C.W. Gortner provides a fictionalized biography of fashion icon Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971). Gabrielle is born into poverty, and when her mother dies and her father abandons them, she and her sisters are sent to Aubazine, an orphanage. It’s there that her talents for embroidery are first noted. Unlike her sisters and aunt, Gabrielle shuns traditional expectations of a husband and children. She yearns for much more. She embarks on a series of love affairs which coincidentally further her career. She begins with hats and graduates to shirts, pants, skirts, dresses and eventually perfume during her meteoric rise. Eliminating no corsets and supporting a more practical, understated form, Coco (who obtains her nickname while singing bawdy songs for extra money in nightclubs) rises to the pinnacle of Parisian fashion. She profits enormously from WWI and continues to take lovers (including the super wealthy Duke of Westminster and exiled Russian Grand Duke Dmitri) who aide her business ventures. Royalty throughout Europe and the rich in America scramble to buy up her creations and she becomes wealthy beyond her wildest dreams. Her signature perfume, Chanel No. 5, is just one of her endeavors that becomes an eternal success. When the Nazis invade Paris, Coco shuts down her stores and works to free her nephew from a German POW camp. When her Nazi lover convinces her to undertake an undercover mission that goes wrong, Coco flees to Switzerland. Her attempt at a comeback 15 years later proves fruitless, as Parisians remember her Nazi connections and turn to Dior instead.
Gortner obviously has immense respect for his subject and it shows. Her strength, determination, loyalty, and keen business sense are certainly highlighted. The jury is still out on whether or not Coco knowingly cooperated with the Nazis during WWII. She did have a Nazi lover and she did go to Madrid for questionable purposes (“Operation Mudellhut”). Although she was never fully investigated or brought to trial (and rumors have it that Churchill himself freed her), what is clear is that Paris never fully forgave her close connections to the Nazis after the war and refused to support her again. Gortner crafts a story that portrays Coco as a Nazi pawn, but that portrait is at odds with the smart, savvy, fierce businesswoman who appears everywhere else in the novel. The author seems to give Coco more credit than she deserved, but it does give the fictionalized version a surprising conclusion. Still, a fascinating portrait of a force of nature.
I did prefer Mr. Gortner’s “Vatican Princess” to this novel and that review can be found here.
Amazon link is here.