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The most famous name in fashion is infamous for other reasons.

By From the December 2011 - January 2012 issue

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Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War
By Hal Vaughan
(Knopf, 279 pages, $27.95)

Born into abject poverty and raised in an orphanage, she had a life-long love and hate relationship with a fabulously rich and creative Jewish businessman, but she was a viciously mean anti-Semite of the old school, bigoted and scornful and hateful like the nuns who raised her during the 1890s when anti-Semitism was common in France. You can say that is not as bad as the new school, the exterminationists who, beginning in Germany and continuing to this day in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries, make the leap from irrational personal hate to rational state-sponsored mass murder. It is still pretty bad.

She had a 20-year affair with an Abwehr officer (German military intelligence) who played sports, favored seaside resorts, and cynically used his own friends, including her. You can argue sleeping with a German was not the worst a girl could do: there were more than 50 million of them in those nightmare years and they were not all creeps. That argument, though, does not get you very far in the case of a fellow who was not only a handsome playboy rascal but also a moonlighter for the Gestapo who insisted she do a little moonlighting of her own for his bosses—the ones in long black leather coats and polished boots and über-führer prefixed to their ranks.

Where affairs were concerned, she had no inhibitions whatever, the only question in her mind being what she got in return, and here she was discriminating, partial to men who were in positions to help her business, which was to make women look like something they were not. To the Jew Pierre Wertheimer, the German Hans Günther von Dincklage, and the French men of power and influence whom she needed in the worlds of theater, fashion, journalism, and politics, she added a Russian grandee with a big wallet and an English royal with an even bigger one, the Duke of Westminster himself. He was one of the very top toffs in the innermost circle of the British Empire, a man too big to fail, as we would say today, too blue-blooded for even Winston Churchill to turn against him, despite near-treasonous activity during the war when—like the Duke of Windsor and the social-climbing seductress who led him astray—he went beyond appeasement (an arguable if misguided policy until ’39) into overt support of the Third Reich and its mad and evil leaders.

She, of course, is Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, the most influential designer of women’s fashion in history and creator of the most famous perfume in the world. “Coco” was invented in the pre-Great War years when, put to work as a seamstress by the sisters who had raised her, she supplemented her income by working nights in bars as a singer and perhaps more (in French “cocotte” = call girl). She had big plans, though, and she realized them. Today, if a woman is not wearing a Chanel outfit, she is wearing one, most experts in this field agree, that could not have been made and sold but for the revolution in dress and scent that Coco led. The revolution’s watchwords were simplicity, comfort, elegance, and to form a quick idea of what this means, compare in your mind’s eye Queen Victoria and Jackie Kennedy. Today, a bottle of No. 5 perfume, which Marilyn Monroe said was the only thing she wore in bed, is sold somewhere in the world every 30 seconds.

HAL VAUGHAN, a retired U.S. foreign service officer living in Paris, France, is not a fashion writer, but rather a keen student of the World War II years. Following a gripping biography of Sumner Jackson, an expatriate American doctor who, with his French wife, joined the French Resistance, and a study of the American foreign service officers who prepared the invasion of North Africa in 1942, he turned his attention to the civil war the French lived through even as they were at war with the Italo-German coalition that had invaded and occupied their country in 1940. This is a big and inexhaustible historical issue, like the American Civil War.

The lead character in Vaughan’s book, as he first conceived it, was the kind of American who, had there been a movie, would be played by Jimmy Stewart. Handsome and low-key, intellectually brilliant but unpretentious, handy with tools and weapons, a quick study who could be dropped deep behind enemy lines and outwit Gestapo thugs, Gregory Thomas was a New York-born law graduate educated in Switzerland, France, and Spain as well as America. In the mid-’30s he went to work for Pierre Wertheimer, the businessman who transformed the successful but essentially niche couture and perfume boutique that Coco’s first English lover (the one before the duke, though who knows how many others there were) had backed into the House of Chanel, icon of French business creativity, which roared through the booming ’20s and coasted through the depressed ’30s as an, indeed as the, industry leader, defining the female look and scent for the rest of the century.

Wertheimer was born in 1888 to an Alsatian Jewish family that chose France over Germany after the Franco-Prussian War gave France’s Rhineland provinces to the First Reich in 1871. Pierre was a visionary entrepreneur, one of the first to see the opportunities in big stores (he was a founder of the Galleries Lafayette) and in world-famous brand names. Since, additional to recognizing Coco’s genius, he happened to be in love with her, he made a deal that turned over the manufacture and marketing of No. 5 to a new company, House of Chanel, which he controlled, on terms extremely generous to her.

It was Thomas rather than Wertheimer to whom Vaughan was initially drawn, however, because of his deep interest in the World War II period and the military and intelligence worlds that fascinate him due to his own experiences. Thomas, with his savvy and his Continental education, was sent by Wertheimer to retrieve the secret ingredients for No. 5, available only in Grasse, a town on the French Riviera known as the perfume capital of the world due to the quality of its horticulture, notably, in the case of No. 5, its jasmine. (To this day, the formula for No. 5 is known only to a handful of individuals in the company and Al Gore, who invented perfume to counter the stench of global pollution.)

Thomas’s adventures, and his later service in the OSS, seemed to Vaughan a natural sequel to his book on the legendary Sumner Jackson. However, his research turned up long-suppressed evidence of Chanel’s recruitment as an Abwehr agent by her lover Dincklage. While it was not a secret that Coco, like quite a few others in France, had been a “horizontal collaborator,” her active and deliberate contribution to the German side was known only to narrow overlapping circles of friends, family, and associates among French and German survivors of the war. “Spatz” Dincklage, a teenage cavalry officer during World War I, went to great length to cover up his own service in the intelligence and secret police services of the Third Reich. Vaughan found previously unpublished documentary evidence of the chain of command leading up to Himmler, the head of the Nazi secret police, in which Dincklage operated.

THE DINCKLAGE-CHANEL RING, such as it was, failed completely. The idea was that Coco’s connections to the Duke of Westminster might facilitate negotiations leading to a separate peace in the West. Vaughan’s thorough research and his subtle understanding of the psychological and political atmosphere in France in ’43 and ’44 show that the scheme was by no means insane, but on the contrary reflected a certain point of view on what was at stake in the war and how it might end. It was quite possible in the France of those years, despite or perhaps because of the oppressive Occupation, with its massive deportations of Jews (and others “recruited” for forced labor), with the absent POWs a source of strain and fear, with the ruthless Wehrmacht and Gestapo repression of the several ill-equipped resistance movements, with sketchy and distorted news of the war’s progress, to believe in a long stalemate on the Western front. It was possible to conclude from this that life just had to go on with some form of French-German collaboration. To be sure, it was also possible to conclude that life was not possible under such conditions; this was the point of view adopted, for example, by Pierre Reverdy, one of the great poets of that era and a Resistance leader, who had been intimate with Coco in the ’20s and stayed in love with her all his life.

Chanel’s own point of view was that of a crafty, extremely narrow-minded peasant woman, interested only in who would end up with the farm when the shooting stopped. The extraordinary thing, however, was that she was also the Jazz Age sophisticate who was on intimate terms with Westminster and friendly ones with Churchill, whose personal lawyer was the son-in-law of the Vichy leader Pierre Laval and whose bed and soul mate (for the time being) was a ranking Nazi spy, even as she stayed in touch with the poet who loved her and who, in a perfect illustration of the adage that love is blind, basically saved her ass in the wild days of the Liberation in the summer of ’44 when his men were prepared to kill her.

Chanel used the “Aryanization” laws to try to steal Wertheimer’s majority stake in the company. The Thomas mission was meant to allow Wertheimer to manufacture No. 5 in New Jersey (he had fled France ahead of the German invasion). As it happens, the French Catholic Wertheimer associate who under a legal subterfuge was watching over the House’s interests during Wertheimer’s exile in New York was able to stall (he challenged Wertheimer over ownership after the war and lost, but though shabby it was not the brazen larceny Coco attempted).

Following the war Coco was briefly detained as a suspected collaborator, but the magistrate declined to press charges. Others who had consorted with the occupiers were punished, many were not; Chanel used money and influence to ensure that the few who knew of her Abwehr activities and might spill the beans when put on trial kept their mouths shut. Vaughan suggests Churchill, busy as he was, may have sent the word along to discourage prosecution, as he did not see the point of dragging out the dirty Westminster-Windsor laundry.

PRUDENTLY, Chanel left France for a comfortable Swiss exile with Dincklage. After a few years, Wertheimer suggested a re-launch of the House of Chanel’s fashion business, which had ceased operations during the war. Aging but ever restless and brimming with new fashion ideas, Chanel accepted his terms (which once again were very generous to her), and she was back in business, creating the famous tailleurs (skirt and jacket outfits) that characterized women’s clothes in the ’50s and ’60s the way the “little black dresses” and other “simple” innovations had marked the ’20s.

Neither Wertheimer nor Thomas, who eventually succeeded him at the head of the Chanel powerhouse, discussed the reasons for the deep-pocket rescue, but Vaughan points out that from a business angle it was reasonable.

Although she halted production during the war and immediate post-war years, Chanel was still the most famous name in fashion. Wertheimer saw that with a fresh injection of capital, he could make more money than he had ever made in the interwar years. Which he did. He needed to keep the brand name clean, however, and despite what she had done to him, he saw no percentage in a legal battle that would publicize Coco’s wartime behavior, of which he knew only too much. He therefore made sure she got the deal she wanted. He probably wanted that for her. For despite what she had done to him, she was still the beautiful Coco Chanel whom Pierre Wertheimer loved.

As my father’s old buddy Irwin Shaw used to say, go figure. 

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.