Coco Chanel

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Coco Chanel: Naughtier than you might think.

What do you know about Coco Chanel? Possibly most people today think of her as a couturier and the person who was responsible for iconic fashion designs – and of course, the famous Chanel N0 5 perfume.

But who was she really? Her name instantly conjures up style and sophistication for most of us but she came from humble beginnings. Not only that, she had a string of fascinating lovers.

Coco Chanel


Gabrielle – her real name – was born to a couple who were impoverish and unmarried. Her father worked selling goods in the streets. The couple had five children in total, despite that fact that M. Chanel married someone else a year after Gabrielle’s birth.

When her mother died though, when Gabrielle was eleven years old, she was sent to be brought up in a convent along with her two sister. He brothers were sent away to be farm labourers. When she left the convent, she worked as a seamstress and also as a singer in nightclubs and cafés. It was at this time that she gained the nickname that would become so famous – Coco.

Étienne Balsan and Arthur Capel

It was when she was undertaking her singing and entertaining work that she met Balsan. Although he was only in his late twenties, he was enormously rich and Coco became his mistress. She lived with him in his sumptuous château and became accustomed to the lifestyle.

He introduced her to his friend Arthur Capel. Capel was an Englishman, also very wealthy, and was known to be a playboy. He soon took the place of Balsan in Coco’s affections. Had he not, we might have never known of the Chanel fashion house as it was Capel who set her up in business. The pair remained lovers for nine years, despite the fact that he married another woman. Their affair only ended when he was tragically killed when still in his thirties.

With her business growing, Coco had affairs with several men –  mostly wealthy ones – and nine six years after the death of Capel, embarked on a ten year affair with the Duke of Westminster, rumoured to to England’s richest man. She became well known in British society, socialising with the likes of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor) and Winston Churchill.

The duke was an extravagant chap and invariably showered his mistresses with flamboyant and expensive gifts but he also had some not-too nice opinions which led him to be a supporter of Adolf Hitler. Coco was to share many of his views.

At the start of the Second World War she made it plain where her affinities were. She closed her shops, putting 3000 people out of work. She moved into the Hotel Ritz where, probably not coincidentally, most of the high ranking officers from the occupying German forces also lived. This included her next lover, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage.

Chanel the German spy

The baron was charming and, for a change as far as Coco was concerned, a divorced man and thirteen years her junior. He was also highly involved in espionage. For many years the whereabouts and activities of Coco Chanel during and after the war were a mystery.

The author of the book you see on the right uncovered information which reveals that with the involvement of  her lover von Dincklage and the encouragement of her former lover the Duke of Westminster Coco was persuaded to undertake at least one secret mission on behalf of the Germans.

This mission was designed to persuade Churchill that several high ranking Nazis wanted to end their association with Adolf Hitler and negotiate his removal and a peace treaty with Great Britain. The mission failed when the courier who was carrying Chanel’s personal letter to Churchill denounced the plotters.

Chanel was the interrogated by the Free French Purge Committee but they could find nothing to prove that she had collaborated with the Nazis so she was set free without charges. She later said that it was Churchill who had arranged her freedom. Rumours circulated to this effect and the general opinion was that this was believable because the British aristocracy could not afford her to give public testimony as she knew that many of her high born British friends had been Nazi sympathisers.

Coco Chanel disappears

To all intents and purposes, Coco then disappeared for the next nine years. In fact, she had gone to live in Switzerland. She made no headlines and wasn’t seen in public apart from a brief appearance at the trial of a war criminal in 1949 where she again denied all knowledge of any Nazi espionage activities and her role within them.

In 1954 however, she returned to Paris and re-established her business there. She died at the age of eighty seven in 1971 – in the knowledge that her couture business was solid and successful. We may never know the true facts about her involvement, if any with German spying activities but she certainly did have an affair with the baron, a high ranking Nazi official.

Coco Chanel, the inventor of ‘the little black dress’, certainly had a colourful life.



Jackie Jackson, also known online as BritFlorida, is a highly experienced designer and writer. British born and now living in the USA, she specialises in lifestyle issues, design and quirky stories. You can see a wide range of articles here, or visit her website Tastes Magazine. See The Writer’s Door for more information.

Author: Jackie Jackson

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