Book Review – Sleeping With the Enemy

Picture-52Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War, is an expose of Chanel during and after World War II. Author Hal Vaughan spent years researching Chanel’s association with the Nazis. When his book came out in 2011 the Chanel company generally avoided comment as much as possible, but when pressed, denigrated Vaughan’s work by suggesting there were more serious books on the topic. Actually, there are no other books on the topic. The books and movies, and even a broadway play about Chanel always focus on her early life and loves, and comeback in the 1950s and 1960s. The gaping hole in her biography between 1940 and 1954 is rarely addressed, until now.

Chanel was involved romantically with Baron Gunther van Dincklage, a known German spy who had already been living in Paris for years when war broke out. She immediately closed her couture shop, explaining that this was ‘not a time for fashion’. This action appears patriotic, but it was the opposite of what was being asked of France’s employers, especially of luxury goods, which brought foreign currency into France that could be used to fund its ability to wage war.

When the country was occupied the following summer, Chanel was living at the Ritz hotel and remained there for the duration. She took advantage of the Nazi seizure of Jewish property and applied for full ownership of her perfume company, which had been financed by the Jewish Wertheimer family. On May 5, 1942 Chanel wrote to Nazi officials: “Parfums Chanel is still the property of Jews… I have an indisputable right of priority…”

Even more damning in Vaughan’s book is how Chanel was actually paid by the SS to become Agent 7124, code name “Westminster” (the name inspired by her former lover the Duke of Westminster– a British peer who was also openly anti-semitic.) In 1943, Coco travelled to Berlin to be briefed about “Operation Modellhut”, a plan to end Britain’s war against Germany. The details have been lost or destroyed but it involved a chain of people that stretched from Hitler to Churchill and Chanel was a vital link in delivering a letter to Churchill via the British embassy in Madrid. Chanel asked British aristocrat and friend, Vera Lombardi to meet her in Madrid to explore the possibilities of creating a Chanel couture house in Madrid. However, the mission failed when Lombardi realized the real purpose of their meeting and reported Chanel as a nazi spy.

After the occupation, Chanel was interrogated but never prosecuted due partly to a lack of documentation but moreso to friends in high places. Churchill himself was thought to have intervened via the British ambassador to France to keep Chanel from testifying at a trial that would have become an embarrassment for many. It was easier to punish unimportant French women who had slept with German soldiers, and shopkeepers who had been nice to German clients.

In a bizarre twist, the Wertheimers renegotiated their financial arrangements with Chanel after the war, making her a very wealthy woman, living in exile in Switzerland for almost a decade before returning to her trade. The cover-up of her wartime actions in France meant her return to fashion in 1954 was applauded, especially in the U.S. where her clothes became the standard of society fashion.

4 thoughts on “Book Review – Sleeping With the Enemy

  1. This revelation was such a disappointment to me. As with Edison and Ford, two more brilliant creators who were also virulent anti-semites and hate-mongers, I’ve added Chanel to the sad list of people who come so very close to being heros, but in the end, are villains.

    I won’t wear or buy Chanel. Yes, of course I see and appreciate her contributions to fashion (just as I’m a big fan of the light bulb and the affordable car). I admire her designs, her creativity, her foresight, all of that. But it ends there. She, and her progeny — literal or figurative — will not get my money or support.

    • I find biographies fascinating and almost always disappointing. It seems everyone famous throughout history was either mean, bipolar, bigoted, dissolute, or self-centred, and often more than one of those qualities.

  2. What about Vaughan’s grasp on Chanel as a designer? The Wikipedia article on Chanel VERY heavily references his book and I’ve noticed a HUGE amount of loathsomely journalistic, lazily unresearched, clichéy fashion soundbites on the Wiki page about how Chanel invented this, invented that, was the first to do, pioneered, yada, yada – which are all referenced to Vaughan’s book.

    • Vaughan is not a fashion writer. I was actually surprised there was any fashion information in the book – judging by the title I didn’t expect a book about pretty dresses! It was probably regarding the fashion information that the Chanel company said there were more serious works already done, which is true, although Lagerfeld’s latest film project kind of destroys that sentiment…

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