Chanel's Riviera: the Nazi skeletons in Coco's wardrobe
While millions suffered in German-occupied France, Chanel was still living on the Cote D'Azur and looking to profit from the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws
Coco Chanel, according to Anne de Courcy, remains "the most famous dress designer ever", whose graceful black-and-white creations were a world away from Edwardian flowers and feathers. "To my mind," said the seamstress, "simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance." It was Chanel's idea to introduce shoulder pads to emphasise a slender waist. She also invented a classic perfume, Chanel No 5, which made her fortune. "Spray it on wherever you expect to be kissed," ran the instruction on the box - did anybody dare?
Though Chanel retained a suite at the Ritz in Paris, her true home was on the Riviera, where in 1929 she built a white marble villa with vaulted ceilings and cloistered colonnades. We are told much about the lick of luxury on the Mediterranean coast, the "hedonistic lifestyle that then seemed never-ending". Bendor Westminster's yacht, for example, had a crew of 40 - and Chanel had an affair with the British duke for 10 years, even decorating his castle in the Highlands and "installing the first bidet in Scotland... I did everything he wanted, but fishing for salmon is not life."
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Life, instead, was "luxurious indolence spiced with gambling and parties". Actress Elsie Mendl, one of the first women to receive a facelift, entered parties by way of a cartwheel, surely imperilling her sutures. People called Fruity and Baba went in for pet leopards. Author Aldous Huxley was on the scene ("Here all is exquisitely lovely... We bathe and bask"), as was poet Jean Cocteau ("I live in a brothel for American sailors"). Literary critic Cyril Connolly, an enemy of his own promise, used sardines as bookmarks. As for British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, on the Riviera each summer, "philandering was as natural as breathing."
Playwright Somerset Maugham, "a pansy with a stammer", lived in a mansion with 13 servants, where his existence was a round of "scenery, books, gramophones, pretty people." But the star residents in the south of France were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Their château was done out in Buckingham Palace colours of red, gold and Garter flags, and the duke fully expected guests to bow and curtsy before Wallis. The exiled ex-monarch was attended by a huge number of maids, valets, gardeners and scullions. Many Mediterranean nights were spent with the duke playing bagpipes.
This "warm, golden, easy" world was shattered by Hitler, when he "unleashed a campaign of violence and terror," massing his panzer divisions at the border. None believed in the prospect of war. "Oh, just another sensational report," snapped the duke; but soon enough hotels and cafés closed, as men were called up. Petrol was rationed, a blackout imposed. There were food shortages.
The mix of refugees, visitors, spies and military officers on the Riviera, jostling for letters of transit, inspired the authors of what later became Casablanca. De Courcy is very powerful on the fall of France - the sorrow and the pity. Foreigners had to leave at once: "Many were still in evening dress, some were drunk, a few hysterical." The English, for example, including Maugham, had to endure a 20-day journey to Liverpool in the hold of coal ships with no facilities. The Windsors endured no such indignity. Lord Louis Mountbatten had to bring HMS Kelly to pick up the pair. There was a red carpet, a guard of honour, and a military band to play the national anthem.
As for the French themselves, as de Courcy reminds us, it was they who with alacrity actually carried out the Nazis' dirty work, rounding up Jewish men, women and children, who were sent to the death camps. By 1944, with the cooperation of the Vichy regime, 650,000 French civilian workers were dispatched to German factories, 60,000 Jews and other undesirables were deported to Belsen and Auschwitz, and 30,000 shot as hostages or members of the Resistance.
And Chanel? She with impunity travelled between Paris and the south of France, where at La Pausa, her villa, "the tumbling geraniums and the liquid song of the nightingales were still the same", as de Courcy puts it. Chanel was openly anti-Semitic, seeing Jews, says de Courcy, as "convenient scapegoats for the country's difficulties". As regards the Holocaust, she was "indifferent" to people's fate. Though a multi-millionairess, she despised her workforce for expecting a living wage. When they threatened to strike, she closed down the factory.
More despicable, however, is the way she took full "advantage of the stringent anti-Semitic laws" to grind into the dust the Wertheimer brothers, who owned the cosmetics and fragrance company Les Parfumeries Bourjois, which produced, marketed and distributed Chanel No 5. Because Vichy, following the Nuremberg Laws, had decreed that Jews must surrender all of their assets, Chanel's "hope was that she might gain control of the business making her perfumes," and henceforward draw 100pc of the profits.
Where the average French person under the occupation was grimy and battered, dining on cats sold on the black market as rabbit, Chanel lived it up at the Ritz, which was otherwise reserved for German officers, who had their bills forwarded to the compliant French government. "Untroubled by any thoughts that she might be viewed as a collaborationist," Chanel took a German lover, Hans Günther von Dincklage. During air raids, she snoozed on fur rugs and in silk Hermes sleeping bags.
This terrible woman only avoided prosecution and a shaven head for collaboration by offering a free bottle of Chanel No 5 to every GI for their sweetheart. She also kept pointing out that British prime minister Winston Churchill had stayed with her at La Pausa. She swiftly moved to Switzerland to be near her loot, sold La Pausa in 1953, and died in 1971, aged 88.
De Courcy, in this gripping, rousing study, sees Chanel as a Marie Antoinette figure, simultaneously shrewd and other-worldly, protected by an armour of absolute self-interest. The only good deed she performed, that I can see, was when she financed Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in 1920. But that was probably because she was sleeping her way through the Ballets Russes.