Once upon a time there was a couple called the Littells that seemed to have it made in the Big Apple—Deanna was a name-label dress designer, Robert a promising writer, and between them, they earned upwards of $50,000 a year. The only trouble was that they hated the increasingly abrasive life of their native New York City.
Many other such pairs have moved to—and lived happily (or quietly languished anyway) ever after in—the suburbs. But in 1970 the Littells and their two young sons gambled on a more dramatic change. They relocated to Castellaras on the French Riviera, a handsomely designed (by Jacques Couelle) new community of 82 homes, each with a panoramic view, between the Mediterranean and the ski slopes of the Maritime Alps.
“Perhaps it took guts,” says Bob, now 40, looking back, “but we decided that if we were ever going to leave, it had to be when the kids had not yet started school or had deeply rooted friendships. Also, there was the terrible temptation of money. Once you start making a certain amount, that money owns you. At the time we were living comfortably, but we could afford to give it all up, on a prayer and on the hope that we could survive in a more congenial atmosphere.”
Cautiously, the Littells had already tested the area several times on vacation and found it enchanting, though to this day their friends are still Americans and other foreigners in the colony. “The French,” says Deanna, 36, “don’t accept you.” But happily the Littells have at least pulled off their professional parlay. Robert has written two well-reviewed (if not best-selling) novels: The Defection of A.J. Lewinter, a thriller that has been compared with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and Sweet Reason, a comic indictment of war and military careerists drawn from Bob’s experiences in the Navy. Options, at least, for screenplays have been taken on both of these. In January comes his third novel in three years, The October Circle, set behind the Iron Curtain.
With a less portable profession, Deanna had more difficulty transplanting her talent to France. Finding no buyers in the haughty haute couture fashion world, she started a house of her own. Working in a rented atelier in Valbonne, an ancient walled city near Castellaras, and using local seamstresses, she assembled a 40-costume collection and held a showing in a friend’s Paris apartment, emptied of furniture for the occasion. Women’s Wear Daily gave it a two-page buildup, and buyers from all over the U.S. snapped up the costly line (gowns, for example, retail at $250 and up). Now, with her fifth collection opening in Paris in September, Deanna is an established fashion figure with clientele the likes of Mario Thomas.
The parents of both the Littells emigrated from eastern Europe and wound up teaching in the New York City school system. Deanna set out to be a professional dancer but quit abruptly at 17 (“It was the second best thing to being a nun”) and entered the Parsons School of Design. After graduation she learned the basics of the rag trade on Seventh Avenue, did “no-bra” bras for a lingerie firm, and soon began to create the elegant, flowing gowns that are her trademark. She was a hotshot at Paraphernalia, the trendy dress chain, and at the age of 28 she had moved into her own boutique at Henri Bendel’s. Bob got into journalism after Alfred University and a four-year hitch in the Navy; in the summer when he first met Deanna he was working the lobster (predawn) shift on the Long Branch (N.J.) Daily Record, and for the first six months of their courtship the only time they could get together was at breakfast. Eventually he became a writer at Newsweek.
Now, with two full-time breadwinners in the house, the Littells have fashioned a liberated life-style that is all their own. They share the shopping, cooking and other household chores. When Bob is at a “crisis point” facing a book deadline, Deanna assumes all the duties. When one of her fall or spring collections is impending, he takes over the burden. A live-in French nanny looks after the children when both parents are at work.
“Sometimes I feel guilty,” says Deanna, “that I’m not being the perfect traditional wife and mother that I was raised to be—or, should I say, society made me think I should be. I hope the next generation won’t feel that guilty; but with me it’s unavoidable.” It doesn’t bother Robert, who observes, “I meet people where the women don’t work, and they are boring.”
The Littells made a pact early in their marriage not to “lead our lives for our kids,” reports Deanna. “We give them ‘motherlike,’ ” which is to say non-smothering affection. Their two boys, now 5 and 7½, attend a public school in Cannes, seven miles away, and also have an English tutor. English is spoken around the house, but the boys play cowboys and Indians, to their parents’ amusement, in French. The older child, an insatiable reader, has already conquered Huckleberry Finn along with La Chanson de Roland and Jules Verne.
Looking back on their life-transformation, Deanna attributes it purely to intuition: “Everyone thought we were mad to leave, but Bob has that organized impulsivity—it’s the Capricorn in him that made it all sound so sane. Perhaps it’s his confidence, but I believed it would all work out in the end.” So far, it has.