Book review: Sleeping with the enemy: Coco Chanel, Nazi Agent

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Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel, Nazi Agent
Hal Vaughan (Chatto & Windus, £20, £*18)

‘From this century, in France, three names will remain: de Gaulle, Picasso and Chanel,’ wrote historian André Malraux, after the Second World War. The story of the iconic French couturière-her peasant origins, convent education, artistic friends, aristocratic lovers and inexorable rise to fame and fortune through the ‘expensive simplicity of her designs’-has been the subject of numerous books and films. Her relationship during the Occupation and beyond with bon vivant German master spy Baron ‘Spatz’ von Dincklage had long been a subject of speculation.

Here, however, through the examination of newly released wartime docu-ments, Hal Vaughan-a former journalist and CIA operative-presents Chanel not only as a ‘horizontal collaborator’, but, since 1941, as a recruit for German intelligence: Abwehr agent F-7124, codename Westminster.
Ironically, the Duke of Westminster, Hugh ‘Bendor’ Grosvenor, was one of Chanel’s lovers. Her fascinating story-in which Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Picasso have cameo parts-unfolds against the background of pro-German sympathies that existed in fashionable circles of the time, both in England and France. Chanel, we are told, deployed her charm and contacts to secure a halcyon lifestyle at the Paris Ritz-the exclusive haunt of Nazi high command, where the Duke of Windsor also had a suite-enjoying glamorous dinners at the German Embassy, as ordinary Parisians endured the hardships of Occupation.

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In her defence, there is the suggestion she cooperated with the Abwehr in order to secure the release of her nephew, a prisoner of war. She loved her Spatz, was generous to her family, and bankrolled her friends, including Jean Cocteau. Later, she would use her fortune to buy the silence of those she feared might expose her, bribing SS Gen Walter Schellenberg in 1952, to keep her name out of his memoirs.

Some 40,000 collaborators were summarily executed after the war. Chanel was arrested, and promptly released, telling her maid: ‘Churchill had me freed.’ Churchill, letters show, had also been captivated since Bendor introduced him to Chanel, in the 1920s. And despite the authorities’ knowledge of Chanel’s alleged wartime activities, a veil was drawn. She was never charged. The narrative can be disconnected and questions are raised. Why does Vera Lombardi-presented as a Nazi sympathiser and friend of Chanel-suddenly denounce her to the British Embassy in Madrid? Why does the Embassy not act on this information? Why, in the circumstances, does Chanel write to Churchill asking him to help Vera return to Italy?

The abiding mystery, however, is how this ‘passionately anti-Semitic’ and vociferously homophobic woman was able to number Jews and homosexuals among her friends, retain the affection and loyalty of high-ranking Nazis and the British ruling class alike, and evade retribution-even to become a guest at the Elysée Palace. Unsurprisingly, not everyone is delighted by the claims in this gripping account. ‘More than 57 books have been written about Gabrielle Chanel,’ came the state-ment from the House of Chanel. ‘We would encourage you to consult some of the more serious ones.’

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