Sleeping With the Enemy is a bubble-bursting kind of book.
When most people think of Coco Chanel, they probably picture her like I used to, as played by Audrey Tautau in Coco Before Chanel (2009). Either a hard-working young thing from the provinces, or the ambitious and innovative fashion icon she became later in her life.
After reading Hal Vaughan’s 2011 book, Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel, Nazi Agent, a new image comes to mind, and it’s not good. At best, Chanel was a powerful woman who would do anything to survive, to succeed, and to walk away from the war unscathed. At worst? Chanel was an anti-semitic Nazi collaborator and morphine-addicted snob who not only slept with the enemy, but aided them.
Hal Vaughan’s book relies on documents from a variety of archives and other legitimate sources, including German files discovered in the Soviet Union. They show that Chanel had a long-term love affair with a Nazi spy, the handsome, aristocratic and half-British Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, known to his intimates as “Spatz.” At the beginning of the Second World War, Chanel sought help to obtain her nephew’s release from a prisoner of war camp in Germany. Spatz was the perfect string-puller. It didn’t take long until the two formed a long-lasting romantic alliance.
Chanel’s relationship with Spatz enabled Chanel to keep living in luxury in the midst of war. Although Chanel initially departed for Vichy, France, Spatz called in a favor with the German High Command and they invited Chanel to move into the Cambon wing of the Ritz as the Nazi’s “Privatgast.” Chanel’s new rooms weren’t quite the same as her old suite facing Place Vendome, but they would do.
While other Parisians suffered through severe food rationing during the long, desperate years of occupation, Chanel sipped champagne with the top German officials who had taken over the Ritz. Chanel and Spatz dined at Maxim’s, went to black-tie affairs at the opera, and attended glamourous dinner parties at the German Ambassador’s residence on the Left Bank.
But of course, there was a price to be paid for Spatz’s favors. And it appears Chanel had no trouble paying it. Chanel and Spatz traveled to Berlin to meet with with a top SS intelligence chief, and Chanel became German Secret Agent F-7124, code name “Westminster.” If Vaughan’s book has a weakness, it is here, where he seeks to explain the nature of Chanel’s missions on behalf of the Germans. It is not entirely clear what specific traitorous acts she performed against the interests of the French people. Nevertheless, it is perfectly clear that Chanel was a pro-German collaborator who was not quiet about her dislike for Jews.
Chanel didn’t just nod when other people said bad things about Jews at German dinner parties. She spouted quite a bit of venom herself. But even worse, she actually tried to use anti-semitic laws to fight for the ownership of Chanel No. 5. Back in 1924, Chanel had sold her highly successful perfume line to the Jewish Wertheimer family, and she wanted it back. Spatz introduced Chanel to the senior Nazi official in charge of the “Aryanization” of Jewish property in France, and he helped her try to wrestle the control of Chanel No. 5 away from the Wertheimers. However, the Wertheimers were prepared and had already placed the company into a trust. For once, Chanel did not succeed.
It is still a mystery how Chanel was ever able to avoid arrest and prosecution after the war. According to Vaughan, a case was opened against her and she appeared for an interrogation, but the case went nowhere. The rumor is that Winston Churchill intervened on her behalf. Chanel slipped out of France and headed straight to Switzerland, where she spent several more years living with Spatz.
Chanel made a huge comeback in Paris in 1954. She was in her 70’s and the French didn’t wanted to be reminded of who did what in the the war. She died in her rooms at the Paris Ritz in 1971, the past varnished over. She was a fashion icon worth over $54 million. And the brand lives on.
Despite everything I learned from Vaughan’s book, and I was still interested in going on the Paris Walks Fashion Tour, which I did just this week. The tour guide was well informed about Chanel’s past, and offered a middle-of-the-road, no-one-really-knows interpretation of Chanel’s role with the Nazis. The tour guide shared a particularly interesting quote. When asked about her relationship with Spatz, Chanel supposedly said: “At my age, I’m so happy to have a lover, I don’t ask for a passport.”
In any event, here are some photos from the Paris Walks Tour, which I highly recommend.
And just in case – like me – you don’t have the right credentials to get on the Chanel VIP list for current tours of Chanel’s apartments, at least we can enjoy the photos of someone who does. Check out this story from the Guardian, complete with eye-popping photos of Chanel’s glamorous lifestyle on rue Cambon.