In a previous post I mentioned winning The Sisterhood of the Traveling Book giveaway at RAGS Against the Machine of Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life by Justine Picardie, and now, having finished reading it, I’m delighted to announce my own giveaway of this traveling book. All you need to do to participate is to comment on this post. I’ll randomly select a commenter by comment number as the winner, then announce the winner later this week.
The winner accepts the book with the understanding that, after reading it, it should be passed on to another reader as part of the winner’s own blog giveaway, and the blog originating The Sisterhood of the Traveling Book, RAGS Against the Machine, should be mentioned in the winner’s giveaway blog post.
And now, here’s my review of the book.
The carefully researched portrait of Gabrielle Chanel that emerges in Coco, The Legend and the Life is both fascinating and troubling.
Gabrielle’s troubles began early. At age eleven, February 1895, while her father was again away traveling, leaving his wife and children in a freezing one-room apartment in Brive-la-Gaillarde, Gabrielle’s mother died, apparently from a combination of poverty, ill health and possible pregnancy. Soon after the death, her father abandoned Gabrielle and her two sisters to nuns running an orphanage at l’Abbaye d’Aubazine. There she lived an austere, disciplined life until, at the age of 18, an aunt arranged for her to attend the Notre Dame School in Moulins, where she advanced her sewing skills first learned at the orphanage, thereby preparing herself, after leaving the school, for her first job as a shop assistant and seamstress along with her aunt Adrienne — the youngest daughter of her father’s parents.
It was while thus employed that Gabrielle met and entertained local cavalry officers as a amateur stage singer, then, at age 21, took up residence at the spacious country home of one these officers, Balsan Etienne, the first of many unfaithful lovers who gave her the impetus and in subsequent cases the financing she needed to become a self-made woman.
The book is thoroughly enjoyable in offering a dazzling inside view of avant-garde artists and fashionable high-society in Paris from the early 1900s to the beginning of the second world war, and of Chanel’s American celebrated comeback during 1950s and 60s.
Having myself been emancipated at a young age, I appreciate Chanel’s survival skills and her determination to become financially independent of the men in her life. As a new student of style and fashion, I admire her skills as a couturier and fashion designer. And as a woman, I am grateful for Chanel’s contribution to the freedom of movement and design simplicity of current women’s clothes, although, as Karl Lagerfield points out in the movie Chanel, Chanel, she wasn’t the only designer creating the fluid, minimalist styles of the 20s and 30s. In the film, Lagerfield claims that the Chanel suit developed after her 1950s comeback best defines her signature style.
Still, Chanel the woman bothers me.
It’s got to do with little things, like chronically telling lies (as my father did) and not treating people well, for example, the models, as per this observation in Alicia Drake’s The Beautiful Fall regarding Chanel’s obession with armholes:
“She used to fit and refit the armhole on the model herself with a pair of scissors and pins in a brutal, blood-letting approach, hacking away at the underarm and often the woman until she achieved perfection.”
It’s got to do with bigger things like some of the company she kept, for example Hans Gunther von Dincklage, whom Picardie describes as “attaché to the German embassy in Paris” and as a possible Abwehr agent (German spy), and it’s got to do with the feeling that overall, even if, as Picardie claims, there’s no clear, firm evidence of Chanel being a Nazi collaborator, she could have tried a little harder to be less ambiguous regarding her views of and actions with regard to antisemitism and The Third Reich. And she could have definitely not tried to use anti-Jewish laws of the German Occupation to get rid of her Jewish business partners in the perfume business!
It’s important to consider the context of the time.
At the time of reading Coco, The Legend and the Life I also happened to be reading the magnificent two-volume tome The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory 1874 – 1932 and The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone 1932-1940 by William Manchester (more on these books in a future post), and found it interesting to contrast Picardie’s and Manchester’s references to Churchill and Churchill’s friend Bendor, the Duke of Westminister and Chanel’s lover circa 1925-1930.
Picardie makes two references to Chanel’s social connection with Churchill while she was Bendor’s lover, specifically two notes Churchill wrote to his wife Clementine expressing admiration for Chanel.
The first note, which appears on page 147 and was written in October 1927 while Churchill was visiting Bendor’s Scotland estate, refers to Chanel being an improvement on Bendor’s ex-second wife Violet:
“Coco is here in place of Violet. She fishes from morn till night, & in 2 months has killed 50 salmon. She is vy agreeable — really a gt & strong being fit to rule a man or an Empire. Bennie vy well & I think extremely happy to be mated with an equal — her ability balancing his power. We are only 3 on the river & have all the plums.”
The second note to Clementine appears later, on page 168, but was written earlier, in January 1927, when Churchill visited Chanel at her workrooms in Rue Cambon:
“The famous Coco turned up & I took a gt fancy to her — A most capable and agreeable woman — much the strongest personality Benny has yet been up against. She hunted vigorously all day, motored to Paris after dinner, & is today engaged in passing & improving dresses on endless streams of mannequins. Altogether 200 models [outfits] have to be settled in almost 3 weeks. Some have to be altered ten times. She does it with her own fingers, pinning, cutting, looping, etc. With her — Vera Bate née Arkwright. ‘Yr Chief of Staff?’ Non — ‘One of yr lieutenants?’ Non. ‘Elle est Là. Voilà tout.’”
According to Picardie, Churchill’s friendship with Chanel remained warm even after her breakup with Bendor, but she doesn’t offer evidence of a strong social connection during the war years.
Manchester, in contrast, makes no mention at all of Chanel, except one fleeting reference on page 52 of the second book to Chanel’s “gloves of 18-karat spun gold” in a sentence describing the offerings of multiple Paris designers in the period just following the end of World War I. Considering what a thorough job Manchester does of covering every intimate detail of Churchill’s personal, social and public life, the friendship with Chanel is an interesting omission.
Manchester does however allude to Bendor’s rabid antisemitism in this passage describing the mood of Duff Cooper on the evening of September 2, 1939, the day after the Germans invaded Poland and diplomatic and strategic blunders on the part of Britain and France delayed an immediate and effective response:
“Among the deeply troubled men in London that Saturday evening was Duff Cooper, formerly first lord of the Admiralty and now, by choice, a private member. After Parliament broke up, Cooper and his wife — the striking Lady Diana, a public figure in her own right and much admired by Churchill — had walked along the Embankment to the Savoy. Cooper had dined here with Churchill the previous evening, and he was still fuming over an ugly exchange with the Duke of Westminster after they had parted. For over thirty years Winston and Bendor had been friends; but Westminster’s virulent anti-Semitism and his admiration for Hitler had ruptured their friendship. Cooper had encountered him while leaving the Savoy, and in his diary he recorded that the Duke began by ‘abusing the Jewish race’ and ‘rejoicing that we were not yet at war,’ adding ‘Hitler knew after all that we were his best friends.’ Infuriated, Cooper had replied: ‘I hope that by tomorrow he will know that we are his most implacable and ruthless enemies.’”
It is hard to believe that Coco would have loved an antisemitic admirer of Hitler if she didn’t at some level have sympathy with those views.
In closing, Picardie’s meticulous research does not provide support for labeling Chanel as an antisemitic Nazi collaborator, but rather as a woman with ambiguous views towards Jews and a maybe-but-probably not relationship with The Third Reich. However, Manchester’s research documenting Churchill’s social repudiation of Bendor as an antisemitic Hitler admirer and omitting any reference to Chanel’s social connection to Churchill does make me wonder why Picardie makes only one negative political reference to Bendor: on page 244, in a paragraph briefly covering the extraordinary incident in which Bendor made a public statement opposing the war in Germany and Churchill expressed “gravest concern” in response, she mentions his “reputation” for antisemitism and membership in the pro-German, right-wing organization The Link, but a couple of sentences later re-establishes him as a British patriot ready to do anything necessary to win the war! Did Picardie up-play Chanel’s association with Churchill and down-play Bendor’s unsavoriness in order to soften attacks on her reputation? I think it’s possible, but you be the judge.
Update: the author, Justine Picardie, has a blog here, so I got in touch and she commented on her blog about this review. She wrote:
“Susan Tiner — thanks for getting in touch, and the constructive review. You could write an entire book about Churchill and Bendor’s relationship, and its nuances; indeed, I hope that someone does. Certainly, it was an enduring friendship, from youth until Bendor’s death in 1953. I was aware of the reference to Bendor in Duff Cooper’s diaries, and I agree, it’s an important observation…”