Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, better known as Coco Chanel, was born in Maine-et-Loire, France in 1883. She led a life guaranteed to give biographers whiplash—beginning with her birth name, which was mis-recorded as “Chasnel.” She carried this legal name to her grave, because to correct it would mean revealing that the wealthy fashion designer and businesswoman had actually been born in a charity hospital run by a poorhouse.
Born to a laundrywoman and an itinerant street vendor, Coco Chanel was sent to an orphanage after her mother died when she was 11, even though her father was still alive. She would later tell numerous highly embellished stories of a more glamorous youth and upbringing.
After spending six years in the orphanage, where she learned how to sew, Chanel found work as a seamstress and had a side job performing in a cabaret frequented by cavalry officers. It was here that she acquired the nickname Coco. During her time working at the cabaret, she met Étienne Balsan, heir to a textile fortune, and became his mistress. While living a life of decadence at Balsan’s chateau near Compiègne, Chanel also began a nine-year affair with one of Balsan’s friends, an English polo player named Arthur Edward Capel.
It was Capel who installed Chanel in an apartment in Paris and financed her earliest boutiques. The arrangement was far from merely one of convenience for Chanel, however. By all accounts, she actually wanted to settle down with Capel. When he died in a car accident in 1919, she “lost everything,” as she told a friend a quarter of a century later. “What followed was not a life of happiness, I have to say.”
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But it was, by most measures, a life of success. Before Capel's death, Chanel was able to reimburse him for the original investment he made in her business. By 1927, she owned five buildings along the fashionable rue Cambon in Paris, where she had opened an early fashion boutique, selling everything from hats and clothes to jewelry and perfumes. Her early liaisons among the wealthy had taught her how to mingle with the aristocracy, a skill she would employ for the rest of her life.
Chanel hosted the family of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and helped to financially back the 1920 production of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. By 1923, when she was 40 years old, she had begun a decade-long affair with the Duke of Westminster, an avowed homophobe and anti-Semite (more on that soon), and there are rumors that she also had a fling with the Prince of Wales around the same time. Her connections with the highest ranks of British society also meant that she counted among her friends and acquaintances one Winston Churchill.
During this time, Chanel was building a fashion empire that still exists today. In 1999, Time magazine published a list of the 100 “most important people of the century.” Coco Chanel was the only fashion designer to make the list. Her interlocking “C” logo—which she designed herself—is still among the most recognizable branding in the world, while Chanel No. 5, her signature scent, remains one of the most iconic perfumes ever made.
When war once again broke out in Europe, however, Chanel closed her shops along the rue Cambon, stating that it was not a time for fashion. As the Nazis occupied Paris, she moved from her apartment above 31 rue de Cambon to the Hotel Ritz, which was the preferred home base for the highest-ranking members of the German military. It was also the residence of Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, an “old friend” and German spy with whom she began an affair.
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In the early 1940s, Chanel was engaged in a business dispute with Parfums Chanel, the company which owned Chanel No. 5 and other fragrances. The directors of the company were Jewish, and she took advantage of her “Aryan” status among the Germans to lobby for sole control of Parfums Chanel. While she did not ultimately win full control, the other owners eventually negotiated a far more profitable arrangement for her, which made her one of the wealthiest women in the world following the end of the war.
Many other French women were accused of “horizontal collaboration” with German soldiers during the occupation, and had their heads shaved in a campaign of punishment and public humiliation after the war. However, Chanel escaped any such penalties, thanks in part to her friendships with high-ranking members of the Allied forces and Winston Churchill himself. If anything, she was better off when World War II ended than when it began. It was not until many decades later that the full extent of her collaboration with the Nazis came to light.
In 2011, American author and journalist Hal Vaughan published a book called Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War. In it, he pulled from recently declassified documents to reveal that Coco Chanel had done far more than have a “love story with a German,” as her own brand put it, during the war.
The book revealed not a woman caught in an ill-timed affair, nor one using her position to protect herself during a fraught moment in history, but an anti-Semite and eager informant for the Nazis. At the time, Vaughan’s book caused a stir of controversy, but by 2014, French intelligence agencies had declassified additional documents confirming much of what was written there.
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According to Vaughan’s book and the declassified records, both Chanel and her lover, von Dincklage, reported to the chief of SS intelligence, Walter Schellenberg. Schellenberg was convicted of war crimes during the Nuremberg trials. In later years, it was Chanel who covered Schellenberg’s medical expenses, supported his family, and even paid for his funeral when he died in 1952.
The Nazis even had a secret code name for Chanel: “Westminster.” In 1943, she traveled to the “lion’s den”—the Reich Main Security Office in Berlin, where she presented a plan of her own devising. Using her connections within the British upper class, she would act as a liaison to broker a separate peace between Germany and Britain. It would be accomplished by meeting with her old friend Churchill, a mission codenamed Operation Modellhut. The plot was ultimately foiled, as was another mission Chanel was involved in, in which the Third Reich was to take control of Madrid.
As the war came to an end, Chanel was interrogated by the Free French Purge Committee about her wartime activities, but was ultimately released. According to her grand-niece, Chanel later stated, “Churchill had me freed.”
Chanel lived the rest of her life surrounded by wealth and prestige. She lived in Switzerland for several years after the war—sometimes with von Dincklage—and returned to the fashion world in 1954, with a comeback collection that was hailed as a “breakthrough.”
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When she died in 1971 at the age of 87, Chanel was revered as a French icon of fashion and innovation. It was not until decades later that the full extent of Chanel’s wartime activities would come to light. By then, she was already a beloved household name and the subject of an array of biopics, where she was played by the likes of Audrey Tautou, Shirley MacClaine, and Anna Mouglalis (opposite Mads Mikkelsen as Stravinsky).
What, then, should we make of this woman who rose to the top of the fashion empire, who was one of the wealthiest and most influential people of the 20th century, and who worked eagerly alongside one of the most evil regimes in modern history? As I said before, it’s enough to give any biographer pause—as it did Marcel Haedrich, a French journalist and friend of the fashionista who penned two biographies of Chanel. “If one took seriously the few disclosures that Mademoiselle Chanel allowed herself to make about those black years of the occupation,” he wrote, “one’s teeth would be set on edge.”
Sources: Forbes, The New Yorker, Time magazine