Returning to Paris just two months after the Nazi invasion, Coco Chanel found a very different city from the one where she’d launched her world-famous couture house.
Troops were goose-stepping down the Champs-Élysees, the street signs were now in German and posters announced that ‘the English and the Jews have brought you to this sorry pass’.
Even her long-time home — a sumptuous suite at the Ritz — had been taken over by Hitler’s High Command.
It was August 1940. Many Parisians had fled the occupied capital, Chanel among them, but she could not bear to stay away from the city she loved for too long.
A colourised photo of Coco Chanel in Paris, 1936 – returning to the French capital two months after opening her famous couture house she found the city was under German occupation
So what if there was a swastika flying over the Ritz and high-ranking Nazis in its dining room? Determined to continue living as she pleased, she settled into three smaller rooms at the luxurious hotel, where even the air-raid shelters in the cellars had fur rugs and silk Hermes sleeping bags.
True, she was a good friend of Winston Churchill, whom she’d first met in the Twenties. One day, over lunch in her Ritz suite, he’d even wept on her shoulder, overcome with emotion at the prospect of Edward VIII’s abdication.
But that was then. This was now; although, unlike most other couturiers, she had closed Maison Chanel when war broke out, yet her boutique remained open. Here German soldiers flocked to buy Chanel No 5 for their girlfriends back home.
Within months, she had launched into an affair with a senior German officer. She wasn’t going to pass up a fine specimen just because he was a Nazi. They lived quietly and unostentatiously, shunning the grand restaurants where Nazi officers took French girlfriends.
Coco Chanel and her lover Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel (centre) with Constent Say on the beach in Saint Jean de Luz in 1917
If it occurred to her that she’d become a ‘horizontal collaborator’, she didn’t let that bother her. But the French Resistance was watching. Early one morning in 1941, two fighters burst into her hotel suite. They blindfolded France’s greatest couturière and took her away to a secret location. Then they interrogated her about her relationship with a German officer.
If she didn’t change her ways, they warned her, she could face disfigurement or death.
But Chanel refused to be intimidated — one of her salient qualities was courage — and, surprisingly, they released her.
She shrugged her elegant shoulders and resumed seeing her blond Aryan lover. Much as she loved France, nobody — not even the Resistance — was going to tell her how to conduct her life.
Two key events had shaped Gabrielle Chanel — known to all as Coco. Born to an itinerant pedlar, she’d lost her mother when she was just 11. Her father then dumped Coco and her two sisters in a grim orphanage run by nuns, vanishing from their lives.
After working as a low-paid seamstress and cabaret singer, she became mistress at 23 to Etienne Balsan, a textile heir. Or rather, his second-string mistress. He was already keeping a well-known cocotte at his chateau.
In 1921, Coco Chanel started a dalliance with Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (pictured in 1922)
Chanel, pragmatic from childhood, accepted this for three years — until she fell in love with English polo player ‘Boy’ Capel, one of her lover’s aristocratic friends.
Boy Capel took her to Paris and subsidised a small millinery business. The hats were unusually simple and elegant for their time, and soon became popular.
It was a happy time: Chanel was deeply in love. With her growing success and Capel’s frequent absences on business, she also became increasingly self-reliant.
She was soon going to need every ounce of her strength: in 1918, Capel told her that he was going to marry a young aristocrat for social reasons. Chanel suffered a nervous collapse. But Capel couldn’t forget her: a few months after the wedding, their liaison resumed.
By now Chanel had also established her own maison de couture in Paris. Her future was once again looking brighter until, several days before Christmas 1919, Capel was killed in a car accident.
A friend, Comte Leon Laborde, went round to break the news to her in the early hours. Chanel, her black hair tousled, came down the stairs in her white satin pyjamas. When told Capel was dead, she said nothing but stared with stricken eyes, ‘crying with dry eyes’, as he put it later.
Instead of going to Capel’s funeral, she asked the count’s chauffeur to drive her to the scene of the accident, where she fingered the debris from the car. Then she sat on a milestone and wept.
Years later, she said: ‘I lost everything when I lost Capel. He left a void in me that the years have not filled.’ She mourned like a widow, ordering black curtains for the window and black sheets for the bed. She flung herself into work, investing Capel’s £40,000 legacy in her business. She began a lifetime habit: love affairs that were simultaneous or overlapping. She didn’t feel she ‘belonged’ to any of them.
In 1921, she started a dalliance with composer Igor Stravinsky. She moved on to 30-year-old Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, the grandson of Tsar Alexander III. He was young, tall, with exceptional good looks.
After Stravinsky she moved on to 30-year-old Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia (pictured in 1915)
By now, she was revolutionising fashion by designing simple, supple, pared-down clothes for women in materials that allowed the body to move freely. Revelling in her new-found wealth, she bought a pale blue Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud to whisk her Grand Duke down to the Riviera. Their liaison, though brief, left her with a lasting legacy — for the Grand Duke had introduced her to the master parfumeur who created Chanel No 5.
Later, she signed a deal with the Wertheimer family, owners of France’s largest fragrance company, to produce, market and distribute the scent. Chanel herself received a mere 10 per cent — something she was later to resent — but even that made her a millionaire for the rest of her days.
Three years after starting her affair with Stravinsky, Chanel met the richest man in England while dining with an English girlfriend in Monaco’s Hotel de Paris. ‘Bendor’ Grosvenor, the 44-year-old Duke of Westminster, was fascinated by the elegant, witty and fiercely independent couturiere. Asking the two women to dine with him on his four-masted schooner the next day, he hired a gipsy band to serenade them and took them on to a nightclub. Chanel, however, resisted his advances.
As she explained to the good-looking duke on numerous occasions, what did he have that she could possibly want? Although she sometimes grandly claimed to live for love, what she really valued was her independence — and work.
But she did leave the door open a chink, agreeing to meet him the following year. Meanwhile, he wooed her with everything from flowers and jewels to salmon sent by air from his Scottish estate.
In the late spring of 1924, she relented, joining his yacht for a Mediterranean cruise, and entering a world of unimaginable luxury. As well as a crew of 40, four-poster beds and silk curtains, Bendor had brought along a small orchestra so that they could dance every night.
Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster and richest man in England (centre), and the dress designer at the Grand National in March 1925
After their cruise, he showered Chanel with presents, from jewellery and works of art to a townhouse in London. When they visited the Westminster estate in Cheshire, she acted as hostess; when they visited his Scottish estates, she learned to fish.
It was through Bendor that the pedlar’s daughter became a friend of Winston Churchill—– who wrote of her to his wife: ‘She is vy agreeable — really a gt & strong being fit to rule a man or an Empire.’
When the duke bought a house in the Highlands, Chanel decorated it, installing the first bidet in Scotland. Although she came to love Bendor, she was still determined to preserve her independence and her work — and one way of doing this was to have her own house, where she could live ‘without a footman at every door’.
La Pausa, in a small village near Menton on the Cote d’Azur, was three buildings she turned into one. Far ahead of the curve when it came to design, Chanel ordered masses of white marble and pre-distressed shutters, decorating the interior in white and beige.
It was a deliciously seductive setting, and Chanel was by then longing to have Bendor’s child. ‘She tried everything,’ recalled Patricia Marinovich, whose mother and grandmother had worked at La Pausa. ‘She’d even lie on her back with her legs in the air for ages after making love.’
Nothing worked. In December 1929, Chanel — by then aged 46 — went to stay with Bendor in Cheshire. Two days after she left, he proposed to a 27-year-old aristocrat.
Chanel took the news philosophically. ‘Fishing for salmon is not life,’ she snorted. By the early Thirties, the Riviera was becoming a magnet for the rich and famous, and Chanel’s high-profile lovers were a source of constant gossip.
By 1938, she was sleeping with the surrealist painter, Salvador Dali. He too was married, but she’d daringly invited him and his wife Gala — a loyal client at Chanel’s couture house — to stay with her at La Pausa.
The relationship continued until the Germans began marching towards Paris, and Chanel — having first closed down her couture house — decided to flee. La Pausa was out, as the Italians were now bombing the Riviera; instead she contacted a sculptor in Toulouse, asking him to find her a refuge.
The iconic Chanel No 5 L’Eau bottle, it was the first fragrance launched by the designer in the early 1920s
Then aged 41, Apel.les Fenosa had met her the previous year through Picasso, a mutual friend — and was only too willing to help. Almost inevitably, he and Chanel fell into bed together.
As soon as Chanel realised the Germans weren’t going to bomb Paris, she said goodbye to the sculptor and returned. Ensconced in some luxury in the Ritz, she ignored what was going on around her. The increasingly desperate plight of the city’s Jews, being rounded up and shipped to death camps, failed to touch her.
Like plenty of other French citizens, she was vociferously anti-Semitic — despite having Jewish friends and clients. And she couldn’t resist the opportunity to use the Nazis’ anti-Semitic laws to try to gain control of the company making her perfumes. It was owned by a Jewish family and she knew that Jews could no longer own a business.
Her efforts, however came to nothing: the Wertheimers had already sold their holdings to a non-Jew. Chanel was left fuming — and with an unattractive stain on her reputation.
Meanwhile, she had her Nazi lover to distract her. They’d met after her favourite nephew ended up in a prisoner of war camp, and Chanel decided she needed some German muscle to get him out. As a Ritz resident, she was entitled to share the hotel dining-room with officers of the German High Command. It was therefore the perfect hunting ground, and she singled the well-dressed man Hans Gunther von Dincklage.
Over dinner, he asked her to call him Spatz. He arranged for her nephew to be freed and began sharing her bed. At 45, Spatz was tall, handsome and athletic.
In 1944, as the Allies fought their way through France, Spatz fled. He’d asked his lover to come with him, but she’d refused. That September, two young men knocked on her door at the Ritz and told her to come with them. They were from the ‘Purification Committee’ — set up to punish collaborators.
It must have crossed Chanel’s mind that, all over France, women accused of sleeping with the enemy were being stripped naked, daubed with tar and paraded through the streets. With admirable cool, she drew on her gloves, picked up her handbag and walked out with her head held high.
A few hours later, she was released. No one really knows why, but ever the opportunist, Chanel had offered every GI in Paris a free bottle of Chanel No 5 for his wife or sweetheart. Had she calculated that a large number of American soldiers would not take kindly to anything happening to Mademoiselle Chanel?
A full 14 years after she’d closed her Paris couture salon, Chanel reopened it — at the age of 70. When asked by Marlene Dietrich why she was doing this, she replied: ‘Because I was dying of boredom.’