The Cut of Coco

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George Hoyningen-Huene/Condé Nast Archive/Corbis
Gabrielle Chanel, 1931

“I…am an odious person,” Coco Chanel declared. Not many would have begged to differ. Chanel’s tongue was quite as sharp as her shears and she treated everyone who worked for her harshly, playing one against the other. No one escaped her malice, not even a trusted friend like the poet Jean Cocteau, whom she described to one interviewer as nothing but a “snobbish little pederast who did nothing all his life but steal from people.” She held her own customers in contempt and said, “A woman equals envy plus vanity plus chatter plus a confused mind.” But no one ever built an empire by being nice, and Chanel, by simplifying, lightening, and eliminating the corset, invented a new way of dressing women.

By so doing, she created both an empire and a legend. In the Thirties, she was the wealthiest woman in France—even more important, she owed that wealth to nothing but her own hard work. This success story drew biographers. The catalog of the New York Public Library records more than eighty-five books about her, compared to twenty-four about Christian Dior. The most recent entry is Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History by Rhonda K. Garelick. Do we really need another biography of Coco Chanel? Actually, yes, we do.

Chanel had a life that was both complex and complicated: a miserable childhood, a series of men each different from the others. While her earliest lovers would shape her and help her secure entrée into the greater world, the ones who followed were probably more hindrance than help. In any case, none of them made her happy in any lasting way. She also had a profitable partnership with Pierre Wertheimer, the man who made Chanel No. 5 a world-renowned perfume, but the story behind that partnership was one of constant court battles, with a deplorable wartime chapter followed by an unexpected return to success and fortune. A particularly difficult life story to tell because Chanel dodged all direct questioning and constantly reinvented her own past.

What’s more, she intimidated everyone who met her. And so those biographers who knew her were unable or unwilling to view her with the necessary detachment. Though she agreed to open herself to her writer friends such as Jean Cocteau, Louise de Vilmorin, or Michel Déon, she quickly grew to regret it, lost her temper, and ultimately forbade them to publish. Edmonde Charles-Roux persevered nonetheless, but Chanel denied her access to her archives. Paul Morand contrived to have his subject speak in the first person, an approach that failed to produce any great accuracy. The psychoanalyst Claude Delay, who was very close to Chanel in the last period of her life, was willing to echo her statements without raising any questions. As a result there is frequently a hagiographic tone to the earliest French biographies,…


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