SECRET AGENT WOMAN: Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel worked as a Nazi spy during World War II, according to a documentary broadcast on French state television channel France 3 on Monday.
This story first appeared in the December 3, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The program, titled “L’ombre d’un doute” (“The Shadow of a Doubt” in English) examines the roles of French celebrities including Chanel, Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf during the Occupation.
It features a previously unseen declassified document from the French secret service showing that Chanel operated under the code name “Westminster” — a reference to her affair with the Duke of Westminster — and was registered as agent number F. 7124 with the German military intelligence organization Abwehr.
However, writer Yann Kerlan was quoted as saying that it would be wrong to portray Chanel as “the Mata Hari of the Third Reich,” saying she likely served as a contact officer for German officials.
The fashion house said in a statement the documentary did not present any new insights into the company’s founder.
“This report, even though it comes up with a document from the French archives, adds nothing new to what is already known on the subject and has been addressed by different biographers,” the company said.
“More than 70 works have been written about Gabrielle Chanel. Not all biographers agree, to say the least, which is proof that it is difficult to interpret history 70 years after the fact,” it added.
Chanel had an affair with Nazi spy Hans Günther von Dincklage during the war, which almost certainly helped her secure the release of her nephew, André Palasse, in 1941, the TV documentary contended. “This obviously was not the best of times to have an affair with a German,” the Chanel company noted in its reaction to the broadcast.
The documentary also claims that the designer attempted to reclaim her perfume business from the Jewish Wertheimer family under Occupation-era laws that prohibited Jews from owning companies in France. This move failed, as the Wertheimers had preemptively sold the business to a non-Jewish associate who handed it back to them after the war.
Chanel’s role in a failed peace accord was also evoked.
“It seems that Gabrielle Chanel was able to communicate with [British Prime Minister Winston] Churchill and offered to act as an intermediary between the Allies and the Germans to help with a peace accord. The documentary confirms this version. What role did she want to play? Accounts differ,” the fashion house said. “Some historians describe Mademoiselle Chanel as a rather naive woman in the political field, easily manipulated by those close to her. Others see her as a top-level spy, whereas others see her as an intermediary attempting to negotiate a peace agreement. Although Mademoiselle Chanel was a visionary artist and a fashion innovator, her life has its gray areas and undeniably still some mystery today,” the company concluded.