Monday, September 26, 2011

A Bunch of Creeps

The cover of Hal Vaughan's book Sleeping With The Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War looks exactly like the cardboard boxes made to hold a bottle of Chanel no.5. Not a coincidence. The perfume, and control of it (and the profits) is one of the major stories in this book. It's not a pretty story, but then, very little about the life of Gabrielle Chanel was, except for the clothes . . .

And it should be said, the woman was very good at the whole dress-designing thing. A woman could don just about anything she made from, say, 1920 on and look fashionable and contemporary. She was one of the first designers to do women's sportswear, one of the first to get rid of the corset, and in the 1960's, when many of her younger colleagues were giving themselves hernias trying to cash in on the "youth" movement, she stuck to her guns and her little suits and came out of the whole business as one of the few designers whose clothes don't look like period pieces now.

About Chanel no. 5; it had Chanel's name on it, it was formulated at her request, and it was manufactured by a company called Parfums Chanel. But the majority stock-holders in the company were the Wertheimer family, owners of the largest and most prestigious perfume company in France, Bourjois (which made sense, since they put the money into the company that allowed for the mass production of Chanel's perfumes). Even with only 10% operating stock in the company and and a 2% royalty on every bottle sold, Chanel became a multi-millionaire, but she still steamed over the deal and complained that she had been "screwed" by the Wertheimers. And when the Nazis came rolling into Paris in 1940, she tried to steal the company out from under them.

It didn't work. The Wertheimers, well aware of the "aryanization" (i.e., theft) of Jewish businesses in the territories already conquered by Germany, had arranged with another French industrialist, Felix Amiot, to take control of Parfums Chanel, making it safely "Aryan" before they left for New York (after the war, it required a protracted court battle to get it back). Also, they sent an American lawyer who worked from them, H. Gregory Thomas, to Paris to get his hands on the secret formula for Chanel no. 5 and the ingredients necessary to make the stuff. Oh, and to rescue a family member who was being held as a POW. Thomas, who served in the OSS during WWII, passed around a lot of gold coins to the right parties (people in France were starting to starve under the German occupation) and accomplished what he was asked. (More successful at the "Aryanization" game was Eugene Schuller, the founder of L'Oreal Cosmetics, who stole the factories and supplies of several Jewish competitors, helping to make him one of the biggest players in the business. Having used the Nazis to get what he wanted, he then cozied up to the French Resistance as the war ground along and the occupiers lost ground, to make sure he could keep what he had stolen afterwards.)

One might also mention "Operation ModelHut" ("Operation Model Hat"). At the time, Chanel was involved with a German intelligence officer named Hans von Drinklage, who had been recruiting foreign operatives for Germany since the days of the Weimar Republic. In 1944, von Drinklage and Chanel traveled to Spain, where Chanel tried to use her connections to the British upper-crust, in particular Winston Churchill, who was a friend and the Duke of Westminster, who used to be a boyfriend, to open up talks about a "separate peace" between Germany and Great Britain. It went nowhere, but her willingness to do this, and her knowledge that there were people in the British Government that might be willing to listen, says a great deal about the circles that she traveled in.

To put it bluntly, Chanel's social circle was a bunch of creeps. Some of them were very talented, a lot of them had money and titles, but generally, they were a gang of bog-standard bigots and ignoramuses, and they had the kind of money and influence that meant that their bigoted ignorance held sway for far too long. And during the war, when people were starving in France and Poland and other occupied territories (and in Germany too, for that matter), when the ripples of death and misery radiating from the actions of the Axis powers seem to have swallowed up most of the earth, these people sat in the Ritz eating black-market goodies and sipping champagne.

And after the war, Chanel and a great many of them avoided serious consequences for their actions. In part, Chanel protected herself by paying off von Dinklage for the rest of his life to keep his mouth shut, as well as one of his SS superiors who made it known he was writing his memoirs, was in ill health, and was in need of financial assistance. She got the message -- when the memoirs appeared some years later, no mention was made of Operation ModelHut. Chanel was also protected by what she knew -- namely just how close the Duke of Windsor and his wife, Wallis Simpson, had been to Hitler and their association with various well-placed Nazi sympathizers, and also that the British government, in violation of wartime trade laws, had been paying off the German occupiers in Paris in order to keep them from laying waste to the Windsors' Paris apartment.

After the war, Chanel laid low in Switzerland for about nine years, then returned to Paris to re-open her salon as if nothing had ever happened. The Wertheimers, now back in control of Parfums Chanel and still making a fortune off of Chanel no. 5, advanced her the money for the comeback, and although the French press was hostile, there was much enthusiastic chatter from the American fashion magazines, particularly about the blue suit pictured here. When she launched herself full time back into designing the following year, The Suit became the foundation of her business. She sold them in job lots to American socialites and well-know actresses, they were ripped off from one end of Seventh Avenue to another, and yet again she was proclaimed to have Invented the Modern Woman. It was also the period when she sold her entire enterprise to the Wertheimer family, who made her a millionaire all over again in the nearly two decades that followed. The bilious anti-Semite kept getting saved by Jewish millionaires . . .

When I first started writing this, I kept looking for a good word to describe this woman. I thought of a few raw expletives, and such elevated terms as "monstrous" and "wretched. But "creep" seems a better word. It catches the playground-bully essence of the woman and her friends. I don't know if anyone of them ever stole another kid's lunch money or subjected them to a swirly, but it wouldn't surprise me . . .

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