SURVIVOR: the long ships (frans g. bengtsson)*
CHALLENGER: coco chanel: the legend and the life (justine picardie)
quiet designers like rei kawakubo can roll a stick of dynamite under your dressing-room door and change your life forever;** mad uncles like karl lagerfeld chew english like tobacco, launch a thousand art projects, and bore me to tears with their clothes. where in all of that is coco chanel?
justine picardie's coco chanel is easily the best-looking biography i've ever read; its pages are thick and glossy, and full of dali, toulouse-lautrec, and warhol (an ear of wheat, a revue poster for which her frenemy modeled, and silkscreens of the chanel no. 5 bottle, respectively). it's not especially incisive or heavy on original scholarship, which is par for the course in fashion magazine journalism: picardie*** (the former features director of british vogue) is surefooted as hell as she's discussing how, say, chanel's years in a convent orphanage shaped her approach to accessories, but she's disappointingly tentative (she has lots of theories and quotes, particularly from claude delay's chanel solitaire, but they don't feel cohesive) when it's time to talk about how and why chanel compulsively unraveled and rewove her own bio.****
according to her birth certificate, gabrielle charnet (a misspelling corrected by a court decree twenty years later) was the second daughter of penniless peddlers, born at a poorhouse in saumur on the loire; variations on this theme appear in picardie's pages beside a photo of saumur, six pictures of chanel buttons, and a tarot card from chanel's rue cambon apartment. chanel's father swept in and out of her life, and illness swept in and out of her mother, who finally died when chanel was eleven; she and her two sisters were promptly deposited with the sisters of the congregation of the sacred heart of mary in the medieval village of aubazine.***** after seven years of dark-fairy-tale-esque (at least as far as anyone can tell) nun-drudgery, eighteen-year-old gabrielle cycled through a boarding school in moulins, a draper's store, a music hall (at which she performed "qui qu'a vu coco?" and earned her nickname), and finally to vichy, where she met her first lover, the cavalry officer etienne balsan; he invited her to join him at his estate, royallieu, and her privileged life as a "kept girl" among cocottes and aristocrats began.
balsan's successor (boy capel, an englishman and "playboy industrialist" who helped chanel get started in the millinery business and open her first shop and was killed while driving from cannes to paris in 1919) was chanel's great love; his riding outfits and jumpers were the first pieces she hacked apart and reassembled as her own modernist outfits. the scrappy-luxe woman capel's high-society friends scorned and encouraged him to chuck over is enormously appealing; though both balsan and capel financed her lifestyle and initial forays into the fashion world, coco's own sweat equity made the house of chanel a success. coco circa world war two, a middle-aged, well-established designer by the time the germans got to paris, is less so. that wildly-unsympathetic chanel is the one i really wanted picardie to dissect for me.
That Chanel's wartime record is imperfect is a reflection both of her own inconsistencies, and the inconsistent recording of them. But her conduct should also be seen in the context of an era of French history marked by a widespread sense of chaos, confusion, and uncertainty, as well as terrible tragedy. To acknowledge this is not to act as an apologist for Chanel; and she herself would have been enraged at the very idea, for she declared that she had done nothing wrong in her relationship with the German [hans gunther von dincklage, an officer with whom she had a long affair while she lived at the german-occupied ritz]. Not that he was even German, in her eyes; his mother was English, and he and Chanel spoke English together; an act of solidarity, as if they were setting themselves apart from German-occupied Paris in their own neutral territory, that of Mademoiselle's private apartment at 31 Rue Cambon.picardie notes that von dincklage, a "distinguished-looking attaché to the german embassy in paris," was "to some observers...simply an affable, occasionally frivolous, diplomat; to others [including other chanel biographers], a german spy." chanel had a new version of her own story for every listener and seemed to disregard fact when it was inconvenient to her, so...since she didn't believe von dincklage worked for the abwehr (the german military intelligence organization), we don't even have to worry about what she knew about his record? i'm unconvinced.
But perhaps she was unable to see her German lover without obscuring something of the truth, closing her eyes to his past, as well as his passport; just as she had been apparently blind to previous episodes in her own life.
let's skip over chanel's crazy attempts to meet with her old pal winston churchill and broker peace with the germans (fascinating and deeply weird though they were) and forge ahead to what picardie calls "the most troubling episode of coco chanel's history": "in essence she attempted to use the anti-jewish laws of the german occupation to oust [the wertheimer brothers, who eventually owned 90 percent of les parfums chanel, the company which produced chanel no. 5]". picardie emphasizes that "it is difficult to produce any firm evidence of chanel making anti-semitic statements - the accusations against her are rarely backed up by reliable sources," and admits only to a "disquieting ambiguity" in chanel's comments about jewish friends and acquaintances. "the possibility remains," she writes, "that chanel's tactics against the wertheimers may have had less to do with her own anti-semitism than with her increasingly passionate belief that pierre [wertheimer] had done her an injustice by giving her only a 10 percent share in the perfume company." i confess my opinion of her is low either way.
the manner in which chanel reimagined femininity in her designs was revolutionary; that in which she reimagined her past was confusing at the best of times and deeply sinister at others. picardie had her work cut out for her, obviously, and it feels mean to fault her for failing to chase down new and solid information on her subject. or does that mean she shouldn't have attempted a biography in the first place? i've said before and will undoubtedly say again that deirdre bair's anais nïn (on another notoriously slippery française, for which she had unprecedented access to diary manuscripts) is one of the best biographies i've ever read; insight on shady ladies is possible, provided that one has the proper tools. the snapshots here, evocative though they are, aren't those tools.
VICTOR: tell me i'm not alone in relishing the mental image of a chanel boutique pillaged by vikings. the long ships sails on unchallenged.
imaginary reading group discussion questions
01 is it unsporting to take a fashion journalist to task for writing a psych-lite fashion biography? (most reviewers seemed to love picardie's chanel; only duncan fallowell in the daily express takes exception to her unintegrated quotes.)
02 which designers, if any, fascinate you?
03 shifty backstories! forget parenting and dieting; is that where french gals really have us beat?
04 have you ever worn and/or owned chanel? would you?
05 what's your roaring-twenties aristocrat name?
06 is picardie an apologist for chanel? does chanel deserve one?
07 if you had thirty-six hours to spend on the isle of man, what would you do there? (that has nothing to do with chanel, i realize, but i just finished booking a trip there for september and i'm unreasonably excited.)
*previous round here.
**the five minutes i swanned around the comme des garçons store in chelsea in one of her fabric-tornado skirts were the highlight of my clothes-wearing career. we'll meet again, skirt, and i'll wear you nonstop for the rest of my days.
***known to some of you, perhaps, as the gal who just did the gwyneth paltrow cover interview for bazaar's relaunch ("As she falls naturally into yoga stretches during the course of the conversation, supple as a cat, you realize that this is a woman for whom working out has become essential").
****"[chanel] was less willing to remember the year of her birth, 1883, adjusting it when it suited her purposes; even tearing it out of her passport. 'my age varies according to the days and the people i happen to be with,' she told a young american journalist in 1959, when she was 76. 'when i'm bored i feel very old, and since i'm extremely bored with you, i'm going to be a thousand years old in five minutes.'" it's a great, bitchy quote, but it has almost nothing to do with the passage in which it appears; it's just color commentary.
*****picardie's account (for the daily mail) of her own stay at aubazine - for which she, like the sisters who still live there, took a vow of silence - made me appreciate her as a biographer a bit more; i like the idea of her pilgrimage.