In this ambitious, engrossing biography, Chaney (Hide-and-Seek with Angels: A Life of J.M. Barrie, 2006, etc.) delves into the life and times of one of the 20th century’s most controversial fashion icons.
The author probes beneath the cool exterior of Coco Chanel (1883–1971), the woman who, for all the money, status and power she attained, would always “remain self-conscious about her background,” and whose personal torment over a tragic past would later manifest as an addiction to morphine. Chaney chronicles Chanel’s early life in France, from her birth into a family of “impoverished, nomadic market-traders” and difficult adolescence at a convent orphanage to her years as a struggling apprentice seamstress. Hard-working and ambitious, Chanel understood that men were critical to her advancement and took young scions of wealthy families as her lovers. One such individual, Arthur Capel, not only became the love of her life, but also the man who helped Chanel establish the “little business” that, by the end of World War I, was well on its way to becoming a fashion empire. In the 1920s, Chanel catapulted to the center of cultural and artistic life in Paris, a place she occupied almost continuously until her death. Beautiful, provocative and possessed of a “mordant wit,” she became linked to celebrated artists such as Stravinsky, Picasso and Dalí; members of the Russian nobility; other women; and, during World War II, a German soldier with Nazi ties.
Chaney’s engagement with her subject is evident throughout, and her exhaustive research into Chanel’s life—especially its darker, more enigmatic corners—and the cultural history she so profoundly impacted make the book as fascinating as it is informative.