Salome danced. Scheherazade told tales. In the face of powerful, dangerous men, they used their skills differently. But both were beautiful, cunning, unafraid to employ sex for political ends. It’s a well-worn story, an archetype for the ages. But give that mythic siren a bit of documentary detail, ally her with Nazis, make her a spy and a Jew-hater, and the plot becomes startling. It shocks us all over again.
That is the crux of “Sleeping With the Enemy,” Hal Vaughan’s compelling chronicle of Coco Chanel, whose fame as the queen of couture made her a darling of princes and prime ministers. She was born on a hot afternoon in the Pays de la Loire, and she rose from poverty with little more than a dressmaker’s needle. But in Paris, by the eve of World War II, she was dressing the beautiful, perfuming the rich, drinking champagne with poets and impresarios. Sharp-tongued and funny, she became a friend to Winston Churchill, mistress to the Duke of Westminster, intimate of Picasso. When Hitler overran Paris, she didn’t hesitate to consort with the Gestapo, too.
Vaughan, a journalist, filmmaker and diplomat who has been “involved,” as his publisher coyly puts it, “in CIA operations,” offers us a different Chanel from any you’ll find at the company store. This is by no means the account of an emerging style — spare, easy, free of corsets and remarkably modern — but a tale of how a single-minded woman faced history, made hard choices, connived, lied, collaborated and used every imaginable wile to survive and see that the people she cared about survived with her. It’s not a pretty picture.
She was born Gabrielle Chasnel in a picturesque little town in western France. Her mother was a laundrywoman; her father, a street-hawker. Her parents didn’t marry until she was 12, but very soon after, her mother was dead, her brothers at work on a farm, and she and her sisters installed in a Cistercian orphanage in rural France. It was during those years in the nunnery that young Gabrielle acquired a skill and a doctrine that would guide her for the rest of her life: She learned to sew; and she learned to hate Jews. “Chanel’s anti-Semitism was not only verbal,” her friend, an editor of the magazine Marie Claire, avowed, “but passionate, demoded, and often embarrassing. Like all the children of her age she had studied the catechism: hadn’t the Jews crucified Jesus?”
At 18, she was striking: slim, dark-haired and dark-eyed, with a fresh, luminous complexion. She moved to a pension for girls in Moulins and found night work as a singer in a cabaret. By day, she worked as a seamstress. She took the name “Coco,” short for “coquette,” French for a kept woman — and, within a few years, she became exactly that: a demimondaine, living with her lover. He was Etienne Balsan, an ex-cavalry officer from a family of wealthy textile industrialists. Balsan brought her to his chateau, introduced her to his friends and taught her how to ride — a skill that would serve her royally.
Keen-eyed and discriminating, Chanel soon learned what it took to live well. She would remain grateful to Balsan for the rest of her life, but within two years, she was in love with someone else: Arthur “Boy” Capel, one of Balsan’s riding partners — a handsome English playboy with a large bank account and a web of connections. In 1908, he snatched her away, installed her in a Paris apartment and helped her launch a business making ladies’ hats. Boy Capel proved as generous with his wallet as he was fickle in love. When Chanel’s older sister committed suicide, he arranged for Chanel’s nephew, Andre Palasse (whom Chanel quickly adopted), to attend a boarding school in England. Capel would go on to finance her clothing boutiques in Paris, Deauville and Biarritz.
But Capel would take someone else as a wife. An upper-class Englishman could hardly marry a descendant of peasants — a courtesan. Nevertheless, Chanel remained his mistress until his death in a car accident 10 years later. She claimed she would never find happiness again. But at 35, she was rich, living in a glamorous apartment overlooking the Seine, poised to open the House of Chanel and acquire ever more wealth, lovers and notoriety. One world war had already come and gone, and it had not affected the gilded trajectory.
By the 1920s, a decade of flagrant extravagance, Chanel was selling her elegant jersey suits — modeled on English men’s wear — to bluebloods and arrivistes on both sides of the Atlantic. With savvy co-investor Pierre Wertheimer, she released Chanel No. 5, the perfume that would make her one of the richest designers in the world. She whipped up costumes for Diaghilev’s ballets, chummed around with Cocteau, Stravinsky, and Modigliani, and rode out the Depression dressing Sam Goldwyn’s Hollywood starlets. Weekends, she spent on horseback or hunting and fishing with her new paramour, the tall, handsome Hugh Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster.
One of the duke’s closest associates, Winston Churchill, who visited the duke’s 54-bedroom country house in Bordeaux, wrote home enthusiastically: “The famous Chanel turned up and I took great fancy to her — a most capable and agreeable woman — much the stronger personality [the duke] has been up against. She hunted vigorously all day, motored to Paris after dinner, and today is engaged in passing and improving dresses on endless streams of mannequins. . . . She does it all with her own fingers, pinning, cutting, looping. Some have to be altered ten times.” The duke was an ardent lover to Chanel, lavishing her with jewels and demands; and, although the affair lasted a mere five years, it would cement a lifelong relationship with Britain’s future prime minister.
All this has been written about before and, in Hal Vaughan’s somewhat bumpy narrative, it doesn’t particularly shimmer. But hold on. It’s the events that follow — and Vaughan’s documented research — that make “Sleeping With the Enemy” riveting history. Vaughan has gleaned many of the details of Chanel’s collaboration from documents that were scattered for years throughout European archives. Some of the incriminating documents, in fact, had been seized by Nazis in Paris and shipped off to Berlin, where, in turn, they were sent on to Moscow by Soviet intelligence officers.
In 1938, as Europe teetered on the brink of war and Hitler’s spies stole furtively through France, Chanel was living in a luxury apartment in the Ritz. Business was thriving: Her boutiques around the world swarmed with society women; her designs spawned a new range of shoes, jewelry, accessories and gowns. But war drummed in the distance; the Jews of Europe were in mortal danger; and, in the gathering storm, Paris prepared to save itself. The Vichy government decided to cast its fate with Hitler.
By 1940, France had fallen, the Wehrmacht was goose-stepping down the Champs Elysees, and Hitler strutted up the steps of the Palais de Chaillot to take command surprisingly easily. The Eiffel Tower flew the swastika. Chanel’s nephew and adopted son, Andre Palasse, was now a young soldier stationed at the Maginot Line; he had been captured along with 300,000 others and shuffled off to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. Within months, Chanel — still svelte and alluring at 57 — took on a new lover: He was Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a senior officer for the Abwehr, known as “Spatz.” According to Chanel’s grandniece, “Spatz was sympa, attractive, intelligent, well-dressed and congenial.” Perhaps Chanel thought that when she took him on, she was assuming protective coloring, but Spatz would become the last great affair of her life.
At first, as Vaughan explains, what Chanel wanted most from Dincklage was Andre’s freedom and safe passage, but war soon led to a far more complicated labyrinth. Chanel herself became an Abwehr spy, complete with code name and number. In the course of securing Andre’s release, she ran a mission to Madrid for the Germans. In the course of trying to win a friend’s discharge from prison, she ran another. She traveled to Berlin with her lover to meet with SS intelligence chief General Walter Schellenberg, Himmler’s righthand man. When Germany began to falter, the Nazis came to believe that Chanel might be useful in contacting her old friends Churchill and the Duke of Westminster and brokering a possible peace. She didn’t disappoint. She did what she was told to do and, in 1944, she wrote Churchill a letter, referring obliquely to her German connections.
Chanel continued to live at the Ritz, rub shoulders with Nazis and dine on poularde rotie, even as French families dug through the city’s garbage, trying to fend off starvation. She used her position as an Aryan businesswoman to wrest total control of Chanel No. 5 from her Jewish investor, Pierre Wertheimer. As the war ground on and Dincklage came and went from Berlin, convincing his bosses that she was trustworthy, thousands of French Jews were herded to sure deaths in Poland and Eastern Europe. But the glamorous woman with the deft needle and acid tongue was safe. The good life at the Ritz continued to roll on. There were legions of women of courage and derring-do throughout Europe, working hard to outwit the Nazis. Chanel was not among them.
When the end of the war came at last, Chanel feared nothing so much as being arrested as a “collabo” and executed as a traitor. Once again, high-placed contacts swept in to protect her. Defying the courts, the judges and investigators, she managed to lie her way to safety so that she and Dincklage continued to be lovers long after the war, when the French had identified him as a persona non grata.
Chanel was never taken to task for her role as a Nazi agent. She spent her last days in the luxury to which she was accustomed, celebrated and doted on in her comfortable apartment at the Ritz. Her empire only continued to grow, bursting into new markets with vigor. Eight months before her death, in 1971, Claude Pompidou, the first lady of France and a client for years, invited her to dine in the palace. “In my day,” Chanel is reported to have said wryly, “one did not invite one’s dressmaker for dinner.” When Chanel’s body was finally interred, Mme. Pompidou arranged to give her a hero’s tribute. It was only then that the damning documents from French counterintelligence archives began to trickle out and plans for festivities were quickly abandoned.
It’s an astonishing story. And yet, its telling is far from perfect. Vaughan’s clichés and non-sequiturs abound — some of his phrases are simply not English. (Can designs “impose an expensive simplicity”? Can a “gravelly voice” return “to a benevolent lassitude”? But mid-book, the story is so gripping, the questions so provocative that, like his publisher, we no longer care. How on earth did she get away with it? Who got duped and who was doing the duping? Chanel? Or the powerful men who befriended her? And then there is the most gnawing question of all: How far would you go — what wiles would you use — with one foot in the maw of an apocalypse?
SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY
Coco Chanel’s Secret War
By Hal Vaughan
Knopf. 279 pp. $27.95