Legendary Coco Chanel Has a Paris Story to Tell

Published September 11th, 2019 - 09:58 GMT
Coco Chanel (Twitter)
Coco Chanel (Twitter)
A wealthy business owner, playboy and voracious reader, 'Boy was swept away by Chanel's charm'.

Legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel ruled Paris haute couture for almost six decades, but felt bitter about her childhood after being abandoned by her father in 1895 at age 12 at a convent orphanage in central France when her mother succumbed to tuberculosis.

Named Gabrielle Chasnel by the sadistic nuns - later changed to Chanel - the young girl was unwilling to accept an impoverished future with no benefactor and no dowry.

Chanel quickly learned that upper class gentlemen could give her a better life and introduce her to society, writes author Caroline Young in her new book Living with Coco Chanel.

A life of privilege as a mistress living with some of the richest men in Europe become Chanel's lifestyle, traveling between their luxurious estates and spending idle hours fox hunting, playing polo, even salmon fishing. 

The men who Chanel bedded paved the way for her into Paris high society, introducing her to artists, authors and socialites, as well as providing the foundation for her to launch her legendary fashion house that is still revered today. 

Along with a passion for fabric, horses and wealthy influential men, she developed a passion and addiction to morphine when she lived with a German officer at Paris' Ritz Hotel after the Nazis moved into the Capitol in the early 1940s.

She broke all the rules as a 'horizontal collaborator 'with the enemy.

'Paris had an infamous system of prostitution in the belle epoque era and it inhabited the world of the demimonde. There were numerous names for courtesans - cocotte, camellia, and diamond crunchers, women would could extract jewels from wealthy admirers', writes the author.

These were women considered to be on the fringe of respectable society.

After failing to impress the military officers with her singing at the cafes where she was dubbed Coco after a popular ditty she sang, Chanel knew a singing career was not in her future.

So she began a relationship with a dashing and rich officer, Etienne Balsan, who already had one very beautiful mistress.

'Chanel knew that she would struggle to marry well without a dowry, but perhaps Etienne could be a benefactor', the author writes.

She willingly became his second mistress and moved into his chateau at Royallieu, northeast of Paris when he devoted himself to horse racing.

She often ate with the servants while Etienne and his first mistress dined upstairs. She didn't care. She loved galloping on horseback through the forest as well as lounging on the terrace, scanning the racing results over breakfast and coffee.

'She would lie in bed until noon drinking coffee and milk and reading cheap novels', writes Caroline Young.

Idleness, trips to the races and fancy parties broke up her boredom.

It would be the first of many such liaisons – living with Europe's richest men and never marrying.

'Coco has always been impressed with money and titles.

'She, who overcame all life's barriers, was ashamed of her roots ...and tried fiercely to hide her origins', her friend Lady Iya Abdy is quoted.

After pressing Etienne for his help in starting her clothing design business, he offered Coco his Paris apartment as a base to sell straw hats she had purchased in a Paris department store and decorated with ribbons and hatpins – quite unlike the straw hat style of the day worn tilted and with a birds' nest on it.

When the first mistress of the house wore one to the racetrack, Chanel's hats became a hit.

Spending autumn with Etienne at a 13th century chateau in the French Pyrenees where they hunted and played polo, she borrowed men's clothing -- a shirt with a knitted tie, a simple hat, even jodhpurs from a groom so she didn't have to horseback ride side saddle.

She wore men's overcoats and a shirt and tie from Etienne that she had snipped.

It was in the Pyrenees that she first met Arthur 'Boy' Capel, a true dandy and the only man she confessed she ever loved.

'Handsome, very tanned and attractive...he was magnificent.

'I admired his nonchalance and his green eyes. He rode bold and very powerful horses. I fell in love with him. I had never loved', Chanel said.

A wealthy business owner, playboy and voracious reader, 'Boy was swept away by Chanel's charm'.

Once back in Paris, Chanel opened her hat shop in Etienne's apartment and Capel helped her with a bank account and taught her to drive.

Both Etienne and Capel were in love with her.

Capel helped her with funds to lease a store at 21 rue Cambon in the heart of Paris's fashion district and introduced her to artists, writers, politicians and sportsmen as well as society ladies.

Boy was in love with Chanel and continued to see other women but took her with him to Deauville on the coast of Normandy where the very rich played in August.

There she modeled her new line of beachwear that offered a relaxed silhouette – 'long and ample coats with great pockets'--- workmen-style pockets designed to free women from handbags.

Capel encouraged and funded Chanel to open a boutique close to Normandy, the casino and the beach.

'I became something of a celebrity. I started a fashion -- couturiers as stars. Everybody wanted to meet me'.

She designed a new relaxed silhouette unlike the restrictive corseted fashions of the day and replaced expensive Chinchilla from South American or sable from Russia with rabbit.

Chanel used jersey that was considered a 'poor' fabric and too scratchy.

Hugely successful, it liberated women's bodies by not tightening at the waistline.

As much as Boy was in love with Chanel, he needed to marry well and chose Lady Diana Wyndham, a war widow but he wanted Chanel to remain as his mistress.

She moved out of his house but they stayed lovers.

His last visit to her was Christmas 1919 before driving overnight to the French Riviera to spend the holiday with his sister.

He never made it. He died instantly in a horrific car accident when a tire blew.

A friend of Boy's broke the news to Chanel and she packed a small bag and left for the Riviera where she sat by the side of the road at the crash scene and wept.

'In losing Cape, I lost everything', Chanel said.

Chanel returned to Paris and surrounded herself with the well-connected and found new friends from the city's highest circles who could connect her to society.

She kept a room at the Ritz Hotel but had her bedroom of the rented house that served as a love nest with Capel painted black.

Still a beautiful woman, she was soon back in circulation and connected with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, who escaped Russia when the Bolsheviks murdered his family in 1918.

They became lovers and he gifted her with the exquisite Romanov pearls and gems that he brought from Russia.

A thirty-two string pearl necklace shaped her love for ropes of pearls, gilt chains and crosses and she set up jewelry workshops.

Chanel was in the thick of bohemian society with artists, musicians, writers that included writer Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso.

Boy had introduced to her the rules of society and an upper-crust sense of style but when she took up with Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster, she became heavily influenced by how British aristocrats dressed, and learned the British customs of afternoon teas, outdoor sports, cold manor houses and dressing for the seasons.

Tweed coats that had been passed along for generations, polished shoes, hunting clothes and pressed staff uniforms impressed her.

Of Westminster, she said he was elegant but never has anything new.

'He's been wearing the same jackets for twenty-five years'.

Grosvenor was the richest man in Britain and maybe Europe, lived a life of opulence, and was close friends with Churchill.

He was desperate to see Chanel again after meeting her, impressed that she was a self-made woman.

'Westminster liked me because I was French', Chanel said. 'English women are possessive and cold. Men get bored with them'.

He soon flooded her apartment with orchids, camellias, baskets of fruit, fresh salmon from his rivers in Scotland.

A box of fresh vegetables from his farm in Cheshire had a large rough-cut emerald under the greens in a velvet box.

'He was so rich that he completely forgot about it', Coco said.

At his Gothic mansion in the Cheshire countryside, suits of armor flanked a huge staircase. Ten housemaids serviced the estate and cleaned up after the Duke's dachshunds. Thirty-eight gardeners tended the grounds.

Chanel was avant-garde and the Duke was old world but he loved her vigor, her sporting prowess and her riding skills.

She joined him for the boar hunt at his mansion on France's Atlantic coast and raved about the sweet scent of the male boar's sexual organs after the kill from which the best perfumes are made.

In the Highlands with the Duke, Chanel, still wearing masculine clothing, borrowed the Duke's tweed coats.

Westminster wanted an heir but Coco was unable to become pregnant.

'God knows I wanted love. But the moment I had to choose between the man I loved and my dresses, I chose the dresses', Chanel stated.

'Work has always been a kind of drug for me, even if I sometimes wonder what Chanel would have been without the men in my life.'

When the Duke married another woman, Chanel confessed she was 'bored with the excessive, careless way of life'.

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 saw bar tabs run dry in New York and Paris and designers bankrupted by unpaid purchases of gowns bought on credit.

In 1931, Chanel had 2400 staff working in twenty-six ateliers on 400 pieces for two shows every year.

Chanel could not sketch and didn't like to sew. When a piece made from a sketch was wrong, 'she could let forth a flow of uncompromising words, and kill with one fiery look of disdain', writes the author.

But she was now vastly wealthy, made even richer by the success of Chanel No. 5 perfume.

With that money she purchased a moated chateau in Normandy for boar hunting, writer Colette's house in France and a flat in Venice – to add to her collection of properties.

When war broke out in September 1939 Chanel was at the Ritz and closed down her fashion house but kept open the shop on rue Cambon to sell her perfumes and jewelry.

She moved into the Ritz permanently in 1935 and left briefly for her home in the Pyrenees when the Germans advanced on Paris.

Hiding in the mountains proved too quiet and she returned to the Ritz and began an affair with a tall, blonde German officer, Hans Gunther, Baron von Dincklage, thirteen years younger.

They'd sneak in the back door but never escaped being noticed along with Chanel's addiction to morphine.

In August 1944, she was interrogated by les Forces francaises de l'interieur for collaborating with the enemy.

Typical punishment was to have their heads shaved and swastikas branded on their foreheads, imprisonment and even execution.

Questioned for several hours, Chanel was released after what was reported as an intervention from Winston Churchill.

She was arrested in September 1944, found guilty of treason and sentenced to eighteen months' imprisonment.

That was considered light punishment for such ardent feelings of betrayal in liberated Paris.

Trying to protect herself, she offered free bottles of Chanel No. 5 perfume for American troops to send back home.

But her role as a 'horizontal collaborator' left her boutique empty.

When asked by Journalist Malcolm Muggeridge which side she had been on in the war, she replied, 'Neither side, of course. 'Nobody has ever told Coco Chanel what to think'. 

This article has been adapted from its original source.

© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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