Wednesday, November 16, 2011

New Biography. Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War

Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War by Hal Vaughan

Andre Malraux wrote that “From this century in France, three names will remain: de Gaulle, Picasso, and Chanel.” This may be so, their achievements undeniable, but their image in modern memory continues to evolve, and certainly our conception of both de Gaulle and Picasso as individuals has become more complex and ambiguous over the years. They have suffered some as people in our popular esteem. Whatever their achievements, it probably wouldn’t have been that much fun to have lunch with them. Well now it is Coco’s turn.

Early in the 20th Century, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel created the look of the modern woman and became the high priestess of couture. By the 1920s Chanel had created a fashion empire, employing two thousand people in her workrooms, and amassing a personal fortune of $15 million. At the start of World War II she closed down her couture house in Paris and moved to the Hotel Ritz. She remained at the Ritz during the German occupation, and after the war she moved to Switzerland. In 1954 she returned to Paris to rebuild the House of Chanel. Vaughan’s book focuses primarily on Chanel’s life from 1941 to 1954, a period that has been routinely glossed over by biographers, and which has been shrouded in mystery. The story he uncovers is a startling one.

Vaughan makes the case that Chanel during this period was a German intelligence operative and was enlisted in a number of spy missions. This came about in connection with her decade long affair with a German officer and diplomat, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, who was previously thought to be a relatively innocuous official serving the Reich in occupied Paris. Vaughan’s research uncovered that Dincklage was in fact a Nazi master spy and German military intelligence agent who ran a spy ring in the Mediterranean. He reported directly to Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s infamous propaganda minister. Vaughan explains how Chanel was able to escape arrest after the war, and flee to Switzerland, and how in spite of the persistent rumors of her espionage activities, she was able to return to Paris eventually and rebuild her business. This fascinating book that makes a surprising and unlikely fusion between high fashion is a troubling elaboration of the career of a woman who, however reprehensible her faults, remains an icon.

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