From Wikipedia, the free encyclopediaGabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel (19 August 1883 – 10 January 1971) was a French fashion designer of women’s clothes and founder of the Chanel brand. Along with Paul Poiret, Chanel was credited in the post-World War I era with liberating women from the constraints of the “corseted silhouette” and popularizing a sportive, casual chic as the feminine standard of style. A prolific fashion creator, Chanel extended her influence beyond couture clothing, realising her design aesthetic in jewellery, handbags, and fragrance. Her signature scent, Chanel No. 5, has become an iconic product. She is the only fashion designer listed on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
Chanel was known for her lifelong determination, ambition, and energy which she applied to her professional and social life. She achieved both success as a business woman and social prominence, thanks to the connections she made through her work. These included many artists and craftspeople to whom she became a patron.
Her social connections appeared to encourage a highly conservative personal outlook. Rumors arose about Chanel’s activities during the German occupation of France in World War II, and she was criticised for being too comfortable with the Germans but never thoroughly investigated. After several years in Switzerland after the war, she returned to Paris and revived her fashion house. In 2011 Hal Vaughan published a book on Chanel based on newly declassified documents of that era, revealing that she had collaborated with Germans in intelligence activities. One plan in late 1943 was for her to carry an SS separate peace overture to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to end the war.
In 1939, at the beginning of World War II, Chanel closed her shops, maintaining her apartment situated above the couture house at 31 Rue de Cambon. She claimed that it was not a time for fashion; as a result of her action, 3,000 female employees lost their jobs. Her biographer Vaughan suggests that Chanel used the outbreak of war as an opportunity to retaliate against those workers who, lobbying for fair wages and work hours, had closed her business operation during a general labor strike in France in 1936. In closing her couture house, Chanel made a definitive statement of her political views. Her dislike of Jews, reportedly inculcated by her convent years and sharpened by her association with society elites, had solidified her beliefs. She shared with many of her circle a conviction that Jews were a threat to Europe because of the Bolshevik government in the Soviet Union.
During the German occupation, Chanel resided at the Hotel Ritz. It was noteworthy as the preferred place of residence for upper-echelon German military staff. Her romantic liaison with Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German officer who had been an operative in military intelligence since 1920, eased her arrangements at the Ritz.
Declassified, archival documents unearthed by biographer Hal Vaughan reveal that the French Préfecture de Police had a document on Chanel in which she was described as “Couturier and perfumer. Pseudonym: Westminster. Agent reference: F 7124. Signalled as suspect in the file” (Pseudonyme: Westminster. Indicatif d’agent: F 7124. Signalée comme suspecte au fishier). For Vaughan, this was a piece of revelatory information linking Chanel to German intelligence operations. Anti-Nazi activist Serge Klarsfeld declared, “It is not because Chanel had a spy number that she was necessarily personally implicated. Some informers had numbers without being aware of it.” (“Ce n’est pas parce Coco Chanel avait un numéro d’espion qu’elle était nécessairement impliquée personnellement. Certains indicateurs avaient des numéros sans le savoir”).
Vaughan establishes that Chanel committed herself to the German cause as early as 1941 and worked for General Walter Schellenberg, chief of SS intelligence.At the end of the war, Schellenberg was tried by the Nuremberg Military Tribunal, and sentenced to six years imprisonment for war crimes. He was released in 1951 owing to incurable liver disease and took refuge in Italy. Chanel paid for Schellenberg’s medical care and living expenses, financially supported his wife and family, and paid for Schellenberg’s funeral upon his death in 1952.
In 1943, Chanel traveled to Berlin with her lover, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, an Abwehr spy, to meet with SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler to formulate strategy. In late 1943 or early 1944, Chanel and her SS master, Schellenberg, devised a plan to get a request to Britain to consider a separate peace to be negotiated by the SS. When interrogated by British intelligence at war’s end, Schellenberg maintained that Chanel was “a person who knew Churchill sufficiently to undertake political negotiations with him”. For this mission, named Operation Modellhut (“Model Hat”), they also recruited Vera Bate Lombardi. Count Joseph von Ledebur-Wicheln, a Nazi agent who defected to the British Secret Service in 1944, recalled a meeting he had with Dincklage in early 1943, in which the baron had suggested including Lombardi as a courier. Dincklage purportedly said, “The Abwehr had first to bring to France a young Italian woman [Lombardi] Coco Chanel was attached to because of her lesbian vices…”
Unaware of the machinations of Schellenberg and Chanel, Lombardi was led to believe that the forthcoming journey to Spain would be a business trip exploring the potential for establishing the Chanel couture in Madrid. Lombardi acted as intermediary, delivering a letter written by Chanel to Winston Churchill, to be forwarded to him via the British embassy in Madrid. Schellenberg’s SS liaison officer, Captain Walter Kutschmann, acted as bagman, “told to deliver a large sum of money to Chanel in Madrid”. Ultimately, the mission proved a failure for the Germans. British intelligence files reveal that the plan collapsed after Lombardi, on arrival in Madrid, proceeded to denounce Chanel and others to the British embassy as Nazi spies.