Thursday, September 08, 2011

The story of how Coco Chanel metamorphosed from a mere “horizontal collaborator” into an actual German secret agent

Gabrielle Chanel — better known as Coco — was a wretched human being
writes Judith Warner in her book review of Hal Vaughan's Sleeping With the Enemy (Coco Chanel's Secret War) — something that brings to mind other female celebrities who were far from reluctant to take Nazis as lovers in occupied France during World War II.
Anti-Semitic, homophobic, social climbing, opportunistic, ridiculously snobbish and given to sins of phrase-making like “If blonde, use blue perfume,” she was addicted to morphine and actively collaborated with the Germans during the Nazi occupation of Paris. And yet, her clean, modern, kinetic designs, which brought a high-society look to low-regarded fabrics, revolutionized women’s fashion, and to this day have kept her name synonymous with the most glorious notions of French taste and élan.

…Chanel’s … anti-­Semitism was vociferous and well documented …

It wasn’t much of a stretch, then, for Chanel, during wartime, to find herself the mistress of the German intelligence officer Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, a charming character who had spied on the French fleet in the late 1920s, and who found himself pleasingly single in occupied Paris, having presciently divorced his half-Jewish German wife just before the passage of the Nuremberg Laws. It wasn’t any particular betrayal of her values, or morals or ideals either, for Chanel to find herself traveling to Madrid and Berlin to engage in cloak-and-dagger machinations with her country’s occupier.

The story of how Coco became Chanel has been told many times before over the past half-century, most recently (and, sad to say, much more engagingly) in last year’s “Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life,” by the British fashion columnist Justine Picardie. The story of how Chanel metamorphosed from a mere “horizontal collaborator” — the mistress of a Nazi — into an actual German secret agent has been less well known, though earlier writers have reported that she had worked for the Germans. It’s here that Vaughan makes his freshest contribution, using a wealth of materials gleaned from wartime police files and intelligence archives, some of which were only recently declassified by French and German authorities, to flesh out precisely how and why she became an agent, and how she sought to profit from her German connections during the war.
Despite her indisputable collaborationist activities, and after a brief period of uncertainty during which she was questioned by a French judge, Chanel eventually got off pretty much scot-free after the war, once again using her wiles to protect herself most expertly. She tipped off the poet and anti-Nazi partisan Pierre Reverdy, a longtime occasional lover, so that he could arrange the arrest of her wartime partner in collaboration, Baron Louis de Vaufreland Piscatory; she paid off the family of the former Nazi chief of SS intelligence Gen. Walter Schellenberg when she heard that he was preparing to publish his memoirs. (It was Schellenberg who had given her the “model hat” assignment.) Vaughan could have done better in providing the context to the seemingly incomprehensible ease of Chanel’s reintegration into French fashion and society, telling more, for example, of the widespread desire for forgetting and moving forward that held sway in Charles de Gaulle's postwar France.