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

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Queen of Paris- A Novel of Coco Chanel by Pamela Binnings Ewen - 2020

The Queen of Paris- A Novel of Coco Chanel by Pamela Binnings Ewen - 2020

Paris in July - Hosted by Thyme for Tea

My readings so far for Paris in July 2020

1. Forain” - a set in Paris Short Story by Mavis Gallant
2. “Winter Rain” - a Short story by Alice Adams about an American woman living in Paris after World War Two
3. Marc Chagall by Jonathan Wilson
4. Missing Person by Patrick Modiano
5. “Sisters” by Elizabeth Taylor.
6. Madame de Mauves - a set in Paris Novella by Henry James - 1874
7. The Queen of Paris- A Coco Chanel Novel by Pamela Binnings Ewen - 2020

During  Paris in July 2015  I read and was fascinated by Mademoiselle Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History by Rhonda Garelick.  For sure Coco Chanel (1883 to 1971)  is one of if not the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century. Worldwide her influence on fashion is tremendous.  When I started reading Garelick's superb biography I knew very little about Coco Chanel.    Upon reaching the end I felt I had been taken deeply into the psyche and life of an incredibly creative woman, a business genius who created from nothing a fashion and perfume empire worth billions of dollars, a woman who began life as an orphan and ended it atop the fashion universe.  I also saw a complex, deeply troubled and very much a flawed woman.  I admired her to a degree but found her often very selfish, insecure and I find her anti-Semiticism despicable.  I am convinced by the information in this book that Chanel did not just collaborate with the Nazis but tried to use the antiJewish laws they put in place to cheat the Jewish family that bought ninety percent of the rights to her famous perfume, Chanel # 5 from her.

After finishing Gatelick's biography I did not really have any plans to read another biography of Coco Chanel.  I was, however, offered a copy of Coco Chanel A Lifs by Justine Picarde for the one day only price of $1.95 so I bought it.  Picarde's book begins with a glowing description of the beautiful highly refined full of very expensive pieces found at The House de Chanel at 31 Rue Cabon in Paris.  In including in the beautiful objects are a collection of books that Chanel is represented as having read.

"Two walls are lined with leather-bound books: antique editions of Plutarch, Euripides and Homer; the memoirs of Casanova and the essays of Montaigne; The Confessions of St Augustine and The Dialogues of Plato; the complete works of Maupassant and Molière in French, Shelley and Shakespeare in English"

There is one problem with this, Chanel read none of these books, they obviously were purchased just for appearance no doubt by an agent told to get some classic books.  Chanel as detailed by Garelick did not and probably could not have read such works.  The entire book is just a love letter to Coco, ignoring all her glaringly negative characteristics.  No mention is made of her early occasional work as a prostitute or her relentless gold digging, her willingness to sell herself, her fawning over rich men, her petty cruelty at times to employees.   Picarde does not deal clearly with the issue of Coco Chanel and the Nazis, missing entirely how the whole fashion ethos of Coco, including her famous emblem, can be seen as in sympathy with much of Nazi ideology.  There is no denying her romance with a Nazj officer, a baron, thirteen years her junior and her fraternizing with Nazis at The Ritz.  I would personally guess the German Baron was told to romance Chanel to see what use could be made of her.

Picarde's book is close to cloying.  It also provides little information on how Chanel developed her business empire.  She was a genius at marketing, using herself as an icon.
Coco Chanel changed the way women wanted to look.  She was a design genius, there is no denying this.

I cannot, I admit, get past an image of the beautiful impeccably groomed no doubt an admirer of the work of Coco, Iréne Némirovsky being put on a train to Auschwitz with other French Jews and Coco Chanel dancing in the Ritz, liking this idea.

Recently i was offered a Kindle edition of a just published historical novel by Pamela Binnings Ewen, The Queen of Paris- A Novel of Coco Chanel for $0.99.  It has very good reviews so I thought Paris in July 2020 might be a good time to renew my acquaintance with Coco Chanel.

Coco Chanel

Born August 19, 1883 - Saumur, France.

1913 - opens her first boutique.

1935 - has over 4000 employees, almost all women

1939 - closes her shops

During the World War Two years she lives in Paris in the very elite Ritz Hotel, headquarters for the Gestapo.  Coco worked as an espionage agent for the Germans.  She was instructed to use her contacts to spy on the British government and induce Spain to enter the war on the side of German.  In the novel, Coco is portrayed as being blackmailed by the Nazis.  Her nephew, who might have been her son, was in a German POW camp, ill with TB.  Ewen shows us details of her fight to keep control of her trademark brand, Chanel Number 5 Perfume, worth a great fortune.  In Ewen’s portrayal, she was told that if she cooperated her nephew would be released and she would maintain ownership of her perfume.

Even presents Coco as not wantiing  to do this but felt she had to.  She had an affair with a German count who was involved with the Gestapo.  Other works I have read on Chanel suggest no reluctance on her part.  Ewen  treats her anti-semeticism in detail.

During World War Two Coco lived in the very elite Hotel Ritz in
Paris, headquarters for the Gestapo.  When Paris was liberated she feared she would be treated as a collaborator, which for sure she was.

1945 moves to Switzerland, still very rich.

She returns to Paris for a fashion Show in 1954 but received a cold reception.

She began selling her fashions and perfume in The USA, she made billions.
Ewen gives us a close look at her numerous romances with rich married men.  She was always a mistress, never a wife. She liked her men tall, thin, rich and with a title.  Maybe The nephew who she supported long after war was the son of Coco and one of her wealthy partners.  Coco grew up in an Orphan’s home, put there by her father when her mother died.  Binnings lets us see how her early  years impacted her life.  She wanted above all to rise up to a rich elegant life.

She began her working life as a seamstress, a rich boyfriend set her up in a hat shop, from this humble start she changed permanently fashion styles world wide

Paris in July 2020 - Hosted by Thyme for Tea

Coco’s taste in everything was impeccable except maybe her fondness for 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.

I enjoyed The Queen of Paris.  I am not totally convinced by Ewen’s version of Coco Chanel.  She had a dark side and to me Ewen’s portrait is a big shallow. First read Mademoiselle Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History by Rhonda Garelick, a truly great book.

Mel u


Tamara said...

Mel U, your post is illuminating. I had no idea of her liaisons with the Nazi. This year im spending a little time looking at french elegance & style, and one wouldve thought Coco would be amongst the most highly recognised. But now, i feel my reading about the Belgium queen (i started reading cos i thought she was french).. , Audrey Hepburn, puts her amongst my favourite elegant women.

Jeanie said...

The Queen of Paris sounds much more enlightening and a better read than the other you got for 1.95 -- maybe you get what you pay for. Clearly the latter sounds quite in depth and well researched. I knew about her Nazi pass and that's a tough one for me to get over but no one can deny her powerful influence on style, even decades later.

vvb32 reads said...

Lovely post on Coco. She is one of those amazing and influential women.

Lisbeth said...

Thank you for very interesting post. I don't know too much about her life. I will go for Gaelick's novel which seems to the better of them.

Mel u said...

Tamara, really enjoying Paris in July. Coco Chanel was very elegant but at a price. You have to know her Life to get a sense of Paris fsshion.

Mel u said...

Jeannie, thanks for your comment. Her influence was truly huge. The French never really forgave her.

Mel u said...

Vvb42. Thabksvery much for your comment and visit

Mel u said...

Lisbeth. Thsnks very much for your comment. . Gaelick’s work is nonfiction.

Brona said...

I’m fascinated by Chanel’s story too, having read 3 bios now, including this one.
I finished this book seeing her as being more opportunistic than deliberately anti-Semite. She was very much about getting what she wanted, when she wanted it. And prepared to use any means at her disposal. Her sense of not belonging or fitting in, meant her affiliations swung with the times. Amoral and apolitical and utterly narcissistic!

I’m certainly curious to read more about Chanel during WWII though as more of the papers are opened to public review. I suspect there’s more to learn about this very secretive woman.

Brona said...

Oops it’s not this book I’ve read, but the Garelick. Rereading your post & I see this IS the new book I’ve been waiting for to reveal more about this time in Coco’s life. It sounds rather damning!
Will hunt out a copy ASAP!!