New Coco Chanel biography claims to have proof that fashion icon used drugs, had lesbian affairs and loved a Nazi spy
By Daisy Dumas
UPDATED: 08:21 GMT, 2 August 2011
Coco Chanel's perfectly set hair, manicured hands, plucked eyebrows and hard stare are as recognisable as some of her enduring designs.
Less well known are allegations of drug use, Nazi dealings and even homophobia - something that contradicts the widespread acceptance of her lesbian relationships.
Now, a new book claims to have concrete proof of the fashion icon's dalliances and vices.
Lisa Chaney's forthcoming biography, Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life, lays bare hard evidence of the fashion maven's use of opiates, as well as new insights into Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel's bisexuality, multiple affairs and love with a Nazi spy.
Penguin says: 'Drawing on newly discovered love letters and other records, Chaney's controversial book reveals the truth about Chanel's drug habit and lesbian affairs.
'And the question about Chanel's German lover during World War II (was he a spy for the Nazis?) is definitively answered.'
WWD goes one step further, saying the book is able to prove that the lover in question, Hans Günther von Dincklage, did indeed spy for the Nazis throughout the Second World War.
Quoting en email from Ms Chaney's Viking publicist, WWD cites: 'Whether Chanel was aware of this is unknown, but after that war she lived in neutral Switzerland for a while, to avoid any proceedings against her.'
In the book, due for release in November, Ms Chaney uses the newly discovered letters as well as documents from the Swiss Federal Archives to quell any doubt as to the truth of some of the less palatable aspects of Ms Chanel's colourful lifestyle.
Viking says of the 20th Century's most famous fashion designer: 'Her numerous liaisons, whose poignant and tragic details have eluded all previous biographers, were the very stuff of legend.
'Witty and mesmerizing, she became muse, patron, or mistress to the century's most celebrated artists, including Picasso, Dalí, and Stravinsky.'
Ms Chanel's infamous life has inspired many a graphic recounting of her rags-to-riches story.
The re-released biography, Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life by Justine Picardie, which includes illustrations by Karl Lagerfeld, has drawn attention to Ms Chanel's reliance on opiates before, saying the designer saw morphine as a 'harmless sedative.'
Successful 2009 movie, Coco Before Chanel, drew criticism for playing down some of Ms Chanel's less savoury antics, while Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, also released in 2009, throws a spotlight onto the designer's love affair with the Russian composer.
Ms Chaney's version of a story oft misread is, no doubt, set to capture the attention of yet another generation of Chanel enthusiasts.
Chanel: An Intimate Life by Lisa Chaney – review
Lisa Chaney has done much original research for her biography of Coco Chanel but chooses to ignore unpalatable truths about her subjec
Friday 23 September 2011 11.30 BST
I have a hunch that Lisa Chaney, Coco Chanel's latest biographer, must be suffering from an even greater dose than usual of pre-publication anxiety. Unfortunately for Chaney, her book stalks into the picture a mere eight weeks after Hal Vaughan's "controversial" Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War, which suggested that the designer, already known to have been a "horizontal collaborator" during the second world war, was also a German spy (Abwehr agent F-7124, codenamed "Westminster" after her former lover, Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster). Are Vaughan's claims credible? I think they are. Apart from anything, he has paperwork to back them. For Chaney, who does not go so far – Chanel, she theorises, was a supreme pragmatist, but not, in the end, a traitor – this must have come as something of a blow.
Still, she can at least console herself with her own discoveries (and it is a wonder, when some 60 books have already been written about Coco Chanel, that there is anything left to find out). Chaney has seen a previously unknown cache of letters from Arthur "Boy" Capel, the English businessman who was the love of Chanel's life, and she is the first biographer to have had access to the diaries of Dmitri Pavlovich, another lover. In combination, these documents suggest that Chanel was not always the cold-hearted prune she later became; that she had her vulnerabilities. She adored Boy, and must have been, for all her modern views, agonised by his dithering – the extent of which is now fully clear – over the matter of whether he would marry an aristocratic English rose called Diana Wyndham. Pavlovich, the exiled "heir" to the Russian throne, usually gets short shrift in Chanel biographies, largely because the designer herself characterised him as a spoony young man with whom she went to bed only as a favour. Chaney, though, makes it clear that she needed and enjoyed his companionship; in 1919, Boy had been killed in a car crash, a blow from which Chanel was struggling to recover. Worth noting, too, is Chaney's discovery that Bel Respiro, the French country house bought by Chanel in 1920, was the same property that Boy had purchased for his new wife. I have always wondered about her grief at Capel's loss: was it just more role-playing? But this suggests that it was both real and extremely painful (Chaney says that in the months Coco spent living in this shrine, she was "half-cracked").
Elsewhere, though, we are on familiar ground. Gabrielle Chanel – she took the nickname "Coco" as a young woman from a song she liked to sing in a cafe patronised by cavalry officers – was born in 1883, illegitimate and poor, in the Loire. Her father, absent, was a market trader. Her mother died when she was 11, at which point Chanel was placed in a convent in Aubazine, Corrèze, where the nuns taught her to sew. Chaney is good on the early years – though she makes no connection between the garb of the nuns, and Chanel's famous palette of beige, black and white. In particular, it had not occurred to me before that Chanel would have grown up speaking patois – a fact that reminds you all over again how daring it was of her to promote unloved fabrics such as jersey, and cheap fur such as rabbit: a less self‑confident woman, once funds were available, would have been in thrall to silk and mink.
Ah, yes. Those funds. Chanel was a good businesswoman and as she moved from making hats to couture and then, finally, to jewellery and perfume, she amassed a pile of money. But in the beginning, she made good use of other people's fortunes. In Vichy, where she headed after leaving the convent, she met an ex-officer, Étienne Balsan, who installed her in his chateau as his mistress. Balsan introduced her to Boy, who helped her to finance her first shops (her triumphantly successful Deauville boutique opened in 1913). When Boy died, and following affairs with Stravinsky and Pavlovich, she took up with the Duke of Westminster, known as Bend'Or to his friends, the richest man in Britain. This relationship clearly worries Chaney. She refuses to believe that Bend'Or was a boor and a thicko, asking: "Why would she have associated herself with someone who was utterly obnoxious?" (Answer: women sleep with obnoxious men all the time.) She also omits to mention his well-documented antisemitism.
The author is just a little timid, too, about the second war (during the first, Chanel had cashed in, her new "practical" designs suddenly appealing). Having shut up the House of Chanel – though she cannily kept the perfume business going – Coco moved in to the Ritz, and took up with a German intelligence officer, Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, a charmer who had presciently divorced his half-Jewish wife shortly before the passing of the Nuremberg laws. Chaney carefully puts Chanel's convenient new relationship in context. Thousands of Frenchwomen, she says, took up with German soldiers during this period; in wartime, a girl does what she has to do. I think this is – up to a point – a fair argument. The difficulty in the case of Chanel was that, first, she was rich and famous enough not to need the protection of a German lover, and second, that she continued the relationship in Lausanne after the war.
So where, among the rows of Chanel books, does this one fit? I'm not sure. There is no doubting Chaney's tenacity as a researcher, and her attitude to the work comes as a relief: she admires it without ever making it seem – as fashion writers are apt breathlessly to do – more revolutionary than it was. (She notes that it was Poiret, not Chanel, who first suggested women ditch their corsets, and she makes the very good point that, ironically, most women needed a corset more than ever before if they were to get away with wearing Chanel's narrow, less structured frocks.) But there is something desultory about her narrative, and she sometimes struggles to say what she means. She also – a classic error, I think – mistakes taste for intelligence. Chanel was exceptionally chic, and as wily as a fox. But she was not a thinker, for all that I agree with her about miniskirts (yuck). Perhaps this is one reason why her conscience seemed hardly ever to trouble her – though as Chaney also reminds us, at the end of her life (she died in 1971) her sleepwalking was so bad, her staff would tie her to her bed. "I am not a heroine," Chanel told Paul Morand, the author of her famous "memoir", and I believe that on this matter, if nothing else, she was speaking from the heart.