It is one of the banes of my existence that every time I see a movie or read a novel that details the life of Coco Chanel, they focus on one aspect. That she was once in love with an Englishman named Boy Capel. She met him when she was the mistress of a wealthy man, and, according to Justine Picardie’s excellent biography Coco Chanel: the Legend and the Life:
His name was Arthur Capel, but his friends called him Boy, in an Edwardian era when English gentlemen were still able to celebrate their continuing freedoms long after they had turned from boys to men. Boy’s origins were swathed in romance, and he came to Paris amidst murmured speculation that he was connected in some mysterious way to the British aristocracy.
“In Pau I met an Englishman”, Gabrielle Chanel said to Morand. “We made each other’s acquaintance when we were out horse-trekking one day; we all lived on horseback.” They drank wine together; it was young, intoxicating and quite unusual, and so was the Englishman. “The young man was handsome, very tanned and attractive. More than handsome, he was magnificent. I admired his nonchalance, and his green eyes. He rode bold and very powerful horses. I fell in love with him. I had never loved MB. ” Yet at first, she and Capel did not speak. “Not a word was exchanged between this Englishman and me.”
“One day I heard he was leaving Pau.” She asked him to tell her the time he was travelling to Paris; no other conversation was necessary. “The following day, I was at the station. I climbed onto the train.”
This tale is, indeed, very romantic. And, God, they looked good together:
Spoiler: Boy dies. They’re together only briefly, it’s great, they frolic by a seaside, Coco wears all of his clothing and gets the idea for a striped shirt, and then he dies.
In 1919. He died in 1919. Coco Chanel lived until 1971. I’m apt to believe that in the intervening 50 years Coco Chanel did something. And by something I mean “became a Nazi” which is perhaps why so many people like to end her story with Boy’s death.
But, no, there were actually other men, though Coco never obsessed too much over romance. One of my favorite quotes of hers is that “if [a man] is titled, rich, very rich, one becomes fair game, a quarry; a hare, a fox. Those English ladies are great hunters; they are forever hunting. I have never imagined thinking, here is a man I want; I’ll get him – where is my gun.”
Maybe that’s why she was so successful with men. Despite the fact that every movie depiction suggests she spent the rest of her life mourning Boy Capel . . . no, she didn’t. She did have this amusing caricature to remember their time together, though!
She had a ten year long (on again, off again) affair with “Bendor”, the 2nd Duke of Westminster beginning in 1925. He was said to have been one of the wealthiest men in the world. Clearly when you have really smart boater hats you do not need a gun.
And women! Chanel supposedly had lesbian affairs during her time in Hollywood when she designed costumes for MGM for 1 million dollars a year. That lifestyle was fairly accepted at the time, especially in Hollywood, among the Chanel-Cocteau crowd as were, apparently, “orgies and drug use”.
You know, every time I read about orgies being commonly accepted, I always think “How did that work? How were they organized?” I mean, we have all these organizational tools at our disposal – Facebook! Paperless Post! – but I have never once been invited to an orgy. How was seemingly every era prior to this one “all orgies all the time?” I think I’m at a pretty racy party if someone disappears into a bathroom for a while to give everyone the impression that they might be doing cocaine. If someone told me, “Last weekend I was at yet another orgy”, I would say, “No, you are lying, you were at home eating Cheez-its and watching Boardwalk Empire.” And I’d be right.
I think I’m suggesting that maybe . . . oh, there wasn’t any Boardwalk Empire then. Okay. I guess that’s why there were more orgies. (Fun fact – there were Cheez-its in 1921, though.)
However, through all the orgies and romances and Hollywood escapades, Coco was known to be very apolitical. The biographer Hal Vaughan remarked:
“Chanel didn’t believe in anything, except fashion. Chanel believed in beautiful clothes, she believed in her business and rightly so.”
Though all of that was about to change.
So, in the early 1930s (after grieving for Boy and partying with Bendor) she began a famously intense affair with Paul Iribe who was . . . really anti-Semitic. Colette said he was “a demon”, but “a very interesting demon.” Coco, who had never been political, jumped in the deep end by funding Iribe’s magazine, Le Temoin, a violent, ultra-nationalist publication that said that France was being destroyed from within by Jews.
That was not correct. Iribe was not accurate, there.
Most people, like Colette, knew this was wrong. However, everyone did agree that the magazine was full of some very good pictures! In one Iribe drew a naked Coco Chanel – meant to represent Marianne (a symbol of the French state) – being cradled by Hitler who is seemingly defending her from a group of Jews.
So that is where Coco formed her political views.
It is amazing that you could have these opinions and be open about them and still be part of polite society. Pretty much everyone was excited for Coco Chanel and Paul Iribe because, in addition to being absolutely hateful , he was very handsome and a good tennis player.
Spoiler: He died playing tennis. On Coco Chanel’s court.
Chanel was, once again, devastated. She began injecting herself with morphine nightly saying “I need it to hold on.”
Also, this was an era where not only could you go to an orgy seemingly every Saturday if you wanted to, you could also obtain morphine for recreational purposes. Suffice to say, the 1930s were a much more exciting time than the one we live in now.
And so, when World War II began, Chanel may have had the notion in her head of France being protectively cradled by Hitler. Over the years, Iribe wasn’t the only one who convinced her that the Nazis had the right idea.
In 1934, a series of protests from leftist, pro-communist groups broke out, leading to street riots, which Coco Chanel watched from her window at the Hotel Ritz, where she was living. I don’t know why I am throwing up that detail as though the fact that Chanel lived at The Ritz (which Hemingway personally liberated after the war, but that is another story) is tantamount to fiddling while Rome burned (and Nero didn’t actually fiddle, he recited epic poetry, but again, that is another story) and a move inexorably toward becoming a Nazi. I mean, Josephine Baker lived in an enormous castle and fought tirelessly for the French Resistance. I guess I am bringing up The Ritz to indicate that Coco probably wasn’t a lady who was very keen on Communism.
And she definitely wasn’t a supporter of the movement when her workers went on strike. Coco regarded the work stoppage as a personal betrayal by “mes filles” and told them that she would let them run the shop in a communist manner if they wanted just so long as she was the head of their communist republic. Her workers declined.
Her former lover, the 2nd Duke of Westminster, was adamant that England should back Hitler during the war, and told Coco as much. He told everyone as much. His anti-Semitic rants were legendary.
When the Nazis did come to Paris in 1939, Coco Chanel shut down her shop and fired some 3,000 workers, most of whom had gone on strike against her three years before. She later said, “How could I suppose there would still be people who would buy dresses? I was so stupid, such a dummy about life that it seemed impossible to me . . . well, I made a mistake. Some people sold dresses all during the war. That will be a lesson to me. Whatever may happen hereafter I will go on making clothes.”
Income continued to flow from the sale of Chanel No. 5 perfume and she remained at The Ritz which was supposedly “an island of wartime luxury.” Guests could smoke in the Psyche Salon, and have dinners of veal, pheasant and baked apples with champagne, while most people had meat only once or twice a week. The wealthy flocked to The Ritz, where the good times were interrupted only briefly during air raids, when residents had to flee to the hotel basement. Noel Coward said that he once saw Coco Chanel’s retinue of maids carrying her gas mask on a pillow.
When the French government fell, Chanel fled Paris briefly, but then returned, again, to The Ritz. She claimed that as soon as she went inside a German general ordered that she should stay at the hotel. The German government granted her permission to live in rooms on the 7th floor of the Cambon wing.
Here is a picture of Coco at her suite:
The rest of The Ritz, during those years, was occupied primarily by German officials. Chanel got along with them really well.
Now, look. You can’t fault someone for wanting to live at The Ritz. Look at it.
Christ, I understand wanting to live in a hotel. I mean, I would do a lot to live in The Ritz. I get making nice with the Nazis to live there, but Coco Chanel seemed to really like them. She actually said, “The Germans are much more cultivated than the French.” And at “her table” in the dining room she entertained Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goring. Really, anyone pretending that Coco Chanel just didn’t know what was going on is misinformed.
Then Chanel became the mistress of a 44 year old German officer named Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage. The couple dined out at Maxim’s and attended Serge Lifar’s opera and Nazi sponsored black tie galas. Josee, a friend of Chanel’s, described the splendor:
“champagne flowed, and the German officers, dressed in white tie and splendid uniforms, spoke only French. Social life had returned with friends and our new guests, the Germans . . . in a blacked-out Paris there was gaiety. Abetz in a uniform half-civil and half-military [Abetz held the rank of an SS lieutenant colonel] and his wife Suzanne turned out a magnificent buffet dinner while the overweight German Consul in Paris, General Rudolf Schleier, bowed low to ladies, kissing their hands as did Luftwaffe General Hanesse, dressed in a white uniform – his chest covered with decorations . . .
Incidentally – those decorations were almost certainly for killing Frenchmen. Just thought you should know. We can get back to the fun times now.
“The champagne flowed, the German officers, particularly the pilots, in evening dress did honor to the ladies, moving like butterflies, and no one spoke German. It was a real French gala evening when speaking German was prohibited. The officer competed to be most erudite in the language of Rabelais, and no one thought about the war. We all thought that peace, definitive peace, a German peace would win over the world with the approval of Stalin and Roosevelt . . . only England continued to face the Germans.”
Well, GO England.
This sounds fantastic; just as I love The Ritz, I love white tails – goddamn love them- and Rabelais, too. But I do want to stress that while Chanel and her German officers were having this fabulous time, the people of Paris were starving. Goring – Chanel’s friend, who was having champagne suppers at her table – decreed that the Parisian people would have to live on 1,200 calories a day. The elderly would be allotted only 850. This is a nearly impossible diet. And electricity was being cut off and there was some gas for cars but only on the black market.
Chanel’s lover, Dincklage was called back to Berlin to meet with Hitler. It was an honor, and when he returned, Dincklage was under orders to work directly for Berlin.
Now, while Chanel was having a pretty great time with all these German officers, her nephew Andre ended up in a German prisoner of war camp. Naturally, Chanel wanted him released, and quickly. Dincklage introduced her to his friend Louis de Vaufreland, another officer in German intelligence, who he thought might be helpful.
Vaufreland not only promised Chanel he could get her nephew out of the camp, he also told her that they could acquire full ownership of Chanel No. 5 perfume (since 1924 90% of Parfums Chanel was held by others), thus allowing her to profit greatly. All Chanel had to do was help the Germans obtain “political information.” He suggested that to do so she would have to be equipped with a visa to visit her friends in Madrid and England, a prospect which delighted Chanel.
So, in answer to the title: yes, she was a Nazi spy.
I just want to point out that around this time Josephine Baker was performing for the resistance in Northern Africa despite having a near fatal bout with peritonitis. Just saying, you know?
So Chanel went to Madrid. No one knows specifically what took place, though she was supposed to be obtaining some manner of political information. She worked on improving the sales of perfume in the Spanish market and she met with, among other people, the British Diplomat Brian Wallace, who said that her hatred of the Germans impressed him deeply.
How? How did she impress him?
Chanel apparently said that the Germans did not understand the French and that was making them hate the French to the extent that she was afraid about what would happen. She also said that the Germans had a growing sense of their true position in France, and that it was inspiring perplexity and impotent rage in the people.
Remember – the Germans were having white tie balls and speaking only French. They were tossing off cool bits of Rabelais to the ladies. So, Coco does not seem accurate. Nothing she suggested was remotely accurate, at least not among the circles Chanel ran in. But it does seem like a way to cozy up to an English diplomat, so, well done, Chanel, a victory for evil, there.
Chanel returned to France to find that her nephew Andre had been let out of the POW camp, and that she could concentrate on having her perfume business entirely to herself. The previous owners had been Jewish – and now the Germans were open to returning the company to an Aryan. In the eyes of one of Chanel’s biographers, Edmonde Charles Roux, “They were Jews. In the eyes of the occupying power, in short, only she existed.”
Being a Nazi spy seemed to work out pretty well.
In the summer of 1942, Parisians watched while Jews were rounded up and arrested. Chanel was delighted, thinking this would finally end all her problems with the Jewish family controlling Chanel No. 5. To be fair, there were strong sentiments of anti-Semitism in France during that period (to the extent that one woman, when seeing pictures of the Jews deported, remarked “But they are not French, they are Jews.”)
Chanel just didn’t really care. I don’t know how to explain that, quite. She was raised very Catholic? Iribe did that weird naked picture of her? Her lovers were all anti-Semitic? I’m sure there were reasons, but I find it remarkable that The Ritz was 15 minutes away from the Jewish quarter where Parisian Jews were being rounded up and Chanel, if anything, seemed pleased.
Incidentally, the family who Chanel hoped to see dead so they couldn’t have any influence over her business? They survived just fine, and made it to America. They launched a new perfume called “Courage” which sold extremely well and used a portion of the proceeds to support Charles de Gaulle’s Free French and Jewish causes in New York.
Chanel wasn’t thrilled.
And when she made a remark at a party that “France got what it deserved”, members of the Resistance truly realized that her symapthies did lie with the Nazis. German officials suggested that Chanel and Dincklage leave Paris, and return to Madrid where they could meet with Chanel’s former lover Bendor, and, through him, convey a message to Churchill that some high ranking officials wanted to end hostilities with England.
Because I’ve seen too many spy movies, I thought that this was some sort of tricky bit of misleading information, but, no, it seems some people really did want to end the war with England. And Churchill was a good friend of Chanel’s – he had cried on her shoulder when Prince Edward abdicated – so she wasn’t an unreasonable person to pick for such a mission.
This incredibly complex mission is perhaps best summarized on Wikipedia (which will save you from wondering, like me, whether it was filled with crosses and double crosses and so forth):
Chanel was “a person who knew Churchill sufficiently to undertake political negotiations with him.” For this mission, named “Operation Modellhut,” (“Model Hat”) they recruited Vera Lombardi. Count Joseph von Ledebur-Wicheln, a Nazi agent who defected to the British Secret Service in 1944, recalled a meeting he had with Dincklage in early 1943. Dincklage proposed an inducement that would tantalize Chanel. He informed von Ledebur that Chanel’s participation in the operation would be ensured if Lombardi was included. “The Abwehr had first to bring to France a young Italian woman [Lombardi] Coco Chanel was attached to because of her lesbian vices. . .”Unaware of the machinations of Schellenberg and her old friend Chanel, Lombardi played the part of their unwitting dupe, led to believe that the forthcoming journey to Spain would be a business trip exploring the possibilities of establishing the Chanel couture in Madrid. Lombardi’s role was to act as intermediary, delivering a letter penned by Chanel to Winston Churchill, and forwarded to him via the British embassy in Madrid. Schellenberg’s SS liaison officer, Captain Walter Kutchmann, acted as bagman, “told to deliver a large sum of money to Chanel in Madrid.” Ultimately, the mission proved a failure. British intelligence files reveal that all collapsed, as Lombardi, on arrival, proceeded to denounce Chanel and others as Nazi spies.
So, that threw everything off. However, Chanel wrote a very pitiable letter to Winston Churchill, who managed to get her released. Churchill wasn’t even around when any of this was happening, incidentally. He was in Tunisia with a fever of 102.
Soon afterwards, back in Paris, the war was drawing to a close and there were rumors that France would be free once again. That was great news to the people in France who were living on 850 calories a day. It was not great news to people who were going to white tie balls with the Nazis and spying on their behalf.
Chanel was terrified that people would find out about her activities. She bought the silence of anyone who knew she was a spy, and began to make up stories about her wartime activities working on behalf of the French people. One biographer remarked that “Chanel has a childhood fear of abandoning the world of her dreams and confronting the realities of existence.”
She was terribly afraid that the Jewish family that she had tried to wrest control of Chanel No. 5 away from would expose her legal attempts in court, but they never did. They knew it would damage the reputation of the brand, which was once again in their hands.
I mean, then we would not have this:
Chanel and Dincklage then left for Switzerland, where they lived happily for some years, until Dincklage, like so many of Chanel’s lovers before him, departed.
And Chanel returned to Paris, where she spent the rest of her life designing dresses, and not spying on anyone – that we know of.
I don’t know precisely how to feel about Coco Chanel, now. I mean, she designed a hell of a clothing line. And she made some great perfume! Does the fact that she also seemed, well, somewhat Godless in her dealings with the Nazis change any of that?
You cannot, of course, ever expect to love an artist because you love their work – that is like expecting to love cows because you love hamburgers. However, I am bothered by the fact that I think that Coco Chanel ought to have known better. This wasn’t someone who was in Germany who just believed German propaganda. How, exactly, did she manage to walk so cheerfully to all those white tie balls when people were starving in the street? Although, maybe we all get compassion fatigue. Anyone who lives in a city can tell you that they daily walk by homeless people, and most of us do not slow our pace, let alone stop.
Wait. But we do not become Nazi spies. I think that is the difference.
And while this story does not make me love Chanel any less, I do find it makes me care a good deal less for Coco.