I’ve been covering the reception desk at work this week, which means lots of time for reading and another book review!
Let me preface this review by saying that I really wanted to like this book. I mean, a book where Coco Chanel’s secret Nazi past is finally revealed!? I wanna read that! The problem? Hal Vaughan’s writing style is so dry and he includes lots of background WWII history that is not entirely relevant to Chanel’s particular story. That being said, Vaughan’s research is groundbreaking, as he had access to a number of newly declassified French and German intelligence documents. After reading this book, your view of Chanel will never be the same. Mine certainly is not.
Vaughan begins his narrative with a very brief summary of Chanel’s orphanage childhood, her early love affairs, and start of the House of Chanel before launching into her life in the early 1920s and friendship with Vera Lombardi, an English socialite that was married to an Italian fascist. Lombardi introduced Chanel to a number of English aristocrats, including the Duke of Westminster (an anti-Semite who Chanel would have an extravagant affair with) and future Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who would play a pivotal role in keeping her from being tried as a traitor to the French in the 1940s (there’s a great photo in the book that shows Chanel and Churchill dressed in hunting garb in the English countryside in 1924).
Chanel’s love affair with The Duke didn’t last (he wanted to get married and have children, but Chanel was not interested in that, nor young enough to bear children). Sometime in the late 1930s, Chanel met Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage (nicknamed “Spatz”), a German spy for the Abwehr (Nazi equivalent of the CIA) and moved into the Hotel Ritz in (the residence for many leading Nazi officials in Paris). Vaughan does not quite explain where or how these two first met, although he states that this was her “last great love affair.” The fact that Dincklage was a Nazi spy and Chanel a Frechwoman in occupied Paris meant that she was now a so-called “horizontal collaborator” (Vaughan describes the horrible treatment horizontal collaborators endured after the war. Viewed as traitors by their fellow French, many were spat upon and had their heads shaved in public).
Chanel used her liaison with Dincklage and his connections to her advantage in 1941 when her nephew, Andre Palasse, a French soldier, was imprisoned in a German POW camp. Dicnklage introduced Chanel to Baron Louis Vaufreland, a former member of the Gestapo and current (1941 current) agent of the Abwehr. Vaufreland agreed to secure the release of Chanel’s nephew on the condition that she agree to become an agent in the Abwehr and help “Germany obtain ‘political’ information in Madrid.” Chanel agreed and in 1941, Vaufreland enrolled her in the Berlin registry as Agent F-7124, codename Westminster (an homage to her English lover of the 1920s). Chanel and Vaufreland traveled to Madrid together, and upon their return to Paris, Andre had been freed.
Vaufreland was also aware of Chanel’s struggle with the Jewish Wertheimer brothers over her perfume business, and agreed to assist her with this by introducing her to an Aryan property lawyer. Chanel abhorred running the business side of her empire, preferring the design aspects instead, and so in 1924, she signed an agreement with the Wertheimer brothers, turning over her perfume business to them in exchange for part of the profits. Disappointed in her “measly” percentage of the profits, Chanel would use the Aryanization of property laws in the 1930s to petition for sole ownership of her perfume company in 1941. Having anticipated this outcome, the Jewish Wertheimer brothers transferred ownership of Parfums Chanel to a French businessman (and Aryan), Felix Amiot during the war. Needless to say, Chanel was not pleased by this.
The release of her nephew from a POW camp and use of the Aryanization of property laws shows how Chanel collaborated with the Nazis for personal gain, yet in 1943, Chanel was working on a secret mission to try to broker a peace with England through her high-level contacts. Yep, Coco Chanel tried to end WWII. As Vaughan shows, by 1943, it was becoming apparent to many high-level Nazis that a defeat of the Third Reich was inevitable. Operation Valkyrie (the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler by his fellow Nazis and the subject of a Tom Cruise film) had failed, and many high-ranking Nazis feared Hitler’s increasing instability. Aware of Chanel’s connections to the British aristocracy, including Winston Churchill, Chanel was recruited for Operation Moddelhut (“model hat”) after accompanying Dincklage to Germany in 1943 and meeting Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS. Under the guise of sourcing materials for her perfume, Chanel was to travel to Spain once again and get word to the English through one of their diplomats stationed there that a number of high-level Nazi officials wanted to break with Hitler and negotiate a separate peace with England. The mission failed, however, as upon their arrival in Spain, Vera Lombardi (who was accompanying them) was accused of being an English spy. Lombardi responded by outing Chanel as a German spy (although there were no repercussions for this at the time). Despite her betrayal, Chanel sent a letter to Churchill asking him to exonerate their mutual friend of these false charges (Churchill obliged).
With the D-Day landing in June 1944, Paris was liberated from Nazi control and tribunals were set up by the French to convict those that had collaborated with the Germans. Chanel was one of the French to be investigated, although Winston Churchill intervened to prevent her from being prosecuted. A free woman, Chanel fled to neutral Switzerland after the war, and Dincklage tried to join here, although the Swiss blocked his immigration due to his espionage past (Spatz was very active in spying on French ports in the 1930s). Chanel was called again to testify in 1949, this time during Vaufreland’s war crimes trial. Chanel adamantly denied any association with him (despite the fact that there were records linking the two together) and the French decided not to pursue her any further. Chanel would then go on to rebuild her business (the House of Chanel closed its doors in 1939), staging a grand comeback in the 1950s before her death in 1971.
Upon completion of the book, I decided to research a bit about its publication and discovered that Vaughan (who died in 2013) was heavily criticized when this book was published in 2010, especially by the House of Chanel, famous for guarding their 1940s records (Caroline Weber, who wrote the Marie Antoinette book I reviewed, has been trying to write a book about Chanel’s Nazi past, as well). My criticism of his work is not necessarily about his source material, but rather, his dry writing style, which I felt was not the most conducive to telling this story about Chanel’s Nazi years. He presents the facts and primary source documents very dryly (sometimes reproducing them verbatim), with no real analysis of them nor explanation of the greater implications (like the fact that Coco Chanel tried to end WWII!). Though I often felt like I was reading a textbook at times, I have to say that I’ve become a bit disillusioned with Chanel since reading this book. She was a fabulous designer and revolutionized women’s fashion in the 20th century, but as Vaughan clearly shows, she was incredibly anti-Semitic, homophobic, snobbish, and self-centered. She used men to her advantage and was also a morphine addict. She collaborated with Nazis during the war, and then vehemently denied these collaborations upon its conclusion, even going so far as to pay off Gen. Walter Schellenberg (the former chief of SS intelligence), who’s postwar memoir would have implicated her. Yet, when one thinks about Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, these associations don’t come to mind at first. Instead, we think about the little black dress, the saying that a girl should always be “classy & fabulous” and the pearls and costume jewelry Chanel popularized. Chanel’s life is definitely a study in the importance of image control and just goes to show that history is, indeed, written by the winners.