The photographs best encapsulate it – the era, the glamour, the original meaning of the term ‘jet-set’. While the term ‘jet-set’ is ubiquitous these days, at one time it carried the incredible cache of a world in which cosmopolitanism was risky, and the preserve of a few. It was not always the case that international travel was available to all; there was a period when it was the domain of an elite group of sophisticates who crossed the world’s oceans and continent, and they did so in style.

With chapter titles such as ‘Lady-Killing on the Côte d’Azur’, ‘The Golden Greeks’, ‘Let It Snow’ and the ‘Jet-Set White House’ in his book, Swans: Legends of the Jet Set Society, author Nicholas Foulkes recounts the rise of jet travel in parallel with the colourful personalities of those who enjoyed it. “The spirit of the world that I have tried to capture in this book,” Foulkes explains in the introduction, “is a world that was like a secret society, with a global membership of perhaps a few hundred people united by shared secrets, a society that talked in code and spoke of each other by first names and miraculously knew about whom they were all talking…They shopped in one country, ate in another, skied here, summered there, and knew by a mysterious sixth sense where they would all be at a certain time of year. It was a world of taste and culture, a world of elegance and beauty; it was the world of the jet set.”

A period spanning from the late 1950s to the early 1970s marked an old-fashioned world doing its best to adapt to the jet age. It was a world in which the old aristocracy and nobility still had an enormous part to play: certain cultural values persisted
and certain archetypes of behaviour were adhered to. Although the term jet set was in circulation by the mid-1950s, it was only in 1957 that more people crossed the Atlantic by plane than by boat. In 1956, the majority of American visitors to Europe would have arrived by one of the great ocean liners. As Elsa Maxwell, the portly, impeccably connected veteran socialite and columnist phrased it in one of her writings from the time: “Socially speaking, this is not the space age; it’s the pace age. Space, in terms of miles or kilometres, is passé. Distances have telescoped, and today the genuine social celebrity must think internationally. The rich have always travelled—from one marble palace to another—but now everyone goes everywhere. Just being in the right place at the right time often enough can in itself amount to an entrée, of sorts, to international society. American socialites, and climbers, are now as much at home in Venice, Rome and Paris…”

Travel still evokes a sense of luxury and power, and to understand the social roots of why this is so, Nicholas Foulkes tells the tale.