by HAL VAUGHAN
Chatto & Windus, 2011, 279 pages, $32.95 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
She was an icon of fashionable Paris, the dresser and perfumer of Presidents’ wives and Hollywood movie stars but Coco Chanel had a secret, and much shabbier, side – her collaboration with Hitler’s Nazis.
Hal Vaughan’s biography of Chanel reveals the rags-to-riches, and right wing, rise of Gabrielle Chanel, born in France in 1883, who as a café singer caught the eye of a rich ex-cavalry officer which was her entrée to the French and British social elite. Opening the first of her thousand-dollar gown boutiques (financed by her lovers ‘because two gentlemen were outbidding each other for my hot little body’), Chanel found the key to massive wealth by hiring the former official perfumer to the Russian Czar to produce a luxury perfume, Chanel No. 5, in 1921.
As the Great Depression spread misery amongst the French working class, the House of Chanel prospered, with an annual turnover of $4 million ($60 million today). Her workers saw little of this bounty, however, and when her 4,000 boutique saleswomen, artisans and seamstresses struck for higher wages, shorter hours and paid vacations in 1936 during the labour effervescence of the left wing Popular Front years, Chanel bitterly conceded to ‘le sit-down’ only to take her revenge three years later by sacking them all and closing up her fashion business when war was declared by Hitler.
The Nazi war proved quite congenial to Chanel. Her Catholic convent education had imparted a vitriolic anti-Semitism (Jews were ‘Christ-killers’, taught the Sisters) to Chanel and the Nazis’ fear and hatred of Jews, and socialism, matched Chanel’s.
With the Nazis occupying the north of France, and a collaborationist government in the south, Chanel made common cause with the fascists. She became a ‘horizontal collaborator’ with a new lover, the German, baron von Dincklage, a spy operating under diplomatic cover for the Abwehr (German military intelligence) and for the brutal Gestapo, the Nazis’ secret police.
Chanel was recruited as an Abwehr agent, her connections to the pro-fascist British aristocracy deemed useful to the Nazis on their military upswing, and, when the war later turned against Hitler, her hunting-party friendship with Winston Churchill offering promise to those anti-Hitler Nazi elements, like SS intelligence chief, General Schellenberg, whom Chanel met in Berlin, seeking a separate peace with Britain to keep Germany out of Soviet hands.
Also agreeable to Chanel were the Nazis’ anti-Semitic laws with Chanel attempting to cash in on the ‘Aryanization’ of Jewish property by wresting control of her perfume business back from the Jewish Wertheimer family (who, more astutely, outfoxed Chanel and the Nazis). Nevertheless, Chanel struck a post-war deal guaranteeing that she would get 2% of all Chanel No. 5 sales, a multi-million dollar income stream for Chanel and, later, her Trust (by 2008, a bottle of Chanel No. 5 was being sold every 30 seconds somewhere in the world).
Chanel had no moral qualms about cooperating with the Abwehr, the SS and the Gestapo. She was unmoved by the roundup of Parisian Jews, for transport east to Nazi death camps, from the Jewish quarter of Paris, a fifteen minute walk from the Ritz hotel where, as a friend of the Reich, she dined in luxury with high-level Nazis whilst working class France starved.
Marked as a collaborator by the Gaullist resistance, Chanel sought to protect herself when Paris was liberated by handing out free Chanel No. 5 to American GIs. Nevertheless, she was arrested but quickly released following Churchill’s personal intervention. Chanel re-entered the fashion and perfume business and enriched her personal wealth to the operatic tune of $10 million ($54 million today) by the time of her death in 1971.
Chanel’s collaboration with the Nazis remained hidden for decades in archives whilst she bought the silence of those who could have exposed her, paying her fellow Abwehr and Gestapo agent, Dincklage, a handsome pension and funnelling money to the widow of the SS chief, Schellenberg, to keep Chanel out of Schellenberg’s memoirs.
Wealthy capitalist, noxious bigot, and fascist hopeful – all the Chanel No. 5 in the world can not hide the stench of Coco Chanel, a fitting representative of the financially privileged and morally degraded 1% who have ruled our world.