After reading Sleeping With The Enemy, Coco Chanel’s Secret War by Hal Vaughan I’m tempted to never buy another Chanel product again. Not a lipstick, a nail polish, or fragrance. Obviously my boycott would have absolutely no impact on the company’s overall wealth and market penetration, and Chanel herself is dead so my concerns are moot. Besides, I love the brand so that would only penalize me. Over the years I’ve read previous biographies of Coco Chanel but this one centered specifically on her long-term relationship with known Nazi and Gestapo intelligence officer, Baron von Dincklage. And it’s disturbing. Very disturbing.
By the time Chanel became famous for her iconic jersey dresses and revolutionary fashion styles in the early twentieth century, she’d gone through many lovers including white Russians and French aristocrats. Ever the opportunist, she used each one to expand her network and climb the socio-economic ladder. This is not necessarily a criticism. Who wouldn’t do the same? She was incapable of living without the company of a man and perhaps her most advantageous score was the fabulously rich Bendor, Duke of Westminster who introduced her to circles frequented by the Prince of Wales, Winston Churchill and other British aristocrats.
Various lovers financed her business ventures and furthered her professional and personal cachet. She loved both men and women, was fiercely anti-Semitic and had a life-long addiction to morphine. Never a particularly astute business manager, she was happy to accept the help of the Wertheimer brothers in the early 1930s to market and distribute her wildly successful fragrance Chanel No. 5. This fragrance proved to be her most lucrative source of income over the decades. Her partnership with the Wertheimers was, however, fraught with discord as Chanel felt they had cheated her out of greater revenues. The Wertheimers, who were Jewish, saw the writing on the wall when the Germans were taking over France and they wisely emigrated to the United States to run their various business from there.
With the German invasion, Chanel once again lept to the winning side. “France has got what she deserved,” she was quoted as saying at a lunch party at the Côte d’Azur in 1943. After a bitter strike that resulted in temporarily closing her workshops and boutique before the start of the war, she once again closed her business and took up residence in the Ritz Hotel, but she was not alone. Her latest lover was Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a high-ranking German intelligence officer in the Gestapo and S.S. with whom she had become acquainted during their earlier years in the south of France. The Ritz was reserved exclusively for high-ranking German officials, the pro-Nazi DuBonnet family, the wife of the founder of the Ritz, and Coco Chanel. “France has got what she deserved,” she was quoted as saying at a lunch party at the Côte d’Azur in 1943.
To the Wertheimer’s credit, they had transferred the assets of the Chanel No. 5 fragrance business to a trusted non-Jewish French citizen to own and administer before they left the country and that’s what ultimately saved the company from being confiscated by the Nazis. But Chanel was still bitter and constantly fought for a larger share of the profits. She continued to socialize with known Nazi collaborators and French traitors who were being constantly monitored by French intelligence. Even one of her most cherished long-term lovers, Pierre Reverdy, a famous French poet kept in touch with her despite the fact he was an active member of the French resistance.
As the war turned against Germany in late 1943, Chanel recognized the wisdom in straddling both sides of the conflict for self-protection. She used her Nazi connections to persuade British friends that she could broker a peace settlement between both sides. She had high-level friends on all sides in Italy, France, Germany and Britain and used them extensively to further her personal safety. Her former lover and one-time sponsor, the Duke of Westminster was pro-German, as was the Duke of Windsor and his wife Wallis. She communicated with Winston Churchill through mutual friends and it was ultimately these relationships that saved her from being condemned as a traitor.
At the end of the war, Chanel and her German SS Officer moved to Lausanne in Switzerland where they lived peacefully for about ten years before she reopened her fashion business. Many of the classified files related to Coco Chanel’s wartime collaboration and Nazi connections were confidential and classified until just a few years ago. But the evidence is clear. She was only saved from the fate of other collaborators by having friends in high places. It’s disturbing and disgraceful that she got away with what she did, but then, there are many others who also escaped post-war retribution despite being clearly guilty.
Sleeping With Enemy is a carefully researched piece of non-fiction that reads like a novel. The author presents a fascinating story in surprising detail, despite much of the evidence having been destroyed after the war. Had this information been made public during her lifetime, and without the intervention of her British friends in high places, Chanel’s life might have taken a very different course. This book is an absolute must-read. I loved it.
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