“From this century, in France, three names will remain: de Gaulle, Picasso, and Chanel.” –André Malraux
Coco Chanel created the look of the modern woman and was the high priestess of couture.
She believed in simplicity, and elegance, and freed women from the tyranny of fashion. She inspired women to take off their bone corsets and cut their hair. She used ordinary jersey as couture fabric, elevated the waistline, and created bell-bottom trousers, trench coats, and turtleneck sweaters.
In the 1920s, when Chanel employed more than two thousand people in her workrooms, she had amassed a personal fortune of $15 million and went on to create an empire.
Jean Cocteau once said of Chanel that she had the head of “a little black swan.” And, added Colette, “the heart of a little black bull.”
At the start of World War II, Chanel closed down her couture house and went across the street to live at the Hôtel Ritz. Picasso, her friend, called her “one of the most sensible women in Europe.” She remained at the Ritz for the duration of the war, and after, went on to Switzerland.
For more than half a century, Chanel’s life from 1941 to 1954 has been shrouded in vagueness and rumor, mystery and myth. Neither Chanel nor her many biographers have ever told the full story of these years.
Now Hal Vaughan, in this explosive narrative—part suspense thriller, part wartime portrait—fully pieces together the hidden years of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s life, from the Nazi occupation of Paris to the aftermath of World War II.
Vaughan reveals the truth of Chanel’s long-whispered collaboration with Hitler’s high-ranking officials in occupied Paris from 1940 to 1944. He writes in detail of her decades-long affair with Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, “Spatz” (“sparrow” in English), described in most Chanel biographies as being an innocuous, English-speaking tennis player, playboy, and harmless dupe—a loyal German soldier and diplomat serving his mother country and not a member of the Nazi party.
In Vaughan’s absorbing, meticulously researched book, Dincklage is revealed to have been a Nazi master spy and German military intelligence agent who ran a spy ring in the Mediterranean and in Paris and reported directly to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, right hand to Hitler.
The book pieces together how Coco Chanel became a German intelligence operative; how and why she was enlisted in a number of spy missions; how she escaped arrest in France after the war, despite her activities being known to the Gaullist intelligence network; how she fled to Switzerland for a nine-year exile with her lover Dincklage. And how, despite the French court’s opening a case concerning Chanel’s espionage activities during the war, she was able to return to Paris at age seventy and triumphantly resurrect and reinvent herself—and rebuild what has become the iconic House of Chanel.
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Hal Vaughan has been a newsman, foreign correspondent, and documentary film producer working in Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia since 1957. He served in the U.S. military in World War II and Korea and has held various posts as a U.S. Foreign Service officer. Vaughan is the author of Doctor to the Resistance: The Heroic True Story of an American Surgeon and His Family in Occupied Paris and FDR’s 12 Apostles: The Spies Who Paved the Way for the Invasion of North Africa. He lives in Paris.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
De s p i t e h e r age she sparkles; she is the only volcano in the Auvergne that is not extinct . . . the most brilliant, the most impetuous, the most brilliantly insufferable woman that ever was.
Gabrielle Chanel had barely been laid to rest in her designer sepulcher at Lausanne, Switzerland, when the city of Paris announced that France’s first lady and Chanel’s admirer and client, the wife of French president Georges Pompidou, would open an official exhibit celebrating Chanel’s life and work in Paris in October 1972. Shortly before, Hebe Dorsey, the legendary fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, reported the “homage to Chanel” probably would be canceled or, at the very least, postponed. Dorsey revealed that Pierre Galante, an editor at Paris Match, would soon expose shocking documents from French counterintelligence archives. Dorsey alleged that Chanel had had an affair during the German occupation of Paris with Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage: “a dangerous agent of the German information service—likely an agent of the Gestapo.”
Chanel, the epitome of French good taste, in bed with a Nazi spy—worse yet, involved with an agent of the hated Gestapo? To the French, and especially to French Jews, veterans of the Resistance, and survivors of SS- run concentration camps, German collaborators were pariahs or, worse, fit to be spat upon. Granted, for years fashionable Paris had gossiped that Chanel had shacked up during the occupation with a German lover called Spatz—German for sparrow— at the chic Hôtel Ritz where Nazi bigwigs like Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels were pampered by the Swiss management. But the Gestapo? Hadn’t Chanel dressed
Mme Pompidou? Hadn’t she been honored at the Élysée Palace? How could such an icon of French society have bedded a “German spy”? It was hard to believe. Even though tens of thousands of French men and women collabos had escaped punishment, being a
willing bedmate and helpmate of a German offi cer still reeked of treason in 1972. Their liaison would last over ten years, leading one observer to wonder if Chanel “cared about political ideology but wanted instead to be loved and to hell with politics.”
The timing for the proposed national celebration of Chanel’s life and work could hardly have been worse. On top of everything else, the U.S. publisher Alfred A. Knopf had just released Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940–1944 by American historian
Robert O. Paxton. This study of the Vichy regime under Marshal Philippe Pétain left many French scholars chagrined and upstaged on their own academic home turf. Based on material from German archives— because the French government had forbidden access to the Vichy archives— Paxton’s book proved that Pétain’s collaboration with this particular cohort of full- blooded Nazis had been voluntary rather than forced on Vichy.
For the Pompidou political machine facing an election in just twenty-four months and for the Chanel organization confronting allegations that its founder had been linked to the Gestapo, postponement of the “homage to Chanel” was the only option. There was also solid and damning evidence of her collaboration in an upcoming biography by Pierre Galante— scheduled for publication
in Paris and New York. A former resistance fighter and husband of English actress Olivia de Havilland, Galante claimed his information was based on access to French counterintelligence sources.
Le Tout-Paris was talking about the book before it was even published. Edmonde Charles-Roux, a Goncourt Prize–winning novelist, was outraged by Galante’s revelations. She labeled his claims nonsense: [Dincklage] “was not in the Gestapo.” Spatz and Chanel, she maintained, just enjoyed an amorous friendship. (Madame Charles- Roux was also writing a Chanel biography and
presumably did not have access to Galante’s sources.)
Marcel Haedrich, an earlier Chanel biographer, claimed that Spatz was merely a bon vivant who “loved eating, wines, cigars, and beautiful clothes . . . thanks to Chanel he had an easy life . . . he waited for her in her salon . . . he would kiss Chanel’s hand and murmur: “ ‘how are you this morning?’ ”—and because the two spoke English together she would say, “He is not German, his mother was English.”
Asked by Women’s Wear Daily, the New York garment industry paper, in September 1972: “[W]as Chanel, Paris’s greatest couturière, really an agent for the Gestapo?” Charles-Roux replied, “[Dincklage] was not in the Gestapo. He was attached to a commission here [in Paris] and he did give information. He had a dirty job. But we must remember, it was war and he had the misfortune to be a German.” Years later, Charles- Roux learned that she had been duped— manipulated by Chanel and her lawyer,
René de Chambrun.
The liberation of Paris in August 1944 began with bloody street fighting, pitting German troopers against a scruffy, ragtag band of General Charles de Gaulle’s irregular street fighters called Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (the FFI), which Chanel
would dub “les Fifis.” They were joined by Communist fighters, Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP), and civilian police offi cers. Facing
German forces, some resistants were armed only with light police weapons; others had World War I–vintage revolvers and rifles; a few had Molotov cocktails and weapons seized from dead Boches. The street fighters were often young students, their sleeves
rolled up on bony arms and wearing sandals. Their FFI, FTP, and police armbands served as uniforms.
In the last week of August the U.S.-equipped Free French Army, led by General Leclerc, nom de guerre for Philippe de Hauteclocque, relieved the Paris insurgency, and the German garrison surrendered. After four years of often- brutal occupation,
Paris was liberated— free from the threat of arrest, torture, and deportation to concentration camps. Church bells rang, whistles blew; people danced in the streets. Except for some provinces, such as Alsace and Lorraine, France was under General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French.
A thirst for revenge gripped the nation in the last days of August. Four years of shame, pent-up fear, hate, and frustration erupted. Revengeful citizens roamed the streets of French cities and towns. The guilty— and many innocents— were punished as private scores were settled. Many alleged collaborators were beaten; some murdered. “Horizontal collaborators”—women and
girls who were known to have slept with Germans— were dragged through the streets. A few would have the swastika branded into their fl esh; many would have their heads shaved. Civilian collabos—even some physicians who had treated the Boche—were
shot on sight. The lucky were jailed, to be tried later for treason. Finally, General de Gaulle’s soldiers and his provisional magistrates put a stop to this internecine war.
The twentieth-century monstre sacré of fashion, Chanel was among those marked for vengeance. The French called it épuration— a purge, a cleansing of France’s wounds after so many had died and suffered under Nazi rule.
Within days after the last German troopers left Paris, Chanel hurried to give out bottles of Chanel No. 5 to American GIs. Then the Fifi s arrested her. Truculent young men brought her to an FFI headquarters for questioning.
Chanel was released within a few hours, saved by the intervention of Winston Churchill operating through Duff Cooper, the British ambassador to de Gaulle’s French provisional government. A few days later, she fl ed to Lausanne, Switzerland, where she would later be joined by Dincklage—still a handsome man at forty-eight. Chanel was sixty- one years old.
De Gau l l e ’s government soon ordered Ministry of Justice magistrates to use special courts to try those suspected of aiding
the Nazi regime— a crime under the French criminal code. Among the first to be tried were Vichy chief Philippe Pétain and his prime minister, Pierre Laval. Both were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. De Gaulle spared Pétain because of his old age, but Laval was shot.
During the postwar process of cleansing, French military and civilian courts tried or examined 160,287 cases in all. While 7,037 people were condemned to death, only about 1,500 were actually executed. The rest of the death sentences were commuted to prison sentences.
It took nearly two years after the Liberation before a French Court of Justice issued an “urgent” warrant to bring Chanel before French authorities. On April 16, 1946, Judge Roger Serre ordered police and French border patrols to bring her to Paris for questioning. A month later he ordered a full investigation of her wartime activities. It wasn’t Chanel’s relations with Dincklage that
attracted Serre’s attention. Rather, the judge had discovered that Chanel had cooperated with German military intelligence and had been teamed with a French traitor, Baron Louis de Vaufreland. French police had identifi ed the baron as a thief and wartime German agent who was tagged as a “V- Mann” on German Abwehr documents— meaning, in the parlance of the Gestapo and German intelligence agencies, that he was a trusted agent.
Serre, forty-eight years old and with more than twenty years of experience as a magistrate, grilled Vaufreland for months. Serre also learned from French intelligence offi cers how Vaufreland and Chanel had collaborated with the German military. Slowly, Serre, a painstaking investigator, turned up detail...
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