Spritzing with the Enemy

Audrey Volk  The Mother profiled in Shocked

Audrey Volk
The Mother profiled in Shocked

You may be familiar with Hal Vaughan’s book, Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War.  The book came out in 2012 and caused some flutter as mention of Coco’s wartime activities inevitably does.  The fact of Coco’s affair with Von Dincklage, and her attempt to emphasize her larger amount of “Aryan” blood to oust the Wertheimers from Parfums Chanel is all pretty easy to discover.  However, having a spouse who writes non-fiction history makes you sensitive to primary material, plus I have always wondered if we know some of Coco’s war activities, how much did people know during the forties?Well, now I have an answer of sorts from an amusing independent source, namely Patricia Volk’s,  Shocked My Mother Schiaparelli, and Me, a memoir of her New York childhood during the forties and fifties.

Schiaparelli's  Shocking


Patricia was the child of a pair of successful restaurateurs and her lovely mother always wore Shocking, while Patricia herself adored Shocking Life, Schiaparelli’s autobiography-hence the connection.

Ms Volk describes her grandmother, a No 5 wearer and also Jewish, forswearing her scent because…  “She is a traitor” Volk writes of Chanel, ” Firing her staff, closing her maison, it is common knowledge that she is riding out the occupation in the arms of the Nazi spy…Von Dincklage….

‘Can you imagine? Polly says, pouring her Chanel No 5 down the drain. ‘That momzer.’

Nana switches to Bellodgia, a floral yet spicy scent made by the house of Caron.”

So they knew.

But there was a good deal of fellow travelling amongst  Parisian designers of the period.  In The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, Mary Blume writes of those several couturiers who did not cover themselves with glory during the war. ” Marcel Rochas, who dressed the wife of Prime Minister Pierre Laval, crossed the street rather than greet his  Jewish former clients, pretty blond Jacques Fath and his pretty blond wife Genevieve, became ornaments of what were politely  known as Franco-German gatherings.” Oh dear, does that mean Femme is a tainted perfume, in addition to No5?  What about Iris Gris? What about all the Cotys with their creator’s fatal attraction to Mussolini?

The unlikely hero of French fashion was Lucien Lelong who refused to allow the Germans to move the couture to Berlin.  They were actively planning such a move, but Lelong insisted that the couture was French, and had to remain a cultural heritage thereby saving a tradition, skilled workers, jobs, and perhaps a fragment of  French bravado.

Lucien Lelong

Lucien Lelong

French, the  couture remained, largely due to that intrepid man’s efforts, though the forties were strange days in the remaining houses, “Just think,” whispered Christian Dior at Lelong’s one day to his friend Pierre Balmain, whose house was to flourish in the forties as well,”All these women are going to be shot wearing Lelong dresses!”

So which perfumes to wear from the period?  Does all of this matter any  more, and can a trail of guilt be sniffed to its source?  I doubt that but then like Nana-I wear Bellodgia.


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6 thoughts on “Spritzing with the Enemy

  1. Good morning,

    What food for thought you have given your readers today! I read that book, Sleeping with the Enemy, and I also read Justine Picardie’s biography which was published at the same time. Man. I really liked the Picardie book. She devoted a huge section to the Weirthmiers, and their relationship with Chanel. Apparently she felt that they made too much money from her=for once in her perspicaspic life she failed to negotiate a good contract for herself. She did not realize how much income would come from the fragrances. Towards the end of her life her great adversary, Pierre Weirthmier, extended an olive branch which Chanel had the great good sense to accept. So no wonder your grandmother changed to Bellodgia. My grandfather signed up a age 14 to be in the navy-he sailed as a merchant marine in the Second World War. To the end of his life he could only buy domestic vehicles-he hated Japanese cars. I have a little tea service which belonged to my great grand aunt. The words made in Japan are carefully scratched out with a pin.
    I think it all still matters. Perfume should give pleasure and if a person’s mind wanders to the events of the 40′s, then the pleasure of wearing the perfume is diminished. But please tell me I can keep wearing Patou-he fought in the war, right-had quite a distinguished record? I hope so, because Eau de Patou and Mille are so so good!

    • I haven’t read the Justine Picardie biography of Chanel so I will have to snag a copy, or download it. As you can see, I love reading about couturiers :-)

      To your point about the forties still mattering, they may do. When I was growing up in Italy the local Roman women detested German tourists, and being young and naive I always wondered why. Now, of course I know, and maybe this affects international purchases as well. For example your great grand aunt’s tea set with “Japan” scratched out!

      I suppose now that all the people involved are dead or in remote old age, all this must matter less. I still enjoy my Carons though because I know the company fought hard to retain its workers during WWII and kept them from being deported to Germany as forced labor. They even insisted on paying them when the workers were in the French army! This makes me feel absurdly good about my Alponas and Farnesianas.

      Jean Patou was apparently a veteran of WWI and as it’s the 100th anniversary this year, I’d wear them!

  2. I always associate Femme with Roudnitska more than Rochas (even though Rochas paid for it), and I’ve never read anything that questions Roudnitska’s humanity. But those were such difficult times. People had to make unimaginably tough choices, so I try not to judge too much. Perhaps in saying this I am just sidestepping the issues in order to justify my wearing of Femme. Can you separate a work of art from its political context? Maybe not, but there are probably more pressing moral dilemmas to be faced in our own times, I think.

  3. No, I doubt that you can separate a work of art from its origins, and can’t imagine banning all the Cotys from my wardrobe either-so there you are. But I mention all of this because from time to time the Chanel issues get raised, though the world still loves Chanel jackets, purses, and perfumes. Times change and so do moral codes, I think of Victorians trying hard not to explain about their Regency parents ‘natural’ children to their own properly bred offspring :-)

    I always loved John Lennon’s observation that he liked to fly Lufthansa because all the pilots knew the way to London in the dark!

  4. I love the headline!

    I don’t wear most of the historical perfumes including No 5 (other than testing, I wore it only once – last week as an experiment, it’s not “my” perfume) so it’s not a problem for me. But I’m not above “punishing” perfumes for different reasons so had Coco been alive today I wouldn’t have worn her perfumes or used her cosmetics line – not to financially support a traitor. But since she’s not a symbol of heroism or any other positive traits but just a fashion icon I do not really care about the past in relation to the brand itself.

    • Since the owners of the brand these days are the Wertheimers who Coco tried so hard to oust, it probably doesn’t matter anymore anyway.
      But I do find the stories of the 1940s in Paris really interesting, up to and including the miniature couture collection they sent out to America in 1946 just to prove they were still there and still in business. The clothes were all tiny because they couldn’t afford full sized dress models, called Theatre de la Mode, you can see pics on Wikipedia.

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