Several weeks after the liberation of Paris, Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel was arrested by members of the FFI (French Forces of the Interior—resistance fighters during latter stages of the war) and taken to the Free French Purge Committee headquarters. After two hours of questioning, Chanel was released. She would later tell her maid that she was released under the personal orders of Winston Churchill. Within hours of arriving back at 31, rue Cambon, Chanel left in her Cadillac for Lausanne, Switzerland where she would live in exile until her return to Paris in the mid-1950s (she would come back to Paris from time to time—once as a witness in a trial of her friend and collaborator, Baron Louis de Vaufreland—the judge would declare, “The answers Mademoiselle Chanel gave to the court were deceptive”).
Chanel had been put on the French Resistance black list since 1942 as a German collaborationnistes (specifically as a horizontal collaborator—get the euphemism?). She was well known as being anti-Communist, pro-German, and virulently anti-Semitic (her verbal diatribes at dinner parties are legendary). Chanel was extremely adept at spinning any story to suit her needs or objectives. Her life story included a broken family childhood (i.e., insecurity—she was a very complex individual), prostitution, homosexuality, drug addiction, creativity, business acumen, betrayals, treason, promiscuous activities, a well-known spy mission, cover-ups, bribes, extreme poverty, extreme wealth, dance halls, lovers—men and women, intellectual friends, loyalty to her friends, and a passion for fashion and fragrances that remain legendary. Wow, how many of us have that resume?
For many years, Chanel’s reputation was tarnished in France. However, she did eventually return to Paris to revive her fashion business (and reputation) at her store located on Rue Cambon (her perfume company was owned by the Wertheimer family and Chanel was paid 2% of sales). What she also did during the post-war years was to buy off anyone she thought might reveal the true extent of her activities during the occupation, including her years long affair with a senior Nazi spy (while she lived at the Ritz Hotel—across the street from Rue Cambon).
For almost 50-years, the French did not answer tough questions about or acknowledge their active involvement with the deportation of Jews (and collaboration with the Nazi occupying force). After the war, they wanted to forget. It was not discussed. Certain documents were destroyed in fires. People wrote memoirs in order to protect their legacies. It was not until the mid-1980s to late 1980’s that documents were recovered (principally from Russia) and studied which shed new light on Chanel’s involvement during the occupation—and some of these documents didn’t seem to support her stories (Chanel died on 10 January, 1971—aged 88—we think).
The title to this blog is not a simple question to answer. Certainly Gabrielle collaborated with the Nazi regime that occupied Paris (and northern France) from June 1940 to August 1944. Was she a spy? Technically, she probably was. Perhaps Chanel knew too much about the activities of the Duke of Windsor and his wife with respect to the Nazi regime and the British could not afford for her stories to come out.
One of the stops in my future book, Where Did They Put the Gestapo Headquarters? —A Walking Tour of Nazi Occupied Paris (1940–1944), will take you to 31, rue Cambon (her retail store on the ground floor and her apartment on the top 4 floors). You will also visit the Ritz Hotel where Chanel lived in a suite of rooms since the 1930s.
Do we have a lot of stories? Of course we do. I’m looking forward to sharing these with you. Please continue to visit our newsletter and blog. Perhaps you’d like to subscribe so that you don’t miss out on the most recent newsletter and blog posts.
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Copyright © 2015 Stew Ross