Coco Chanel: Nazi Collaborator & Spy

Everyone knows of Coco Chanel as a fashion icon and style pioneer. She is justly respected for her vision, brilliance, and the way she changed the world of fashion. Yet, hardly anyone talks about the other side of the mirror, the Chanel who was the epitome of a cold opportunist, and an amoral, ethically challenged survivor who would claw her way to the top. If that meant — quite literally — sleeping with the enemy, then so be it. Even if that enemy was a Nazi. In fact, not only did Coco Chanel have a high-ranking Nazi lover before and after WWII, she was allegedly also a Nazi spy herself, code-named “Westminster.”



The whitewashing of history is a sore subject for me, and the case of Coco Chanel, in particular, has bothered me for a long time. Then, a few weeks ago over the recent Christmas holidays, I watched a French film about Chanel’s alleged affair with the famed composer, Igor Stravinsky, in 1920. “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky” is a gorgeous but problematic account for a few reasons, not the least of which is whether or not there was an actual affair. (Coco Chanel insisted it occurred, Stravinsky’s main lover and second wife insisted that it did not.) Regardless, the story reminded me of the Chanel that so few talk about, the real Gabrielle Chanel, and it brought back all my old feelings.

I won’t get into the details of Chanel’s extremely difficult childhood, or the well-worn territory of her rise to power through the assistance of various lovers. Both periods of time have been amply discussed. I concede here and now, explicitly, that childhood traumas can shape us, determine our character, and are important in discussing a person’s motivations as an adult. Again, I repeat, I concede that point fully.

However, I firmly believe that there are lines, lines which cannot be excused by one’s opportunistic hungers or an ingrained desire to survive. For me, Gabrielle Chanel crossed those lines, badly, and the cultish worship of Chanel as a fashion icon, woman and person needs to stop. There needs to be a more balanced, considered, and critical approach that takes into consideration the two faces of Gabrielle Chanel, a woman who I think resembles Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.

"Sleeping with the Enemy," 2011 book cover. Source:

“Sleeping with the Enemy,” 2011 book cover. Source:

The primary focus for the following discussion will be a book called Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War by Hal Vaughn. Mr. Vaughn (who passed away three months ago) was a former diplomat who was also involved with the CIA before he became a journalist. His book was released in 2011, relies heavily on recently declassified French and German documents, and garnered many rave reviews.

The issue of Coco Chanel’s anti-Semitism and war-time collaboration with the Nazis is widely known, though rarely discussed, but the book went much further than that. Based on those newly released documents, Vaughn revealed that Chanel was a Nazi spy. Yes, an actual spy. With a code-name referencing her British lover, the Duke of Westminster, who was another notorious anti-Semite.


New York Times‘ book review on Sleeping with the Enemy provides a succinct chronological background to Chanel’s actions at the end of the 1920s, actions that lay the groundwork for some of the events that were to come to pass:

As her personal fortunes rose [in the late 1920s], she turned her attention to making serious inroads into British high society, befriending Winston Churchill and the Prince of Wales and becoming, most notably, the mistress of the Duke of Westminster, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor (known as Bendor), reputedly the wealthiest man in England.

Chanel and the Duke of Westminister. Source: The New York Times.

Chanel and the Duke of Westminster. Source: The New York Times.

Bendor’s — and Chanel’s — anti-­Semitism was vociferous and well documented; the pro-Nazi sensibilities of the Duke of Windsor and many in his circle have long been noted, too. All this, it appears, made the society of the British upper crust particularly appealing to Chanel. As Vaughan notes, after she was lured by a million-dollar fee to spend a few weeks in Hollywood in 1930 — Samuel Goldwyn, he writes, “did his best to keep Jews away from Chanel” — she found herself compelled to run straight back to England, so that she could wash away her brush with vulgarity in “a bath of nobility.” [Emphasis to names added by me.]

Chanel with WInston Churchill (far right) and his son. Source:

Chanel with Winston Churchill (far right) and his son. Source:

Coco Chanel wasn’t turned into an anti-Semite by her ducal lover. Many sources, including Vaughn, argue that her bigotry had deep roots, going back to her childhood at a convent where such views seemed commonplace amongst the nuns and villagers. What was more significant about the Duke of Westminster, the richest man in England and her lover for 6 years, was that he introduced Chanel to Winston Churchill. They became life-long friends, and it was a friendship that would serve her well when the time came down the road. In the meantime, she was living it up in Paris and was one of the wealthiest women in the world, thanks, in part, to the runaway success of Chanel No. 5.

Pierre Wertheimer. Source:

Pierre Wertheimer. Source:

A little known fact is that Coco Chanel had Jewish partners, Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, whose descendents now control the entire Chanel empire. (As a result, the modern-day Wertheimer brothers are billionaires, with a combined net worth of over $19 billion dollars.) Chanel may have been an anti-Semite, but she was an opportunist first and foremost — and she badly needed the Wertheimer brothers in order to make her perfumes a success. I’ll rely on Pierre’s Wikipedia entry for the basic background details, though I’m fully aware that Wikipedia often has serious flaws and should only be used as a starting point in things. Still, the brothers aren’t the focus of this piece, and the Wikipedia account is supported by a site called Funding Universe. So, back to the Wertheimers. In the early 1920s, the two brothers were very wealthy, thanks to their father who founded the French makeup company, Bourjois. (It is still the cheaper arm for Chanel cosmetics to this day.)

In 1924, Chanel sought their financial backing in order to launch her perfume line and, most specifically, Chanel No. 5. In essence, the Wertheimers acted as venture capitalists in a new corporate entity called “Parfums Chanel,” in return for a whopping percentage of the rights and profits. As the Wikipedia entry explains:

In 1924, Coco Chanel made an agreement with the Wertheimers creating a corporate entity, “Parfums Chanel.”

Chanel believed that the time was opportune to extend the sale of her fragrance Chanel No. 5. to a wider customer base. Since its introduction it had been available only as an exclusive offering to an elite clientele in her boutique. Cognizant of the Wertheimer’s proven expertise in commerce, their familiarity with the American marketplace, and resources of capital, Chanel felt a business alliance with them would be fortuitous. Théophile Bader, founder of the Paris department store, Galeries Lafayette, had been instrumental in brokering the business connection by introducing Pierre Wertheimer to Chanel at the Longchamps races in 1922. […] 

Chanel and Pierre Wertheimer. Source:

Chanel and Pierre Wertheimer. Source:

For a seventy percent share of the company, the Wertheimers agreed to provide full financing for production, marketing and distribution of Chanel No. 5. Théophile Bader was given a twenty percent share. For ten percent of the stock, Chanel licensed her name to “Parfums Chanel” and removed herself from involvement in all business operations.[4] Ultimately displeased with the arrangement, Chanel worked for more than twenty years to gain full control of “Parfums Chanel.” In 1935, Chanel instigated a lawsuit against the Wertheimers, which proved unsuccessful.[5]

Then, war came, and oh, what an opportunity it was for Mademoiselle Chanel. Up to that time, she had been living the high-life in a luxurious apartment at the Paris Ritz Hotel. While that part of her life didn’t change when the Nazis goose-stepped their way up the Champs-Elysees, they brought with them the convenient benefit of Aryanization laws that would target Jewish-owned business.


"Chanel, age 56, photographed by George Hoyningen-Heune, 1939 (copyright Horst/ Courtesy Staley-Wise Gallery)."  Source:

“Chanel, age 56, photographed by George Hoyningen-Heune, 1939 (copyright Horst/ Courtesy Staley-Wise Gallery).” Source:

To quote a New Republic book review called “The Stench of Perfume“:

While her fellow countrymen starved and died, she lived like a queen in the Ritz, surrounded by Nazi officers and enjoying Nazi parties. Berlin ordered that the Ritz was “reserved exclusively for the temporary accommodation of high-ranking personalities,” meaning that Chanel must have made connections with some very powerful Nazis in order to stay there. And there is the matter of her anti-Semitism.

In addition to her collaborations, Chanel spoke loudly and vehemently against Jews, and even tried to take advantage of the Nazi seizure of Jewish businesses and property. Her world-famous perfume, Chanel No. 5, was owned and produced by the Wertheimers—a rich Franco-Jewish family. Chanel had always been paranoid that the Wertheimers were stealing from her (though her lawyer assured her of the contrary), and during the war, when the family had fled to America, she attempted to take full control of Chanel No. 5. But the Wertheimers had anticipated that the Nazis (or Chanel) might try to steal their company, and therefore they signed it over to a Frenchman for the duration of the war. Chanel couldn’t touch it. The Wertheimers also sent a spy, Herbert Gregory Thomas (under the pseudonym, Don Armando Guevaray Sotto Mayor), to retrieve the chemical formula to make Chanel No. 5 as well as collect all the necessary ingredients. He then brought everything back with him to America, so that the Wertheimers could continue to produce and sell the fragrance.

Chanel may have been thwarted in her attempts to use Nazi Aryanization laws to obtain control of the perfume company that bore her name, but the Nazis still made her rich. Very, very rich. The blog, MessyNessyChic, explains:



On May 5, 1941, Coco Chanel wrote to the government department in charge of the handling of Jewish financial assets.

These are her words in the letter:

 Parfums Chanel is still the property of Jews … and has been legally ‘abandoned’ by the owners. I have an indisputable right of priority. The profits that I have received from my creations since the foundation of this business…are disproportionate.

Ultimately, Chanel was awarded the wartime profits from the sale of her perfume, including share of two percent of sales which amounted to the equivalent of $25 million a year in modern currency.  This made her the richest woman in the world at that time– thanks to the Nazis.

"The young Baron von Dinklage circa 1935 at the German Embassy in Paris when he was working for the Gestapo, already a close friend of Chanel." Source: NY Social Diary.

“The young Baron von Dinklage circa 1935 at the German Embassy in Paris when he was working for the Gestapo, already a close friend of Chanel.” Source: NY Social Diary.

Chanel was equally successful in satisfying her voracious sexual appetites. There’s nothing wrong with that, but my disdain stems from her choice of lovers: Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a senior officer for the Abwehr or German Military Intelligence, who reported directly to Goebbels. Dincklage, who was much younger than Chanel, ended up being the last great love of her life.

Chanel didn’t stop at merely taking on a high-ranking Nazi lover. She became an actual Abwehr spy, with her own number: Abwehr Agent 7124. Her code name was “Westminster,” harkening back to her anti-Semitic ducal lover in England. The basis for Vaughn’s argument: those newly declassified documents from French and German authorities, as well as Nazi documents taken by the Soviets back to Russia and similarly released by that government in recent years.

General Walter Schellenberd, nicknamed "Hitler's Spymaster"

General Walter Schellenberg, nicknamed “Hitler’s Spymaster.” Source: Wikipedia.

Chanel and her Nazi lover sought to recruit wealthy Europeans to the Nazi cause, and Chanel had two actual missions. To be fair, some of Chanel’s wartime efforts were an attempt to secure the release of those she cared about. One mission to Madrid was done partially to secure her nephew’s release from a German POW camp. Some people try to justify her meeting in Berlin with the SS‘s intelligence chief, General Walter Schellenberg, and Himmler‘s right-hand man in the same way. (Yes, she met with Nazis who were that powerful!)

The reason for that meeting was “Modellhut” (or “model hat”). That was the codename for her second mission for the Nazis, which took place in 1943, and sought to counter the turning tide of the war by using Chanel’s friendship with Winston Churchill to achieve a peace with terms that wouldn’t hurt Germany. As a Washington Post book review of “Sleeping with the Enemy” puts it:

When Germany began to falter, the Nazis came to believe that Chanel might be useful in contacting her old friends Churchill and the Duke of Westminster and brokering a possible peace. She didn’t disappoint. She did what she was told to do and, in 1944, she wrote Churchill a letter, referring obliquely to her German connections.

[It didn’t work, but] Chanel continued to live at the Ritz, rub shoulders with Nazis and dine on poularde rotie, even as French families dug through the city’s garbage, trying to fend off starvation. […] 

Parisians foraging for food, via

Parisians foraging for food, via

As the war ground on and Dincklage came and went from Berlin, convincing his bosses that she was trustworthy, thousands of French Jews were herded to sure deaths in Poland and Eastern Europe. But the glamorous woman with the deft needle and acid tongue was safe. The good life at the Ritz continued to roll on. There were legions of women of courage and derring-do throughout Europe, working hard to outwit the Nazis. Chanel was not among them.


In the final days of August 1944, after Paris was liberated, retribution for the “collabos” or those who collaborated with the Germans was harsh. Some say about 30,000 to 40,000 people were executed. “Horizontal collaborators” or women who merely slept with the Germans suffered as well, though it was primarily humiliation and ostracism. The punishment was swift and brutal, even though none of them were actual Nazi spies who went to Berlin to meet with Hitler’s spy chief. An excerpt of “Sleeping with the Enemy” in the New York Times gives you a small idea of what happened:

A thirst for revenge gripped the nation in the last days of August. Four years of shame, pent-up fear, hate, and frustration erupted. Revengeful citizens roamed the streets of French cities and towns. The guilty — and many innocents — were punished as private scores were settled. Many alleged collaborators were beaten; some murdered. “Horizontal collaborators” — women and girls who were known to have slept with Germans — were dragged through the streets. A few would have the swastika branded into their flesh; many would have their heads shaved. Civilian collabos — even some physicians who had treated the Boche — were shot on sight. The lucky were jailed, to be tried later for treason.

Female collaborators in Paris, rounded up and marked with swastikas. Source:

Female collaborators in Paris, rounded up and marked with swastikas. Source:

What did Coco Chanel do? She hurriedly ran out into the streets to give bottles of Chanel No. 5 to American GIs! (You have to almost admire her nerve.) A few days later she was arrested, but Winston Churchill made a phone call, and she was soon released.

Chanel got off scot-free, and for reasons that went much further than Winston Churchill’s intervention. With the help of influential friends, including her ex-lover the Duke of Westminster, she successfully orchestrated a cover-up. She lied about pretty much everything and to everyone. She even went so far as get a former collaborative ally arrested by the French Partisans and, later, to bribe the ailing Nazi spymaster to keep her secret. To quote the New York Times review that I referenced at the start:

She tipped off the poet and anti-Nazi partisan Pierre Reverdy, a longtime occasional lover, so that he could arrange the arrest of her wartime partner in collaboration, Baron Louis de Vaufreland Piscatory; she paid off the family of the former Nazi chief of SS intelligence Gen. Walter Schellenberg when she heard that he was preparing to publish his memoirs. (It was Schellenberg who had given her the “model hat” assignment.)

Chanel and Dinklage. in 1951 at Villars sur Ollon, Canton de Vaud, Switzerland. Source: via Paris Match & Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France/ Archives Charmet/ The Bridgeman Art Library

Chanel and Dincklage. in 1951 at Villars sur Ollon, Canton de Vaud, Switzerland. Source: via Paris Match &
Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France/ Archives Charmet/ The Bridgeman Art Library

God only knows what the partisans did to a French traitor like the Baron, but it can’t have been anything good. In the meantime, mere days after her questioning and release, Chanel fled to Switzerland. There she remained for 8 years, until 1954, with her Nazi lover, living in style and in the height of luxury. Oh, and taking drugs while she was at it as well. Chanel was a hard-core morphine addict, relying on it daily until she was well into her 70s.

Throughout it all and until her death, she was coldly unapologetic for her actions, which is one of the things that bothers me the most. She may have done some things to survive, but I think she went too far, and, worst of all, she never once felt any regret.

Instead, when asked in later years about her Nazi ties, she coolly responded, “I don’t ask my lovers for their passports.” As for the French, a Portugese site, Fashionatto, quotes her as saying, “The French got what they deserved” and “Not all Germans were bad guys.” No, not all Germans were bad, and yes, the French behavior during the Vichy Government was abominable, but Chanel’s callous dismissal of the details goes a step too far. One of the things that irritates me to no end is her sheer indifference to anything other than herself. There is narcissism, and then there is megalomaniacal narcissism — I’m trying to decide there should be an entirely separate category reserved solely for Gabrielle Chanel.

As even the New York Times puts it,

Gabrielle Chanel — better known as Coco — was a wretched human being. Anti-Semitic, homophobic, social climbing, opportunistic, ridiculously snobbish and given to sins of phrase-making like “If blonde, use blue perfume,” she was addicted to morphine and actively collaborated with the Germans during the Nazi occupation of Paris. And yet, her clean, modern, kinetic designs, which brought a high-society look to low-regarded fabrics, revolutionized women’s fashion, and to this day have kept her name synonymous with the most glorious notions of French taste and élan.


Chanel and Hans Gunther von Dincklage. Source:

Chanel and Hans Gunther von Dincklage. Source:

One of the strangest parts of this whole sorry tale is the behavior of the Wertheimer Brothers after the war. They paid for Chanel to live in the lap of luxury, from her exile in Switzerland until her death in Paris in 1971 at the age of 87. Their generosity boggles my mind. I can understand why they would finance her reestablishment in French society and the re-emergence of Chanel as a business success; that benefits them indirectly and financially. It was a business decision about a corporate entity. But her personal bills? All of them, and until her death? Despite her collaboration and despite how she had treated them personally? That takes the milk of human kindness to levels that I simply cannot fathom. (Yes, I am a much less forgiving person.) Meanwhile, Chanel grabbed the money, and then declared that Pierre Wertheimer was “the bandit who screwed me.”

There seems to be the suggestion that Pierre Wertheimer was a long-time admirer of Chanel, and perhaps had a crush on her, but that didn’t prevent the two of them from having a little perfume war while Coco was in exile. There is a site called Funding Universe which has a detailed history of Chanel and her company, and which talks about the conflict over “Parfums Chanel“:

[After the war ended,] Pierre Wertheimer returned to Paris to resume control of his family’s holdings. Despite her absence, Coco Chanel continued her assault on her former admirer and began manufacturing her own line of perfumes. Feeling that Coco Chanel was infringing on Parfums Chanel’s business, Pierre Wertheimer wanted to protect his legal rights, but wished to avoid a court battle, and so, in 1947, he settled the dispute with Coco Chanel, giving her $400,000 and agreeing to pay her a 2 percent royalty on all Chanel products. He also gave her limited rights to sell her own perfumes from Switzerland.

Coco Chanel never made any more perfume after the agreement. She gave up the rights to her name in exchange for a monthly stipend from the Wertheimers. The settlement paid all of her monthly bills and kept Coco Chanel and her former lover, von Dincklage, living in relatively high style. It appeared as though aging Coco Chanel would drop out of the Chanel company saga.

At 70 years of age in 1954, Coco Chanel returned to Paris with the intent of restarting her fashion studio. She went to Pierre Wertheimer for advice and money, and he agreed to finance her plan. In return for his help, Wertheimer secured the rights to the Chanel name for all products that bore it, not just perfumes. Once more, Wertheimer’s decision paid off from a business standpoint. Coco Chanel’s fashion lines succeeded in their own right and had the net effect of boosting the perfume’s image. In the late 1950s Wertheimer bought back the 20 percent of the company owned by Bader. Thus, when Coco Chanel died in 1971 at the age of 87, the Wertheimers owned the entire Parfums Chanel operation, including all rights to the Chanel name.

Pierre Wertheimer died six years before Coco Chanel passed away, putting an end to an intriguing and curious relationship of which Parfums Chanel was just one, albeit pivotal, dynamic. Coco Chanel’s attorney, Rene de Chambrun, described the relationship as one based on a businessman’s passion for a woman who felt exploited by him. “Pierre returned to Paris full of pride and excitement [after one of his horses won the 1956 English Derby],” Chambrun recalled in Forbes. “He rushed to Coco, expecting congratulations and praise. But she refused to kiss him. She resented him, you see, all her life.”

Coco Chanel, back in Paris. Source:  Source:

Coco Chanel, back in Paris. Source: Source:

There is an interesting interview with the author of “Sleeping with the Enemy” in The New Yorker, where he answers some questions about the Wertheimers, talks about Chanel’s return from exile, and why there is so little discussion about Chanel’s past.

[Q.] As your title makes clear, the book emphasizes Coco Chanel’s wartime life. Why has this story not received much attention over the years?

I have no idea. I can’t figure it out. Either people didn’t want to know or chose not to deal with it. Of course, this story will not please the Wertheimers, one of the richest families in the world. Other than that, I have no idea why not.

[Q.] After the war, Chanel moved to Switzerland. How was it possible that she would ever be able to reëstablish herself in France, as she did in the mid-nineteen-fifties?

The simple answer is Wertheimer money: Chanel was backed by the Wertheimers. But really there was also the fact that, by 1954, most French people didn’t give a damn about who collaborated and who didn’t. De Gaulle had decided that all Frenchmen had been resisters, and all this collaboration business was behind them. And let’s not forget that Chanel was also tremendously talented.

[Q.] After everything Chanel had done to Paul Wertheimer, why did he ultimately agree to finance the reëstablishment of her couture house in 1954? And why did he consent to pay all her expenses—large and small—for the rest of her life?

From the point of view of the Wertheimers, the decision was extremely logical. What they were doing is not buying a business but rather an empire for a lifetime, and indeed that’s what it’s been. Here we are in 2011—can you go to any major city without seeing a Chanel store? It’s the unique mark in the world today.

[Q.] Especially in France—a nation still grappling with the legacy of collaboration—how is it possible that the Chanel brand today bears almost none of the stigma assigned to other brands often associated with Nazi complicity

The work of Robert Paxton never quite rubbed off on our memory of Chanel—and for a simple reason. She is essentially a hard-currency machine. Chanel is an icon, an idol in France—never mind the details of her life, her anti-Semitism, her dealings with the Nazis. Interestingly enough, I should mention that the French have not bought my book—at least not yet. It’s coming out in America and in Britain and in Germany. It’s been translated in Portuguese and translated into Dutch. But the French have yet to buy the book.



[Q.] Given Coco Chanel’s wartime past, what do you make of the prominence and popularity of the Chanel brand today? Should anyone still wear Chanel?

I have no feelings against Chanel. You can’t put someone like Klaus Barbie and Chanel in the same category: she didn’t kill anybody; she didn’t torture anybody. Madame Gabrielle Labrunie—Chanel’s grand-niece—said something to me that I found fascinating. She said to me: “You know, Mr. Vaughan, these were very difficult times, and people had to do very terrible things to get along.” Chanel was, very simply put, an enormous opportunist who did what she had to do to get along. [Format “Q.” insertions added by me for sake of clarity.]

I very much agree with him. I think the primary, driving characteristic of Gabrielle Chanel was opportunism, followed closely by a ruthless hunger to succeed at any or all costs. She was petty, avaricious (she was reported to be notorious for not paying her seamstresses as much as others, and treating them harshly), narcissistic, coolly calculating, and pragmatic. In my opinion, if she had her heart set on something (or someone’s husband), she would stop at nothing to get her way. She would sup with the devil, if need be, and she would do it all without a second thought.

The same thing applies to the consequences for that behavior. If she could get away with something, she would do everything to ensure it, no matter what the cost to others. And Chanel never seems to have paid for anything. By 1954, she undoubtedly realised that passions had cooled and a prosecution would be too risky. Too many unpleasant truths would come out about too many powerful people. Far better to drop it all, and pretend that none of it had happened, much as the French did for other dirty memories of those years. By the 1960s, she was dressing the wife of the French President, Madame Pompidou, and re-emerging as a success.

Yes, she was an anti-Semite, but she never seemed to let that get in the way of making money or climbing the social ladder. That is one reason why I laugh at the company’s attempted defense of Chanel. They weakly offer the “Jewish friends” argument, whimpering that she would not have ties to the Rothschilds or some Jewish friends if she were really an anti-Semite. The Rothschilds, the bloody famous, supremely and galactically wealthy Rothschilds?! Of course she would! Good God, Chanel would probably have peed in public while standing on her head if the Rothschilds had asked her to. That doesn’t mean that she wasn’t a bigot. I personally happen to believe that she did agree with a number of Nazi beliefs. The idea of a “super man” would very much fit how she saw herself, as well as her snobbish disdain for anyone without power, money, lineage, or some combination thereof. As a whole, though, I think Chanel’s only real, unwavering belief was in the currency and religion of Coco Almighty. Does that excuse her actions? Hardly.

Chanel via The Telegraph and

Chanel via The Telegraph and

Two things need to be stated clearly. First, there are very few people alive today who are in a position to truly judge the situation of those wartime years. I did not go through the utter hell that was Nazi occupation, and I cannot know what I would do if I were in Chanel’s shoes. War and desperation can make us do terrible things. I recognize all that, and yet, I can never forgive Gabrielle Chanel her actions. Whenever I read people gushing over her admittedly exquisite taste, her glamourous life, and her luxurious apartments, I think about who she used, slept with, or betrayed. When people talking admiringly about her strong-willed passions and how fabulous she was, I grit my teeth. When people swoon over her exciting love affairs (e.g., a Romanov Imperial Grand Duke, among others), I think instead of her Nazi lover. I simply cannot get past what a vile and loathsome human being she really was.

Second, I want to preempt what is the inevitable response to all this: “genius can be terrible, but it’s still genius.” It is what I call the “Wagner Argument,” and often takes the subtext of “They were a genius, so it’s okay. We can excuse it, or still enjoy their accomplishments.” Perhaps, but I don’t think it’s actually okay. What I want is a more critical, balanced perspective of Gabrielle Chanel that doesn’t white-wash or excuse her. In short, I want the blind, whole-sale, positively cult-like worship of Gabrielle the woman to stop, even if people continue to enjoy the products or things that she achieved. And yes, I don’t think there is anything wrong with buying something with the name “Chanel” on it.

For me, the corporate entity that exists today has nothing to do with Gabrielle Chanel, and hasn’t in decades. That is one reason why I will never stop reviewing her perfumes or buying Chanel products. Certainly, “Parfums Chanel” was largely owned by everyone but Chanel since 1924. She had a mere 10% stake in the company from its birth, and lost even that after the war. Furthermore, she never made a single perfume herself after 1947; the Wertheimers did. Chanel is a multi-billion conglomerate that capitalizes on the personal mystique and legend of Gabrielle Chanel, and they would be foolish not to. It’s only business, as they say.

Nonetheless, the next time you admire something about Chanel, the woman and person, I hope you will remember the other side of the mirror. She was Janus, with one face that reflected a fashion and stylistic trailblazer, a pioneer whose achievements in those particular, narrow fields has to be terribly admired. I certainly do — enormously. But the Roman god, Janus, also has a second face. In the case of Gabrielle Chanel, it rather resembles Dorian Grey’s portrait in the attic: maggot-ridden, venal, ulcerous, oozing internal decay, and thoroughly diseased with amorality, cruelty, corruption, and the blackest of ethics.

If you’re interested in Vaughn’s book, Amazon sells Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War in a variety of different formats. The paperback price is $13.13, while the Kindle price is $10.19. It is also available on Amazon UK and Amazon France. I assume it is available on all the other Amazon country sites, though I have not checked. I know that Amazon Australia only has it in Kindle form.

80 thoughts on “Coco Chanel: Nazi Collaborator & Spy

  1. Bravo Kafka, and brave too, to take us behind the double C logo. We live it such different times. When peace was declared, after World Word II, my mother asked her mother, “what is peace?” Those years were dark all over the world. Shalom.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, but I don’t believe she can be defended by mere reliance on the fact of war. Her actions — before, after, and during — as well as her overall character and method of achieving success say plenty. And many others didn’t take the path that she did quite so coolly. I’m not Jewish, and I can only imagine the anger that I would feel if I were. In my eyes, “the dark years” is no excuse at all.

      PS — Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound so sharp. I’m still just fuming and seething with anger. Writing all that somehow made me feel ANGRIER, when the goal was to make me stop seething so much about it all. My apologies, my dear friend.

      • I did not think you to sound sharp. Have you read KathleenTessaro’s book, The Perfume Collector, which includes the above issues albeit in novel form? Some of the characters appear, to me, to be based on real people.

        My partner is a survivor of Pol Pot’s Killing Fields. I think it is great that you have modulated your anger into these words that you have shared with us. (Is modulated the right word here?).

        • No, I haven’t read Ms. Tessaro’s book. With my schedule, finding the time to read isn’t easy, and that’s why I had to skim through parts of this one too. As for your partner and the Killing Fields, God, how horrible. I will never forget the Mel Gibson film, The Year of Living Dangerously (?), and the scenes with the skulls. Those skulls!! I’m really sorry that your partner had to go through all that.

  2. Quite the scathing essay/exposé, one which I would in my professional capacity would rate rather highly 😉 Interestingly, one of my graduating history students wrote her final paper on this very topic, incorporating primary sources from British, French & German archives – an impressive essay indeed. So struck was I, that I read the Vaughn myself over xmas and found it to be well-written, researched & objective. There is the mention of her hardscrabble early years as indelibly marking her ‘orientation’ and ambition, but he never turns this into an apologia for her odious associations and decisions. Churchill’s role in her postwar absolution should be yet another blot on St. Winston reputation (but I wouldn’t hold my breath) Anyway, great write-up & kudos for laying it out there unambiguously, Dear Kafka. Respect

    • We always seem to have our strange synchronicity when it comes to history, Tim. As for Churchill, you’re right, it absolutely SHOULD be another blot on his reputation, but at least he was acting out of loyalty. Coco Chanel had loyalty to no-one but herself at the end of the day, though she seems to have carved out a narrow exception for her nephew.

      You know, I found myself becoming angrier and angrier as I was writing, even though the goal of this was to get everything off my chest that has been bothering me for eons and eons about her. I finally thought of something that made me feel better: the Wertheimers had the very best revenge of all. Every purchase of a Chanel perfume is money in those Jewish pockets she despised so thoroughly. Every spray of perfume is akin to a spit in the eye of Chanel. I bet she’s rolling in her grave at their complete success and their $20 Billion fortune. Well, good for them.

      • the fire of vitriol burns brightly indeed tonite! indeed, the wertheimers were being shrewd and playing the long game, and it seemed to me that pierre was quite bemused with coco (to put the skinny on it….). the cast of character in vaughn’s book are exceptional: her kin, catholic nuns, boy capel, bendor – that guy was really a piece of fascist/elitist anti-semitic shite, what a nut – schellenberg (the head of the sd fer chrissake!!!), dincklage…. back to ol winston spencer; most people don’t realize how chequered HIS past is (ireland, iraq, kenya for starters). dingbat dubya had his bust on his desk 😀 ), and i doubt it was loyalty rather than embarrassment of association that motivated his intervention on her behalf at a time of other rather more pressing issues (such as yalta!)
        i do hope that your article has exorcised your anger and you have yourself a most pleasant weekend 😉

        • The Wertheimers definitely seemed to be very astute businessmen with an eye to the longterm. The way they preemptively foiled Chanel’s takeover and could clearly see it coming…. very clever. In a way, they were a perfect fit and equal to Chanel, because they seized opportunities as well.

          As for Churchill, I doubt the majority of people will ever see him as more than a wartime savior. The issues of what happened before and after, from the Boer War to, as you noted, Ireland, Iraq, Kenya, and then afterwards India… it seems wholly forgotten or excused. Man, his stance on India! Totally OT (off-topic), have you seen the very, very old series “The First Churchills” on his ancestors during Queen Anne’s time and how the family rose to power? It’s quite interesting.

  3. *claps hands* Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful post! So utterly informative – I knew Chanel’s legacy had been whitewashed, but I have to admit I had no idea the degree to which her, uh, questionable behavior, has been glossed over through the course of history. On one hand, I know that the passage of time, especially in conjunction with someone’s death, FURTHER compounded by massive fame and admiration tends to make people see something through rose-colored lenses, but damn – Chanel was a cold, conniving woman – and that’s basically the kindest, most charitable way to state that.

    With this “In the final days of August 1944, after Paris was liberated, retribution for the “collabos” or those who collaborated with the Germans was harsh. Some say about 30,000 to 40,000 people were executed.” and the following note about her passing around bottles of No. 5 to American GIs demonstrate how little culpability she felt for her actions, but also underscores just how different the course of history (fashion, fragrance, and otherwise) might have been had she not ingratiated herself to them to basically buy her freedom (and virtually no cost) while 30,000 others who were complicit with the Nazis were sent to their deaths (and rightfully so, I might argue).

    I’ll definitely have to check out this book – it sounds truly fascinating. It seems like you would recommend it – is that so?

    Also, the Wertheimer Brothers behavior toward her is utterly inexplicable, though the theories set forth are as believable as any. I mean, I suppose Pierre wouldn’t be the first man obsessed with a woman who didn’t return his affections, but I feel like it’s further complicated by the fact that she didn’t just not return his affections – she loathed them (despite the fact that she may have been NOWHERE without them), the Jewish people, etc. What a bizarre relationship, and like you, I simply cannot fathom their support of her, but I suppose human dynamics are complex. I suppose part of it might also be that as indebted as Chanel should have felt to them, perhaps they felt similarly indebted to her because her creations did make them quite wealthy indeed. But even when I consider that as a possible rationale, they were still far, far more charitable toward her than I ever could have been – I mean, it’s one thing to not mutually loathe someone, but extending generosity toward someone who was complicit in aiding people who were trying to systematically exterminate you and your family? It’s mind boggling, completely.

    Anyway, fascinating. I’m afraid I can’t add more as I don’t know much about the topic, but it was certainly a wonderfully informative post, and one that would do folks a lot of good to read, especially if they have any admiration for the Gabrielle Chanel.

    • I definitely recommend it, though I haven’t gotten through it all and whizzed through some parts on the Kindle. A few details are a bit painstaking and boring in terms of the documents. He uses ample evidence to make his points, so there is no way for people to hedge around the situation and say, “well…. it’s not totally clear.” It is. It is totally clear.

      With regard to the baffling generosity of the Wertheimers, they got the best revenge in the end, didn’t they? (I still don’t understand the *personal* expenses though! Man, that must have been some crush he had on her!) A friend who was just telling me of how she feels uncomfortable in wearing “Coco” the perfume and Chanel’s namesake, even though it is her favorite. My response: wear it with joy and pleasure. Chanel didn’t make any of their perfumes since 1947, and certainly not that one. In a way, one can almost consider it a Jewish-created perfume… the irony. Chanel would have hated it. lol

  4. An incredible story. Thank you so much for offering the full version Kafka! I tell everyone about your blogs because they are so full of sincerity. I’m going to share this on Google+. How about you starting something on LinkedIn?

  5. Bravo for this in depth look at Coco Chanel. She does indeed sound like an awful person. I do think it should be said, though, that most of the elites of that period were indeed anti-Semitic. Did that make them all Nazi sympathizers? No. Many who were anti-Semitic were against the Nazis. But still. I am not all that surprised.

    • You’re right, there is a very clear difference between merely harbouring anti-Semitic beliefs, and acting on them. 🙂 Not everyone in the first category fell into the second. But she did. She definitely did. And she’s glamorized for a life that, even WITHOUT the Nazi aspect, was hardly admirable beyond her fashion and style achievements. As a fashion pioneer, she should be admired. As a human being, far from it. And that’s the part that I find frustrating sometimes.

      • Sadly, I have found that it seems a majority of those who are highly driven to succeed have ethics that are far from admirable.That doesn’t excuse Ms. Chanel. She sounds deplorable. Maybe what frustrates you is being torn between admiring her and finding her deplorable? It is a conundrum that applies to many artists. T.S.Eliot, my favorite poet, was an “on again off again” (WIki quote, lol) anti-Semite. As a person of Jewish heritage, must I not appreciate his poetry now that I know that? I can’t. For some reason, I find it easier to ignore less ephemeral arts than fashion and scent, which is rather odd, given that I love scent so. . .anyhoo, these are serious questions indeed!

        • I have this debate/discussion with my family all the time, especially as my father loves Wagner. The topic also comes up in the context of Hemingway, whom I despise for a whole other set of reasons. (I know, I know, everyone else loves “Papa.”) I’m like you in finding it generally harder to excuse when it comes to something like entertainment, actors, fashion or, in this case, fashion and perfume.

          I don’t know why that is, but I never realised that until now. I shall have to ponder it, especially given my loathing for Hemingway. Do I have exceptions? Do any of us make exceptions and, if so, on what basis? Where is the philosophical demarcation line? A subconscious valuation of the art/platform in question? It seems so. Hmmm. Food for thought, indeed. Thank you for that, Julie! 🙂

          • I’m enjoying pondering this. I think, that when a person aims to create beauty, as did Coco Chanel, being an “ugly person” is particularly jarring.

            I do think we make our exceptions based on how much we value the work or product. On the other hand, if we don’t value the work or product, we will not care much if the maker was a terrible person.

            Thanks so much for this article, again, and the thought provoking discussion!

          • You’re undoubtedly right. How much we value the work will determine if we’re willing to excuse the personality traits. Where I disagree with you is in what happens if we DON’T value the work. For me, if we don’t value the work, we will care MORE if the maker was a terrible person, not less. (I think that is what you meant to write, perhaps?) 🙂

  6. Kafka…excellent story! I have seen the movies and read so many books on Coco Chanel and will read this one also–although your writing told it all. Some of the books I read had insinuations of her character and the things she did, but not in a definitive way. Thank for this enlightening piece.

    • You’re very welcome. I hope you will let me know what you think if you read the book. So many of the movies — especially the utterly GHASTLY one with Shirley MacClaine — really white-wash her character and what she did. I think a movie showing the true story would be an Oscar winner, because, honestly, one couldn’t make this stuff up! Her life was…. beyond a novel. Wholly unreal in a way, from the start to the end. I do wonder who she would have been if Boy Capel hadn’t died. Would he have been enough to save her from the effect of her childhood and the way it shaped her into this diamond hard, avaricious opportunist? I really wonder. They say, “People never change who they really are.” Would her love for him have managed that feat, or was the social conditioning in too deep?

  7. Fantastic expose, Kafka, timely as well considering I’m reading a kindle book The Gospel According to Coco Chanel. I don’t idolize her in any way, reading more out of curiosity. You’ve given another side here and another book for me to read – thank you!

    On her morphine addiction: anyone addicted to drugs is not a happy person. I wonder if her conscience caught up to her a bit, regardless of her no regrets. Drugs are an escape. I can definitely understand flaunting a “no regrets” attitude whilst high. She wasn’t exactly sober to feel the full weight of her actions and what she had become.

    • You’re very welcome, Devon. You know, you raise an excellent, excellent point on the drug issue! I am sure that her daily (!!!) morphine intake helped dull any possible regrets, and facilitated her shrugging things off. That said, what people always say is that she really seemed to look down on the French people and the masses. The general public, in other words, who couldn’t benefit her personally and directly like the rich and famous.

      To me, it seemed as though she lumped the French, the Jews, and any victims of the Nazis into a faceless, nameless mass that was beneath her. The Nazi “Superman” Ubermensch, Master Race stuff. I think Coco was too much of a narcissist to think that there was a whole RACE of people as superior or as brilliant as she, but she could appreciate their perspective and arrogance. Someone like that, do they really feel actual regrets and a conscience? Adolf Eichmann never did, and he did far worse than she ever could or did. There are Klans racists who never felt regret to their dying day because their philosophy was so absolute.

      Coco’s philosophy, imo, was Coco Almighty, with herself as the supreme center of things, a Queen to be worshipped, and her will or appetites to be fulfilled at all costs. Does someone like that regret wartime actions? I’m sure her only regrets pertain to her lovers, the death of Boy Capel, and to signing away such a massive amount of “Parfums Chanel” right from the start in 1924. The rest, I wonder about.

      I definitely agree that she was incredibly lonely and unhappy at the end of her life. She had become a complete dictator at work (or, to be accurate, even MORE of one than before), and she seemed to live in the past in some ways. Honestly, though, I find it hard to care or to sympathize with her. (Not that I think that you do.) Anyway, if you read the book, do let me know what you think. 🙂

  8. From now on I’m boycotting this fashion house!!! Oh, wait… It’s completely out of my price range and I have never been its supporter. Jokes aside, I’ve previously heard or read most of the aspects you’ve mentioned (though not in such detailed version) but I’m glad you put it all together. Why? Even though I personally do not care for the life/success/etc. stories of perfumers, brands’ creators or art directors (unless I know them personally), I know that many others do – so it will be a useful reading for them. As for me… Had it happened today or were she still alive and getting dividents from the brand I would have considered changing my perfume habits (though I’d be really sad to give up my No 19 and Cuir de Russie). But since it’s an ancient history, I’ll hold on to my favorites and will keep buying Chanel lipsticks from time to time.
    Still – it’s a very impressive work. As always.

  9. Fascinating article, which raised a ton of questions and so hope this response isn’t too waffly or long winded! I believe too, that there is a point where we can step over the line; the difficulty is that the line is based on our own personal moral code and this varies. Yes, we are all shaped by our experiences, and particularly those of our formative years. Yes, we do what we need to do to “get along” and some of those choices (or more so, their consequences) appear less than palatable to others. The key word here is “choice” – Chanel deliberately made the choices that took her down the road described in your article, based on her personal moral code. I don’t particularly care what drove her (although it seems obvious that it was $$$ and the power and position that those $$$ brought) – bad childhood blah blah – at every turn, she could have made different choices. Of course, I have to acknowledge, that by saying different choices I mean “better” choices by *my* definition. She certainly appears to be all of those (negative) adjectives used by the NY Times – does knowing her story, explain them? And when we do know her story, does it change how we feel about her and if it does, does that change how we feel about her product? So many questions came up for me – do I need to separate the icon of the fashion world, as she certainly is, from the “real” human being that is being painted here? And to what end? If I acknowledge that she had all of these negative traits and I don’t like her as a human being, what do I do with that information? Simply say: “Yes what a hideous bitch” and carry on adding to my fairly substantial Chanel perfume collection or do I put it all on eBay and vow never to let another bottle darken my bureau again? Or is it enough to just have all of the information – a more complete picture of the woman?

    I compared an aspect of her story – sleeping with the enemy – with a book I read called Woman in Berlin. In it, the (anonymous) author – along with many of her friends and neighbors – was raped by Russian soldiers who occupied Berlin towards the end of the war. In order to stop repeated rape by multiple soldiers, she “attached” herself to one particular officer and he became her “protector” – the lesser of two evils, if you will. She continued to sleep with him and him alone, to preserve her safety and her sanity. Opportunistic? Hell yes. Do I hold this against her and think less of her for it? Hell no – in reading this very powerful book, she did what she did in order to “get along.”

    Of course, ChaneI’s circumstances coming into the war were extremely different from the author’s. She had money, prestige, position. She loved money, prestige, position and had slept it into her life since she was a young woman. She saw an opportunity to have even more during WW11 – by using the war to petition German officials for full monetary recompense for Parfums Chanel. So yes, she was opportunistic. She was also a hypocrite – in spite of her anti-Semitism, she worked with the Wertheimer’s because of their business success with Bourjois. But they were also opportunistic – in spite of her anti-Semitism they used her too to make money. They knew that if her association with Nazis during the war would become public knowledge, how badly it would affect their business. I think this might explain why Pierre paid all of her expenses – anything to sweep it under the rug.

    I guess I was desperately trying to find something to “blame” her for as I read this account, so that I could feel as passionate about her as you do! As I said, I agree that she was all of the adjectives that have been used to describe her, so how could I not? Do I think her choices were moral or ethical? Of course not. Would I have made different ones? I would like to think so but acknowledge that I am and never have been, anywhere near her shoes, so I can’t walk in them to be sure. This doesn’t mean I am condoning or excusing her behavior – it just means that I keep the “we do what we do to get along” adage in the picture. It also doesn’t mean that I like what I read about her and completely agree that in order to make any sort of judgment call about her – which is hard when you don’t actually know a person and it’s all based on second hand information – one has to have the whole picture, warts and all. This line (in wiki) struck me as a very apt summation of Chanel from a close friend: “her genius, lethal wit, sarcasm and maniacal destructiveness, which intrigued and appalled everyone.” Misia Sert – a notable member of the Parisian, bohemian elite and wife of Spanish painter Jose-Maria Sert.
    So, it seems that people who knew her *did* have the whole picture, yet still chose to have her in their lives – witness the role of Winston Churchill (but don’t get me started on *that* British “icon” – I grew up with all of that BS).

    This then, probably answers my question about my response to your post and what to do with my perfumes! Bottom line for me is that the product reflects Chanel the “icon” and I shall continue to buy. The reality of Chanel the woman is something that I don’t like, won’t forget and will be sure to raise if the subject comes up in conversation. Thank you for bringing this to my attention with this very thought provoking post.

    • Hi Sally, welcome to the blog.

      I loved your answer and all its details. The thoughtful, deliberative questions were wonderful. They also reflect much of my own internal assessment of the situation. For me, the key thing (and my goal) is merely to have the full picture, warts and all. To prick the balloon of hallowed glamour and worship around the woman, and to consider the horrible person that she was. For me, that’s enough. The rest is history, and really doesn’t apply to the company today, or even the company of decades ago. She barely owned the perfume company at the start, but certainly had nothing to do with anything after 1947.

      The clothing division, yes, but that too has ended. The bags, the clothes, the makeup, the perfumes… it’s been a corporate affair since 1971 run by her Jewish partners (whom she stabbed in the back and who perhaps deserve the financial rewards as a result). If they’re trading off the “Chanel the ‘icon'”… well, it’s just business. As the mob always says, “it’s nothing personal.” lol 😉

      So, if you continue to buy, fine and good. It is always a personal decision in all cases, but, in this particular instance, none of it has to do with Chanel. There is no ethical or moral issue in my eyes. The only moral obligation, I think (and this is just me), is to ensure that people know the full truth and the whole story if they have a really distorted, rosy picture of “The fabulous Coco Chanel.” If you come across someone gushing over how cool and fantastic she was, how brilliant and glamourous, then I think one should raise the issue of what she was REALLY like. Otherwise, eh…

      You raise a good point about Pierre paying her personal expenses as a way of sweeping it all under the rug, to let her continue to be the glamourous face of the company. I think you’re right. And I definitely agree that they were opportunists too, with an eye to the financial bottom line above all emotional or personal considerations.

      Churchill….. don’t get me started. As for Women in Berlin, it’s a very interesting situation. I’ve read about the book and the film which it inspired, and I agree that it is a very different situation. That poor woman was driven by the lowest of circumstances, and abuse, while Chanel, as you note, was in a very different place. I would never EVER judge someone driven by the German woman’s utterly hideous, ghastly position. Never. It’s not even opportunistic what she did. It was base necessity really.

  10. She was a woman in a man’s world, but her behaviour was amoral. An amoral dinosaur, like Jean Paul Guerlain perhaps? I first became aware of Coco’s failins when a book on the Mitford girls came out many years ago. What a polarised family, the communist and the Nazi sympathisers, the writer and the Duchess of Devonshire, not to mention the escapades of Diana Mitford’s son, Max Mosley in recent years. Quite delicious really. Okay, I’m for replacing Chanel 19 with Heure Exquise and Chanel No 5 with Arpege. Are there any Lanvins or Goutals in the firing line? Let’s not get started on the Guerlains.

    • The Mitford Sisters… REALLY, REALLY DON’T GET ME STARTED!! 😀 😀 My God, Unity, Diana and Mosley! What a raving mad family as a whole. Utterly bonkers, the lot of them. It’s enough to make one wonder if the good Duchess was a foundling. The Mitfords even make the Saxe-Coburg Gothas look like paragons of virtue, goodness, sanity and morality, and I find that to be some feat… 😉

        • Hahaha, so true, so true! We should make a list of crazy 1930s Brits, but we might be here all day…. 😉 Still, the Inter-War period is one of my favorites precisely BECAUSE they were all so bonkers. From 1920-1939, it was a wild, wild era filled with incredibly eccentric, mentally unhinged, emotionally damaged, politically extreme, and totally narcissistic fruitcakes.

          Which pretty much brings me to, David/Edward or the Duke of Windsor and his Wallis. I have to say, I think Wallis’ reputation was far worse than the reality. She was no saint, but she was nowhere as bad as HE was. And, honestly, I think a lot of the groundwork for her original reputation was the result of being a strong woman at the start of the century, getting divorced, etc. The rumours and slanders were really driven by a certain gender-based animosity. But the Duke of Windsor…. my God, what a close shave Britain had. He was a piece of work, imo.

          • He was a masochist with Mummy issues too! The inter-war period is key because there was hyper inflation in Europe. Rich Brits descended on failing economies, buying art and antiques. It gave them a sense of entitlement, reinforced their arrogance and utlimately allowed the rise of Hitler. My Mother went as a housemaid to Chatsworth House at the end of the war. As you mentioned earlier Deborah Mitford was different, a good woman as far as I can tell. Perhaps at the end of the day we will be crying out “Coco, All is forgiven”

          • How fascinating about your mother and Chatsworth! As for Coco Chanel, I doubt that I’ll one day view her kindly. I’m not the forgiving sort. lol

  11. Wow. You just took your talents as a writer up and over the top. This was epic, incisive, passionate, well researched, and incredibly well written. I have only a cursory knowledge of Coco, mostly from magazine images and that movie about her affair with Stravinsky. Even in those brief glimpses, she seemed like a bit of a cold ruthless bitch. But you have painted a picture so depraved and ruthless in her greed and opportunism. I have no sympathy for anyone who hates any race. Period. I have no tolerance for those who have no tolerance. This was a fantastic and highly informative read. You are awesome.

    • Thank you, my dear. I’ve had issues with the glamorization of Chanel for eons now, but it really rose to the surface more last year when reading some of the stories built around her in terms of the perfumes. Then, I saw the Igor Stravinsky film in December, started digging into the truth-vs-fiction aspects, and found more and more (and MORE) stuff that were just the last straw. I’d known she collaborated, but never the full extent of the picture, and when I started reading, I was utterly horrified. Not so much about her being a heinous B****, as that I’d always known, but about the degree of narcissistic, callous amorality.

      What really drove this piece though was the extent to which people just blindly worship her as the MOST FABULOUS THING EVAH, DARLING! Ugh. It didn’t or doesn’t take this book to know just what a piece of work she was. Of course, Hollywood simply doesn’t help in all the portrayals of her that conveniently stop at around 1913 and then just pick up the store in 1970. It’s really all their fault, because that’s the most accessible, easily-digested form of information for the majority of people. The thing that surprises me is why someone like Steven Spielberg or someone who has focused on WW2 or the Holocaust (ie, whomever did The Reader with Kate Winslet) hasn’t picked up this book from 2011 (3 years ago now) and turned it into a movie. The real story is so much more riveting than Audrey Tatou as the poor little orphan girl in a convent, and surely some Jewish filmmakers would want the true Gabrielle Chanel to be known?

      Anyway, I’m rambling. A lack of coffee, so forgive me. I’m glad you liked the piece so much.

  12. Great writing, Kafka! To me, it boils down to:

    Coco Chanel: USER (say it like Jerry Springer says “LOSER” and holds out his thumb and forefinger to depict an “L”)

    Wertheimer Brothers: took co-dependency to new heights

  13. Wow…I certainly didn’t expect an enlightening history essay when I landed here on your blog to check out perfume reviews. How absolutely eye-opening! When I think of Coco Chanel, I just think of her layered strands of pearls and an androgynous style. I also knew she was not above being a mistress to get to the top. Then again, historically and even in today’s news, you hear about that kind of person often enough. But this is rather complicated history–a Nazi spy AND a beauty/fashion icon who partnered with Jewish brothers?! Like…whoa! This is a fascinating portrayal of opportunism. Thank you. =)

    • I occasionally lapse into history (one of my greatest loves) and food (the greatest love of them all) on the blog, but I try not to let myself get carried away normally as I realise most people find history quite “boring.” (*gasps at the horror, the horror!* 😉 ) So, I’m very glad you enjoyed the piece, Maggie, especially as I know it was hardly the shortest thing in the world. lol Thank you for taking the time to read it.

  14. Very interesting piece. I had read reviews of this book when it came out and I remember there was a tiny article about her work as a Nazi spy in the NZ Herald. I now know why the movie with Audrey Tatou only covered the earlier parts of her life. This fuller story of her life would make a brilliant movie though – not that the house of Chanel or Lagerfeld would probably be too keen on this portrayal of Gabrielle Chanel’s true story (unless the Nazi elements were pitched as – she did whatever she needed to do to survive in wartime France!) I also wonder with her – what other skeletons are in the closet or who else is being protected here. I am going to try and read a story in the french Vanity Fair about the Renault family and their collaboration with the Nazis – it seems that more of these stories are starting to be told to a new generation. I just wish that students of fashion, perfume, design etc would be taught a more balanced view of her life, successes and failures.

    • That’s what I would like too: for people to be taught a more balanced, complete picture of who she was. It is always so difficult for me when people gush unreservedly about the gloriously fabulous Coco Chanel. It has been for years, even before this book. There is much to respect and admire with her, but in a very limited, narrow field. Fashion is not the entire sum total of human existence. On a philosophical and moral basis, there is more to a person, and people seem to overlook that last point, imo.

      Like you, I think the full story of her life would be brilliant, and I don’t understand why it hasn’t been done. Hollywood isn’t scared of the views of the House of Chanel or their corporate bottom line. And there are enough Jewish filmmakers whom you would think would WANT this story to be told! Even putting beliefs or religion aside, what a money-maker and Oscar winner it could be! Dukes, Romanov Princes, Nazis, Winston Churchill, spies… you couldn’t make that up if you tried!

      The thing with the Renault family is interesting. Let me know what you discover! 🙂

  15. A screenplay perhaps Kafka? You’re right – this film would definitely have it all: scandal / intrigue / sex / fashion / perfume / ambition / greed / money / power / ethics / bad choices / royals / political leaders / Nazis / collaboration ….

    PS I love history so I’m not averse to more of these posts from you.

  16. It is poetic justice that the Wertheimers are reaping the huge profits of the Chanel empire. I have the book. You have inspired me to stop making excuses that I don’t have time to read it and actually DO it. Thank You Kafka. Keep blogging.

  17. I read “Sleeping with the Enemy” with great interest when it came out, and found it a fascinating case study of almost-pure narcissistic personality disorder. I also agree that none of us know what we would have done in an occupied country, but surviving under the Nazis and flourishing among them are strikingly different matters.
    I have often wondered why this material was seldom or never discussed in perfume circles. Glad that you acted to correct the imbalance.

    • I think you put your finger on the core of the problem, and did so beautifully: “surviving under the Nazis and flourishing among them are strikingly different matters.” Flourishing, not only under but side-by-side and AMIDST them, versus being oppressed down and doing desperate things to just cling on and not drown. Huge difference. Huge.

      You nailed it, and then some. Brilliant.

  18. My dear K, absolutely fascinating. I had heard bits and pieces of stories, but never got a larger picture, especially the fact that she didn’t hold the rights to the perfumes. She sounds like a survivor at the worst level. What ever she needed to do to take care of herself, she did. It’s a wharf rat mentality that no doubt stems from her childhood combined with her being as a person. To be so ugly and surround yourself and to be noted for such beauty is the dichotomy that will make her endure in history. Kudos to a great post!

    • The thing is, though, that she was already doing well when the Nazis rolled around. I think Feral Jasmine said it best, and certain better than I ever could: “surviving under the Nazis and flourishing among them are strikingly different matters.”

      She summed it up beautifully. Coco actually flourishing, and she did so not under the Nazis, but actually side-by-side and AMIDST them. She was no desperate wharf rat doing desperate things to just cling on and not drown. Huge difference.

      But even aside from the Nazi stuff, the way she treated others was terrible. And in the post-war years when she had no need to survive anything, the way she gladly had the Wertheimers pay for all her expenses, only to turn around insulted and criticized them…. unbelievable. No class whatsoever.

  19. Wonderful article, Kafka! Coincidentally, last week I just finished reading The Secret of Chanel No. 5 by Tilar Mazzeo, which deals at length with this same subject. A great read! Some of the facts may be repetitive to you after having read Sleeping With the Enemy, but I would still recommend it unhesitatingly to you or anyone else interested in the golden age of perfumery!

    • Thank you for the tip, Jessica. I’ve heard of the book, but I’m sure others will be excited to know that there is something a bit more focused on the perfume angle. I appreciate you stopping by to share. 🙂

  20. Thank you as always for all of the time you put into this. It’s certainly a “loaded” topic. I do think yo have to separate the art from the man or woman in this case, otherwise there would be a lot missing from the museum walls. I hope someone will write the book o L’Oréal, for me their war crimes were much worse and deeper.

    • You’re right, there is no one single book closely analyzing L’Oreal’s shady ties to groups like La Cagoule or to the Nazis. There are some which talk about Eugene Schueller, in passing, and there is “Bitter Scent” on the Arab issue, but nothing that takes a detailed look at the 1930s-1940s era. Perhaps one day.

  21. Dear Kafka … brilliant writing, as usual. I had known bits and pieces of this side of her but never realized the extent of it. Besides the fact that I wouldn’t be able to add anything as remotely interesting as these wonderful commenters, I am exhausted from a brutal week so I shall just add this:

    What. A. Cruel. Bitch.

    • Hahaha, in a nutshell! I am sorry to hear you’re feeling exhausted, but given what’s on your plate right now, it’s completely normal. I hope you pamper yourself a little, even if it’s in small ways, and that you get some rest today. I will keep you in my thoughts, and I send you endless positive, energizing, happy vibes, my dear.

  22. Fascinating post, Kafka! I admit, I knew little about Chanel the woman before reading this, but she seems like a real piece of work (to put it very mildly). The pull that she had to make all of her history just disappear amazes me. The Wertheimers financing her lifestyle after everything she pulled is flabbergasting. I guess this is why I will never be rich-I simply could not overlook everything she did because it would be a wise financial decision. I understand everyone has their faults, but come on. At what point does one finally say, “enough”? I guess my threshold for such things is lower than others.
    And still, I want the vintage Chanel No. 5 that my mom has stored somewhere in her house. Go figure.

    • My threshold is right there with yours, at levels far removed from the Wertheimers! I was having a discussion about this with my father and he thought it was utterly brilliant and astute for the Wertheimers to pay all of Chanel’s personal bills. He argues that they were buying the Chanel brand and image, and that included the woman going about her affairs, living an opulent, lavish life, and keeping up appearances. It would be a drop in the bucket for them that would reap endless benefits down the line. If that meant subsidizing her daily drug habit as well, and putting up with her charmless lack of graciousness, well, so be it. It was just business.

      It makes financial, practical sense, but if it were me, it would bloody well stick in my craw! Clearly, neither of us have the personality traits to be an uber-successful business tycoon. lol

  23. Thanks so much for this, Kafka.

    My first dose of “reality” was watching documentaries in elementary school about the atrocities committed during the second world war. I went to a progressive school in the DC area at the time, and I will never forget the images of mountains of shoes, skulls and bones from old news reels we were shown. I am grateful for that experience, as I believe it has shaped my life in many ways. I would prefer that it were not so, but there’s just no escaping it.

    Looking back on Coco Chanel’s life from a historical perspective may offer us answers, but for me it raises many questions as well. I wonder if I would behave any better if I were in her shoes.

    • It sounds like an impressive school to show that to a class of elementary students! 🙂 I was about 12 when I saw my first footage of wartime horrors, though it involved WWI as well as WWII. I had had a passion for history since I was a tiny child, and I eventually focused on it academically in such a way that I more than doubled my major over.

      The area I specialized in: the SS. Totalitarian regimes in general with a focus on the inter-war years but the Nazis in specific, and even more so, the SS. In fact, I wanted to get my PhD and become the world’s foremost specialist on the SS. That is why there is such a degree of passion and anger in this post with regard to Coco Chanel. That is why my line in the sand is so firmly marked, and why I think there is no excuse. As Feral Jasmine put it so brilliantly, it’s one thing to manage to survive under their thumb, but to actually flourish amongst them, and as one of them? It’s a whole other thing.

      • Perhaps my school would have been more impressive if their sex education class was as comprehensive. I find it baffling when I think about the fact that we watched those old French films documenting the atrocities of the war when I was eight, but the topic of sex was taboo. Oh well, I recovered in that regard. 🙂

        I applaud your convictions and your passion, and have great admiration for your expressing them. I wonder why you decided not to go ahead with your PhD…

        I love that you have drawn your line so firmly. I find that to be a rare quality, and deserving of further contemplation on my part.

  24. My Hall of Shame includes Churchill, Hemingway and all but one of the Mitford ‘girls’.
    The malignant self-love of narcissism is expressed by many who rise to the top, and is, IMHO,
    behind much suffering that can be felt individually, and acted out on the world’s stage.
    Thank you for a wonderful review, and the passion expressed through it. Please bring your love of history to this page whenever you feel moved to do so. I’ve ordered the book.

    • You have issues with Hemingway too??! Well, that’s lovely to hear, as I often feel quite alone in my loathing for “Papa.” Did you read the quasi-novel on his first marriage and first wife? As for the Mitford girls and Churchill, there seems to be quite a small club of us here with regard to that lot. Of course, it isn’t hard to despise the Mitfords…. lol

      As for my love of history, you don’t want to encourage me. *grin* I have walls of bookcases filled with history books, ranging on everything from the Nazis to the NSA, from the Pharoahs to the Marquis de Sade and Vlad Tepes, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It would be all too easy for me to write nonstop about history, but I shall limit myself to those occasions when I’m feeling particularly cantankerous and irritated. 😉 😀

      • No Kafka, don´t limit yourself! I love your history articles so much 😀 , and if I could choose more Middle Ages, Pharaons and Vlad Tepes please 🙂 . I would also I´d like to propose that you read some of the Mayan history when you have time, it´s fascinating, and if you can visit the Mayan ruins in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras the experience is even more amazing. The story of King Pakal and his people, might be of some interest to you. But still, more Middle Ages, ancient Greece and Rome please 😛 .

  25. What an interesting read, including all the comments, thanks a lot!
    I can very much relate to you becoming more and more angry while writing that down; my experience is that writing helps if you want to make something clear in order to distance yourself and assuage a rather nebulous feeling. But if you already know what you feel on a particular subject, the facts written down in black and white all crystal-clear can make you even more mad – maybe because one has all these people in mind, still saying: “You are right, BUT…”.

    • I’m very glad you found the piece interesting, Anka. And I think you’re right, putting it all down on paper makes it all so much clearer and that can exacerbate any definite feelings that one may have on a particular subject. 🙂

  26. Amazing History. My family comes from Germany but did not know the detailed history of Coco Chanel. It’s all a novel. Fascinating!!!

    • It really does seem like a novel, doesn’t it? I don’t think you could make it up if you tried. In fact, there are probably some novelists who wish they’d thought of putting all these things together into a suspense novel. lol I’m glad you enjoyed the piece, Walter.

  27. Regarding a film about the real Coco — Hollywood seems positively schizoid about this kind of thing. Remember, the year “Schindler’s List” was released, the Best Picture award (from the Academy) went to “Shakespeare in Love,” a piece of piffle already forgotten for the most part. Of course a lot of that was “Spielberg-ruined-our-industry-with-Jaws,” but still…great piece!

    • I always attributed the “Shakespeare in Love” win to the massive power, unrelenting campaigning, and bullying tactics of Harvey Weinstein for that particular film. Either way, I agree with you that it was a rather astonishing outcome to have Schindler’s List trumped by Gwyneth Paltrow’s fluff.

  28. As always your blog has many interesting things to read, be it perfume which is the most common subject, or the ocasional essay discussing often historical facts (which I absolutely love). I remember admiring the double Cs, since I was a little girl and dreaming about owning shoes, jewelry, clothes, makeup and perfume with this logo attached to them. Now as a young adult the two last items on my wishlist have been fullfield, particularly since I have a sizable collection of Chanel lipsticks. Only recently did I learn about Coco Chanel´s past and I have to say in the beggining I did not want to believe it, and the first time I read about her not so nice past wasn´t on your blog, Kafka. As a big fan of Chanel I can´t say it didn´t bother me quite a bit however, people also admire Julius Cesar, Cleopatra (who murdered her own brother), the Mayans and the Aztecs who created a real bloodbath, in Romania Vlad Tepes the vampire is seen as a national hero despite the fact that by historic accounts he was a perfect psycopath. Most people that buy Chanel´s makeup and perfumes don´t know about her past and I´m sure the reason for her actions during WWII not being widely publicised is because the interlocked Cs are a powerhouse on the current market. What I´m trying to say is that yes, Chanel wasn´t as amazing as I thought she was when I was nine years old, and yes she had many defects in her personality there is no doubt about it bt she was just human, shaped by a lonely and hard childhood, a strong desire to survive and more than likely a huge ego. Not to be admired maybe, but not to e hated either, in my opinion. She did fall in my eyes, but I´m still her fan, maybe not as much as I used to be though.

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