"Fiercely anti-Semitic long before it became a question of pleasing the Germans, she became rich by catering to the very rich, and shared their dislike of Jews, trade unions, socialism, Freemasons, and communism."
Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War
By Hal Vaughn
Declassified, archival documents unearthed by Hal Vaughan reveal that the French Préfecture de Police had a document on Chanel in which she was described as "Couturier and perfumer. Pseudonym: Westminster. Agent reference: F 7124. Signalled as suspect in the file" (Pseudonyme: Westminster. Indicatif d'agent: F 7124. Signalée comme suspecte au fichier). For Vaughan, this was a piece of revelatory information linking Chanel to German intelligence operations. Anti-Nazi activist Serge Klarsfeld thus declared that "It is not because Chanel had a spy number that she was necessarily personally implicated. Some informers had numbers without being aware of it." ("Ce n'est pas parce Coco Chanel avait un numéro d'espion qu'elle était nécessairement impliquée personnellement. Certains indicateurs avaient des numéros sans le savoir").
Vaughan establishes that Chanel committed herself to the German cause as early as 1941 and worked for General Walter Schellenberg, chief of SS intelligence. At the end of the war, Schellenberg was tried by the Nuremberg Military Tribunal, and sentenced to six years imprisonment for war crimes. He was released in 1951 owing to incurable liver disease and took refuge in Italy. Chanel paid for Schellenberg's medical care and living expenses, financially supported his wife and family and paid for Schellenberg's funeral upon his death in 1952.
In 1943, Chanel traveled to Berlin with Dinklage to meet with SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler to formulate strategy. In late 1943 or early 1944, Chanel and her SS master, Schellenberg, devised a plan to press England to end hostilities with Germany. When interrogated by British intelligence at war's end, Schellenberg maintained that Chanel was "a person who knew Churchill sufficiently to undertake political negotiations with him". For this mission, named Operation Modellhut ("Model Hat"), they recruited Vera Lombardi. Count Joseph von Ledebur-Wicheln, a Nazi agent who defected to the British Secret Service in 1944, recalled a meeting he had with Dinklage in early 1943. Dinklage proposed an inducement that would tantalize Chanel. He informed von Ledebur that Chanel's participation in the operation would be ensured if Lombardi was included: "The Abwehr had first to bring to France a young Italian woman [Lombardi] Coco Chanel was attached to because of her lesbian vices…" Unaware of the machinations of Schellenberg and her old friend Chanel, Lombardi played the part of their unwitting dupe, led to believe that the forthcoming journey to Spain would be a business trip exploring the possibilities of establishing the Chanel couture in Madrid. Lombardi's role was to act as intermediary, delivering a letter penned by Chanel to Winston Churchill, and forwarded to him via the British embassy in Madrid.Schellenberg's SS liaison officer, Captain Walter Kutchmann, acted as bagman, "told to deliver a large sum of money to Chanel in Madrid". Ultimately, the mission proved a failure. British intelligence files reveal that all collapsed, as Lombardi, on arrival, proceeded to denounce Chanel and others as Nazi spies.
Protection from prosecution
In September 1944, Chanel was called in to be interrogated by the Free French Purge Committee, the épuration. The committee, which had no documented evidence of her collaboration activity, was obliged to release her. According to Chanel's grand-niece, Gabrielle Palasse Labrunie, when Chanel returned home she said, "Churchill had me freed"
A previously unpublished interview exists dating from September, 1944 when Malcolm Muggeridge, then an intelligence agent with the British MI6, interviewed Chanel after her appearance before the Free French investigators. Muggeridge pointedly questions Chanel about her allegiances, and wartime activities. As to her feelings of being the subject of a recent investigation of collaborators, Chanel had this to say of her interrogators: "It is odd how my feelings have evolved. At first, their conduct incensed me. Now, I feel almost sorry for those ruffians. One should refrain from contempt for the baser specimens of humanity…"
The extent of Winston Churchill's intervention can only be speculated upon. However, Chanel's escape from prosecution certainly speaks of layers of conspiracy,[dubious – discuss] protection at the highest levels. It was feared that if Chanel were ever made to testify at trial, the pro-Nazi sympathies and activities of top-level British officials, members of the society elite and those of the royal family itself would be exposed. It is believed that Churchill instructed Duff Cooper, British ambassador to the French provisional government, to "protect Chanel".
Finally induced to appear in Paris before investigators in 1949, Chanel left her retreat in Switzerland to confront testimony given against her at the war crime trial of Baron Louis de Vaufreland, a French traitor and highly placed German intelligence agent. Chanel denied all accusations brought against her. She offered the presiding judge, Leclercq, a character reference: "I could arrange for a declaration to come from Mr. Duff Cooper."
Chanel's friend and biographer Marcel Haedrich provided a telling estimation of her wartime interaction with the Nazi regime: "If one took seriously the few disclosures that Mademoiselle Chanel allowed herself to make about those black years of the occupation, one's teeth would be set on edge."
Vaughan's disclosure of the contents of recently de-classified military intelligence documents, and the subsequent controversy generated soon after the book's publication in August, 2011, prompted The House of Chanel to issue a statement, portions of which appeared in myriad media outlets. Chanel corporate "refuted the claim" (of espionage), while admitting that company officials had read only media excerpts of the book."
"What's certain is that she had a relationship with a German aristocrat during the War. Clearly it wasn't the best period to have a love story with a German even if Baron von Dincklage was English by his mother and she (Chanel) knew him before the War," the Chanel group said in a statement. "The fashion house also disputed that the designer was anti-Semitic, saying Chanel would not have had Jewish friends or ties with the Rothschild family of financiers if she were."
In an interview given to the Associated Press, author Vaughan explains the trajectory of his research. "I was looking for something else and I come across this document saying 'Chanel is a Nazi agent…Then I really started hunting through all of the archives, in the United States, in London, in Berlin and in Rome and I come across not one, but 20, 30, 40 absolutely solid archival materials on Chanel and her lover, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, who was a professional Abwehr spy." Vaughan also addressed the discomfort many felt with the revelations provided in his book: "A lot of people in this world don't want the iconic figure of Gabrielle Coco Chanel, one of France's great cultural idols, destroyed. This is definitely something that a lot of people would have preferred to put aside, to forget, to just go on selling Chanel scarves and jewelry."
Coco Chanel, high priestess of couture, created the look of the chic modern woman: her simple and elegant designs freed women from their corsets and inspired them to crop their hair. By the 1920s, Chanel employed more than two thousand people in her workrooms, and had amassed a personal fortune. But at the start of the Second World War, Chanel closed down her couture house and went to live quietly at the Ritz, moving to Switzerland after the war. For more than half a century, Chanel’s life from 1941 to 1954 has been shrouded in rumour. Neither Chanel nor her biographers have told the full story, until now.
In this explosive narrative Hal Vaughan pieces together Chanel’s hidden years, from the Nazi occupation of Paris to the aftermath of the Liberation. He uncovers the truth of Chanel’s anti-Semitism and long-whispered collaboration with Hitler’s officials. In particular, Chanel’s long relationship with ‘Spatz’, Baron von Dincklage, previously described as a tennis-playing playboy and German diplomat, and finally exposed here as a Nazi master spy and agent who ran an intelligence ring in the Mediterranean and reported directly to Joseph Goebbels.
Sleeping with the Enemy tells in detail how Chanel became a German intelligence operative, Abwehr agent F-7124; how she was enlisted in spy missions, and why she evaded arrest in France after the war. It reveals the role played by Winston Churchill in her escape from retribution; and how, after a nine-year exile in Switzerland with Dincklage, and despite French investigations into her espionage activities, Coco was able to return to Paris and triumphantly reinvent herself – and rebuild the House of Chanel.
As Hal Vaughan shows, far from being a heroine of France, Chanel was in fact one of its most surprising traitors.
Chanel No. F-7124
Coco Chanel spied for the Nazis, according to a new book by U.S. author Hal Vaughan.
Henry Samuel, The Daily Telegraph · Aug. 17, 2011
Chanel was feted as a fashion pioneer who changed the way women dressed and thought about themselves. Her life has been the subject of countless biographies and films, which have charted her career but also her darker side as a Nazi sympathizer and collaborator.
But according to Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War, the creator of the famed little black dress was more than this: She was a numbered Nazi agent working for the Abwehr, Germany's military intelligence agency.
After sifting through European and U.S. archives, Hal Vaughan, a U.S. journalist based in Paris, found the designer had an Abwehr label: Agent F-7124, She also had the code name Westminster, after her former lover, the anti-Semitic second duke of Westminster.
Chanel spent most of the war staying at the Hotel Ritz in Paris, sharing close quarters with spies and senior Nazis, including Hermann Goering and Joseph Goebbels.
It is well documented she took as a lover Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, an officer 13 years her junior. The liaison allowed her to pass freely in restricted areas.
When questioned on their relationship Chanel famously told the British photographer Cecil Beaton, "Really, sir, a woman of my age cannot be expected to look at his passport if she has a chance of a lover."
Previous works have depicted Chanel more as an amoral opportunist and shrewd businesswoman than an active collaborator, while von Dincklage has come across as a handsome, but feckless mondain, more bent on enjoying the high life than recruiting spies.
But Mr. Vaughan's book claims not only was Chanel "fiercely anti-Semitic," she also carried out missions for the Abwehr in Madrid and Berlin with von Dincklage, who is described as a dangerous "Nazi spy master."
"While French Resistance fighters were shooting Germans in the summer of 1941, Chanel was recruited as an agent by the Abwehr," the book claims.
Chanel travelled to Spain with Baron Louis de Vaufreland, a French traitor whose job was to "identify men and women who could be recruited, or coerced, into spying for Nazi Germany."
Mr. Vaughan also cites a British secret intelligence report documenting what Count Joseph von Ledebur-Wicheln, an Abwehr agent and defector, told MI6 in 1944.
In the file, he discussed how Chanel and von Dincklage visited Berlin in 1943 to offer Chanel's services as an agent to Heinrich Himmler.
The book adds weight to reports Winston Churchill intervened to spare Chanel - a friend from before the war - from arrest and trial, despite the fact she was on French Resistance "death rosters" as a collaborator. She fled to Switzerland, only to return in 1954 to resurrect her reputation and reinvent the House of Chanel.
Chanel was never charged with any wrongdoing and died aged 87 in 1971.
She is one of numerous esteemed French artists who collaborated with the Nazis, including Maurice Chevalier, Jean Cocteau, Sacha Guitry and Edith Piaf.
Was Coco Chanel a Nazi Agent?
By JUDITH WARNER
Published: September 2, 2011 / in The New York Times / http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/books/review/sleeping-with-the-enemy-coco-chanels-secret-war-by-hal-vaughan-book-review.html?_r=0
Gabrielle Chanel — better known as Coco — was a wretched human being. Anti-Semitic, homophobic, social climbing, opportunistic, ridiculously snobbish and given to sins of phrase-making like “If blonde, use blue perfume,” she was addicted to morphine and actively collaborated with the Germans during the Nazi occupation of Paris. And yet, her clean, modern, kinetic designs, which brought a high-society look to low-regarded fabrics, revolutionized women’s fashion, and to this day have kept her name synonymous with the most glorious notions of French taste and élan.
Exploring the contradictory complexities of this woman, at once so very awful and so very talented, should make for fascinating and enlightening reading. After all, Chanel’s life offers biographers a trove of juicy material. Chanel was a creative genius, her own expertly polished self-presentation perhaps the greatest triumph of her brilliantly inventive mind. She was born in
in a hospice for the poor in the Loire Valley, to unwed
parents of peasant stock and, upon her mother’s death, was placed at age 12 in a convent-orphanage to
be raised by Roman Catholic nuns. This left her with a lifelong fear of losing
everything. The point is nicely captured by Hal Vaughan in “Sleeping With the
Enemy,” who quotes her as saying: “From my earliest childhood I’ve been certain
that they have taken everything away from me, that I’m dead.”
She was put to work as a seamstress at age 20 and took the name Coco from a song she liked to sing in a rowdy cafe patronized by cavalry officers. One ex-officer, the wealthy Étienne Balsan, installed her in his chateau, taught her to conduct herself with high style on horseback and, generally, gave her the skills she needed to make her way up through society. Balsan also introduced her to Arthur (Boy) Capel, a friend who soon became Chanel’s first great love, and who also, conveniently, set her up in a Paris apartment and helped her start her first business venture, designing sleekly simple women’s hats.
It wasn’t long before Chanel took Jazz Age Paris by storm, liberating women from their corsets, draping them in jersey and long strings of pearls and dousing them with the scent of modernity, Chanel No. 5. She caroused with Igor Stravinsky and Pablo Picasso, designed costumes for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and amused herself with the cash-poor White Russian aristocracy. As her personal fortunes rose, she turned her attention to making serious inroads into British high society, befriending Winston Churchill and the Prince of Wales and becoming, most notably, the mistress of the Duke of Westminster, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor (known as Bendor), reputedly the wealthiest man in England.
Bendor’s — and Chanel’s — anti-Semitism was vociferous and well documented; the pro-Nazi sensibilities of the Duke of Windsor and many in his circle have long been noted, too. All this, it appears, made the society of the British upper crust particularly appealing to Chanel. As Vaughan notes, after she was lured by a million-dollar fee to spend a few weeks in Hollywood in 1930 — Samuel Goldwyn, he writes, “did his best to keep Jews away from Chanel” — she found herself compelled to run straight back to England, so that she could wash away her brush with vulgarity in “a bath of nobility.”
It wasn’t much of a stretch, then, for Chanel, during wartime, to find herself the mistress of the German intelligence officer Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, a charming character who had spied on the French fleet in the late 1920s, and who found himself pleasingly single in occupied Paris, having presciently divorced his half-Jewish German wife just before the passage of the Nuremberg Laws. 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 story of how Coco became Chanel has been told many times before over the past half-century, most recently (and, sad to say, much more engagingly) in last year’s “Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life,” by the British fashion columnist Justine Picardie. The story of how Chanel metamorphosed from a mere “horizontal collaborator” — the mistress of a Nazi — into an actual German secret agent has been less well known, though earlier writers have reported that she had worked for the Germans. It’s here that Vaughan makes his freshest contribution, using a wealth of materials gleaned from wartime police files and intelligence archives, some of which were only recently declassified by French and German authorities, to flesh out precisely how and why she became an agent, and how she sought to profit from her German connections during the war.
Vaughan ably charts Chanel’s clever opportunism as she works, first, to free her nephew André Palasse from a German prisoner-of-war camp, and later seeks to use the Nazis’ Aryanization of property laws to wrest control of her perfume empire away from the Jewish Wertheimer brothers. Yet his account of her one real mission for the Germans — a 1943 covert operation code-named Modellhut (“model hat”) in which she was meant to use her contacts to get a message to Winston Churchill from the SS stating that a number of leading Nazis wanted to break with Adolf Hitler and negotiate a separate peace with England — emerges neither clearly nor logically from his highly detailed telling. Too many diplomatic documents are reproduced at too much length. Contradictions are not clearly sorted out. Vaughan seems to have felt as though his rich source materials could speak for themselves, but they don’t — and he doesn’t succeed in lending authority to the accounts of contemporary witnesses who were, undoubtedly, unreliable.
Despite her indisputable collaborationist activities, and after a brief period of uncertainty during which she was questioned by a French judge, Chanel eventually got off pretty much scot-free after the war, once again using her wiles to protect herself most expertly. She tipped off the poet and anti-Nazi partisan Pierre Reverdy, a longtime occasional lover, so that he could arrange the arrest of her wartime partner in collaboration, Baron Louis de Vaufreland Piscatory; she paid off the family of the former Nazi chief of SS intelligence Gen. Walter Schellenberg when she heard that he was preparing to publish his memoirs. (It was Schellenberg who had given her the “model hat” assignment.) Vaughan could have done better in providing the context to the seemingly incomprehensible ease of Chanel’s reintegration into French fashion and society, telling more, for example, of the widespread desire for forgetting and moving forward that held sway in Charles de Gaulle's postwar France.
These weaknesses — of authorial voice and critical judgment — run through “Sleeping With the Enemy.” Vaughan, a retired diplomat who has made his home in Paris, has allowed his writing to become a bit too imbued with the reflexive verbal tics and general vive-la-séduction silliness of his adopted country. “Sometimes the kitten, sometimes the vamp, and often the vixen, . . . she must have melted Bendor’s knees” is how he captures Chanel in her 40s; “beautiful and sexy, her silhouette stunning,” he appraises her in her 50s. (Indeed, his English often sounds like French — the most cloying sort of breathy French — in translation.) Despite all he knows about Chanel, Vaughan often appears to be as beguiled, disarmed and charmed by Coco as were the men in her life — not to mention the countless women who have sought over the decades to cloak themselves in her image. And like them, he never gets beyond the self-protecting armor of her myth.
Judith Warner, a former special correspondent for Newsweek in Paris, is the author, most recently, of “We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication.”
Phillips/Topical Press Agency — Hulton Archive — Getty Images
"A bath of nobility": Coco Chanel and the Duke of Westminster at the races in 1924.
“Sleeping With the Enemy,” by Hal Vaughan
By Marie Arana,August 19, 2011 / The Washington Post / http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2011-08-19/entertainment/35417330_1_coco-chanel-etienne-balsan-hal-vaughan
Salome danced. Scheherazade told tales. In the face of powerful, dangerous men, they used their skills differently. But both were beautiful, cunning, unafraid to employ sex for political ends. It’s a well-worn story, an archetype for the ages. But give that mythic siren a bit of documentary detail, ally her with Nazis, make her a spy and a Jew-hater, and the plot becomes startling. It shocks us all over again.
That is the crux of “Sleeping With the Enemy,” Hal Vaughan’s compelling chronicle of Coco Chanel, whose fame as the queen of couture made her a darling of princes and prime ministers. She was born on a hot afternoon in the Pays de la Loire, and she rose from poverty with little more than a dressmaker’s needle. But in Paris, by the eve of World War II, she was dressing the beautiful, perfuming the rich, drinking champagne with poets and impresarios. Sharp-tongued and funny, she became a friend to Winston Churchill, mistress to the Duke of Westminster, intimate of Picasso. When Hitler overran Paris, she didn’t hesitate to consort with the Gestapo, too.
Vaughan, a journalist, filmmaker and diplomat who has been “involved,” as his publisher coyly puts it, “in CIA operations,” offers us a different Chanel from any you’ll find at the company store. This is by no means the account of an emerging style — spare, easy, free of corsets and remarkably modern — but a tale of how a single-minded woman faced history, made hard choices, connived, lied, collaborated and used every imaginable wile to survive and see that the people she cared about survived with her. It’s not a pretty picture.
She was born Gabrielle Chasnel in a picturesque little town in western France. Her mother was a laundrywoman; her father, a street-hawker. Her parents didn’t marry until she was 12, but very soon after, her mother was dead, her brothers at work on a farm, and she and her sisters installed in a Cistercian orphanage in rural France. It was during those years in the nunnery that young Gabrielle acquired a skill and a doctrine that would guide her for the rest of her life: She learned to sew; and she learned to hate Jews. “Chanel’s anti-Semitism was not only verbal,” her friend, an editor of the magazine Marie Claire, avowed, “but passionate, demoded, and often embarrassing. Like all the children of her age she had studied the catechism: hadn’t the Jews crucified Jesus?”
At 18, she was striking: slim, dark-haired and dark-eyed, with a fresh, luminous complexion. She moved to a pension for girls in Moulins and found night work as a singer in a cabaret. By day, she worked as a seamstress. She took the name “Coco,” short for “coquette,” French for a kept woman — and, within a few years, she became exactly that: a demimondaine, living with her lover. He was Etienne Balsan, an ex-cavalry officer from a family of wealthy textile industrialists. Balsan brought her to his chateau, introduced her to his friends and taught her how to ride — a skill that would serve her royally.
Keen-eyed and discriminating, Chanel soon learned what it took to live well. She would remain grateful to Balsan for the rest of her life, but within two years, she was in love with someone else: Arthur “Boy” Capel, one of Balsan’s riding partners — a handsome English playboy with a large bank account and a web of connections. In 1908, he snatched her away, installed her in a Paris apartment and helped her launch a business making ladies’ hats. Boy Capel proved as generous with his wallet as he was fickle in love. When Chanel’s older sister committed suicide, he arranged for Chanel’s nephew, Andre Palasse (whom Chanel quickly adopted), to attend a boarding school in England. Capel would go on to finance her clothing boutiques in Paris, Deauville and Biarritz.
But Capel would take someone else as a wife. An upper-class Englishman could hardly marry a descendant of peasants — a courtesan. Nevertheless, Chanel remained his mistress until his death in a car accident 10 years later. She claimed she would never find happiness again. But at 35, she was rich, living in a glamorous apartment overlooking the Seine, poised to open the House of Chanel and acquire ever more wealth, lovers and notoriety. One world war had already come and gone, and it had not affected the gilded trajectory.
Never-ending stories: Is there anything left for biographers to reveal?
Gone are the days of respectful 'life-writings' and long gaps between comparative biographical studies. As yet another Coco Chanel exposé arrives, John Walsh asks, are there still any new facts for writers to uncover?
Wednesday, 17 August 2011 in The Independent
Seventy years after the events, the news caused a stir. "Coco Chanel spent WWII collaborating with the Nazis, says a new book that outlines her life," reported the Daily Mail, going on to quote from the book Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel, Nazi Agent by Hal Vaughan, who claims that the grande dame of the little black dress was practically a Nazi herself: "Fiercely anti-Semitic long before it became a question of pleasing the Germans, she became rich by catering to the very rich and shared their dislike of Jews, trade unions, socialism, Freemasons and Communism."
The book also claims that "in 1940 Coco was recruited into the Abwehr and had a lover, Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, who was honoured by Hitler and Goebbels in the war".
One's first response is to wonder whether Ms Chanel ever linked up with Hugo Boss, who designed the Nazi uniform and whose career blithely survived the war despite the taint of fascism. One's second response is to say: I thought we knew this stuff about the Nazi lover already. And a third is to wonder: how much more information about Coco bloody Chanel do I need in my life?
It seems only yesterday that Justine Picardie's Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life was garnering enthusiastic reviews for cutting through "the accretions of lies and romance" that surround Chanel's reputation. It came out in 2009, the same year as The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World's Most Elegant Woman by Karen Karbo and Chesley McLaren, one of a number of self-help and picture-heavy tomes that accompanied the release of Anne Fontaine's movie Coco before Chanel starring the lovely Audrey Tautou (who, of course, also starred in the last big Chanel perfume television commercial) and, coincidentally, Jan Kounen's film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, which opened a few months later, starring Anna Mouglalis as the scissor-wielding horizontale.
Die-hard fans might already have been familiar with Chanel and Her World: Friends, Fashion and Fame by Edmonde Charles-Roux, published four years earlier, or indeed a full biography entitled Coco Chanel by Henry Gidel published in 2000 – or indeed they could have checked out a book called Chanel: A Woman of Her Own by Axel Madsen published by Bloomsbury as far back as 1991. It deals with her famous lovers (Cocteau, Stravinsky, Dali, the Duke of Westminster) and tells all about her German boyfriend, and her crackpot attempts to convey German peace proposals to Winston Churchill, whom she had met earlier through the Duke.
In other words, we knew most of the Nazi stuff 20 years ago. If we'd forgotten, the publication of the French historian Patrick Buisson's Erotic Years 1940-1945 in 2008 would have reminded us that Chanel spent most of the war in the Paris Ritz Hotel, that her boyfriend was the amusingly named Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, and that he was a military attaché with the German embassy and a famous spy. Half of Paris knew about her liaison at the time, and condemned her for it. She herself claimed she'd used her affair with Baron Von Dincklage in order to meet a high-up general, in order to broker a peace deal with the Allies.
Perhaps this is what Hal Vaughan, the author of the new biography, means when he accuses her of "dabbling in Nazi foreign policy". He also accuses her of being "fiercely anti-Semitic", in using anti-Jew laws to close down a company to which she'd sold perfume-making rights to Chanel No 5. But as Justine Picardie argued in her biography, this unpleasant episode reeks more of commercial ruthlessness than of race hatred. Coco was, from first to last, a hard-faced, hard-nosed businesswoman with a flair for self-promotion and self-preservation. She slept with people she fancied, whether they were Nazi spies or English aristocrats. She did whatever it took to survive. And she lied and lied about her life, from the date of her birth to her upbringing in an orphanage, to her years as a demi-mondaine, one rung up from a prostitute.
So now, we have Hal Vaughan's slightly vieux-chapeau revelations about wartime espionage (the only intriguing detail in his account is that Chanel was allegedly recruited to the Abwehr military intelligence organisation under the code name of Agent F-7124 – though she was later accused by the Nazis of being a British spy), and that will do for the moment, won't it?
Well, no, actually – amazingly, there's another work in the pipeline, Chanel: an Intimate Life by Lisa Chaney, to be published in November this year. Mercifully, it starts in 1945, when her wartime shenanigans were over, but it shockingly reveals that, at some point after the war, the designer had sex with a woman, and occasionally indulged in "opiates", as the blurb quaintly calls them. As revelations go, these inhabit the same space as the information that ursine quadrupeds relieve themselves in leafy environs. Whoever thought it was worth commissioning another Coco book on the strength of some teeny details of sex and drugs?
Which raises the crucial question: what does it take to justify a biography today? What makes a publisher think that a dead person's life is worth the general reader's attention again? What makes it worth joining a herd of other authors writing about the same life?
The unofficial rules of "life-writing" used to hold that to publish a biography of a canonical figure (ie, one safely dead and consigned to a generally agreed "place" in history) less than 30 years after the last attempt, is a waste of both time and academic energy. Once Boswell had "done" Johnson, it was tacitly agreed, there was no need of another "life of" for a generation or two. The latter half of the 20th century, however, rewrote the rules. A new frankness in discussing sexual matters, a fascination with the minutiae of famous lives. A prurient interest in what was once deemed shocking behaviour, a wholesale lack of interest in Victorian-style hagiography – these all changed the face of biography in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Suddenly, you didn't have to wait 20 or 30 years if you had some juicy new information or some shocking new theory about the lives of the famous. Five years would do – or less. Victoria Glendinning recalled how amazed she was, when embarking on a new life of Anthony Trollope, to discover that three other Trollope biographers were already hard at work. The life-writing genre was suddenly deafened by the noise of tightly shut closets being flung open. New caches of letters, diaries and previously unseen material easily justified new lives of Victorian authors, politicians and adventurers, of Edwardian suffragettes, Bloomsbury intellectuals, pre-war sportsmen, post-war entertainers.
Shocking material, hitherto unpublishable, was suddenly available to all. John Lahr's sprightly life of the Sixties playwright Joe Orton, Prick Up Your Ears, with its frank account of gay high-jinks in public lavatories, could never have seen the light of publication before 1987. When Fiona MacCarthy brought out her life of Eric Gill, the sculptor and typographer, in 1989, she revealed to the world that he'd slept with every woman in his saintly Catholic commune in Wales, including maidservants, the wives of friends, his sisters, his two daughters – even the family dog. The facts had been available for years, explicitly laid out in Gill's self-accusing journals, but earlier biographers had been too cautious (or their publishers too shocked) to use it.
Some readers objected about what they regarded as a retrospective invasion of a subject's privacy, but their objections were brushed aside. "When you get the truth told without censure, then you realise how very various human nature is," Michael Holroyd, the doyen of biographers, told The Times. "The biographer's loyalty has to be the subject, and not what peripheral people are going to think about it."
Historical or literary figures about whose lives we'd speculated became fair game for several investigations. Hints of paedophilia or repressed sexuality became a focus of new biographies. Lewis Carroll's interest in, and photographs of, half-dressed little girls (and his artless letters to their parents) prompted a small industry of books. The lives of heroic figures with inscrutable emotional lives – Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, Sir Richard Burton, explorer and translator of the Kama Sutra – were inspected for signs of perversity. It was fantastic. Furtive sensation-seekers, too wary to look for sexually explicit material on bookshop shelves, could get their kicks in biographies – if they didn't mind ploughing their way through 500 pages of extraneous material.
Today, prurient browsers with a fascination for reading about physical or sexual abuse can easily find them in the pages of the popular "misery memoir". The biographies in the modern best-seller lists are mostly lives of living celebrities and entertainers, with their own protocols of revelation, modesty and nuance. For an author to justify writing the life of a canonical figure, however, the rules are different. The biography doesn't have to be about sexual revelation any more. It's more likely to be about truth and identity. "A good biography," says DJ Taylor, author of lives of Thackeray and George Orwell, "should be about what Anthony Powell calls 'the personal myth' – not about what the subject did, but about the image of themselves that they projected to the world. Who they thought they were, what they think happened to them – and what the truth actually was."
That's precisely the double-perspective that has informed several recent literary biographies: John Carey's life of William Golding, which incorporates a huge, self-flagellating, million-word diary kept by the author of Lord of the Flies; Gordon Bowker's life of James Joyce, which constantly asks the question of exactly how "Irish" the author of Ulysses was, and thought himself to be. And it can be applied in spades to Coco Chanel, a woman who was forever at pains to project an image of fairy-tale sophistication.
She faked so much of her long and phenomenally successful life, it's hardly surprising biographers have queued up to try their luck at disinterring the truth – and are still doing so. In penury and plenty, in peace and war, in bedroom and showroom, there's plenty of Chanel's life to go round for the truffle-hunting truth-hound. And she knew very well what she was doing. "Reality is sad," she once said when living in Switzerland after the war, "and that handsome parasite that is the imagination will always be preferred to it. May my legend gain ground; I wish it a long and happy life."