Hi, internet. We need to talk. It’s about Coco Chanel. We need to stop idolizing her. Chanel, the French fashion designer, was a not-so-secret Nazi supporter. So why do we still see her name and image lauded everywhere from the runway to tote bags?
💃💃 Coco Chanel was an actual Nazi and everyone loves to forget but Jews remember and we are watching you evangelize her. 💃💃 https://t.co/U2P6iVopTp
— Erin Biba (@erinbiba) June 6, 2019
First, do we want a brief bio? Let’s get a brief bio. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)
Coco Chanel — born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel in 1883 — grew up in poverty in France. Her mom, Jeanne, died when she was 12 years old, after which she was sent to live at the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary. At 18, she aged out and was sent to live at a boarding house for Catholic girls, when she began work as a seamstress. She also started singing on stage — one of the two songs she knew was “Qui qu’a vu Coco?” which is where the name Coco came from. At 23, she started dating Étienne Balsan, a textile heir, and at 26, Arthur “Boy” Capel, an English polo player. She was soon introduced to the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
Both men were her lovers, apparently, and helped her get her hat business off the ground: “Eventually, after protracted negotiations, Balsan and Capel agreed to share the cost of setting her up in business to sell the hats that she was already making for herself, and for her friends (and their girlfriends). Capel covered the running costs; Balsan provided the Paris premises.” Her business grew quickly. In 1922, she made her iconic No. 5 scent, but couldn’t produce mass quantities. Théophile Bader, a Jewish department store owner, wanted to sell it — so he introduced Chanel to Jewish businessman Pierre Wertheimer.
In 1924, Wertheimer negotiated a contract with Coco Chanel where “Wertheimer would make No. 5 in his Bourjois factory and receive 70 percent of the profits. Bader earned 20 percent as a finder’s fee. And Chanel herself received a mere 10 percent. Feeling she had been cheated, Chanel filed lawsuit after lawsuit, trying to get more control and more of the profits.” Essentially, the Wertheimer fam helped launch her perfume line, but to do so, they kept most of the profits.
Now let’s get into the Nazi stuff!
In 1933, a German guy named Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, acting on behalf of Joseph Goebbels and called “Chancellor Hitler’s man of confidence,” became a spy from the German Embassy in Paris, a member of the Abwehr — Germany’s military intelligence.
Dincklage became a lover of — guess who! – Coco Chanel. They lived together in the Ritz Hotel in Paris.
As Biography.com explains, “Their romance enabled Chanel to move into comfortable living quarters at Paris’ Hôtel Ritz, then doubling as a German headquarters, and kept her firmly entrenched in high society, which also had been infiltrated by German officers.”
In 1940, Pierre Wertheimer — remember him? – fled to New York with his brother, Paul.
Let’s let the New York Times take it from there: “Believing she could wrest control of her company from the Wertheimers, Chanel attempted to declare the company abandoned. But the Wertheimers were wilier: they bought almost 50 percent of an airplane propeller company run by a French engineer (and an Aryan) named Félix Amiot. When Chanel betrayed them, the Wertheimers signed Les Parfums Chanel over to Amiot, a collaborator who sold arms to the Nazis. It worked: the Germans left Les Parfums Chanel alone. When the war was over, Amiot gave the company back to the Wertheimers.”
Anyhoooooo, in 1941, Chanel became a member of Germany’s military intelligence. She had a code name — Westminster — and an Abwehr identification code, Agent F-7124. This wasn’t simply an opportunistic move to try and wrest her company back from the Wertheimers; she really just hated the Jews. “It wasn’t any particular betrayal of her values, or morals or ideals either, for Chanel to find herself traveling to Madrid and Berlin to engage in cloak-and-dagger machinations with her country’s occupier,” The New York Times argues.
As journalist Hal Vaughn writes in Sleeping With the Enemy, Chanel was “often given to anti-Semitic outbursts.” The French editor-in-chief of Marie Claire observed after a conversation with Chanel, “Chanel’s anti-Semitism was not only verbal; but passionate, demoded, and often embarrassing.”
After the war, when the Wertheimers regained their stake in the company, they turned the other cheek.
Okay, maybe that wasn’t such a brief bio. But all this is to say: Let’s not idolize Coco Chanel. Okay, thanks!
For more public figures who were anti-Semites, please see here! (And we’re still debating whether or not Mickey Mouse was an anti-Semitic caricature.)
Photo credit: French designer Coco Chanel, Paris, 1937 (Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)