Remembering Coco Chanel when I saw her in the 1950s, I associate her with blackness, often chastened by a trim of white: the enormous number of black dresses brightened with a white starched collar or ruffle; the flat grosgrain bows and white gardenias posed on her models’ heads; the black tips of the cream sling pumps which became one of her signatures; the black lacquered chinoiseries, the black Coromandel screens in her living room; the often-told anecdote that upon the death of one of her lovers she had had her bedroom totally redesigned in black, down to sheets and pillow cases (a few days later she had it redone in pink). Even the downstairs boutique of her shop in the rue Cambon, suffused with the dark-flower scent of Number Five, had a smokiness about it that contrasted greatly with the shrill cream-and-gilt decors of Balmain and Dior. And there was the blackness of Chanel’s hair, the coal-black glint of her very mean eyes.
She once graced me with her sarcasm, the only time I was at her dinner table. It was in 1955, when I was spending a misguided year writing fashion copy for Elle. (The ultra-Spartan nature of her dinners was considered to be very chic. That night it was codfish and boiled potatoes, the menu most admired for its toupet.) Someone asked me what it was like to be a young American journalist living in Paris. “She’s not a journalist,” Coco snapped. “She’s just a poor child.”
She has the head of a little black swan,” Cocteau once said. “And the heart of a little black bull,” Colette added. Any one of us who ran minion’s errands to the rue Cambon in those years could witness the autocracy and vitriol which she could even pour into the making of her collections: Mademoiselle—then in her seventies—attacking the fitting of each dress with her bare hands, clawing and pawing at the fabric, jamming in pins, tearing out seams, cussing at the imperfections, pitilessly forcing her team to work eight hours without a break, driving seamstresses and doe-eyed models into fits of tears. With the same tenacity this consummate snob fabricated her own very self, tore at the fabric of her life to cut out whatever traces of her past did not serve her.
To some of her friends Gabrielle Chanel used to say that her nickname—Coco—was given her by her father when she was a tiny child. To others, that she earned the name because she went horseback riding at early dawn, rooster-crowing time (cocorico). In fact, it was bestowed on her, at age nineteen, in a low-class music hall, by a group of raucous military officers who used to hear her sing:
J’ai perdu mon pauv’ Coco, mon chien que j’adore, dans le Trocadero…. Qui qu’a vu, qui qu’a vu Coco? Eh, Coco!
She said that she had been brought up by two aunts who raised purebred …