Coco Chanel: fashion designer, Nazi informant | Antiques roadshow

In the summer of 2021, when ANTIQUES ROADSHOW visited Wadsworth Mansion in Middletown, Connecticut, a guest named Georgiana brought a beautiful cuff bracelet that she said once belonged to her mother’s great-aunt, actress Helen. Hayes. Collectibles appraiser Laura Woolley informed Georgina that the bracelet was originally designed for the jewelry line of famous Parisian designer Coco Chanel.

Coco Chanel is one of the most notable fashion icons of the 20th century, fundamentally redefining the style of women in what we know today, ridding the closets of frustrated Victorian dresses and introducing effortless chic pieces like the ‘ little black dress”. Over the past decade, however, it has emerged that Chanel also played a role in one of the darker chapters of the 20th century. In her biography of Chanel in 2011, Sleeping with the enemyForeign correspondent and World War II veteran Hal Vaughn used contemporary intelligence documents to chart the path that led Chanel to her secret life as a Nazi sympathizer and informant in the 1940s.

Gabrielle Chanel was born in 1883 in the Loire Valley in western France and grew up in poverty. Her mother died when she was 11, after which her father, a traveling laborer, sent her and her two sisters to the Catholic Convent-Orphanage in Aubazine, where the sisters stayed until they moved into a Catholic boarding house for teenage girls.

At the time, the Catholic Church was strongly anti-Semitic, especially after the scandal of the Dreyfus affair, involving “the arrest, trial and conviction for high treason of 1894 on the basis of false testimony from Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer from Alsace. -Jew decent. Vaughn writes that “Chanel could not have escaped the Catholic Church’s propaganda campaign against Jewish officer Dreyfus” and, later in her life, “[Chanel’s] the fear and hatred of the Jews was harmful and notorious.

At 20, Chanel found work as a seamstress, and in her spare time sang in a cafe frequented by Calvary officers and earned her her nickname. Vaughn writes:

“[At the café] she became “Coco”, a name taken from a little song she sang, or perhaps taken from the abbreviated version of the French word for a maintained woman: cocotte. ”

And Gabrielle’s new name certainly matched her lifestyle. Strikingly beautiful, intelligent and witty, Chanel spent her 20s, 30s and 40s going from handsome to handsome, living with wealthy men in high social circles who introduced her to tastes and habits. , as well as the “who’s who” of the upper class. In 1923, Vera Bate, a British socialite and close friend of Coco, “introduced Chanel to the sparkling social ensemble which revolved around English royalty: [the Duke of] Westminster; Edward, Prince of Wales; Winston Churchill … “Soon after meeting, Chanel and the Prince of Wales began a 10-year relationship filled with passion, jealousy and for Chanel – a new market in England for her growing fashion empire. But that would be her introduction, and later her close friendship, with Winston Churchill, who in all likelihood saved Chanel from conviction for treason as a Nazi wartime conspirator.

After living for several years in London with the Prince of Wales, Chanel returned to Paris in the mid-1930s to continue running her business. In the spring of 1940, after the capture of the city by the Germans, Chanel fled south to Corbère to stay with the family of her nephew André. Upon arrival, Chanel learns that André, a soldier in the French army, has been captured and locked up in a prisoner of war camp in Germany. Once the family learned that André was alive, Chanel quickly decided to return to Paris and use her connections to free her nephew.

By 1941, now 57, Chanel was, according to Vaughn, “very well connected with political figures in London, Madrid and Paris”, and had started a relationship with Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, a spy for the Gestapo and a major asset of the Abwehr, the Nazi intelligence organization. For Chanel, spending time with her new lover often meant hanging out with other high-ranking officials, and the designer quickly entered the social circle of the powerful Nazis.

Later that year, Dincklage traveled to Berlin with his colleague, Baron Louis de Vaufreland, to meet personally with Adolf Hitler. Soon after, the Abwehr learned of Chanel’s anxiety over her nephew’s condition and they were eager to make a deal – Andre’s release in exchange for communication with some of the powerful allied connections. by Chanel. With Dincklage’s help, Chanel made a deal with the Abwehr – she and Vaufreland would travel together to Madrid, neutral Spain, where Chanel would then make “a trip to England, so that she could give her important friends some economic and political information “.

What happened during this visit to Madrid in 1941 is unknown, however, as no documents from Chanel’s mission have ever been found. But Vaughn notes that when Chanel returned to Paris in the winter of 1941, she learned that the Germans had held their end of the bargain and that Andre had returned home safe and sound.

In the winter of 1943, as Allied forces gained ground against Hitler, some Parisians began to take action and organized violent resistance against the German occupiers, while punishing known collaborators. Nazi leaders reached out to Dincklage and told him it was time to leave Paris – and Chanel – behind. Not wanting to be left alone in Paris, Chanel decided to devise a new plan with Dincklage, trying to capitalize on Vera Bate’s connection with Winston Churchill.

Quoting the French historian Henry Gidel, Vaugn writes:

Miss Chanel believed she could exchange her friendship with Winston Churchill to persuade the Nazis that she and Dincklage had the necessary contacts to negotiate a separate peace deal with Britain. Gidel believed that the Duke of Westminster, well known for being pro-German as well as many other senior British politicians and members of the royal family, feared that the Soviet Union would take over all of Europe. The Duke encouraged Chanel to act as an emissary between Berlin and London.

However, the plan went horribly wrong when Chanel’s friend Bate, upon arriving in Madrid, confessed to authorities his own role as a German agent in the last hour – naming Chanel as an informer in the process.

Shortly after the liberation of Paris in August 1944, Chanel was arrested by the French government. Yet even after several hours of interrogation, in the absence of tangible evidence, the authorities released her. Some biographers believe that Chanel’s exit was likely orchestrated by Churchill, although according to Vaughn there is no clear evidence of this. “One theory is that Chanel knew that Churchill had violated his own enemy trade law… by secretly paying the Germans to protect the Duke of Windsor’s * property in Paris,” writes Vaughn. [*The Duke of Windsor was the former King Edward VIII, who had been one of Coco Chanel’s lovers while he was still the Prince of Wales.]

Chanel’s questioning was never made public by the French government, according to Vaughn, mainly due to a lack of appetite to reopen a complicated and uncertain case:

“In 1949, few officials were interested in connecting the dots that led to the betrayal of France by Chanel. Details of his collaboration with the Nazis have been hidden for years in French, German, Italian, Soviet and American archives.

After the war, Chanel spent her final years the same way she did before meeting Dincklage: living luxuriously and dressing the rich and famous. In the mid-1950s, Chanel redesigned the design. She died on January 10, 1971 at the Ritz in Paris, where she had resided most of her life. She was never questioned about her relationship with Dincklage, and her collaboration with the German Abwehr was not brought to light during her lifetime.

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