“Coco Chanel An Intimate Life” is a good book.
I have not read any of the other books, around 60 of them, that have been written about her, although I did see the film “Coco Before Chanel,” in which she was played quite sympathetically by Audrey Tatou. Truth be told, I’ve never been all that interested in her, so I really can’t compare this book to any of the others. I’m much more interested in her now.
Fans of Madame Chanel will be familiar with the trajectory of her life, the orphanage, the leapfrogging over different well-placed men, the WWII years spent living at the Ritz in Paris and so on. Here’s what I kept thinking about, over and over: this woman was raised like an animal. Deserted, left in a shelter, then ejected to scratch out a lowly place in the world as a seamstress. What was it about her? Was it her times? Or was it something else?
Nowadays, in the U.S., children are viewed as hothouse flowers; delicate little creatures whose precious self-esteem is everything. I remember the comedian Bill Maher recounting an encounter he had with a boy around eighteen, who swaggered up to him in the street, saying “Dude. I’m gonna be on your show one day!” Astounded at this, he says, “Why? Why should you be on my show, dude? What can you do?” The kid has no answer. Finally he says “I just will, dude!” Lots of self-esteem, there. Based on nothing.
In the earliest available photo of Gabrielle Chanel, taken about 1904, she stares out at the world, as fierce as a badger. Beautiful enough as a young woman to draw many men; wily enough to pick the rich ones. Made mistress to one of them, Etienne Balsan, she could have just been that, as others like her had; been a grisette — a sort of early version of an arts groupie who dabbles. She chose otherwise. She opened her own hat shop, not realizing that her lover Arthur Capel was making bank deposits on her behalf, to keep his little Gabrielle in business so she’d be occupied in the afternoons. When he confesses that, it is her reaction that tells us what she’ll become. When he announces his intent to marry an Englishwoman of his own class, her determination only hardens.
Cheny traces her trajectory, from upper-class resort Deauville (fish where the fish are!) to atelier in Paris, friendships and projects with the likes of Cocteau and Diaghilev, and affairs with many men, Picasso, Stravinsky, and Bend D’Or, a.k.a. the Second Duke of Westminster, among them. During this time, she rises to success with her simple couture clothing, designed for corset-less ease. Chemise lines. Black and white. Flat shoes. Costume jewelry. All classics, today. “A dress is artificial, fabricated” she says, and, in a pronouncement predating “The Devil Wears Prada’s” Miranda by, oh, some seventy years or so, “No one is powerful enough to be more powerful than fashion.”
More myths drift around the creation of Chanel No. 5. Apparently, Chanel had an obsession with cleanliness, not at all surprising given her childhood. Speaking of the society women she encountered early in her rise, she said “They were dirty.” Unwashed. Given to powerful floral perfumes to disguise it. She had in mind a clean perfume, one designed to scent a clean body, one that, like her designs, would be modern; unabashedly fabricated. It was her acquaintance with Ernest Beaux, one of the first perfumers familiar with aldehydes, that led to it, and, ultimately, to Chanel’s status as a household name.
Tarnishing her reputation forever is Chanel’s war years “horizontal collaboration” with Baron von Dincklage, an officer of the Third Reich. It is true that Chanel spent much of the war living at the Ritz in Paris; it appears that she did what she felt she had to do, although she apparently continued the relationship after the war ended. Chaney asks us to consider her instinct for survival, and it fits her character, certainly, although it doesn’t redeem her.
“Coco Chanel - An Intimate Life” seems to me to be a factual look at one of the first modern women. Who knows where her doggedness came from? I’ve known many people with wretched upbringings that have made them weak, not strong. We are oriented toward psychology in this age, and many excuses get made. So, what was it about her?
I still don’t know.
I do know, after reading this book, that Coco Chanel was not Nice. Had she been "nice" -- compliant, knowing her place -- chances are we would never have heard of her. She would lived as a grisette, or courtesan, until the inevitable aging took her allure, and then, in the best-case scenario, perhaps eked out an allowance from a sentimental ex-lover. But this is just speculation. The fact is that she seems to have been born with the fierceness, talent and — some would say — lack of scruples that put her on top of her world and have kept her name alive in ours.
“Coco Chanel An Intimate Life” is available in all the usual places. The ISBN is 978-0-670-02309-7.
Full disclosure time: This book was sent to me by its publisher, Viking, for review.