Missing Chapter: Coco Chanel’s secret war
Coco Chanel has been credited with the introduction of the little black dress, trademark tweed apparel and eponymous Chanel №5 perfume, cementing herself as one of the greatest influences on 20th century fashion.
Born into poverty in 1883 and sent off to a convent at the age of 12, Chanel surmounted her difficult childhood to debut her visionary clothing line by World War I. She leveraged relationships with acquaintances, friends and romantic partners to build her legendary luxury brand based on understated elegance. Her meteoric rise to fame thrust her into European high society, as she mingled with figures such as Pablo Picasso and Winston Churchill. This came at a time when increasingly negative anti-Semitic sentiments permeated Europe’s cultural elite.
During World War II, Chanel lived in the Ritz Hotel in Paris in occupied France, where she became romantically involved with Baron Hans Günther von Dinklage, a high-ranking German intelligence officer. At that time, the famed hotel doubled as a German headquarters. Subsequently, Chanel herself became an intelligence operative for the Nazis. Sometime in 1941, she was registered as Agent F-7124 with the code name “Westminster”, after her former lover.
Tasked with obtaining political information from colleagues in Madrid, Chanel traveled to the Spanish city for a few months in mid-1941 under the guise of business dealings. According to journalist Hal Vaughn in his book Sleeping with the Enemy, there is a record of her dinner with British diplomat Brian Wallace, during which she casually discussed life in occupied Paris and the tensions between the French and the Germans.
One of the most prominent missions she was involved in was Operation Modellhut (“Operation Model Hat”). She acted as a messenger from Hitler’s Foreign Intelligence to Churchill to prove that some of the Third Reich attempted peace with the allies. She then met with the British ambassador to Spain, Sir Samuel Hoare, a friend of Churchill’s, during her visit to Madrid to convince him of a possible German surrender once the war was leaning towards an Allied victory.
Chanel ultimately cut all ties with the Nazis in 1945 after she departed France following the Liberation of Paris by Allied forces. She has since denied, and attempted to hide, her involvement with the German military. She is remembered as a sartorial feminist icon; one who redefined contemporary fashion by popularizing a sporty, casual chic that is the standard of style today.
Her place in fashion history has often overshadowed her secret role as a Nazi agent, as well as her overwhelmingly xenophobic beliefs. Vaughn writes that she was “often given to anti-Semitic outbursts”. The French editor-in-chief of Marie Claire observed after a conversation with Chanel, “Chanel’s anti-Semitism was not only verbal; but passionate, demoded, and often embarrassing.”