originally published May 16, 2013
As a middle-class white North American shlub, blindly stumbling in the direction of forty, and choosing a day’s wardrobe based on wrinkle content, embedded bulldog hairs and whether or not I have to leave the house and (ugh) interact with people, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Coco Chanel.
I’m familiar with her brand, of course. I know all about the sharp, fashionable suits, the little black dress and the No. 5 perfume. I know about her humble beginnings in a convent to her yearning to be a nightclub performer. I like the lady, only because I watched her in that movie with Audrey Tautou, and Tautou could make anybody appear impishly cute and unquestionably huggable.
But Chanel had a dark side. A history streaked with a dark crimson stain of hate. A side that the people who continue to run her corporate empire don’t really want to talk about.
I don’t feel a lot of time needs to be spent on Coco Chanel’s love life. She never married, but instead had a number of lovers. Two things need to be kept in mind here: if Coco had been a guy, such an impressive slate of bed-sharers would be looked upon as a well-notched bedpost; with a woman there’s a tendency to call it a scandal. Also, most of Coco’s suitors were higher-ups, diners around the table of aristocracy. As such, her dalliances have become a thing of historical record.
Well screw that. Coco had herself some sex. I say we drop the outdated pretense of genderism and leave it in the historical record that she was a playa. And she wasn’t trying to skronk her way into someone else’s fortune; Coco was probably wealthier than a lot of the men she bedded. She simply had a type, that’s all. She dug guys who owned horses. And possibly counties in which horses would reside.
No, my beef with Coco is not about who was inside her, but who she was inside.
“Homosexuals? I have seen young women ruined by these awful queers: drugs, divorce, scandal. They will use any means to destroy a competitor and wreak vengeance on a woman. The queers want to be women – but they are lousy women. They are charming!”
Those last three words aside, this quote, expressed to her friend Paul Morand, doesn’t paint Coco in the prettiest of lights. Perhaps Coco’s disdain for homosexuals comes from her strict convent upbringing. It’s also likely she picked up her bias whilst running with the aristocratic circles who were her peers for much of her adult life. That’s where she came to despise the Jews.
Coco was a staunch capitalist. When World War II kicked off in 1939, she shut down her shops, claiming that this was “not a time for fashion.” That put three thousand female employees out of work, many of whom had shut down her business operations back in the French general strike of 1936. I don’t know if Coco was just using the war as an excuse for retaliation, but it sure looks that way.
Coco allegedly (and yes, the modern honchos at Chanel have vehemently denied this) told her circle of close friends that she felt the Jews were a Bolshevik threat to Europe. Maybe that’s all hearsay, maybe it’s some elaborate besmirching campaign by the Elsa Schiaparelli people, I don’t know. But one thing is clear, Coco’s beau du jour during the Nazi occupation of France was a military intelligence operative (a spy) by the name of Hans Gunther von Dincklage. A Nazi.
Recently unearthed documents suggest that Coco began working for General Walter Schellenberg of the SS in 1941. Sure, this may be a fabrication also, but the money trail can be remarkably telling. After Schellenberg was released from prison (he had been indicted at the Nuremberg trials) with incurable liver disease, Coco covered his medical bills, funeral expenses, and supported his family after he was dead in 1952. That’s an odd investment if Coco hadn’t been committed to the cause.
But let’s get back to von Dincklage.
In 1943, Coco and von Dincklage scooted over to Berlin to meet with Heinrich Himmler. They came up with something they called Operation Modelhut, which means ‘Model Hat’ in German. You know, because Coco made hats. It wasn’t the brightest moment in the German operation-naming tradition.
Anyhow, the plan was to bring in Vera Lombardi, who had milled about the same social circles as Coco, and spent the 1920’s working as Coco’s public relations rep. Coco led Vera to believe she was scouting out Madrid as a place to stretch out her business, and she wanted Vera to check it out. The real plan was to slip Vera a letter to pass on to Winston Churchill, urging him to end hostilities with the Germans.
The whole thing fell apart when Vera denounced Coco and her current companions as Nazi spies. How much British officials knew about Chanel’s link to the Reich is not known, though she was interrogated. Maybe she was truly innocent, perhaps a seasoned liar, or maybe her connections saved her. Who knows?
One thing we know for sure, Coco had some issues with the Wertheimers, who were the directors of Parfums Chanel, which included her infamously profitable No. 5 scent. When the Nazis began to seize all Jewish property and assets, Coco petitioned the Reich for full control of the company. As an ‘Aryan,’ she argued an ‘indisputable right of priority’. This all dated back to the contract she’d signed in the mid 20’s – she didn’t feel she was getting enough of the profits, and now she was taking advantage of the Wertheimers’ Jewishness to try to get it all.
The Wertheimers were savvy folks, however. In May of 1940, they had signed over the business to French businessman Felix Amiot, and as such Coco had no claim. The company was signed back over to the Wertheimers after the war.
After the war, Coco kept fighting for control of her perfume branch. She received the equivalent of $9 million in today’s money for wartime profits, and she landed 2% of all future worldwide sales. Both sides were cautious in really fighting this legal battle – if Coco’s Nazi ties became publically known, they feared it could damage the brand and kill everybody’s profits.
Pierre Wertheimer agreed to one other quirky deal at the tail-end of this battle: to pay all of Coco’s living expenses, big and small, for the rest of her life.
That’s a sweet deal. It’s too bad Coco herself has left a sour taste in my mouth, huggable or no.