For the past few years, my “signature scent” has been Chanel Chance, but I might be sniffing around for a new go-to perfume thanks to a Facebook message from a Stuff Mom Never Told You listener who wanted to know why on earth people adore Coco Chanel so much, considering she was a Nazi.
A Nazi? Yes, the iconic fashion designer who Vogue says “practically invented modernism in fashion,” was closely associated with the Nazis during World War II, some follow-up research quickly confirmed.
“Gabrielle Chanel — better known as Coco — was a wretched human being,” New York Times reporter Judith Warner writes in her review of Hal Vaughan’s Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War, published in 2011. “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.”
Over at The New Yorker, James McCauley kicks off an interview with Vaughan by noting “It has long been known that Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel—the legendary French designer whose fashion empire bears her name—was, during the Second World War, the lover of a Nazi officer named Hans Günther von Dincklage.”
While Chanel’s rise from being an impoverished orphan to a seamstress to the post-World War I haute couture fashion designer she’s still thought of today is impressive, her documented anti-Semitism and alignment with Nazi sympathizers, such as her longtime British lover the Duke of Westminster, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, known Nazi sympathizer, grow more detestable the more one reads.
In 1940, after France fell to the Nazis, Chanel was, for instance, the only French citizen allowed to maintain her residence at the Ritz, an arrangement likely assisted by her affair with a senior Nazi intelligence officer Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage. Granted, Chanel wasn’t the only French woman to engage this kind of self-serving collaboration horizontale, but she likely profited from her Nazi alignment and antisemitism more than any of her fellow Frenchwomen.
For Chanel, the persecution of the Jews turned out to be a massively profitable economic opportunity by which she seized control of the rights to another perfume even better known than my preferred Chanel Chance: Chanel No. 5. The Jewish Wertheimer family had funded and established “Parfums Chanel” in her name in 1924, and in 1941, Chanel wrote a letter to the occupied government informing it that the perfume division was “still in the property of Jews…I have an indisputable right of the priority” via the Nazi’s Aryanization of property laws. (After the War, the Wertheimer’s regained control of the brand and brokered a deal with Chanel to pay all of her bills for the remainder of her and remains in financial control of the Chanel empire today — and refuses to publicly speak of any personal or professional relationships with Coco.)
In “Sleeping With the Enemy,” Vaughn pieces together primary documents and sources to contend that Chanel, through her alliance with von Dincklage and other influential German officers, ultimately designated as a Nazi spy, which, of course, the Chanel brand staunchly denied. In a public statement, the company brushed off her dalliance with von Dincklage as “unfortunate” timing.
Regardless of how closely involved Chanel might’ve been with the Nazis, or whether hers was merely an extreme example of wartime survival of the fittest, overwhelmingly evidence, including documentation of her own anti-Semitic remarks and rants, suggests her association with Nazis was anything but a coincidence. And so I’m left with the same question as the Stuff Mom Never Told You listener who wrote in: why does her reputation remained unvarnished in our popular conscience? Do the tweed blazers and little black dresses outweigh the darkness of her World War II deeds?