Born to an unmarried woman, Eugenie Jeanne Devolle, who worked as a laundry assistant in a convent poorhouse on 19th August 1883, Gabrielle was Jeanne’s second daughter, her older sister Julia having been born almost a year before. Following her birth, in Saumur, France, Jeanne’s family contributed all the money they could raise and gave it to the girl’s father, Albert Chanel, as a bribe for him to marry their mother. Chanel was a travelling salesman, somewhat of a vagrant, selling cheap clothing to the working class. The couple had several more children, three of whom – another daughter and two sons – survived. The family lived in a one roomed dwelling, until at the age of 32 Jeanne died of bronchitis.
Following her mother’s death, at the age of 12 Gabrielle, Julia and their younger sister were sent by their father to a Catholic convent orphanage in Aubazine to live. Their brothers were sent to work as farm laborers. At the age of 18, Gabrielle was too old to remain within the orphanage and was transferred to a Catholic hostel in Moulins. Having learned to sew whilst at the orphanage, Gabrielle managed to find work as a seamstress during the day, and topped up her income by working in the café-concert of La Rotonde as a “filler” during the breaks between turns, singing a couple of songs. It was during this time that she earned the nickname “Coco” ostensibly due to the titles of the songs that she sung, but more likely a derivative of ‘la coquette’ (kept woman), in reflection of her flirtatious nature with the military who frequented the Pavillion. In later years Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel would embellish stories of her childhood, to give it more glamour and more tragedy.
Five years later saw Coco living in Vichy, where she attempted to find work on the stage as a performer, but although charming, her voice was mediocre and she took seasonal work as a water girl in one of the spa cafes famous in the area for the allegedly healing properties of the water. At the end of the season she returned to Moulins and took up her old position at La Rotonde, where shortly after she met Etienne Balsan, heir to a textile fortune and ex-cavalry officer. Balsan was already in the companionship of mistress Emilienne d’Alencon, a well-known courtesan and dancer with the Folies Bergere. Balsan soon replaced her with Chanel and moved her into his chateau near Campiegne, where he lavished expensive gifts, clothing, jewelry and so on, on her.
It is claimed by some sources that Coco’s sister Julia had at this point committed suicide leaving a young child, Coco’s nephew Andre Palasse. Andre is thought by some to have been not Julia’s child, but Coco’s from her relationship with Balsan. Either way, Coco took the boy on as her own, although using her wealth sent him to an English boarding school for his education. Within a couple of years, Chanel had begun a new relationship with her lover’s friend Captain Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, an upper class, wealthy English Army officer. After some time playing the alluring young lady pursued by two devoted rivals, she left the chateau and moved into a desirable Paris apartment provided by Capel, who also provided Chanel with her first shops in the city. Capel was later credited with the influence of the design in Chanel’s first ventures, particularly the famous glass bottle shape of the perfume Chanel No.5. said to be inspired by his Charvet toiletries. Balsan meanwhile continued to pay for Chanel’s living expenses.
For nine years Chanel was devoted to Capel, entertaining the notion that one day he would give up his inherently unfaithful ways and settle down with her, even when he married Lady Diana Wyndham. It is true Capel was clearly happy to keep Chanel as his mistress, and provide materially for her – in that he was extravagant- but he didn’t seem to have any intentions of viewing her as anything more than his “bit on the side”. In 1919, the year after he was married, Capel was killed in a car accident in Switzerland. Chanel later paid for a memorial at the site of the crash.
Over the following years, Chanel had significant relationships with a number of high-profile men, including the Duke of Westminster, poet Pierre Reverdy and designer Paul Iribe. During this period, she met Samuel Goldwyn and accepted an offer to work part of the year in Hollywood, designing for movie stars. Although her work was ultimately unsuccessful in movies – it was considered too plain – she did gain the patronage of a number of well-known actresses, particularly Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. Chanel claimed later to loathe Hollywood as ‘vulgar’. She repeated a similar enterprise in Paris, working alongside Jean Cocteau, in stage where her designs met with more success.
It was at some point during this period, that Chanel became the lover of Abwehr officer Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, following the sudden death of Iribe in 1935. At the outbreak of war, and following Nazi occupation of Paris, Chanel closed her Paris outlets, and moved from her apartment to the Hotel Ritz, a favourite with Nazi military. It has been speculated that her explanation of the war not being the time for couture was a cover up for her motives in getting rid of over 3000 female employees who had recently used strike action over pay and conditions during the wider general strike. Her blatant anti-Semitism was a strong factor; Chanel was known to have bought into the propaganda of Jewish collaboration with Communism in Russia.
Although it has been vehemently denied in recent years, by the Chanel corporation, a de-classified document revealed in a 2011 book that Chanel was given a suspect file by the French Prefecture de Police, Chanel was code-named “Westminster” after being admitted as an agent by the Nazis, hinting at the possibility that she was actively engaged as a spy. Chanel was still in contact with certain members of the British Royal Family and government, and it is alleged that Churchill himself was aware of her Nazi involvement and refused to allow the knowledge to become public on the grounds that it may have incriminated the same. To all intents he, with the assistance of other high-profile leaders, made the accusations “go away”.
A plot was apparently discovered by which Chanel’s boss, Nazi intelligence leader General Walter Schellenberg, with Chanel’s help would use her (allegedly lesbian) relationship with Italian socialite Vera Bate Lombardi, who was born in Britain and became an Italian citizen by way of her second marriage to offer a separate peace deal between the British government and the Nazi SS. The plan was to use Lombardi as a courier to deliver a letter from Chanel to Churchill via the British consulate in Madrid. Lombardi was in fact working for British intelligence, and allowed Chanel and Schellenberg to believe she bought their story that the letter was regarding establishing some of Chanel’s business in Spain. When she got to the consulate, instead of handing over the letter in innocence, she denounced Chanel as a Nazi collaborator along with several others.
In September 1944, Chanel was interrogated by the Free French Purge Committee regarding the suspicions of her involvement with the Nazis. Unfortunately, they were unable to prove any solid wrong-doing, and were forced to release her. Chanel would later claim her freedom was organized by Churchill. Chanel however was not as squeaky clean as her associates would have you believe. In 1941, Chanel contacted the German government regarding the Parfums Chanel business, of which control had passed to the Wertheimer family, who were Jewish. When it became unlawful for Jews to own business, and the Nazis forced them to hand over their businesses, the Wertheimers had unbeknown to Chanel made an agreement with a French Christian businessman, Felix Amiot, to take over the company for the duration of the war.
Denouncing the Wertheimers as Jewish and claiming they had abandoned their business, Chanel highlighted her own connection with the company in an effort to regain control of it. Her efforts were in vain of course, but in a conciliatory move, in 1947 the Wertheimers agreed to give Chanel a share of the wartime profits, which amounted to $9million in 21stC terms, 2% of future projections and agreed further to Chanel’s demand for her living expenses to be paid for her lifetime. The concern appeared to be not an attempt to appease Chanel, rather an effort to distance Gabrielle Chanel’s name from the company to prevent any connection with her Nazi affiliation which could affect the business adversely.
In 1946, Schellenberg was tried by the Nuremberg committee for war crimes and sentenced to six years in jail. He was released due to ill-health and during both his imprisonment and subsequent decline Coco Chanel supported his family financially and took care of his medical expenses, and his funeral in 1952. In 1949, Chanel was forced herself to answer charges made during the war crimes trial of French Traitor Baron Louis de Vaufreland, who worked in the highest echelons of Nazi intelligence for the duration of the war. She defended her proclaimed innocence, offering a character witness from former British secretary of state for war Alfred Duff Cooper, Viscount Norwich, who we must assume she was acquainted with due to his extra-marital affair with the wife of her former lover, Arthur Capel. Chanel was acquitted of the charges.It has since been claimed that Chanel may have been working as a double agent, that she used her inflitration within the Nazi party to assist her nephew Palasse, who was at this time imprisoned in a POW camp, and that her interests went only as far as her romantic involvement with Dincklage.
By this point, Chanel was residing in Switzerland, however by 1954, She felt the time was right to re-invent her former couture business, and launched a new line, stepping away from the usual stiff costumes that had become de rigeur, in favour of more fluid lines. The venture was paid for by the Wertheimers, as per their post-war agreement, but the line was not greatly received by Paris, who had lost their love for her brand due to her wartime activities. Britain and America however were not going to let a little thing like Nazi affiliation get in the way of their love affair with Chanel. She moved back to the Hotel Ritz.
On January 10th, 1971 aged 87, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel passed away after retreating to her bed the previous evening complaining of feeling tired and unwell. Her funeral was held at the Eglise de la Madeleine and she was interred in the cemetery of Bois-de-Vaux, in Lausanne, Switzerland. As a fashion icon she will be remembered for her use of jersey fabrics in day wear complete with useful pockets, her Naval influence with sailor stripes and wide pants, her iconic Chanel purse, and the famous little black dress. For historians however, she will be remembered as the woman who made her way in life with the patronage of extremely influential men and their money, and for her infamous connections with anti-Semitism and the Nazi party during the war. Chanel never married, but had many high-profile sexual liaisons in a time where, for the affluent, moral boundaries were for other people, it seems. Aside from the rumours of her alleged love child, passed off as the son of her sister, Chanel left no heirs. Chanel’s personal fortune and influence was far-reaching, despite her less than glamorous beginnings.