Tenacious digging into secret wartime records reveals a worsening case for the legendary French designer.
That Chanel took a German officer as a lover during the French Occupation is not news—his status allowed her to keep her luxury apartments in the Ritz Hotel during the war and pass freely among restricted areas. Yet the extent of her collaboration has been vigorously denied for years. Questioned before a French tribunal right after the war, Chanel was swiftly released by the beneficent intervention of Winston Churchill, her old friend, and warned to get out of town. Relocated to Switzerland, she was soon joined by the very German lover in question: Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, an agent for the German military espionage service, who had been stationed in Paris since the mid-’30s to build a Nazi propaganda network in France. Roving journalist and diplomat Vaughan (FDR’s 12 Apostles: The Spies Who Paved the Way for the Invasion of North Africa, 2006, etc.) sifts through the shifting lives of Gabrielle Chanel, born in 1883 to a poor mother and itinerant father, and farmed off to a Catholic orphanage by age 12. She continually remade herself, from seamstress to café singer to mistress of rich, worldly men, who set her up in business. Her most influential paramour (for her postwar career) would prove to be the profligate Bendor, the Duke of Westminster, and Churchill’s good friend. Together, Bendor and Chanel could indulge their anti-Semitic, pro-German views. Cooperating with the Nazis helped free Chanel’s nephew from a German POW camp, while the newly instated Aryanizing of Jewish businesses promised the chance to wrest her lucrative perfume firm from the hands of the Wertheimer family, to whom she had sold it years before. Well rendered by Vaughan, the details grow continually more sordid, from Chanel and Dincklage’s trip to Madrid and Berlin to try to influence high-level British circles in 1943, to Chanel’s drug addiction.
A sorry story of war-time collaboration, exacerbated by the lack of reckoning during her lifetime.