Vaughan, a journalist, filmmaker and diplomat who has been “involved,” as his publisher coyly puts it, “in CIA operations,” offers us a different Chanel from any you’ll find at the company store. This is by no means the account of an emerging style — spare, easy, free of corsets and remarkably modern — but a tale of how a single-minded woman faced history, made hard choices, connived, lied, collaborated and used every imaginable wile to survive and see that the people she cared about survived with her. It’s not a pretty picture.
She was born Gabrielle Chasnel in a picturesque little town in western France. Her mother was a laundrywoman; her father, a street-hawker. Her parents didn’t marry until she was 12, but very soon after, her mother was dead, her brothers at work on a farm, and she and her sisters installed in a Cistercian orphanage in rural France. It was during those years in the nunnery that young Gabrielle acquired a skill and a doctrine that would guide her for the rest of her life: She learned to sew; and she learned to hate Jews. “Chanel’s anti-Semitism was not only verbal,” her friend, an editor of the magazine Marie Claire, avowed, “but passionate, demoded, and often embarrassing. Like all the children of her age she had studied the catechism: hadn’t the Jews crucified Jesus?”
At 18, she was striking: slim, dark-haired and dark-eyed, with a fresh, luminous complexion. She moved to a pension for girls in Moulins and found night work as a singer in a cabaret. By day, she worked as a seamstress. She took the name “Coco,” short for “coquette,” French for a kept woman — and, within a few years, she became exactly that: a demimondaine, living with her lover. He was Etienne Balsan, an ex-cavalry officer from a family of wealthy textile industrialists. Balsan brought her to his chateau, introduced her to his friends and taught her how to ride — a skill that would serve her royally.
Keen-eyed and discriminating, Chanel soon learned what it took to live well. She would remain grateful to Balsan for the rest of her life, but within two years, she was in love with someone else: Arthur “Boy” Capel, one of Balsan’s riding partners — a handsome English playboy with a large bank account and a web of connections. In 1908, he snatched her away, installed her in a Paris apartment and helped her launch a business making ladies’ hats. Boy Capel proved as generous with his wallet as he was fickle in love. When Chanel’s older sister committed suicide, he arranged for Chanel’s nephew, Andre Palasse (whom Chanel quickly adopted), to attend a boarding school in England. Capel would go on to finance her clothing boutiques in Paris, Deauville and Biarritz.
But Capel would take someone else as a wife. An upper-class Englishman could hardly marry a descendant of peasants — a courtesan. Nevertheless, Chanel remained his mistress until his death in a car accident 10 years later. She claimed she would never find happiness again. But at 35, she was rich, living in a glamorous apartment overlooking the Seine, poised to open the House of Chanel and acquire ever more wealth, lovers and notoriety. One world war had already come and gone, and it had not affected the gilded trajectory.