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 horses, that her father was a well-to-do country squire who made a fortune in the United States. In truth, her father was a ne’er-do-well drunk of peasant origins from the Cévennes, an itinerant vendor of shoelaces and handkerchiefs who abandoned her to a convent orphanage upon her mother’s death. It is such truths of Chanel’s hidden past that Edmonde Charles-Roux—a former editor of French Vogue—has exposed in this biography, with an obstinacy equal to that of her subject’s lies. She traces the essence of Chanel’s style, that taste for unadorned essentials which revolutionized the century’s fashions, to two hitherto well-hidden secrets of the designer’s youth: her life as a convent girl and her life as a cocotte.
Chanel learned to sew exquisitely in that convent, an austere thirteenth-century edifice in the town of Moulin. Between the ages of twelve and eighteen she lived in a world of long white corridors and white-washed walls, staring at the starched white wimples on the nuns’ black gowns, helping them to stack away tall piles of white ruff-wings, wearing the black, belted smocks and box-pleated skirts of orphans’ uniforms,…the very germs of Chanel’s poor little girl look, of her exquisite “Less is More” asceticism.
As for the other source of Chanel’s revolutionary style—abolition of corsets and waistlines, feminizing of masculine fashion into the lean-hipped gamin look—Charles-Roux finds them in the chintzy treatment Chanel received from her first lover. Etienne Balsan, a wealthy but stingy horse freak, was one of the music hall admirers who used to shout “Coco!” for encores in the garrison town where she worked daytimes as a seamstress after leaving the convent. He set her up as a second-string girlfriend in a minor guest room of his chateau, on the side of the stables. The humiliation of being a mistress, at the age of twenty-two, without being the mistress of a house incited Chanel to avoid all possible associations of sluttishness.
Coco did not want to be a cocotte. She cultivated a tomboyish jeune fille look, dressing in strict tailor-made suits and a boater, inventing costume parties so she could attend them in her lover’s clothes. This transvestitism became the backbone of her style. Throughout the next forty years she would raid her men’s closets and bureau drawers for inspiration, copying the slim straightness of their polo shirts, the gilt buttons of their sailing blazers, the cavalry braid and sleeve edging of their military uniforms. For along with its convent austerity, there was at the heart of Chanel’s fashion that androgynousness which conferred to her clothes their notorious timelessness, the staid unchangeability of “menswear.”
Long skirts, tight skirts, corseted waistlines, those cumbersome hats on which reposed so many an innocent wild fowl. All such restrictive trappings have been signs of female servitude as blatant as the deformed, bandaged feet of the women of Old China. To Chanel, who did more than anyone else to eliminate this frippery of bondage, twentieth-century women owe considerable gratitude. Yet a feminist view of Chanel involves considerable contradictions. Yes, she enabled us to breathe and move more freely, she shortened skirts to abolish the obscene thrill which the sight of our bared ankles used to offer men, she lived a dazzling series of “open relationships,” she claimed independence, saying she never wanted to weigh on any man “more heavily than a bird.”
Yet her fashions, her styles of living, her business decisions were extraordinarily dependent upon her lovers. As Charles-Roux depicts her, her existence was one long succession of heartbreaks at the hands of the conservative playboys whom she wished to marry, and who left her for death, for other women, or for God. The one who kept leaving her for God, the poet Pierre Reverdy, spent years shuttling between Chanel’s bed and the austere Abbey of Solesmes. But what an empty-headed collection of jocks most of the rest were.
After Balsan (who read only horse-racing weeklies, and enjoyed playing tricks such as apple-pie beds and shaving-cream assaults on his weekend guests) there was the British polo star and diplomat Arthur Capel, “Boy” for short. It was Boy who installed Chanel, in 1914, in a shop in Deauville where she first ventured beyond hat design, and sold the loose sailor jackets of machine-made Rodier jersey which launched her fame. Tortured by his own striving for respectability (he was a bastard with a drop of Jewish blood), Boy eventually married a peer’s daughter while managing to retain Coco as his mistress. He was killed in a car crash in the tenth year of their considerably passionate love affair.
After she had founded her rue Cambon empire with the help of Boy’s money, Chanel’s liaison with Grand Duke Dmitri of Russia ushered in a “Slavic” period. In 1921 she presented to an astonished Paris a collection of belted muzhik blouses with discreetly embroidered bands on cuffs and collars. Soon afterward the Grand Duke married a rich American heiress. He might have done better to wait for Chanel. Number Five alone—the first synthetic perfume in history, usable in much smaller amounts than earlier floral scents because of its greater tenacity—netted her fifteen million dollars in the next few decades. And by the 1930s Chanel was the mogul of a four-business conglomerate—couture, textiles, jewelry, perfume—that employed some 3,500 workers.
From 1925 to 1930 it was the Duke of Westminster. England’s wealthiest peer was once described by his schoolmate Winston Churchill as a man “deeply versed in all forms of animal sport.” Four times married, this tall, blond frolicker was known for his love of pranks both expensive and amiable—hiding diamonds under his mistresses’ pillows, sending Chanel a walnut-sized emerald in the bottom of a bin of fresh vegetables. He was nicknamed Bend’or, after his grandfather’s prize-winning horse.
Pursuing her man throughout Europe, as usual, with the élan of the perpetual arriviste, Chanel desperately tried to have a child by him at the age of forty-six, dragging herself through gynecologists’ offices and a series of “humiliating acrobatics” recommended by midwives to achieve pregnancy. Never did Chanel collections show so many English country house style sweaters as in that decade, so many tweed suits “to wear to the races,” so many sport coats “resolutely masculine in cut,” all copied from those hanging in Westminster’s closet. But like Boy, Bend’or left her for a peer’s daughter. And with the thrift of a French housewife making pot-au-feu out of last week’s table scraps, Chanel copied in fake stones the treasures he had left her, thus pioneering the famous costume jewelry she sold.
Great love numero cinq was a chauvinist right-wing cartoonist and journalist called Iribe. He depicted Chanel’s face on his drawings of Marianne threatened by radical, subversive forces (Daladier, etc.), and died on the tennis court. She had loved him truly, and went into a flurry of designing patriotic blue, red, and white ball gowns. That was in 1939, the last year decent French people danced.
What light, youthful nicknames her lovers had, epithets that give away the trivialness she sought in men: Boy, Bend’or. And then, upon the Occupation, the tall German spy called “Spatz”—sparrow. He adored to dance, and was thirteen years her junior. They lived on an upper floor at rue Cambon, where the combined threats of war and of Schiaparelli’s triumphant ascendance over Paris fashions had forced Chanel to close her salon de couture, but where bottles of Number Five continued to be sold to German soldiers.
One admires the candor with which Charles-Roux deals with Chanel’s collaborationist phase, the very candor which led her to break openly with Chanel and her monumental lies. (Although Chanel had designated her as official biographer, Charles-Roux decided at midpoint in her research to pursue the truth in her own way, which gave the very making of her book a succès de scandale in France.) Yet one regrets that the author glides over the German sparrow romance more briefly and colorlessly than over earlier ones. “They were virtually each other’s prisoners,” she writes about their postwar exile in Switzerland, which lasted until 1950. “He was held by her money, she by his silence.”
Chanel had much evidence to destroy, much silence to buy, from the records of that orphanage to the memories of the SS men who had been her intimate friends: the story of her life. Her carefully stitched myths worked well enough, for a while. Her comeback in 1954 was barely tinged by political rancor, and within a year she made a spectacular fashion success. As an artist, she had the last word. “Those men who can’t sew,” she called Dior and other postwar male couturiers, who tried to imprison us again with waist pinchers, wired bras, heavily lined skirts, the frippery of laces and ribbons. But her simplicity and freedom prevailed.
Edmonde Charles-Roux has many literary and political credentials: she is a former Resistance worker, a Prix Goncourt winner for her novel Adieu Palerme, and the wife of the socialist mayor of Marseilles, Gaston Defferre. Her book on Chanel has been a best seller in France, where it sold a half million copies. Yet it is an excessively long and humorless work. Flatulent Gallic bombast stifles any vivid portraiture. Chanel’s abrasive, autocratic presence survives mostly through the forty-eight marvelous photographs in this book. They show the sassy air, the roguish hands-in-pocket stance, the mordant, boyish charm which Chanel retained into her eighties and to which the French give the untranslatable epithet of “chien.” Even the sound of Chanel’s gruff parakeet voice, the asperity of her vitriolic wit, crackle more audibly from the photos than from Charles-Roux’s tone-deaf prose. I do not think this void of personality results from any fault of translation, but from a highly ballasted French academic style that is embarrassingly pompous, pious, out of date. Turning to page 289 of the Grasset edition:
L’évènement en soi lui suffisait, le moment bouleversant ou…. Eternelle orpheline devant le miracle. Avec, en sous-entendu, cette réserve qui lui imposait son éducation, à savoir qu’un miracle vous éclaire, qu’on ne saurait le considerer comme un objet de fabrication banale, telle une robe, qu’il relève pour une part de Dieu….
Much of the book’s contents are as deadly as its style. Instead of concentrating on Chanel, innumerable pages are devoted to brothers, sisters, cousins, friends who never come to life. The author is even tedious about the most closely guarded secret of Chanel’s past, the “Operation Modellhut” of 1943, when the couturière engaged in a tragicomic venture to meet with English authorities as a representative of the Nazi government to negotiate an end to the war. Charles-Roux intimates obliquely that Chanel’s thirty-year friendship with Misia Sert was a lesbian one, but she does so in obscene Victorian innuendoes. Misia remains “the person well-informed journalists were always calling ‘Chanel’s dear friend.’ ” Thus one of the most relevant aspects of Chanel’s character—that bisexuality which might seem to have given her work its androgynous timelessness—is never directly considered in these 380 pages. How extraordinary that Charles-Roux did not get Chanel’s hint that Less can be More in all the arts; even when it is about Chanel, her prose retains the flounciness of a Maggy Rouf dress.
Yet whatever her artistic mistakes, Charles-Roux does a service in showing that still another famous French artist’s espousal of Nazism was not a moral “crime passionnel” inspired by lust for a German body, but the result of ingrained political beliefs. One has only to look at Chanel’s lovers: Westminster’s arguments for a negotiated peace with the Nazis “made his old chum Winston see red” (and Charles-Roux hints that it was he who intervened, through Churchill, to save Chanel from jail or trial at the Liberation). Iribe was director of the fascist-leaning paper Le Témoin, which she alone financed, and which indulged in such Croix de Feu slogans as “Blum’s Judeo-Masonic Mafia.”
As Charles-Roux portrays her, Chanel was clearly not one of those innumerable “honnête gens” who collaborated mildly to save their skins, and whom it is hard for Americans to judge because they have never confronted the moral problems posed by a foreign occupation. On the contrary, Chanel was clearly part of that right-wing industrial bourgeoisie—she entered it on the profitable fumes of Number Five—which was rendered so hysterical by the rise of the labor unions and the “Red Threat” that it took as its motto “Rather Hitler than Blum.” For one as miraculously endowed as Chanel was with the French qualities of rationalism, self-survival, tenacity, material greed, and “méfiance,” it must have taken firm conviction in fascism as the wave of the future to become a hard-core collaborationist.
As I closed the book, on Charles-Roux’s very touching—for once simple—description of Chanel’s death, I had a strange flashback to her salon at 31 rue Cambon. I recalled that final entrance of the bridal gown which, for many decades, has been the last item on any Paris designer’s showing. Costing several thousand dollars, in it came amid torrents of applause. It was marvelously chaste, high-necked, as virginal as first Communion vestments, reminiscent of that asexual poverty of her convent childhood which it had been her life’s aim both to recapture and to destroy.