Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, July 24, 2015

Mademoiselle Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History by Rhonda K. Garelick(2014). A Post for Paris in July # 6

A question for participants  before I Start my Post

Who do you regard as the three most culturally important Parisians of the 20th century?

My picks are Coco Chanel, Marcel Proust, and Jean Paul Sarte

Paris in July # 6. , hosted by Tamarra of Thyme for Tea, a blog I have followed for years, is one of my favorite book blog events.  It covers much more than literature and there are lots of wonderful participant posts online.

Paris in July # 6. has motivated me to read some very interesting works.

1.  "Baum, Gabriel, 1935" by Mavis Gilbert - A wonderful set in Paris short story

2.  "Two Friends" by Guy de Maupassant- Paris in July # 6. Requires reading de Maupassant!

3.  "Mildred Larson" by George Moore- What Paris Meant to the Irish

4.  "The Parisian Stage" by Henry James - an illuminating essay

5.  "The Man Who Could Walk Through Walls" by Marcel Aymé- a new to me writer I will return to

6.   Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris, 1932 by Francine Prose - interesting 

7.  Shocking Paris Soutine, Chagall and the Outlaw Art of Montaparrne by Stanley Meisler-a 
     Well done account of Yiddish emigre artists in Paris

8.  Short Stories about Cats by Three Classic French authors 

9.  Suite Francaise by Iréne Némirovsky- a true masterwork. Paris under the Germans

10.  The End of Evil Ways by Honoré de Balzac

Coco Chanel lived 1883 to 1971

Coco Chanel supported the Nazis. This brief very well done article, fully substantiated and explained in Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History, answers one of the biggest questions about Coco Chanel. She did  support the Nazis, collaborated with them not out of need but because it suited her, and many say spied for them.  I put this upfront as many may lose interest in her upon knowing this.

Mademoiselle Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History by Rhonda K. Garlick is a brilliant work of biography but it is so much more.  I never would have dreamed I could have been so fascinated by the biography of a designer.  I learned from this book how Coco Chanel went from a poverty stricken childhood, orphaned at an early age, with little education, to working as an occasional prostitute to the most influential fashion entrepreneur and designer ever in the history of the world.  She became in today's money a Billionaire, propelled by her creation of her perfume, Chanel # 5.  She had romances with Russian Grand Dukes, English Royalty, and an assortment of men, most were rich.  Some have claimed that she was bisexual because she probably slept in the same bed with women she was close to but Garelick does not leap from this to the suggestion that  Chanel was also a lesbian and neither do I.

Garelick explains marvelously how Chanel got her start.  She was a mistress of a hyper-wealthy French aristocrat (you need to read the book just for all her love affairs) living in one of his chateaus.  She was incredibly beautiful but she knew she was just one of many women to her protector.  She began sort of as a hobby to make hats.   The high society women  she mingled with, her first work was as a seamstress so there were class issues, wanted to wear a hats like the ones Coco did.  She persuaded her protector, Coco sought out wealthy men, to set up a hat shop for her and it became very successful. She marketed her hats, and soon her dresses, by giving the hats away to Countesses, actresses, rich much in society ladies and soon every fashion conscious lady in Paris wanted a Coco Chanel hat.  Soon she began to make suits for women.  Her models were all slender relatively flat chested women, as was Coco.  Soon she open her first shop in Paris.  There is so much in the story of her ride to world class business woman (at a time when women were supposed to stay home). I really do not feel I can go into it much.

     Coco Chanel respected the beauty of Elizabeth Talyor
      But did not feel her body was right for her designs 

Her fortune was made when she created her first perfume Chanel # 5.  Garelick explains how she marketed this and how she sold most of the rights to the profits to two very rich Jewish brothers, keeping only ten percent of the profits but just this generated billions.  

Coco wanted very much to marry into Royalty.  She tried very hard but never married.  She had issues brought on by her poverty and her father's abandoning her and her two sisters and two brothers.

The Duke of Westminster was one of Coco's numerous wealthy men

Coco's true Genius was in turning her self into a brand.  Just to show the domination of her work, the wife of the American president John F. Kennedy, was known for loving  ultra chic Chanel designs.  When she was in the car with her husband when he was assassinated, she was wearing a full Chanel suit and hat.  Chanel herself catered to wealthy clients but unlike all other designers she liked it when knock offs of her designs began to appear world wide.  She had her billions and now she wanted to conquer the world.  She knew the power of emblems, to making people feel they are part of an elite circle.  

In the very wealthy circles she traveled in and through the numerous very rich men she was linked with romantically, she became exposed to extreme right wing political ideology and anti-Semiticism.  Garelick shows us the pervasive hatred for Jews in France included Coco.  Coco came to feel her Jewish financiers had cheated her and this fueled her feelings.  As Coco got richer and richer she bought magnificent homes and maintained numerous luxurious apartments, her primary place of residence while in Paris was the Ritz Hotel.  She became a patron of the arts and attracted numerous sycophants.  She was so afraid her back woods brothers might embarrass her she put them on life time pensions on the condition they never come around her.  She did include her sisters in her work.

Coco had many fears.  She became more and more bitter and demanding as she aged and realized she would never marry. She became more and more snobbish and self obsessed.  She kept working, She loved her work.  She expanded into Jewlery, designed customs for Hollywood, she did not much like America, she considerd it a vulgar land, and the stage.  Even as she aged she retained her beauty and had many suitors.  Coco made herself and her life style into works of art.

  She could be very generous and a devoted friend but she was not that way with her 1000s of employees.  She did have a mean streak also. All the mostly female employees had to wear her clothes and have her body type.  She often advised women employees to look for a wealthy man  when they complained of financial issues. She liked tall slender athletic looking men, preferably with a title.

     The Legend Lives on

Her taste in everything was impeccable except maybe her fondness for the Nazis.  Garelick goes into real depth explaining why Coco was drawn to the Nazis.  She was not like many female collaborators who slept with Germans to feed their children, Coco was in accord with their Ideology. She was not very political and may not have understood the full extent of the Holocaust but my take is that if she did it would not have mattered to her.  She had a high ranking Nazi lover, a Baron, of course.  Much younger than her and perhaps he was advised to get involved with her by the SS.  She also liked the uniforms, the emblems and the principal that the common people must serve the elite.  She tried to use anti-Jewish laws to cheat her Jewish financiers but they out smarted her.  Coco worshipped powerful men and the Nazis played into this.  She never met Hitler, if she had done so I am sure it would have been overwhelming for Coco.  She met and socialized with other top Nazis who turned the Ritz Hotel into a very high class Nazi barracks.  Coco kept living there.  There seems no reason to think she passed important information to the Germans but she did tell them all she knew about Winston Churchill who was a close friend of one of her long term lovers, the Duke of Westminister.  She probably had no information of real military value. She was possibly to be used as a go between in the never to happen surrender of England.  Much of her value to the Nazis was symbolic.

It is felt by scholars that Coco was not charged as a colaborator for fear she could name too many others and for the very real wish of the French government to keep the prestige of the premier French brand unsullied.   Bottom line on this is that Coco wanted to be on the winning side, she had no issues with much of Nazi ideology, she loved the Coco like uniforms, she disliked Jews and the Nazis liked her.  She left France after the war and lived in Switzerland for a few years but ultimately returned to Paris.  

In an iinteresting note, when the American soldiers liberated Paris, she gave away bottles of her perfume to the soldiers, who lined up to get one of the trade mark bottles.

This book is really great.  I learned so much from it.  I have just scratched the surface in describing it.  

Coco Chanel just might be the culturally most important Parisian of the 20th century.  I asked my three  daughters, 17, 19, and 21 if they knew who Coco Chanel was and they said "the famous designer".  

Recently I have read and read about Clarice Lispector and Maeve Brennan, both clearly were very influenced in their dress and self presentation by the work and legend of Coco Chanel, just to give two example.

Mademoiselle Coco Chanel and the Pulse of history compelled me to read on, hours at a stretch.  

Garelick has fascinating ideas on the similarities in appeal of the brand of Chanel and fascism.  

You might not end up liking Coco Chanel but you will be fascinated by her story.

Mel u


Sharon said...

I did not know she was a collaborator, she certainly sounds an interesting woman and she clearly had a firm grasp of marketing and the importance of branding.
As to figures of cultural significance in the 20th century how about Simone de Beauvoir or Edith Piaf, in addition to the names you mentioned.

Louise said...

Wow, this sounds such a fascinating book- I was held spellbound by your post. I had no ideas about her Nazi connections, or that she made her start in hats.

Anonymous said...

Arabella. I also did not know she was a collaborator. Maybe also Colette belongs on the list of most culturally important Parisians also

Louise. I was really spell bound by the book and captivated by the persona of Coco Chanel. Thanks for your kind words