As the title implies, this book is very much about Coco Chanel's war years. It goes without saying that Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel was the high priestess of couture. By the 1920's she employed more than 2000 workers and had amassed a personal fortune. At the start of WWII she closed her couture house and moved into the Ritz, mostly reserved for high-ranking Nazi officers and, at the end of the war, moved to Switzerland. The years 1941-1954 are ones shrouded in mystery and this is the story of how she became Abwehr agent R-7124, how she evaded reprisals against collaborators in Occupied Paris and how she was able to re-build the House of Chanel.
This fascinating book begins with the birth of Gabrielle in a hospice for the poor. Descended from itinerant peddlers, when her mother died, she was sent to a convent orphanage at the age of twelve. With great strength of character, she became 'Coco' (possibly from the word 'cocotte' or 'kept woman')and reinvented herself as a seamstress and nightclub singer. From this time came a stream of rich lovers (never husbands) who helped change Coco into the success she became - funding her lifestyle and her business. The names of these men are really evocative of the European aristocracy of those times - Etienne Balsan, an ex-cavalry officer, Arthur "Boy" Capel, Pierre Reverdy, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, "Bendor", the Duke of Westminster, and more. She seemed not suitable to marry, but had many lovers, and, as the old world of privileged aristocracy drew to a close, she became a symbol of the Roaring Twenties. She designed for the ballet, for Hollywood (with less sucess) and began new, lucrative, businesses with perfume and jewellery.
The story of her successful perfume business is very relevant in this book, as it was Pierre Wertheimer, who was a highly successful, Jewish businessman, who produced, marketed and distributed her perfume. Chanel, an extreme anti semite, whose almost every boyfriend was also racist and right wing, later regretted her decision to allow Wertheimer to have control of her business and tried to wrest it back from him when the Germans aryanised businesses. I do not wish to give anything away, but there is no doubt that Pierre Wertheimer was an extremely able, intelligent and far sighted man, who was very aware of what was coming in Europe.
The coming of the war led Chanel to her last major love affair, with the German spy Lieutenant Baron Hans Gunther Von Dincklage. Formerly married to a half Jewish wife, he was forced to divorce because of the Neuremberg laws, and had served as a diplomat at the German Embassy at Warsaw before being sent to Paris to build a Nazi propaganda and espionage network in France.
Coco Chanel was an obvious collaborater in that she was, without doubt, sleeping with the enemy as the title implies. She had little sympathy with the plight of either the Jewish citizens of Paris or the average inhabitant who suffered much during the occupation. Virtually the whole city was living in poverty and near starvation, while Chanel and her friends lived in pre-war luxury in the Ritz. She used the war as an excuse to sack the majority of her staff, who had entered into the general strike of 1936 and by whom she felt betrayed. Admittedly, she was desperate to have her nephew released from a POW camp, where he was ill, but she also tried to use her former friendship with Churchill before the war, as bargaining power with the high ranking members of the Nazi party. People in Paris listened to the BBC, although banned, who warned how collaborators would be punished when France was liberated. As the war went on, and the winters became harder, resistance grew and Chanel must have been aware how her wartime behaviour would be viewed.
This really is a fascinating account of a very turbulent time and how, basically, wealth and influence, saved Chanel after the war. I have only touched on her wartime activities, as I do not want to spoil the book, but it covers all her war years and exactly what her activities were during that time. I found it a remarkable story and Chanel a deeply troubled character I struggled to find sympathy with. It was obvious that, even during the war, some of the British aristocracy were pro-fascist and that alarm of Russia was greater perhaps than anything else. What is even more remarkable is that, Churchill, with everything going on at the end of the war, could still be concerned with the smaller picture and individual concerns. Overall, a highly recommended read. Lastly, I read the kindle edition of this book and it contained illustrations.