Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Real Chanel

Pruning at the corner deli on the second day of the New Year. 3:45 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, January 3, 2012. Sunny, dry and cold. Yesterday in New York, the day after the day after New Year’s, was one of those odd Monday holidays that feel like Sunday without religion.

“A blast of Arctic” air (the weatherman calls it) delivering the coldest temperatures of the season so far.
Revealing Big Secrets. In the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, Russell Baker, the distinguished former New York Times reporter and op-ed columnist, has a review of the new Leonardo diCaprio film directed by Clint Eastwood, “J. Edgar,” about the longtime legendary head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Baker in his review points out that the film goes easy on the founding Director who ruled fearsomely like a dictator over it from 1935 to his death in 1972.

Most Americans, including children of that era, were very aware of his presence on the national scene, often seeing him speaking directly to the camera in movie newsreels. He was America’s Top Cop. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was his lair. He was assumed (by children at least) to be pure and perfect, and of course everyone believed it because that was The American Way for most of us. Those who thought otherwise kept their mouths shut for obvious reasons.

After Hoover’s death, it came out that he had an active homosexual social life. This was the kind of secret he kept on others which would threaten and even destroy marriages, careers both professional and political and private lives. The irony still flattens some people’s disbelief.
J. Edgar Hoover and his Deputy Clyde Tolson at the World Series, October 1942.
Russell Baker neutralizes the “shock” with common sense:

“It is a rare life that hasn’t a few deplorable incidents in its chronicle. As Willie Stark observes in Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men, ‘man is conceived in sin, born incorruption, and passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud,’ and when someone looks deep enough for dirt, ‘There is always something.’”

Click to order or buy immediately at Archivia (72nd and Lexington).
I laughed out loud when I read that paragraph. Coincidentally I had only moments before just finished Hal Vaughan’s book “Sleeping With the Enemy; Coco Chanel’s Secret War” (Knopf).

My interest in Chanel – a name I’ve been familiar with all my life – came a couple of years ago when I bought a small beautifully published paperback called “The Allure of Chanel” by Paul Morand. I bought the book because I liked the looks of it – a soft, white quilted cover with a black and white photograph of the woman reclining in full Chanel suit and hat and shoes, in front of the fireplace in her Paris apartment. I’m not sure I even intended to read it through.

However, I opened it up to have a look and she got me right away. The book is a memoir, an “as told to,” as it were, and the woman’s dynamic and recalcitrant personality drew me in. Reading it, I could see she must have been a very difficult person to be around. Although she was orphaned at a very young age, and brought up in a Catholic orphanage, she grew up to have a rich life full of high profile love affairs with very wealthy princes, dukes and businessmen who showered her with gifts and affection, and friendships with many creative giants and luminaries of her age – including Picasso, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Cocteau and Misia Sert.

The world knows what happened: Coco Chanel became the foremost designer of women’s clothing of the 20th century, literally changing the silhouette and “the uniform” of modern women by putting them in pants. She also introduced a perfume “Chanel No. 5” in 1924 which more than three quarters of a century later still sells worldwide at the rate of a bottle every three seconds.
Chanel, age 56, photographed by George Hoyningen-Heune, 1939 (copyright Horst/ Courtesy Staley-Wise Gallery). Adolf Hitler on his first and only visit to Paris after the fall in June 1940.
There has been a strong revival of interest in Chanel in the past couple of years with more than 11 books published about her. The Vaughan book, one of the latest, drew my attention because her memoir gave little to no hint of any nefarious political activities in favor of the Nazis and Adolf Hitler, and having just finished “Hare With Amber Eyes” and “In the Garden of Beasts,” my curiosity was unsated. This book does not disappoint: it lays out the woman and her life in spades.

Much of her “own story,” the “Allure” told in the Morand book evaporates. What remains is a powerful personality -- of drive, ambition, and charm. We learn that even before the Germans invaded France and Hitler capped it with his “triumphal” visit to Paris, Chanel had long before developed a close, intimate relationship with a German officer Hans Gunther von Dinklage, a member of German military intelligence since the early 1920s and a major espionage officer with the Nazis.
Starving Parisians foraging for food amongst the garbage in Paris during the Nazi occupation, September 1942.
We also learn that her deeply instilled anti-Semitism, with its roots in her Catholic convent upbringing where such prejudice was common among the nuns, ordinary and unremarkable to those who shared it, was activated when the Nazis took over France.

The book reads like a cloak-and-dagger novel although it’s not fiction. The woman, with all her charm and certain genius, emerges as highly sensitive and empathic to certain friends, and most of all to her family of nieces and nephews (one of which might have been her illegitimate child). She also exhibits little if any sympathy or concern for those who are economically beneath her, or for the French people in general.
The first ad for “Chanel No. 5," which still sells worldwide at the rate of a bottle every three seconds.
Pierre Wertheimer, who with his brother, backed and bought Chanel out.
She was well into her fifties when Hitler began his military takeovers and the Second World War got underway. By then she had long been famous and famously connected to the powers and leadership in England, France, Germany and Spain. She would use those connections, it turned out (secretly at the time) to advance the cause of the Nazis. One of her initial motivations was freeing her “nephew” (the man who might have been her son) who was in a German prison camp early in the war. However, after his freedom was granted, her activity increased.

Another motivation appears to have been to wrest control and ownership of the Wertheimer family who actually financed, created and distributed Parfum Chanel. The Wertheimers, who were Jewish, had the foresight to escape France (and settle in New York) before the Fall when many Jewish owned businesses were “Aryanized” – in other words stolen from their owners, many of whom went to their deaths in the camps. Chanel’ believed that she should own the perfume business rather than owning 2% and a 10% royalty (which made her very rich). She used her Nazi connections to accomplish the task although the Wertheimers had already anticipated her and basically checked her. (Their relationship with her remained after the war until her death in 1971 at 88).
The Duke of Westminster, Chanel's lover in the '20s who (along with Churchill) helped her escape prosecution. Chanel in hunting dress with Winston Churchill (right) and his son Randolph in France, 1928. Their friendship lasted more than 30 years.
For the woman, such activity was a mark of her personal political power. She carried it like the monarch that she was not, and it came naturally to her. No doubt she was aware of this and enjoyed it. She never demonstrated any sympathy for the fate of her countrymen in their plight but instead thought everything would “right” itself after the War (and Hitler was the conqueror).

By the time the War ended, Chanel’s high level connections provided her with the inside knowledge that the Germans were going down in defeat, she moved to Switzerland, to Lausanne, to a villa she had acquired years before. There she was free from the retributions and executions that spread throughout France.
Chanel with her friend Vera Bate Lombardi who was close to Churchill also and informed him of Chanel's activities with the Nazis. Chanel's closest woman friend Misa Sert with whom she was friends most of her adult life. Both women were regular drug users (For Chanel it was morphine which she used daily into her 70s.)
When she decided to make the move back to France – which eventually she missed and where she had property, and a business, she had to face official questioning. However, much of her most treasonous activities were secreted or hidden from the light because she had friends in high places – such as one of her former lovers, the Duke of Westminster – the richest man in England, and Winston Churchill whom she had met and befriended when he was a young man.

Did they know what she had done? Most likely, on some level, to some degree. Why did they protect her, providing a path of “escape” from any punishment? The evidence for that answer is either not available or no longer extant.
The young Baron von Dinklage circa 1935 at the German Embassy in Paris when he was working for the Gestapo, already a close friend of Chanel. Von Dinklage in1944. He tried to enter Switzerland but was denied entry although he eventually made it in secretly and was sheltered by Chanel.
German collaborators were hunted down in France after the liberation by the Allies. Women who had fallen in with the German invader were humiliated. These two are bearing swastikas on their shorn heads. After the war, between 30,000 and 40,000 were said to have been executed.
After the War she resumed her business in Paris. To those of us who came after all that and know her from the present fame of her name and fashion collections, there is no awareness that she once again had to “struggle” to start up again. But she did. As she would. Because she was Chanel. And because she was backed by the Wertheimers who eventually bought her business lock, stock and barrel and own it (and its great prosperity) to this day.
Chanel in Lausanne in 1949 with Baron von Dinklage. The couturier at her Rue Cambon establishment fitting Mme. Pompidou, the wife of the French President in 1962.
There are all kinds of lessons in this book, many of which are not appetizing. In her way, her genius was a monster. And the book is a page-turner. And certain to be a movie because you can practically see it as you read along ...
 

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