The scene is Paris during the German Occupation. For the past 11 years Philip Weber, the fellow who lives at the Ritz, has been spending his inheritance, dabbling in paint pots and cultivating the rich and famous. Is he a good listener, or is it the money from Uncle Gerard that charms all? Otherwise, what reason has Coco Chanel to bother with such a bore? Why should Man Ray nurture Philip's lukewarm, clowns-on-velvet aspiration to paint -- even lend him studio space? Has Janet Flanner no better social resources? And Charles Ritz, why does he share his electric trains with Philip, teach him to tie trout flies? Even curiouser, how does this very superficial dullard succeed in charming Goering and other Nazi potentates to the point of confidences?
Yes, yes -- he points out to Goering how the confiscated Rembrandt hanging over the fireplace is a forgery, but that's not the point: I object to that moment when Goering is reduced to remark on the tailoring of Philip's suit, and then is made to compliment him on his German!
The faceless hero tradition flourishes in Sir Walter Scott, whose Rob Roys and Henry Mortons move, ever the uncommitted, back and forth over enemy lines between the well-drawn supporting casts and Scotland's wonderful old wars. And we are entertained. Indeed, if Scott's heroes were better realized characters, their humanity might only distract. Hotchner's Philip Weber is a distant cousin. The conflict of the times is seen through his fickle eyes, and yet there is a significant difference. He has no face, no particular voice. There is no all-important love interest. The women who are made to cross his path, though famous as the devil, all attended the same bad finishing school. Here's Coco Chanel's first appearance:
"Mademoiselle Chanel was fussing with her steamer trunks in the corridor outside her room when Philip came upon her. She greeted him with a cry of delight, bussed him on both cheeks, and then, leaning back as she held him, looked at him intently.
" 'Let me examine you, Philip -- thin, sad-eyed . . .'
" 'That's because of missing you, Gabrielle.'
" 'You're still at your painting.'
" 'How did you know?'
" 'That rotten Schiaparelli cologne couldn't disguise anything.'
" 'I've run out of yours and your shop is closed.' "
. . . Enough to send one running to Edmonde Charles-Roux's excellent "Chanel and Her World" and its eloquent photographs.
Apart from the flatness of the prose, the spiritlessness of the dialogue, there is, in the above quote and elsewhere, a tendency to display conspicuous period consumerism: Badedas, Perrier, Pernod, mixed doubles at the Racing Club, Wagner's "Liebesverbot," 4711 cologne, Cafe de la Paix, Nivea, the Hole in the Wall bar (which played a part in Hotchner's earlier success, "Papa Hemingway"), lists of foods available or sorely missed, the not very subtly imagined contents of Goering's English address book -- "Fortnum & Mason, Harrods, Snavely of Savile Row, Turnbull & Asser, Yardley" -- all to no positive effect.
Ditto the people: Fitzgerald, Dietrich, Lindbergh, Goldwyn, Goebbels, Sylvia Beach, and bien entendu Hemingway, each has his or her moment. Even Piaf gets to sing a number. And while the commotion might provide diversion in a movie, here it yields only chafed elbows.
The plot suffices, once the ill-carved cameos and shopping tips have been discounted: It centers on Philip's growing entanglement in Goering's efforts to secure artworks from the Rothschilds and other Jews for his own private collection at Karinhall. When the appropriate moment comes, the hero undergoes a change of heart and sides with the Resistance.
With Goering undeceived, the book takes off and there are pages of nicely handled intrigue as Philip in wool jacket, knit cap and corduroy pants (the Germans in hot pursuit) heads for the Spanish border. Here, and in a very generalized knowledge of the era, Hotchner demonstrates competence. However, where Mike Hammer or the Hardy boys might get out of a scrape by their own wits, Philip must be helped by a nun, a hoodwinked boatman, and a guide whom he pays to lead him over the Pyrenees, plus a long list of convenient offstage well-wishers.
Does our hero gain his freedom and thrive, a born-again, moral and committed person, made wise by the sufferings and twaddle of nearly 300 pages?
I'm not giving that away.