The name Coco Chanel is associated with the little black dress, trademark suits, and Chanel No. 5 perfume. When she proposed that every woman needed a little black dress, sales went through the roof. Then, she created her trademark perfume which remains one of the best-selling scents to this day. Chanel single-handedly revolutionized the fashion industry, and her name became synonymous with impeccable fashion sense.
But not too long ago, it came to light that the name Coco Chanel is also connected to other things –dark things. As it turns out, Chanel has quite a sinister past, which has, for some people, completely tainted the name of the fashion queen. Declassified French government documents have exposed Chanel’s covert work for German* military intelligence during World War II.
Many people don’t know (and why would they?) that Coco Chanel is a true rag to riches story. Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born in extreme poverty in France to unwed parents in 1883. When she was 11, her mother died, and she was sent to an orphanage and raised by Catholic nuns.
The orphanage was just as you would expect it to be: bleak, stingy, and strict. Despite the disciplined life, the nuns taught the young girl how to sew. By 18, when she was too old to stay, she got a job as a seamstress. During her free time, she would sing at local cabarets. It was around then that she started going by the name “Coco.”
No one is absolutely sure how Chanel got the name Coco. While Chanel herself said that her father would call her Coco as a child, there are other theories. After she left the orphanage at 18 and started singing in early cabaret shows, she took on the name Coco. Both Chanel and her aunt (who was only a year older than her) did these gigs to make extra money as well as flirt with the soldiers who were stationed in Moulins, France.
As the story goes, two of the songs Chanel sang were Ko Ko Ri Ko and Qui qu’a vu Coco dans l’Trocadéro? (“Who’s seen Coco at the Trocadéro?”). The crowd would call for encores by shouting out to her: “Coco! Coco!” There’s also the possibility that it came from the French word “cocotte,” meaning a kept woman.
At 23, she moved to Paris. Everything she encountered among the poor became material for the garments she would come to design for the rich. According to Time magazine, she invented the genre “pauvre,” or “poor look.” She would put women into men’s jersey sweaters and created a simple dress out of a sailor uniform.
She would use ditch diggers’ scarves, mechanics’ shirts, backless shoes and cotton dresses. She was eventually praised for her straightforward design and use of ordinary fabrics, which could easily be mass-produced. Her rough childhood instilled in her resourcefulness and survival instincts, which led to her success, but that doesn’t mean she was a people person.
According to a 1931 New Yorker profile, she couldn’t sketch and hated sewing. She came to establish herself in the fashion world through relationships with wealthy men. One was a French officer who put her in his “chateau” and 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.”
She slowly rose through the ranks at the start of the 20th century. The poverty of her childhood became a distant memory and was replaced with a rich, lavish life that she built by herself. Because of her newfound stature, she was socializing with famous people like Pablo Picasso and Winston Churchill.
Chanel learned quickly about the benefits of boyfriends. In Paris, she met a former cavalry officer, Étienne Balsan, and became his mistress. Balsan then introduced her to his best friend, Captain Arthur “Boy” Capel, and she began an affair with him which lasted nine years.
It was in 1913 that she created the “little black dress.” When World War I came to an end, she was steadfast on debuting her fashion line. By 1918, she had her own dress shop, La Maison Chanel, which remains today. A year later, Capel was killed in a car accident, and Coco has said that her life afterward was “one of unhappiness.”
Although she’s known for designing women’s fashions, Chanel also designed men’s apparel and would model the clothes after what Capel wore (he was always impeccably dressed). Chanel met her next boyfriend, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, and began to expand her merchandise into jewelry, handbags, and, of course, perfume.
Chanel was actually the first designer to introduce beads to dresses. Soon enough, she was rich and had 2,400 women working for her in 26 locations, creating 400 pieces of clothing for her semi-annual shows. In between her work and fashion shows, Chanel was in constant pursuit of wealthy and influential men.
Her relationships with men were used to gain personal wealth as well as higher social status. Her good friend Vera Lombardi introduced Chanel to the anti-Semitic Duke of Westminster, with whom she stayed for 10 years. By the time Chanel was hanging around with Winston Churchill and the English elite (including the Prince of Wales, future King Edward VIII), high society British women were wearing Chanel dresses.
In 1921, Chanel hired Ernest Beaux to create a perfume. He gave her five samples to choose from, and she picked the fifth bottle. It became known as Chanel No. 5. Five came to be her lucky number (her new collections always came out on May 5th).
Eventually, Chanel needed financing, marketing, and distribution. She met Pierre Wertheimer, a Jewish businessman, and the two created Parfums Chanel. Some problems arose through this partnership, however. The first problem was that Wertheimer didn’t get exclusive rights to the name Chanel. The second problem was that Chanel began accusing Wertheimer of taking advantage of her.
He was “the bandit who screwed me,” she once said. It also didn’t help that he was Jewish. Slowly but surely, the seeds of anti-Semitism were planted and only grew from there. The time would soon come when she would involve herself in what would become the darkest chapter of her story.
In 1936, thousands of workers started going on strike in support of socialism. 4,000 Chanel workers joined in, protesting for higher wages and better benefits. Chanel’s workers locked out all the customers, and the designer felt betrayed. She came to blame the Bolsheviks and the Jews.
Three years later, she got her revenge by closing the shop and firing everyone without giving any notice. Times were grim, and World War II was looming. Chanel was by no means going to allow herself to fall back into poverty. So, she came up with a way to keep the good times rolling.
The perfect opportunity landed in her lap as she met a German soldier by the name of Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage. Their relationship relocated her to the Paris Hôtel Ritz, where she stayed connected to high society – just as she wanted.
Chanel spent the war years in her Hôtel Ritz apartment with Dincklage, who went by “Spatz.” He spied for the Germans before they ever stepped foot in Paris. Spatz was married to a Jewish woman named Maximiliane von Schoenebeck, aka “Catsy.” Once the law was established that forbade Germans from marrying Jews, Spatz divorced Catsy, despite a successful partnership of spying together in pre-war France.
After the Occupation of France and Paris in 1940, the Vichy government started implementing its version of the Nuremberg Laws. Days before the Germans marched into Paris, Wertheimer fled for New York City. Before he left, he transferred the perfume business to the manufacturer Félix Amiot, a German collaborator and one of the “Aryan race.”
In New York, Wertheimer produced Chanel No. 5, unbeknownst to Chanel. She soon found out, and in 1941, she wrote to the German regime, claiming the sale was fictitious and was Wertheimer’s ploy to get around the new law that Jews couldn’t own a business.
She petitioned to get her business back, but Amiot forged documentation showing the sale was legitimate. One of Amiot’s companies built Junker aircraft for the Germans, and the decision came down to planes or perfume. The country’s Führer chose airplanes, and Chanel lost that battle.
But Chanel was still, more or less, on the side of the Germans. Even when the Germans took over the Hôtel Ritz for senior officer living quarters, Chanel retained her apartment thanks to her relationship with Spatz. Despite food rationing in the country, the dining room at the Ritz always served the best food and beverages.
She often dined there with high-ranking German officers and other collaborators. One night her rage about Jews and homosexuals was so intense that reportedly even the Germans were surprised. She had said that her company “should be Aryanized.”
In early 1941, Spatz met with the Führer and was given new orders to work directly for Berlin. He rose to a senior level within the Abwehr (the German military service). Spatz then introduced Chanel to his friend, Baron Louis de Vaufreland, and, soon enough, the Germans recruited her due to her contacts in England, including Churchill.
The Germans also knew that Chanel had a nephew, André Palasse, who was being held as a prisoner of war in Germany. They promised to release him if she would help them get some important political information. Chanel agreed to the deal and thus became an Abwehr agent F-7124.
Her code name: “Westminster.” Her first mission was to head to Madrid, Spain, in August 1941, where she and Spatz’s friend Vaufreland met with British embassy officials. By the time she returned to Paris in the winter of 1941, her nephew was already released.
Chanel’s next mission was in 1943. She was asked to go back to Madrid to meet with the British ambassador to Spain. Operation Modellhut (“Model Hat”) was approved by Heinrich Himmler, and he put his top man, Chief of SS Walter Schellenberg, in charge.
Her mission was to tell Churchill that a certain group of German officers wanted to remove the Fuhrer and end the war with England. She was to deliver a letter to Churchill, requesting a meeting with him to convince him to negotiate for peace. Her friend Vera Lombardi was the courier. But Lombardi outed Chanel and Spatz as German spies. The British then arrested Lombardi as an SS agent.
The mission ultimately failed and whether the letter ever made it into Churchill’s hands is unknown. In 1944, Chanel was arrested and questioned by the Free French Purge Committee about her role as a German spy. Her answers proved good enough for French authorities to release her. She wrote to her niece: “Churchill had me released.”
According to historians, Churchill was worried that Chanel would be exposed as a German sympathizer, collaborator, or spy. Even worse, she could implicate top-level British officials, members of its high-society, and possibly the royal family (the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were sympathizers).
As the war started to die down, there were still unanswered questions. Chanel did go on record, saying that she gave enough information to German forces to save her nephew. She denied any other involvement in the regime.
Chanel made sure (at least she tried) to erase any and all evidence that connected her to the German regime and to being a spy. After the hearing, she packed up her Cadillac and left Paris for Switzerland and remained there, in voluntary exile, until her return to Paris in the mid-‘50s.
Spatz even sneaked into Switzerland to join her in her villa. While in Switzerland, Chanel began a new, competing perfume company to market and sell Chanel Perfumes. In 1947, she and her former partner Wertheimer renegotiated their original deal.
In return for signing over the legal rights to her name, she received $400,000 in cash, which was a 2% royalty of all Chanel No. 5 sales, and a monthly compensation to cover all of her expenses for the rest of her life. 10 years after leaving Paris, she returned to her home city.
In Paris, she renewed her fashion company (with Wertheimer’s financial support). When she reappeared on the fashion scene in 1954, the Americans and British welcomed her with open arms. The French, though, were not as welcoming.
The stain of her wartime secrets lingered, and the French press was not kind to Mademoiselle Chanel. As reported in Time, “her name still had ‘disgraced’ attached to it.” still, the Chanel suit, if not Chanel herself, retained its appeal, and her line was still selling well. By the 1960s, she became more controversial.
She lashed out against the new beloved fashion of the time: the miniskirt. “Dégoutant,” is what she said of the trend in 1966. “Now I know why men don’t like women anymore.” Chanel purposely kept the hemline of her iconic skirt suits just below the knee, where it had always been and always will be.
In her later years, Chanel grew tyrannical and extremely lonely. She was already a drug addict back in the mid-’30s, and it only worsened over the years. On January 10, 1971, she died in her apartment at the Hôtel Ritz.
Chanel’s story reads like a Hollywood movie (and it became one), but it was very much real. In the past few years, historians have scanned hundreds of boxes of declassified government documents provided to the French Defense Ministry’s archives in 1999 (these documents are only available to view in person).
The documents reveal that France’s secret services had their suspicions about Chanel’s connections with the Germans at the time. When translated from the French, one document read:
“A source from Madrid informs us that Madame Chanel, in 1942-1943, was the mistress and agent of Baron Gunther Von Dincklage. Dincklage was the attaché to the German Embassy in Paris in 1935. He worked as a propagandist and was a suspected agent.”
Walter Schellenberg, whom Chanel worked with in her spy period, was also tried as a war criminal and served six years. A year after being released in 1951, he died of cancer. Chanel paid for his medical care and financially supported the family, even paying for the funeral expenses.
After she heard that Schellenberg was in the middle of writing a memoir, Chanel reportedly paid off the family to ensure that her name would never be mentioned. Chanel managed to live the rest of her life without the world knowing too much about her sinister past.
In early 1971, Chanel was 87, tired, and ailing. She was still carrying out her usual routine of preparing the spring catalog. On the afternoon of January 9, she went for a long drive. Afterward, she went to bed early. According to her maid, Chanel uttered her last words to her before she passed:
“You see, this is how you die.” Of course, it only makes sense that a woman of high class would use that line as her last. She died on January 10, 1971, at the Hotel Ritz, where she had been living for over three decades.
If there’s one thing that Chanel was most famous for, it might be her storied affairs. One of her many relationships was with the famed artist Pablo Picasso. According to Lisa Chaney’s biography Coco Chanel, An Intimate Life, theirs was a brief one.
She was also with the Duke of Westminster (the grandson of a Russian Tsar) and the composer Igor Stravinsky. In 1920, when the composer was reworking The Rite of Spring for a new show with a Paris ballet company, Chanel was one of the primary patrons.
Today, Pierre Wertheimer’s grandsons, Alain and Gérard, own the Chanel empire. Despite the tainted name, Coco Chanel has remained a fixture in the fashion and perfume industry. For instance, when asked what she wore to bed, Marilyn Monroe said, “Only a few drops of Chanel No. 5.”
Aside from fashion, jewelry and perfume, Chanel also made a lasting impression on the sunbathing community. Chanel was always one to take to the sun, making suntans not only acceptable but a symbol of privilege and leisure. Chanel’s influence made sunbathing fashionable.
The iconic logo that is on handbags, earrings, necklaces, and many other products – the famous interlocking “Cs” – was created by Chanel and first appeared in 1924 on bottles for her signature fragrance, Chanel No. 5.
The logo clearly made the right impression because it hasn’t been changed since. There are theories on Chanel’s inspiration for the logo, but many people agree that it’s most likely inspired by Catherine de Medici’s royal insignia, which Chanel might have noticed on a visit to the royal residence.
The same insignia sits on the walls of the Château de Crémat hotel in Nice, France. As the legend goes, Chanel attended parties there, and the two Cs worked well with her name and branding.
Another possibility is that the logo was a tribute to Arthur “Boy” Capel, Chanel’s former lover and the man she considered to be the love of her life – the one who died in a car accident just before Christmas 1919, leaving her devastated. In this case, the theory is that the two Cs stand for Capel & Chanel—her way of keeping his memory and influence alive.
Chanel met Churchill in the mid-‘20s through the Duke of Westminster, her then-lover. The Duke was one of the wealthiest men in the world with considerable influence. He was a close friend of Churchill’s (who was then the Chancellor of the Exchequer). The future prime minister was a regular at the Duke’s home.
Churchill once wrote a letter home that read, “the famous [Coco Chanel] turned up, and I took great fancy to her — a most capable and agreeable woman… She hunted vigorously all day, motored to Paris after dinner, and today is engaged in passing and improving dresses on endless streams of mannequins.”
In the ‘50s, it was essential for women of status to carry their purses in their hands. By 1955, Chanel changed the game when she introduced the 2.55 Chanel Shoulder Bag (named after the date it debuted, in February 1955).
The sleek bag had quilted leather and a signature gold chain as the strap, making it a glamorous bag for women to show off on their shoulders. Chanel also made jersey fabric cool. Before Chanel, women’s fashion relied on the corset. She liberated the female silhouette by using jersey, a fabric then typically used for men’s underwear. It was cheap and draped well, making it perfect for her early designs of simple dresses.
A 1969 musical based on Chanel’s life made it to Broadway. It was called Coco and is set in 1953–1954 at the time that Chanel was reestablishing her couture house. Katharine Hepburn was a veteran stage actress by then, but the four-time Oscar winner wasn’t known for her singing voice.
This was to be her one and only musical. The show “only” had 329 performances on Broadway. The performance at the 1970 Tony Awards can still be seen on YouTube. It was nominated for seven Tonys that night and won two.
There are quite a few movies that have been made about Coco Chanel. This one follows her childhood and then moves to her first steps in Paris, the birth of her couture house, and modestly revisits her romantic life.
Actress Audrey Tautou embodies Chanel, who liberated women with her straight-cut garments. The film’s French director focused on Coco’s life before her glory, which is pretty much the most interesting period for those who want to understand the woman behind the figure. The film is elegant and touching, just as Chanel was seen.
Another film is Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. This one is about Chanel being devastated about the loss of her lover Capel. She met composer Igor Stravinsky
Chanel was fascinated by his charisma and personality. He had fled the Russian Revolution, and Chanel decided to move him, his wife, and kids, into her villa, before becoming his mistress. Anna Mouglalis and Mads Mikkelsen play the egotistical couple.
This is a short film directed by Karl Lagerfeld, who revisits the Paris reopening of the Chanel couture house in 1954, after Chanel’s Swiss exile during the Occupation. The film emphasizes the United States’ role in her comeback.
Actress Géraldine Chaplin brilliantly plays Chanel on her return trip as malicious and determined to reign over Parisian fashion again. The film also includes commentary and testimonies from actors and other personalities, including Rupert Everett, Anna Mouglalis, and Sam McKnight.
* The words “German” and “Fuhrer” have been used throughout the article due to censorship issues.