Review: Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life by Justin Picardie
HarperCollins, €29.99, Hardback
Coco Chanel's racy early life and her success as a couturier in Paris equipped her with an enviable little black book, bulging at the seams with the names of rich and famous. Some were merely clients, but many others were former lovers, quite a few of whom were married. She also had affairs with a number of high-profile men.
Two names stand out, the Duke of Westminster Hugh Grosvenor, who she was once tipped to marry, and British prime minister Winston Churchill, connections which may have saved her skin in the aftermath of the Second World War.
During the war, Chanel, who was then in her late 50s, had taken a Nazi lover. Hans Gunther von Dincklage, who was 13 years her junior, was reportedly under the direct orders of the Reich Ministry of Propaganda, using a press attache post in Paris as cover. There was also a theory that he was a double agent, secretly working against the Nazis.
In post-Liberation Paris, Chanel was summoned by the French Interior Forces to answer questions. Which of the two, Grosvenor or Churchill, stepped in on her behalf has never been clarified but Coco was soon back at home (in the Ritz Hotel), having been saved the ignominy of having her head shaved and being paraded naked through the streets of Paris along with the other 'les collaborations horizontals'.
"It has generally been assumed that Churchill somehow intervened on Chanel's behalf," writes her new biographer Justine Picardie, "although a lurid conspiracy theory has also circulated that links her release to the British royal family, purportedly to prevent revelations of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's unsavoury Nazi connections".
When later asked if she had been involved with a German, Chanel replied: "Really, sir, a woman of my age cannot be expected to look at his passport if she has a chance of a lover." The author reflects that "perhaps she was unable to see her German lover without obscuring something of the truth, closing her eyes to his past, as well as his passport; just as she had been apparently blind to previous episodes in her own life".
And of these, there were many. Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born illegitimate in 1883 in a poorhouse in rural France and after her mother's death, while she was still a child, her father abandoned her in a convent. Resonances from the orphanage later curiously featured in La Pausa, her uber stylish home at Roquebrune on the Riviera. Details from the nun's habits cropped up in her designs, in particular, collars, cuffs and the use of monochrome black and cream.
Coco had a knack of airbrushing out the unhappy and less edifying parts of her earlier life when she had achieved success as a couturier later on. When she was 18 she left the nuns and started working in Moulins as a cabaret singer. She became the mistress of the roue Etienne Balsan, who introduced her to an English playboy, Boy Capel, who was her lover and muse. She was soon cutting up his polo clothes and turning them into her androgynous style.
With his backing, she was soon on her way as a designer. By 1919, the year he was killed in a car crash, she had her own maison. After being a kept woman in the provinces with Etienne Balsan, she had now moved into a rich, royal circle and her world was peopled by exotics like Salvador Dali, Picasso, Cocteau, Diaghilev and another lover, Grand Duke Dmitri, cousin of the Russian tsar. She was back being a mistress again, a role she clearly had no moral problems with as evidenced by her series of relationships.
Chanel's clothes mirrored her own lifestyle, replacing corsets with loose trousers and offering a sophisticated liberation, independence and freedom to women. She replaced ornate evening gowns with her famous little black dress; she popularised costume jewellery, monochrome dressing and her signature collarless, edge-to-edge jacket. She was a huge success as well as becoming a celebrity. But the fallout from the war years effectively brought her career to a skidding halt.
Coco closed down her business two hours after war was declared. "This is not the time for fashion," she declared. When she attempted a comeback collection in February 1954, she chose the fifth day of the month -- her lucky number -- but it didn't do anything to soften the harshness with which she was judged. The clothes were ridiculed along with her Swiss facelift and, to make matters worse, rival Christian Dior was making waves.
It was the world of celebrity that turned the tables for Chanel in the US, where she was hailed as the face behind the most famous perfume in the world -- Marilyn Monroe famously said the only thing she wore in bed was Chanel No 5. Revenue from the perfume bank rolled the clothing collections and her reputation as a designer recovered.
She was, of course, famous for her Chanel suits. The most famous was probably the vivid pink suit Jackie Kennedy wore in Dallas in 1963 on the day President John F Kennedy was shot beside her in the car. She didn't remove it for a day and a night, forcing the world to see the horror of what had been done. It is now in storage, still caked in the blood of her husband.
Picardie acknowledges that in the tangle of tales told about Coco -- the gossip and speculation and rumours that have spread from newsprint to the internet --the accusation that is repeated most often is that "Chanel was a Nazi collaborator, whose wartime affair with a German officer leaves her reputation blemished, and the legacy of her visionary fashion designs forever stained".
However, the author argues that Chanel's "conduct should also be seen in the context of an era of French history marked by a widespread sense of chaos, confusion and uncertainty, as well as terrible tragedy".
"To acknowledge this is not to act as an apologist for Chanel," argues Picardie who, in a flight of purple prose, paints a picture of Coco and her Nazi lover speaking English together in an "act of solidarity, as if they were setting themselves apart from German-occupied Paris in their own neutral territory" in her apartment in Rue Cambon.
Frequently photographed standing at the top of her mirrored staircase, the series of narrow mirrors underline to me the tragic, fractured quality of Chanel's life, something that Mademoiselle admitted at the end: "One shouldn't live alone, it's a mistake. I used to think I had to make my life on my own, but I was wrong."
For a woman who revolutionised how women dress and looked to men's wardrobes for many of her innovative ideas, the 20th century icon missed out on the simple pleasures that most women take for granted, a loving, faithful partner and children.
As a business woman, she was razor sharp but her private life revealed a very vulnerable woman who used sleeping tablets and morphine as her last defence against the night.