Coco Chanel: an Intimate Life, by Lisa Chaney

Coco Chanel

This Book Seems to Contain a Sin of Omission

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was one of the most influential women of the 20th century, and remains so in the 21st century. Creator of the LBD (little black dress), the Chanel suit, and multiple fragrances, Chanel made her first mark on fashion with hats. She is also credited with creating the trench coat and bell bottom pants. In her book, Coco Chanel: an Intimate Life, Lisa Chaney examines the life of this very complicated personality.

This is the 60th book written about Mme. Chanel, so there couldn’t be much more to tell. Or, could there? Chaney did manage to gain access to letters from Authur “Boy” Capel, as well as being the first Chanel biographer to have seen the diaries of Dmitri Palovich. While Palovich was just another in a long line of Chanel’s lovers, Capel is said to have been the love of her life.

Chaney includes genealogical information and a history of Mme. Chanel’s rise to the status of fashion icon, as well as evidence of her tendency to use people, and of her social-climbing. These things are of interest in a pop culture, gossipy way, however, Chaney omits serious information about Chanel’s actions during World War II. For a serious historian, this omission is frustrating, and is examined below.

Chanel was haunted by her poverty-stricken childhood, and by being abandoned by her father after her mother’s death. After surviving a childhood of poverty and neglect, Gabrielle was determined to be financially independent. Ashamed of her background, she is described by Chaney, and other biographers, as having been ruthless in cutting ties to her family, as they were a reminder of a painful childhood. Chaney describes how, after becoming successful and famous, Chanel surrounded herself with the rich, famous, and powerful. She developed patrician ways, and looked down on those she considered “bourgeoisie”. She often entertained the wealthy, and paid their way on trips just so she could be in their company. She is said to have found them “irresistible for their good humor”. She also reported them to be “irresistibly dishonest…. having a well-bred nonchalance, a charming disloyalty, an arrogance that is very caustic, always on the alert…” So while she used them, it appears they also used her. Chaney seems to have researched this part of Chanel’s life carefully and thoroughly. If only she had dug a bit deeper.

Was She a Nazi Sympathizer, or Wasn’t She?

Much has been written about Chanel’s suspected Nazi sympathies, particularly another biographer, Hal Vaughan, who authored Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War which was published just a few months prior to Chaney’s book. Chaney, on the other hand, seems to believe suggestions that Chanel favored the Nazi’s are false. She even went so far as to suggest, in the introduction to the book, that during Chanel’s affair with the German spy, Hans Gunther vonDincklage, he managed to convince her that he had done only “pre-war spying” and that he had become “antiwar” in his sentiments. In reality, vonDincklage reported directly to Joseph Goebbels. I was very disappointed at the undeniable evidence of her Nazi association; Chanel lost my respect. I am also disappointed at Chaney’s tiptoeing around this evidence.

I found this book to be interesting, but am very disappointed in the author’s exclusion of the compelling evidence that Chanel was an intelligence operator for Nazi Germany. No biography is complete when information such as this is withheld or ignored. Fortunately, we can love Chanel’s fashions and perfumes without respecting her politics.

Publication Date:  11/27/2012

ISBN-13:  9780143122128