One morning in Paris, soon after the city’s liberation in 1944, two men appeared at the Ritz hotel to arrest Coco Chanel.
They were members of the French Forces of the Interior (F.F.I.), the loose band of soldiers, Resistance fighters, and ordinary citizens who’d taken up arms toward the end of World War II, and they took Chanel away to interrogate her on charges of treason to France. The F.F.I. had targeted Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel because of her romance with Hans Günther “Spatz” von Dincklage, a handsome Nazi spy with whom she lived throughout the war.
In my new novel, Coco at the Ritz, I focus on one of the few incidents of the French designer’s life about which almost nothing is known. Chanel’s two hours in F.F.I. custody occupy little more than a couple of paragraphs in the myriad books about her, owing no doubt to the scant record and Chanel’s own obfuscation. She rarely spoke of it, and left behind no letters or diaries that might have offered hints about her thoughts and motivations. It seems she also paid people who knew about her wartime activities to keep silent.
Walter Schellenberg, the Nazi chief of foreign intelligence, makes no mention of Chanel in his memoir The Labyrinth, though he met with her twice in Berlin during the war and authorized a harebrained scheme she had cooked up with von Dincklage to broker a separate peace deal with Winston Churchill, whom Chanel had befriended in the 1920s during her affair with the Duke of Westminster. (Needless to say, the scheme failed.)
When Chanel learned of Schellenberg’s memoir, she offered to finance a home for him and his wife in Switzerland, and, later, she paid for Schellenberg’s cancer treatments and subsequent funeral. She also continued to support von Dincklage long after they broke up, funding his last years on an island off the coast of Spain through her COGA (for “Coco” and “Gabrielle”) trust.
Von Dincklage never spoke publicly about Chanel or their relationship, which seemed to me evidence more of her opportunism and weakness than of her wickedness. I wondered: What else did the F.F.I. have on her?
I discovered two clues on a trip to Paris in 2007. Wandering through Montparnasse, I stumbled on a museum devoted to the life of Jean Moulin, a major figure of the French Resistance in World War II. Stepping inside, the first thing I noticed was a large wall papered to the ceiling with clippings from the front pages of the Nazi-controlled French press. As my eyes traveled over the yellowing newsprint, a story from Le Soir leapt out: an interview with Coco Chanel in which she discussed plans to reopen her fashion house, which she had closed in 1939 on the eve of war.
The story had been published early in the Nazi occupation of Paris and featured a pen-and-ink drawing of Chanel looking fierce and determined in a black turtleneck. It appeared below a piece about General Charles de Gaulle’s being sentenced to death in absentia by Vichy.
Around the same time, I bought a book of poetry by the Surrealist Max Jacob from a bouquiniste on the Quai Voltaire. Jacob was part of the circle of artists, including Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso, befriended by Chanel in the early 20th century. After Jacob was arrested by the Gestapo in a roundup of Jews in February 1944, Cocteau circulated a petition to have the poet released.
While looking through the book, I came across a footnote roughly translated as “Chanel refused to sign Jacob’s petition.” There is no other documentation of Chanel’s refusal, and the petition itself does not survive. Chanel had long been known to make anti-Semitic remarks, but her ugly talk did not speak as profoundly to her flawed character as did her apparent refusal to go on record to save a Jewish friend.
Chanel never did reopen her house under Nazi rule. But the idea that she would allow a story about her plans to appear in a German-censored newspaper struck me as damning evidence of her collaboration. Her betrayal of Jacob, and her seeming willingness to do business with the enemy, may have been the counts the F.F.I. raised during her interrogation.
Why Chanel was released at the end of her time in F.F.I. custody when so many women who’d slept with Germans had their heads shaved or were thrown in prison remains a mystery.
Gioia Diliberto’s Coco at the Ritz is out now from Pegasus