One night at dinner Chanel and I were alone and while we seldom went into the Ritz bar, this night we did. Chanel started to tell me about Misia Sert, the muse to Ravel, Debussy, Renoir, Vuillard, Bonnard and Cocteau and her husband, the artist J. L. Sert; and how she had learned everything from Misia, including how to enjoy morphine.
Misia had introduced Chanel to the top names in Parisian society which greatly increased Chanel’s chances of success. She also had a serious morphine addiction. Chanel developed one as well, although far less extreme than Misia’s which would eventually kill her. Meanwhile, when Chanel would leave me at night she would go upstairs for her “aperitif” of sedol, a type of morphine.
Chanel was born in 1883, although she constantly lied about her age. By the time I met her she had lived an incredible life and was glad to tell me all of her stories about men, especially the only one who she had ever really loved, Boy Capel. She met him in 1909 when she was seeing Etienne Balsan, who had financed her and put her into business.
She would always love Boy Capel although he was never faithful to her. She often told me she felt she had wasted her life because she had been unable to keep a companion with her to combat her loneliness. She once said to me that it was “better to be married to a fat unattractive man than to be alone.” She began to increasingly rely on me and while I was flattered I did also want to have my own life.
Chanel often said that fashion is a business, not an art. “We don’t work from genius, we’re tradespeople. We don’t hang clothes in galleries to be seen, we sell them.” Chanel had her own ideas and some afternoons we would go to the boutiques that copied her clothes to see how they were made. The storekeepers were fascinated by this, especially when Chanel would tell them how to correct them. She felt that ideas are made to be communicated and shared but then, of course, she would complain about piracy. Everything with her was always in conflict, and I never knew what to believe and when.
As we became closer she opened up to me about her German lover, Spatz Von Dincklage, who she saw all during the war, and whom she took in after 1945 because he was impoverished. He was 13 years younger than she and many people assumed that he was a German spy, but in fact he was just a careless diplomat.
One time Chanel had needed his help to get her nephew Andre out of an internment camp but he was unable to help her; even with this small task, his influence didn’t extend even this far. Spatz was the only German officer she was ever close to although he never visited her in uniform. Although there have been rumors and books written over the years saying she was a Nazi collaborator, I don’t believe that. She just talked too much and sometimes said the wrong things to the wrong people.
When the Germans took over the Ritz Hotel at the beginning of the war Chanel had packed up her belongings and stored them in the cellar. She took her chauffeur’s car because it was less noticeable than her Rolls Royce, and fled Paris. She, Madame Aubert and a few other women went to the Pyrenees and ended up staying at her nephew Andre’s place. Eventually they were able to get down to Vichy at the height of the season, where the war seemed very far away. When they tried to return to Paris they found the roads blocked and ended up in Bourbon-Archeambault.
By the time she was able to get back to Paris it was August 1940 and the occupation was in full swing with German sentries stationed at the entrance of the Ritz Hotel. I never knew Chanel to be anti-Semitic, and being a Jew myself I would surely have recognized that. She was always contrary and would come out with wild statements and people often used them against her because of who she was. Her cutting remarks were never directed specifically against Jews; she insulted everybody.
Chanel told me that during the war her Salon remained closed except for perfume, which was still being sold in the boutique on the Rue Cambon. There were often long lines of German soldiers waiting for the doors to open. Twelve other couturiers remained in business and continued selling their collections including Madame Grès, Balenciaga and Lucien Lelong, but Chanel refused to reopen her Salon and work for the Germans. The wife of the manager of the Ritz told Chanel after the war that she would never forget her shock when Marshal Goering appeared one day holding a beautiful, diamond-studded baton especially designed for him by Cartier.
Years after the war Chanel told me she found out that her house in Roquebrune had been used as a staging area for Jewish refugees escaping from France to the Italian border. There were also rumors that Chanel had had an affair with the German Commandant of Paris and that her hair brushes were found in the Rothschild home that he had occupied at the end of the war, which I believe to be a complete fabrication. In actual fact, it was Marie Hélène de Rothschild who convinced Chanel to go back into business in 1954 after the war.
I was so fascinated by the way Chanel worked that I couldn’t stop watching her. As I watched her work, Chanel would sometimes say to me, “Your eyes are going to fall out.” It was then that I told her I couldn’t stay for the second collection unless she let me work alongside her, which she agreed to immediately. Since she draped her creations on models rather than sketching them, and I was THE model, we became inseparable. Many nights I would stay there late working with her on the new collection.
Chanel’s designs always had a high armhole, narrow sleeves and a small shoulder. She would drape the fabric over my body and then proceed to start cutting it away. The fabric used was off-grain, so it naturally molds better to the figure, which makes a woman look sexy. And the shoulder was always narrow, to make the woman look smaller. That was Chanel’s look and no one has ever done it better.
As the deadline for the next collections loomed, the atelier, and the fitting rooms below would go electric with tension. Chanel was so obsessive that in her mind no design was ever finished. She would keep calling the designs back upstairs. “Put this on,” she commanded me, and so I would. Chanel would rip away at the stitching, cutting and reshaping, and by the time she would be finished with a dress there would be nothing left! And then the process started again.
There were many nights when I would hide the fabrics because I knew they were not right for the collection and she was becoming obsessive. I was the closest thing to an assistant that she ever had. No one had ever helped Chanel design and I was the only one who was ever interested enough and close enough to her to assist her.
One time, there was still chaos in the downstairs fitting room on the morning of the big show. Chanel, upstairs in the atelier, was overwhelmed. The clothes weren’t ready; she wanted to change them all. She seemed out of it, maybe high on morphine. I could see disaster looming and thought, “Either we’re going to have to cancel the show or have the runway models go out with unfinished clothes.” So I took command. “Do not bring the clothes downstairs again! Put a bow here, put the pockets there, and finish it! – that’s that,” I tell the seamstresses in the workrooms.
“Who do you think you are, mademoiselle?” the seamstresses fume.
“Just do it,” I said. And so they did.
The collection and the show went on to become one of Chanel’s greatest successes. Chanel was thrilled and seemed not to know the difference. I am still amazed.
Of course, Chanel was full of contradictions. I adored her but she was very demanding and expected me to be on-call, which was not my style. On Sundays we would go in her chauffeur-driven car to Versailles, where she would run up the small hill to the Petit Trianon to prove what good shape she was in. She was very generous with me and once offered me a small Picasso painting. She really only liked objets, because as she explained she likes to feel everything with her hands.
Chanel once called me a man-eater, and said that I was trying to seduce everyone who came into the Salon. Simultaneously she felt that the men were always really after her. She was 80 years old at the time. Chanel loved intrigues and if there were none she would create them. She was always playing the models against each other. She honestly had no loyalty to anyone except herself, but that didn’t mean we all didn’t love her, since she was so generous in other ways.
Chanel and I also had a few things in common. One was Winston Churchill, who was often my gambling companion in the afternoons in Monte Carlo when I was there in the summer. She had met Winston through the Duke of Westminster before the war and they had remained friends. She had been doing her best to solicit his help to get her friend Vera out of Italy and away from the Nazis. I don’t know that she was ever successful in doing so as she never confided the outcome to me. Another thing we had in common was that we both always said precisely what we were thinking without considering the consequences.
The Chanel models were the “It Girls” in the French fashion world at that time. I managed to convince her to give us a charge account at the Plaza Athénée where everyone went to lunch. When we would walk in as a group everyone would stop eating and just stare because we were so beautiful. We were the most important models in Paris.
I had a Fiat Cinquecento that I had brought up from Rome which I would drive to work to the Rue Cambon. Many nights I would pick up Betty and another model Sylvia and we would go to Regine’s on the Left Bank. I would spin the records that I brought back from Rio — the Samba and The Batucada — which became the big rage of Paris. Regine’s was the hottest nightclub and this was the beginning of what would become the Disco craze. We would often stay until 2:30 in the morning since we didn’t have to be at work until 3:30 in the afternoon.
Chanel often spoke of Pierre Wertheimer, who she said had been stealing from her perfume business for years, which of course was not true. I always felt there was more to Pierre’s feelings for Chanel than just business. He had saved her business, her reputation and her career, though she would never admit it. In the 1920s she had gone into business with the Werthemier brothers who had produced her famous perfumes from that point on. During the war the Wertheimers went to America and ostensibly sold the company, but still retained many of the rights.
After the war Chanel began a suit against them for the perfume business. It was settled out of court, making her a very rich woman. It was really advantageous for Chanel that the Wertheimers were willing to settle out of court since they could have easily dragged up negative stories about her. After all, it was 1947 and she was still persona non grata in Paris at the time because of the exaggerated stories of her collaboration with Germans.
When the laws first came out banning Jews from owning businesses in France, Chanel attempted to take over the perfume company from the Wertheimers, however it had already been sold to Félix Amiot, a French airplane manufacturer. Pierre hoped to save the business from German requisition and had thwarted Chanel’s actions. The criticism Chanel received for this was because of who she was and how outspoken she could be.
In the settlement, she received both past compensation and a greater share of future earnings, without even asking. Pierre Wertheimer stood behind her and helped her when Chanel re-launched her couture collection and the rest of the board had turned her down. He was behind her all the way. But Chanel would never give him the acknowledgement he deserved. Even when his horse won at Ascot she pretended that she didn’t know about it so she wouldn’t have to congratulate him.
Chanel was fascinating and instructive but she was also difficult. Eventually her demands became overwhelming for me, and finally I realized that she wanted and expected me to be her constant companion. In early March of 1963 I was invited to go skiing in Gstaad. It was then that I started thinking about whether I could go through another season at Chanel with the intrigues and the models and the vendeuses and all the others with Chanel playing one against the other. I decided to speak with Chanel and tried to be as diplomatic as I could be.
I loved her, but her possessiveness was too much. It really seemed like the right time for me to move on. When I told her I was going back to the States, she was furious. The next day I was not allowed back in the Salon and no one would take my telephone calls. Our estrangement lasted for almost a year, but eventually I was allowed back after many telephone calls, interventions, flowers and letters.
It was not an easy reconciliation. When I finally met with her and told her that I was considering becoming a designer myself she immediately said to me, “Design is for men, the women will drive you crazy.” I had no idea at the time how all the skills I had developed at Chanel’s side would help me to succeed as quickly as I did.
I eventually opened my own atelier and store in New York designing for men and then eventually women. The men who came included Jack Nicholson, Woody Allen, Michael Douglas and even a young John Kennedy followed by the female clients such as Lee Radziwill and her sister Jackie Onassis, Babe Paley and Diana Ross.
I was in Milan at the Principe di Sovoia Hotel when Chanel died in 1971. I was devastated when I found out she had died alone with only Lilou at her side. Later, it was discovered that all of her jewels were missing, and they still have not been found to this day. I have always wondered why Lilou took so much abuse from Chanel. She was always very possessive of Chanel; she was more than a secretary and assistant to her. She had also managed to keep everyone away from Mademoiselle, including me, and now I think I know why.
The few times that I saw Chanel in her last year’s things were always difficult because of Lilou. I even tried to arrange a reconciliation with Dali but was constantly told that now wasn’t the right time, and it sadly never was.
In the late ’70s I was invited by Yvonne Dudel, who was the Director of Chanel at the time, to come and see their newest collection designed by Philippe Guibuorge. Ms. Dudel was unhappy with the direction the collections were taking and had begun to make overtures to me about returning to Paris and working for Chanel as the designer.
I was already doing my own thing at the time and was no longer interested in living and working in Paris. I was too simply independent and was interested in pursuing my own career as a designer. I turned down the offer, made suggestions on the direction they should follow and returned to New York.
Click here for Part I of My Love Affair with Chanel
Click here for Part II of My Love Affair with Chanel