It’s Coco’s birthday. The woman who gave us the little black dress, the pop of faux pearls (lots of ’em), the iconic quilted handbag, and that I’d-know-it-anywhere jacket. Not to mention the famous perfume. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was born 128 years ago today, and her imprint on fashion remains strong, pervasive and very lucrative.
This week, though, Chanel’s making news in a different vein. A new biography just released — Sleeping With the Enemy by Hal Vaughn — claims that the German military intelligence officer she was involved with was a Nazi master spy who reported directly to the infamous Joseph Goebbels, that Coco herself was a genuine operative involved in a number of clandestine missions, that she had her own code name (Westminster), and that she was fully and completely a German collaborator—with all the perks thereof.
I’m no Chanel expert. But reviews of the book’s research are compelling (though it’s not all new news). It is not a pretty story. And as you’d expect, its publication caused significant heartburn for the House of Chanel, with the usual statement of rebuttal issued.
Throughout her life, Chanel was nothing if not a survivor. And her style legacy is extraordinary and undeniable. (I love the Chanel earrings I’ve bought at Paris flea markets….and I still covet one of those classic quilted bags.)
She’s quoted as saying,
“I invented my life by taking for granted that everything I did not like would have an opposite, which I would like.”
I’m going to keep that in mind as I read this new book.
An interesting sidenote... Coco Chanel never really owned Chanel. As it’s been since 1924, the House of Chanel is privately held by the Wertheimer family. Pierre Wertheimer put up the cash 87 years ago that propelled Chanel No. 5 into a global brand. Pierre and his family, who were Jews, fled France in 1940 for the U.S. Though Chanel tried to regain the company after the Wertheimers’ departure, Pierre had already established an “Aryan” proxy. Today, his great-grandsons run the company and that makes Chanel one of the few luxury brands that remains privately owned. The Wertheimers’ story is every bit as fascinating as that of their company’s namesake. The Paris-based writer/journalist (and…full disclosure…a friend), Dana Thomas, wrote this terrific piece for the New York Times on the family. It’s a great read.