Coco Chanel is listed as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century. She is a fashion icon, of course, as was their likely intent, but she was also negatively influential as a Nazi sympathizer and spy for the Third Reich.
It is hard to determine with any absolute certainty all of the allegations against Chanel, as she herself spun many stories about her life.
The anti-semitic Nazi story recently revealed in Sleeping with the Enemy by Hal Vaughan, is in fact, denied by the current House of Chanel. Representatives say that Coco Chanel was merely involved in a love affair with a German aristocrat and that she had Jewish friends.
Nazi documents found within the French and British Defense Ministries verify the truth of it all. Chanel was an active agent of the Abwehr – a Nazi intelligence organization.
The Molding of an Icon
We think of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel as a paragon of style and as such, imagine her to be a person of class.
Interestingly, she was born to very humble and troublesome beginnings in a poorhouse charity hospital. The love child of a poor French couple, her mother’s family paid her father to tie the knot. He was a traveling salesman of sorts, selling clothes and underwear on the streets, and could not afford to keep his family of five in anything more than a one room hovel.
Her father returned home from a trip when Coco was 11 years old to find her and her sisters in a room with their mother’s lifeless body. Her father divested himself of the children, with Coco and her sisters being left at a Catholic orphanage where she remained until adulthood.
The seedy truth of it all didn’t measure up to the standards of Chanel, so for biographers and the news media, she spun varying untruths about her early years. This would not be the only thing about which she lied, and certainly not the only thing she embellished.
Her rise in social status didn’t come until years later, after stints as a seamstress and as a caberet singer, where she took on her nickname, Coco, a play on the French word for “kept woman”. She must have taken some pride in the comparison as she later made the camellia one of the icons of her design house in reference to the courtesan’s use of the flower as a discreet sign of the freedom to take a new lover.
The name became fitting when she became the kept pet of the heir of a textile empire, Etienne Balsan. After he adorned her with expense, possibly fathered a secret child with her, and introduced her to the life of society, she betrayed him with his best friend. She found the dalliance amusing and bragged about the two men fighting for her attentions.
Her career in fashion began with a hobby of making hats, and later took off when, in a possible nod to her father’s wares, she began making clothes from jersey – a material used at the time primarily for men’s underwear.
Continues on Page 2