Coco Chanel's Life Story - from Chanel No 5 To Nazi Spy

Jan 23, 2006

Coco poses in one of her emblematic looks - the cardigan worn with long pearls

Movie-makers fight over Coco's life story - from Chanel No 5 to Nazi spy

As the sun set over the Mediterranean at this year's Cannes Film Festival, only one project was being talked about in the glamorous hotels and watering places - and the movie hasn't even been made yet.
Fought over by three rival companies, the hottest property is the life story of a long-dead couturiere.
Born out of wedlock, brought up in a church orphanage, hers was an astonishing achievement

She designed the world's most celebrated perfume - famously worn by Marilyn Monroe (with nothing else) in bed - and the little pink suit worn by Jackie Kennedy on the day her President husband was assassinated.

She invented those prerequisites of modern style: costume jewellery, the Little Black Dress, the shoulder bag and even the suntan.

The first of the must-have designers, she has also had the most staying power. She dressed the aristocracy in the 1920s, film stars in the Thirties and debutantes in the Fifties.

And now, almost 40 years after her death, queues of women still wrap round the streets by her worldwide franchises, waiting to snap up her signature quilted handbags, chain belts and two-tone shoes.

She is Gabrielle Chanel, better known as Coco, and she had the most fertile imagination ever to inhabit the world of fashion. Her rags-to-riches story has it all: glamour, money, aristocratic suitors, even a treacherous liaison with a German Nazi officer in occupied Paris.

Coco, one of the most beautiful girls in France, was notoriously headstrong and a determined survivor. She initially made her way in the world as a courtesan and, even when she was established as a formidable businesswoman, she was quite happy to be the mistress of the Duke of Westminster, the richest man in England.
Even today, you can still see her famous entwined CC logo painted in gold on the lampposts of the current Duke's estate in Mayfair, London - in memory of her legendary romance with his besotted predecessor.

It all started in Saumur in France's Loire Valley, where Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born to a sickly mother in 1883 and given the name of the nun who delivered her. Her mother died when she was six, and when her wine merchant father walked out on the family, she was sent to an orphanage.

Gabrielle proved a rebellious child who spent most of her time with her nose in romantic novels, planning to escape the drudgery of her peasant background. But she was also taught to sew and make hats. At 17, she became a shop assistant in a ladies' outfitters.

She was already a remarkable beauty with a swan neck and an insouciance that made her stand out from the crowd. Tall and tomboyish, she was determined to succeed - at anything - and, for a while, she sang in the Trocadero nightclub where she earned her nickname from one of her favourite songs, Coco.

She was nearly 20 when she caught the eye of a dashing cavalry officer from the local garrison who seduced her and took her under the wing of his older mistress in Paris.

If Coco was compliant in her new role, she was far from subservient. She always justified this louche period by declaring she found society women boring and courtesans much more dramatic with their heavy make-up and hour-glass figures.
But Coco herself refused to dress like these ladies of the night in their long, over-embellished frocks that dragged in the mud and their flowery hats.

Instead, she preferred plain schoolgirl dresses that suited her athletic lifestyle. A keen rider, she was one of the first women to wear breeches and even, shock horror, jeans. It didn't matter that such items were normally worn by men - she wanted suitable clothes.
Coco always said she was born 20 years before her time. In fact, when her designs freed women from their restrictive corsets and raised their hemlines, she was anticipating the women's lib movement by half a century. Much of her style was due to necessity.

The orphan girl had little money to deck herself out in frills and feathers traditionally used to entice men.

So she bought cheap hats from department stores and made plain dresses out of jersey material, which, at the time, was used only for men's underclothes. Predictably, her work was considered scandalous.

Even her short hairstyle was in response to necessity. One night, her gas heater blew up, singeing her long locks. Her first thought was to cancel her evening's engagement. But then she took a pair of scissors and gamely lopped a foot off her damaged tresses; she put a hat on and went with her beau to the opera.

Hats were to be Coco's stepping stone to sartorial greatness. Soon, she persuaded her rich lover to set her up with a hatshop in the provinces. Then, when he introduced her to a powerful English industrialist with dashing film star looks called Arthur "Boy" Capel, she spotted her opportunity.

Chanel, now 26, threw herself at him, following him to Paris on the night sleeper. When he succumbed, she shamelessly played off her two lovers against each other - even convincing one to buy her a Paris flat, while the other was persuaded to open a bank account for her.

And all the while she was inventing new fashions. One day it was so cold at the Deauville races that she put on her Englishman lover's sweater, tying it at the waist.
It was the start of a lucrative affair with English fashion. At the time in England, blazers and tweeds were for men, but Coco simply copied them for women, embellishing the look with cufflinks and ties.

Meanwhile, her hats continued to sell and her business was going so well that by 1911 - when she was still only 28 - her English lover, Arthur Capel, lent her the money to open her first Paris shop near the Ritz, where Chanel still has its glamorous headquarters.

By 1916, she was employing 300 people and to Capel's great surprise, she paid him back.

But Coco was doomed to failure in her desire to marry Capel, who eloped with an English bride before being killed in a car crash on the Cote d'Azur.

Although heartbroken, she soon had another lover, the Grand Duke Dimitri of Russia, and the once penniless orphan girl had now made so much money that she kept a permanent suite at the Ritz and was funding some of the biggest artistic names of the period, including ballet impresario Diaghilev.

Coco was in her element. She started Twenties' flapper fashion with its swinging pearls, short skirts and sleeveless dresses, all perfect for the modern woman with an active lifestyle. And she designed the Little Black Dress, livening it up with costume jewellery - another first. Soon, she began to attract jealous criticism.

Denouncing the Little Black Dress, New York society hostess Elsa Maxwell snarled: "She can't be in mourning for "Boy" Capel, she wasn't married to him. So she's making the whole world wear black instead."

Coco ignored the taunt and, in 1923, came up with one of her biggest triumphs: Chanel No. 5.

By now Coco was so famous that the richest men in the world were vying for her favours and, although wealthy in her own right, she vowed to make life complete by marrying the second Duke of Westminster - known as Bend'Or after his grandfather's chestnut Derby winner which he was said to resemble. She had met him on a trip to Monte Carlo.

The twice-divorced Duke - a gambler and womaniser - was enchanted. Coco, who was one of the first to popularise the Riviera as a holiday destination and to revel in a suntan as a symbol of the leisured life, entertained him at her villa in Monaco. She wore her new invention: white satin pyjamas. In return, he took her to his English country estate, where he grew orchids and daisies for her.

Riding with hounds and demonstrating a talent for fly-fishing and tennis, Coco was inspired to create another emblematic Chanel look - the cardigan worn with long pearls. English ladies had both, but they never wore them together until Coco came along.
For several years, Coco fantasised about supplying the Duke with the one thing he lacked: an heir. But she was already 46 and there was to be no child - despite the exercises her doctors advised her to do to encourage pregnancy, which largely consisted of waving her legs in the air.

Eventually, the Duke turned his attentions elsewhere. Coco assuaged her grief by going briefly to Hollywood to design romantic chiffon gowns.

Then, on the brink of World War II, she was headhunted by De Beers, the diamond industry giants, to boost the failing European gemstone industry.

Coco's first proper jewellery collection, including now priceless collectible sunburst brooches and stars pinned to the classic black beret, was so successful that De Beers immediately rose 20 points on the London stock exchange.
There seemed no stopping her, so what happened next is a complete mystery.

After seeing another lover die of a heart attack while playing tennis with her, she left Paris for the South of France after the first German bombs exploded in the capital. Unlike other dressmakers and designers who stayed on, she closed her workshops and, without warning, laid off the staff.

More bizarre still, she returned to Paris a year later - not to work, but to conduct an affair with a German officer, Hans Gunther von Dincklage (nicknamed "The Sparrow"). Thirteen years her junior, he had been sent to Paris in the vanguard of the Nazi occupation to prepare the ground for the arrival of the Germans.
Jan 23, 2006
Assigned to supervise the textile industry, he secretly conducted an affair with Coco. When confronted by friends about the illicit affair, Coco would retort: "He's not German. His mother is English."

However, their relationship led biographers later to speculate that Coco was, in fact, a double agent involved in a plot appropriately called Operation Model Hat.

The plan was for the Germans to avoid ignominious defeat by approaching Churchill through Coco's involvement with his friend the Duke of Westminster to broker an early peace.

Coco, given an official pass by the German military, was supposed to meet the British ambassador in Madrid to effect this deal. Yet, history does not record whether such a meeting happened. Coco said it did, but there are no official records.

When France was ultimately liberated, Chanel faced a difficult future, despite her celebrity status. She was arrested by the Resistance movement, but was spared the indignity given to most collaborators who were often paraded nude through the streets, their heads shaved and marked with a swastika.

Did she survive such humiliation because of her possible role as a double agent? Did the Duke of Westminster intervene? Did his old friend, Churchill smooth her path?

Certainly, she was allowed to escape to Switzerland, where she lived with her funds and her German baron for several years, refusing to go back to France until 1950.
When Coco did return to Paris, she was a woman with a mission: to save fashion from the so-called post-war New Look, promoted by rival designers Dior and Balenciaga.

The new image was svelte, flattering and equally glamorous as her own - but it was also long and corseted, and undid everything Chanel represented.

She was now 70, with the same figure she had as a young girl, the same dress sense and the same philosophy. She started working on a new collection, coming up with the collarless wool suits that were to become the staple wardrobe of so many middle-class women.

Unlike before, her new-found success didn't happen immediately. This time she had to fight for it. Though loved in America, she was still scorned in Paris, where people were bewildered by her war record. Moreover, Coco did nothing to make herself popular - often saying that the fashion business had become overrun by men who knew nothing about women's bodies.
By now, she had the reputation of a lonely and crotchety eccentric with a taste for Wagner, champagne and cigarettes. "Fame is solitude," she told one admirer near the end of her life.

Yet she refused to court visitors - toiling in her workshop right until she died, crossing the road every night to sleep at the Ritz.
One night in 1971, lying alone on her austere single bed, she passed away aged 88, having recently admitted that nothing in her life had made her happy.

It was the end of Coco Chanel, although not the end of her couture house - its mirrored staircase and romantic showrooms are still where she left them - or of her legend, as every woman knows.


Lets Get Vuitton...
Jun 11, 2006
That was extremey interesting, thank you for compiling that Prada!! Chanel wasn't the only designer to be involved with the Nazis either; Hugo Boss designed the uniform for the SS and Dior dressed the wives of the military elite.

However, fascinating read - thanks again!!


Sofa King Blonde!
Feb 4, 2007
For me personally that role would have belonged to Audrey Hepburn. I really cannot come up with an actress who could possibly do the role justice! I am quite sure I will be proved wrong though.

Thanks for posting - an interesting read.