A fashion designer who endures and still captivates (France, also Italy, England, Spain, Hollywood; 1895-1954): Artists and their passions attract me, but I hadn’t expected this biographical novel to be as grand in scope, history, and mystery.
The scope: spans Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s complicated life from the pivotal time she was orphaned at 12 until her dramatic comeback nearing 60 (she died at 87, still working). The history: enlightens the tremendous impact the Depression, WWI, and WWII had on this accidental hat designer’s meteoric rise that revolutionized European and American (especially) couture, emphasizing the enterprise “is not folly.” Since both are meticulously detailed, it’s noteworthy that Christopher Gortner has left the mystery haunting her legacy for the reader to resolve. Acknowledging that more than any of his six other historical novels about powerful, controversial women, MADEMOISELLE CHANEL “was truly a labor of love,” one concludes he intended to leave the mystery up in the air, which of course is his prerogative! Lest we forget, this is a work of (historical) fiction.
Easy to forget because everything feels real. For one thing, so many characters are famous historical figures. Coco Chanel’s persona – fiercely independent, a creative genius consumed by work, headstrong, all driven by her fervent desire “to be someone” – ring loud and clear. Authentic and powerful, it’s the realization of a “dream come true,” says Gortner, who has been fascinated with the legendary fashion designer since his teens, schooled at San Francisco’s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, followed by twelve years in the industry.
Are we to assume, then, that he also intended to present a very different perspective on the mystery? Was the famous designer – whose iconic name is automatically associated with the scent of N° 5 (and should be linked to the classic “little black dress” and chic cloche hats, all finely described) – also a Nazi spy?
Despite two recent biographies claiming she was – Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History (Rhonda K. Garelick, 2014) and Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War (Hal Vaughan, 2011), supported just last year by a French intelligence agency’s release of declassified documents, I came away believing Gortner’s opposing viewpoint, albeit fictionalized: that Coco detested the anti-Semitism expressed by her lovers (at least two); was horrified by Hitler’s aggression; and engaged in behaviors that could alternatively be explained if given compelling details otherwise. Gortner casts these secretive events as complex circumstances that might have happened.
Note: the mystery question doesn’t arise until the last 100 or so pages of a packed 400+ page-turner. I raise it at the onset to encourage close attention throughout Gortner’s skillful storytelling, particularly dialogue – relayed in Coco’s voice – and to measures she took that back up his contradictory position. In light of the apparent opposing evidence, it’s impressive how convincing the novel is.
That doesn’t mean you have to like many things about the real Coco Chanel, but you’ll understand why she felt and did what she did, whether fictional or true. For the most part, hers was a steely heart, hardened such that “everyone seemed to forget that my heart was not made out of stone.” But we empathize, for at a tender age that heart was “ravaged” by her father, when her mother died and he determined he couldn’t parent Coco and her four siblings because his job entailed extensive travel. Anguished, Coco was farmed out to an orphanage, then lived at a convent with her cousin, Adrienne. These may have been stark, restrictive years but she was well-cared for and this is when her sewing skills were nurtured and noticed, gifts she learned from her seamstress mother.
Sometimes, too, Coco felt deeply: a “volcanic passion” for the only man she truly loved, the wealthy Arthur “Boy” Chapel. Once successful, she was notoriously generous in saving struggling artists such as the Russian ballet choreographer Sergei Diaghilev; and she cared greatly, fanatically, for her nephew André.
Surely we don’t have to love Coco personally to admire her marvelous sense of taste that originated simple yet elegant creations; hunger for reading; spirit of “freedom of self-expression and attire” that propelled her to free women from the constraints of corsets (a “rib-expanding release”) and uncomfortable, impractical, ostentatious outfits by using innovative soft fabrics like jersey, suede, and felt; penchant for natural creamy colors, also seen in her interior decorating, most spectacularly in an estimated $50 million piece of property hugging the French Riviera, once her peaceful villa named La Pausa; openness to ideas like studying astronomy to inspire a collection of moon, solar, star-shaped jewels; and democratic vision to offer women clothing that “bridged the exclusive and the commonplace.”
No doubt Coco Chanel was an extremely complicated woman. Harper’s Magazine may have called her “the quintessence of restraint in an unrestrained world,” but her friends were avante-garde – Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí. Her life was marked by extravagant love affairs with wildly rich men she befriended but didn’t really love, an emotion she worried she had little of, letting them overindulge her living at their chateaus, even once leaving her beloved France to reside in a Downton Abbey-esque estate. Having experienced poverty, she never lost sight of the advantages of money, as these lovers were her benefactors – Étienne Balsan; Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Ramonov; Hugh Richard Grosvenor, Second Duke of Westminster (“Bendor”), and “Boy.” They made her dreams come true: helped her open her first atelier in a Paris apartment, then move up to the glamorous Ritz hotel, and later venture to the French seaside town Deauville, renowned for horse breeding and racing. At the height of Coco’s career in the thirties she employed 2,000 people at three salons. A fantastical, fairy tale story.
The intensity of Coco’s ambitions and nature had its drawbacks. Numerous lovers, heirs to fortunes, but she never married. While she repeatedly declared she was already married – to her work – and didn’t want to be attached there were disappointments and great loneliness. She needed the intimacy of genuine friendships. There was the actress Émilienne d’Alençon, an early admirer, and the sympathetic Baroness Kitty Rothschild, but over the course of her lifetime her closest friend was an unlikely one because she was so overbearing and brutally honest: Misia Sert, once a pianist who made it her business to know everyone in Paris.
Coco’s pursuit of a perfect perfume sheds insight into her intuitive mindset. She wanted it to be:
To manufacture and distribute the quality and quantity of Coco’s perfumery vision, she relented into a contractual arrangement with the leading fragrance company in France at the time. It was a business decision she bemoaned for years and years, adding fuel to the allegations she was anti-Semitic because the founder, Pierre Wertheimer, was Jewish. Judge for yourself if her consternations and legal battles were ethnically based. Gortner makes the case they were not.
“as expensive as possible, for that is the only way to assure its exclusivity. … “mimic nature not by exaggeration but rather by emphasizing the naturalness within it – it must distinguish and individualize, be unforgettable on every woman who wears it. Above all, it must last.”
Most troubling was her scandalous affair with a German military officer named Spatz. The intrigue of their entanglement deepened: What was the full nature of her covert, convoluted role during the war that involved Winston Churchill? Churchill was the only person who called Coco ‘Mademoiselle Chanel.’ The significance of that name as the novel’s chosen title shouldn’t be discounted.
Still, Coco’s war efforts seemed part of her destiny. When her actress friend advises her that “the right person, at the right time, with the right approach, can exert more impact than we realize,” we see how clearly that applies to a legend today.