Unabashed lover of millionaires, royalty and even a top Nazi - racy book on life of Coco Chanel

Returning to Paris just two months after the Nazi invasion, Coco Chanel found a very different city from the one where she'd launched her world-famous couture house.Troops were goose-stepping down the Champs-Élysees, the street signs were now in German and posters announced that 'the English and the Jews have brought you to this sorry pass'.Even her long-time home — a sumptuous suite at the Ritz — had been taken over by Hitler's High Command.It was August 1940. Many Parisians had fled the occupied capital, Chanel among them, but she could not bear to stay away from the city she loved for too long.So what if there was a swastika flying over the Ritz and high-ranking Nazis in its dining room? Determined to continue living as she pleased, she settled into three smaller rooms at the luxurious hotel, where even the air-raid shelters in the cellars had fur rugs and silk Hermes sleeping bags.True, she was a good friend of Winston Churchill, whom she'd first met in the Twenties. One day, over lunch in her Ritz suite, he'd even wept on her shoulder, overcome with emotion at the prospect of Edward VIII's abdication.But that was then. This was now; although, unlike most other couturiers, she had closed Maison Chanel when war broke out, yet her boutique remained open. Here German soldiers flocked to buy Chanel No 5 for their girlfriends back home.Within months, she had launched into an affair with a senior German officer. She wasn't going to pass up a fine specimen just because he was a Nazi. They lived quietly and unostentatiously, shunning the grand restaurants where Nazi officers took French girlfriends.If it occurred to her that she'd become a 'horizontal collaborator', she didn't let that bother her. But the French Resistance was watching. Early one morning in 1941, two fighters burst into her hotel suite. They blindfolded France's greatest couturière and took her away to a secret location. Then they interrogated her about her relationship with a German officer.If she didn't change her ways, they warned her, she could face disfigurement or death.But Chanel refused to be intimidated — one of her salient qualities was courage — and, surprisingly, they released her.She shrugged her elegant shoulders and resumed seeing her blond Aryan lover. Much as she loved France, nobody — not even the Resistance — was going to tell her how to conduct her life.Two key events had shaped Gabrielle Chanel — known to all as Coco. Born to an itinerant pedlar, she'd lost her mother when she was just 11. Her father then dumped Coco and her two sisters in a grim orphanage run by nuns, vanishing from their lives.After working as a low-paid seamstress and cabaret singer, she became mistress at 23 to Etienne Balsan, a textile heir. Or rather, his second-string mistress. He was already keeping a well-known cocotte at his chateau.Chanel, pragmatic from childhood, accepted this for three years — until she fell in love with English polo player 'Boy' Capel, one of her lover's aristocratic friends.Boy Capel took her to Paris and subsidised a small millinery business. The hats were unusually simple and elegant for their time, and soon became popular.It was a happy time: Chanel was deeply in love. With her growing success and Capel's frequent absences on business, she also became increasingly self-reliant.She was soon going to need every ounce of her strength: in 1918, Capel told her that he was going to marry a young aristocrat for social reasons. Chanel suffered a nervous collapse. But Capel couldn't forget her: a few months after the wedding, their liaison resumed.By now Chanel had also established her own maison de couture in Paris. Her future was once again looking brighter until, several days before Christmas 1919, Capel was killed in a car accident.A friend, Comte Leon Laborde, went round to break the news to her in the early hours. Chanel, her black hair tousled, came down the stairs in her white satin pyjamas. When told Capel was dead, she said nothing but stared with stricken eyes, 'crying with dry eyes', as he put it later.Instead of going to Capel's funeral, she asked the count's chauffeur to drive her to the scene of the accident, where she fingered the debris from the car. Then she sat on a milestone and wept.Years later, she said: 'I lost everything when I lost Capel. He left a void in me that the years have not filled.' She mourned like a widow, ordering black curtains for the window and black sheets for the bed. She flung herself into work, investing Capel's £40,000 legacy in her business. She began a lifetime habit: love affairs that were simultaneous or overlapping. She didn't feel she 'belonged' to any of them.In 1921, she started a dalliance with composer Igor Stravinsky. She moved on to 30-year-old Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, the grandson of Tsar Alexander III. He was young, tall, with exceptional good looks.By now, she was revolutionising fashion by designing simple, supple, pared-down clothes for women in materials that allowed the body to move freely. Revelling in her new-found wealth, she bought a pale blue Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud to whisk her Grand Duke down to the Riviera. Their liaison, though brief, left her with a lasting legacy — for the Grand Duke had introduced her to the master parfumeur who created Chanel No 5.Later, she signed a deal with the Wertheimer family, owners of France's largest fragrance company, to produce, market and distribute the scent. Chanel herself received a mere 10 per cent — something she was later to resent — but even that made her a millionaire for the rest of her days.Three years after starting her affair with Stravinsky, Chanel met the richest man in England while dining with an English girlfriend in Monaco's Hotel de Paris. 'Bendor' Grosvenor, the 44-year-old Duke of Westminster, was fascinated by the elegant, witty an ...Read more

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