When most people think of Chanel, the first things that come to mind are little tweed suits and quilted bags. Not Nazis.
However, a new biography of the famed designer, "Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War," by Hal Vaughan, released this week, makes a case that Coco Chanel was a Nazi spy who even went on secret missions for the Nazis during World War II.
There have been rumblings of Chanel's dealings with the Nazi regime for some time now. It's well known that Chanel used anti-Semitic legal discrimination to wrest ownership of the Chanel No. 5 perfume away from the Jewish brothers who formulated it.
But while most biographers have agreed that Chanel certainly interacted with the Nazis, Vaughan goes one step further in claiming that Chanel was a Nazi spy herself.
The Associated Press reports that Vaughan, looking around in French police files, found a report that indicated that during the war France believed Chanel was a Nazi agent with the code name "Westminster," and that led Vaughan to do further investigating.
During the war Chanel stayed in the Paris Ritz hotel, then under Nazi control, with Baron Hans Guther von Dinklage, a military intelligence officer. Vaughan goes on to claim that the Nazis recruited Chanel and sent her on a mission to Spain, in exchange for the release of her nephew from a military internment camp.
According to Reuters, the book reprints some testimony Chanel gave after the war when she was questioned about her relationship with the Nazis and her own words reveal her to have been strongly anti-Semitic.
As to why this information is only coming to light now, the AP reports that Vaughan claims that the documents he found have only recently been declassified, and that other biographers knew, but no one wanted to tarnish the Chanel brand's image.
As the luxury goods industry is a major part of France's economy – and the Chanel brand is at the top of that sector – damaging the founder's reputation could be seen as a risky economic move. However, Vaughan has told the press that he doesn't think his book will make much of an impact on sales and that it will all blow over soon.
Chanel (the company) issued a statement immediately after the book's release, saying that "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 fashion house also sniffed that: "[M]ore than 57 books have been written about Gabrielle [Coco] Chanel.… We would encourage you to consult some of the more serious ones.”
Megan Wasson is a Monitor contributor.