It takes a spy to catch a spy. At the age of 82, Hal Vaughan, a former newsman and CIA operative, has finally done what the legions of Coco Chanel’s other biographers resolutely failed to do: uncover the French fashion queen’s secret past as a Nazi agent.
He ably demonstrates that Chanel was far from an innocent victim of circumstance during the second world war but a fully fledged Abwehr (German secret service) agent with her own number and codename: Westminster (no doubt a nod to her one-time lover, the Duke of Westminster).
Vaughan had been researching the story of H Gregory Thomas, a former president of Chanel Inc, when he stumbled on a cache of dusty French intelligence files that had originally been pulled by German authorities during the war and shipped to Berlin.
The same files were later discovered in Nazi archives by Soviet intelligence and moved to Moscow. They remained there until 1985, when an agreement between Russia and France was reached for thousands of these documents to be repatriated to the French military archives at the Château de Vincennes, where Vaughan found them.
The smoking gun, reproduced in Vaughan’s book, is a photocopy of a French police report that uncovers agent Westminster as Gabrielle Chanel – Coco Chanel’s registered birth name.
When war broke out Chanel, aged 55, was at the height of her international fame as a fashion designer and perfume producer. For her friend and fellow collaborator Paul Morand, she was nothing less than “the exterminating angel of 19th-century French style”.
She was also a rabidly anti-Semitic, bitter woman who numbed her sleepless nights with morphine injections. Chanel saw the war as an opportunity to wreak revenge on all those she felt had got in the way of her business interests.
One of the first things she did was to fire some 3,000 female workers as retribution for a strike they had held three years earlier, in 1936. She blamed it on the socialist-led government of Léon Blum, himself Jewish, and was delighted when he was voted out of power.
Back in 1933 Chanel had helped relaunch a fascist monthly newspaper, Le Témoin (The Witness). She sharpened her rightwing political beliefs during the war and fell in love with Baron Gunther von Dincklage, a German secret agent 13 years her junior.
With Dincklage’s help, Chanel managed to have her beloved nephew, André Palasse, released from a German prisoner-of-war camp. In return she agreed to help further the Nazi cause through “her powerful connections in London, neutral Spain and Paris”. Teamed with a louche French aristocrat, Baron Louis de Vaufreland, Chanel made two trips to Madrid, on one of which Vaughan says she was active in recruiting Nazi agents.
Her most outlandish mission, though, was a trip to bombed-out Berlin in 1943, where she met with SS general Walter Schellenberg. Schellenberg had been informed that Chanel was a close friend of Winston Churchill and might be persuaded to establish contact with him and act as a go-between in a peace deal with Britain.
Chanel’s biographers have long suspected that it was only thanks to Churchill’s intervention that the fashion designer did not stand trial, at the very least for “horizontal collaboration”, after the war’s end. A remarkable interview Vaughan conducted with Chanel’s great-niece, Gabrielle Palasse-Labrunie, two years ago appears to confirm this. Palasse-Labrunie, who was living with Chanel after the war, remembers her being arrested, then coming back home and blurting out: “Churchill had me freed.”
Vaughan, who writes with welcome economy and flair, deserves a lot of credit for finally unravelling the strands of Chanel’s deeply deceptive personality.
Tobias Grey is a writer and critic based in Paris
Sleeping With The Enemy: Coco Chanel, Nazi Agent by Hal Vaughan, Chatto & Windus, RRP£20, 304 pages