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Book alleges Coco Chanel, fashion icon, spied for Nazis

Author cites new documents; firm decries accusation

The new book also says the French fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco’’ Chanel had a wartime affair with a German aristocrat and spy. The new book also says the French fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco’’ Chanel had a wartime affair with a German aristocrat and spy. (Associated Press File)
By Jenny Barchfield
Associated Press / August 18, 2011

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PARIS - Coco Chanel: A fashion icon whose name has become shorthand for timeless French chic, a shrewd businesswoman who overcame a childhood of poverty to build a luxury supernova and . . . a Nazi spy?

A new book by a Paris-based American historian suggests Chanel not only had a wartime affair with a German aristocrat and spy, but that she herself was also an agent of Germany’s Abwehr military intelligence organization and a rabid anti-Semite.

Doubts about Chanel’s loyalties during World War II have long festered, but “Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War’’ goes well beyond those previous allegations, citing as evidence documents culled from archives around the world.

The book, published in the United States on Tuesday by Knopf, has ruffled feathers in France, where the luxury industry is a pillar of the economy and Chanel is widely regarded as the crowning jewel. The House of Chanel was quick to react, saying in a statement that “more than 57 books have been written about Gabrielle Chanel. . . . We would encourage you to consult some of the more serious ones.’’

Hal Vaughan, an 84-year-old World War II veteran and longtime journalist who previously wrote two other history books, insists that he is serious. “Sleeping with the Enemy’’ is the fruit of more than four years of intense labor born out of an accidental find in France’s national police archive, he said.

“I was looking for something else and I come across this document saying ‘Chanel is a Nazi agent, her number is blah, blah, blah and her pseudonym is Westminster,’ ’’ Vaughan told the Associated Press. “I look at this again and I say, ‘What the hell is this?’ I couldn’t believe my eyes!

“Then I really started hunting through all of the archives, in the United States, in London, in Berlin, and in Rome and I come across not one, but 20, 30, 40 absolutely solid archival materials on Chanel and her lover, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, who was a professional Abwehr spy,’’ Vaughan said.

Born in 1883 in a hospice for the poor in France’s western Pays de la Loire region, Gabrielle Chanel had remade herself into the famed couturiere and proudly independent Coco Chanel by the outbreak of World War II. During the conflict, she holed up with von Dincklage, a dashing German officer 12 years her junior who was one in her long string of lovers, in Paris’s Ritz Hotel, which was under Nazi control.

The book alleges that in 1940, Chanel was recruited into the Abwehr - her nom de guerre borrowed from another of her lovers, the Duke of Westminster. A year later, she traveled to Spain on a spy mission - on condition that the Nazis release her nephew from a military internment camp - and later went to Berlin on the orders of a top SS general, the book says. It also suggests that Chanel’s alleged anti-Semitism pushed her to try to capitalize on laws allowing for the expropriation of Jewish property to wrest control of the Chanel perfume lines from the Wertheimer brothers, a Jewish family who had helped make her Chanel No. 5 a worldwide best-seller.

The Chanel statement rebutted the accusation, although it added that company officials have yet to read the book and had seen only media excerpts.

“She would hardly have formed a relationship with the family’’ - which currently owns the entire Chanel brand empire - “or counted Jewish people among her close friends and professional partners,’’ it says.

A US-based organization of Holocaust survivors said it was “shocked’’ by the book’s allegations and called on Chanel to launch an independent investigation into the book’s accusations.

“The documents on Ms. Chanel’s past are too serious and historically important to be cavalierly dismissed by the fashion house without any effort to confirm their veracity through objective research,’’ said Elan Steinberg, vice-president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.

After the war, Chanel was arrested and released hours later, saved by “the intervention of her old friend Winston Churchill,’’ the press release for the book said. She fled to Switzerland.

Asked why the book had turned up so much more dirt than the scores of previous biographies, Vaughan had two explanations. First, many of the documents he cited had only recently been declassified. Second, he said, many people have a vested interest in protecting Chanel’s aura of unsullied chic.

“A lot of people in this world don’t want the iconic figure of Gabrielle Coco Chanel, one of France’s great cultural idols, destroyed,’’ Vaughan said. “This is definitely something that a lot of people would have preferred to put aside, to forget, to just go on selling Chanel scarves and jewelry.’’

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