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.
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.
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.