Grand Hotel (Blackstone Publishing, 2024), transports readers to the dazzling Côte d’Azur, just in time for the first Cannes Film Festival in September 1939. The novel’s heroine Annabel Faucon has fled New York in the wake of her parents’ deaths, hoping to start fresh with her Oncle JP, who manages the Grand Hotel in Cannes. She is taken on as an employee, eager to assist with the Hollywood glitterati descending on the hotel in the month before the opening of Cannes Film Festival. Annabel serves as personal assistant to the aging, alcoholic novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, who is struggling to make ends meet as a script writer. She is also assigned to assist up-and-coming actor Jack Cabot, and his glamorous German co-star and lover, Téa Marlo. What seems like a once-in-a-lifetime assignment becomes fraught with danger when Annabel stumbles upon a strange package and is initiated into the world of espionage.

Many believe the first Cannes Film Festival did not occur until 1946, and this misconception inspired The Girl from the Grand Hotel. “When I write a novel it’s often because I have just discovered a wonderful historical secret that has been ‘hiding in plain sight,’” says author Camille Aubray. “The 1939 festival opened in September—just as Hitler decided to invade Poland! So everybody—including the Hollywood stars who came over—suddenly went scurrying away to get out of Europe.”

The unceremonious departure of the festival’s participants effectively ended the event before it even began. Only one film was screened, William Dieterle’s Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara, before the festival closed following England’s declaration of war against Germany on September 3, 1939.

Aubray included Charles Laughton and his wife Elsa Lanchester amongst the real-life stars in the novel’s cast of characters. The “real-life luminaries were such fun to write about—F. Scott Fitzgerald in the last year of his life, the Kennedy family, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Cagney—I had all their voices in my head because I am such a fan of old movies and newsreels,” Aubray explains. “It was a joy to have these people pop up in The Girl from the Grand Hotel. But I must say that Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester really stole the show! I absolutely adore them.”

author Camille Aubray

Aubray’s research for the novel also provided ample inspiration.  “My husband and I packed up the car and the camera and drove along the coast and up into the hills of the French Riviera, much like my fictional characters Jack and Annabel do. Way, way up in the mountains there is still an old fort from the Maginot Line that was built after the First World War to protect France,” Aubray describes. “Just standing there gazing up at the Maginot fort, you can feel the history, and I got goosebumps. When an author gets goosebumps, you know you’re on to something! And then, I discovered the nearby, mysterious village of Sainte-Agnès, which figures in a very pivotal scene for The Girl from the Grand Hotel.” Indeed, it is a visit to Sainte-Agnès with Jack Cabot and Téa Marlo that further involves unassuming Annabel into the machinations of Nazi Germany’s quest to subjugate Europe.

While the secret world of espionage provided plenty of creative spark, Aubray was most encouraged by the culture of hospitality in the French Riviera. “What really inspired me to write about a Grand Hotel was my friendship with the present-day people who work so hard to make those hotels truly luxurious: not only the five-star chefs and hotel managers of the Côte d’Azur, but also the lovely people who supervise the housekeeping, the pools, the valets, the restaurant staff . . . they all had incredible stories to tell me for The Girl from the Grand Hotel.” This approach to writing allowed Aubray to include fictional staff members into the plot of the novel, providing color and context to the story.

Annabel has significant relationships with her colleagues at the Grand Hotel; many of these characters have had negative experiences with Germany’s racist policies and provide key insight into the dark days ahead for everyone staying in Cannes. In fact, the French Riviera would become part of the “free state” following the fall of France to Nazi forces in 1940. However, the “free state” was under control of Vichy France, the ultra-conservative, antisemitic puppet government set up to appease Germany. Cannes would eventually be overrun by Italian forces, then the German army, before being liberated in 1944. Fortunately for Annabel and the other characters of The Girl from the Grand Hotel, the novel closes in the wake of the scuttled Cannes Film Festival in September 1939.

While the novel’s epilogue provides an intriguing ending for Annabel, Aubray did not forget about the Grand Hotel, which survives the war and emerges phoenix-like to host generations of new guests. In some ways, this ending mirrors the hopes of Aubray as she was writing the novel. “I started writing The Girl from the Grand Hotel while the Covid pandemic was still disrupting our lives, so creating this novel was like my love letter to the valiant people who run my favorite hotel. I felt that by writing about them I could somehow keep us all alive and connected.”

For photos, recipes and her ongoing blog about what inspires Camille Aubray, visit her website.

 

 

About the contributor: Caroline Wilson is an architectural historian specializing in the social history of 19th and 20th century architecture. When she’s not reading or writing, Caroline can be found planning her next trip abroad and co-hosting a podcast entitled Scandal Sheets (@scandalsheetspod). She lives in Charleston, South Carolina, along with her husband and six very literary cats.

 

 

 

 

 


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