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Chanel 'Sleeping With the Enemy' book -- the speed read

August 23, 2011 | 12:59 pm

Hal Vaughan

I'm working on a review of "Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War," and I just finished a speed read of the book, written by Hal Vaughan, a veteran U.S. journalist who served during World War II and has written several history books.

My review is slated to run sometime next week, but my first impression is that the book is only somewhat revealing. What we do know, and did know before this book was published, is that Coco Chanel remained in Paris living at the Hotel Ritz during the German occupation of France in World War II, that she had a long affair with a German officer and that she appeared to be friendly with Nazi officials. Citing newly declassifed documents, the book suggests she was not merely a passive collaborator but actually an agent of the Abwehr German intelligence agency, with her own code name --Westminster -- who conducted secret missions overseas.

Unlike many collaborators in France, who were imprisoned or executed after the war, Chanel denied any wrongdoing when questioned in court and escaped unscathed. But even in light of Vaughan's new information (and he includes in the book a copy of the police document identifying Chanel as an agent), it's still not entirely clear what her motivations would have been.

Chanel had a nephew who was in a German prison camp, so it could have been (I"m giving her the benefit of the doubt here) that she cooperated to the extent that she had to in order to secure his release and ensure her comfort through the war. It seems more likely that she was indifferent to the horrors being waged around her and unwilling to give up her pampered life (she had servants and a driver, even as the rest of France was starving), but that she may not have been anti-Semitic. After all, Chanel did go into business with the Jewish Wertheimer family before the war, and that family still owns the company today. And Vaughan has not uncovered any particularly damning statements she made about Jews.

It's been interesting to see the reaction to the book, specifically in the context of the psychology of branding. (Chanel issued a response, which my colleague Susan Denley wrote about last week, defending its founder.) Do the politics or ideology of a corporate figurehead really matter to consumers? It certainly seemed so when it came to designer John Galliano, who was dismissed from Christian Dior after making anti-Semitic remarks in a Paris bar last year. Then again, he was caught on camera, Chanel was not.

-- Booth Moore


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Photo: American historian Hal Vaughan poses in Paris on Aug. 17 to present his book "Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret Wars." Credit: Francois Mori / Associated Press