Coco Chanel was quite the scandalous woman. Decades after her death we’re still speculating and gossiping about who she may have slept with.
Chanel is back in the news...as if she were ever comfortable out of it. Two new muckraking biographies will be out in the next year, one claiming Chanel was a Nazi, the other saying she used drugs and slept with women.
Read the last Bookslut at Kirkus on Mina Loy.
That Chanel was a force to be reckoned with there is no doubt. Her perfumes, clothing and personal image are all tied closely to our ideas of sophisticated sexiness. She was a ruthless businesswoman, extremely competitive and very interested in fame and wealth. Yet she was also very editorial with her real-life history, destroying evidence, conjuring fables and making the lives of her biographers extremely difficult—perhaps that is why so many are prone to confabulation.
Linda Simon is a professor of English at Skidmore College and the author of a new take on Chanel’s life as part of Reaktion Books’ Critical Lives series. It’s a short biography, mostly focused on how Chanel left the world changed, although there is a little wrestling with the legend there as well.
I spoke to Simon about Chanel’s life after death, our gossipy interest in powerful women and what she shares with the subjects of previous Simon biographies.
Your book is much more about the cultural impact of Coco Chanel than just biographical detail, and yet right now, making headlines, is Chanel's sex life—sex with Nazis, sex with women. Why are we still interested in Chanel gossip? As you make clear in your book, she used rumors about her love life to increase this mystique she had, but why are we still talking about this in the 21st century?
Chanel’s sex life always revolved around famous lovers: Stravinsky, the Duke of Westminster, Grand Duke Dmitri. Being able to attract important men made her seem more alluring and powerful. Since her clothing and perfume were advertised as seductive to men, the idea that she was bisexual might seem, to some, scandalous—although in her own time, bisexuality would have been accepted among her friends. But it surely would have contradicted the image she insisted upon and perpetuated. Odder than affairs with women—even a famous woman—was Chanel’s desperate flirtation with her chauffeur, late in her life. Her unquenchable need for admiration from a man, any man, seems more biographically interesting to me than the possibility of her sleeping with women.
The Nazi connection is complicated. Chanel had a lifetime of animosity toward the Jewish family that owned her company, and yet she had a lifetime of Jewish friends, too. Some people think it’s inconceivable that she had an affair with a German without being complicit in Nazi intrigue. So there’s a push to figure out whether she had any political views at all, whether she was anti-Semitic, or—like Gertrude Stein, for example, who so enthusiastically supported Petain—whether she simply was rather naïve.
Interest in Chanel’s sex life seems to reflect our own ambivalence about the connection of sex to emotional and/or intellectual intimacy. Chanel had lots of sex, it seems, but what about intimacy?
You also wrote about William James [in Genuine Reality]. Now, as someone who is also endlessly fascinated with both James and Chanel, tell me how they connect, if at all, in your mind and in your work.
As a biographer, I’m interested in subjects who defied expectations about their lives. Coming from her background, Chanel should have been a shop girl, a chanteuse in some local club or the wife of a tradesman. Instead, she invented a life that others dreamed about, and, through force of will and, of course, her own talents, transformed herself into a legend. James, too, could have sunk into a life of depression and neurasthenia. But he, too, was hungry for recognition and the kind of respect afforded the great thinkers of his time.
I see them connected by the force of their desire. But as subjects, also, I’m interested in how their culture gravitated to them, how they met some needs for those who adored them and allowed them to shine. Whatever the strength of their will, we would not remember them if others did not respond with such enormous adulation.
A lot of what Chanel is remembered for—freeing women from the corset, for example—wasn't actually what she did. How much of what we think we know about her simply her legend, and how much is fact?
I think the facts have been shaped by the legend. For example, it’s a fact that she had an affair with the Duke of Westminster. Then there was a rumor that she refused his offer of marriage, saying, “There have been many Duchesses of Westminster, but there is only one Chanel.” She denied having said this, and there’s evidence that she really wanted to marry him and tried to conceive a child in order to persuade him. But the quote—or misquote—lives on because her public wants her to be an independent woman who chose work over marriage and who would not want to be submissive to a man.
Facts have also been distorted because public belief tends to see cultural change as sudden, consistent and linear. So one year there were corsets, then came Chanel, then everyone was wearing men’s sweaters. If we look closer at fashion history, we find men’s styles in women’s outfits years before Chanel, corsets dropped by big designers, and Chanel herself designing some apparently anachronistic outfits, full skirts and cinched waists, in the 1940s. But those outfits never make it into biographies because we want Chanel to be a certain kind of fashion feminist, and so we drop contradictory facts.
How annoying is it to write the life of someone who spent so much energy trying to obscure the truth?
Oh, not at all annoying! Even with subjects who are apparently forthcoming, their own view of events and people is not necessarily “factual.” So every biography is a mystery. And a biographer can only know so much anyway. The real heart of the person is always hidden. It’s interesting to think about what Chanel lied about and what her motive was to construct a parallel life for herself. What was she afraid of? Where was she vulnerable? I was fortunate enough to talk to a few people who knew her, one a psychotherapist herself, and those conversations were really interesting.
I also wrote a biography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein’s companion, whose own autobiography was titled What Is Remembered. That should tell you everything!
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.