As part of researching Coco Chanel’s relationship with the Société Baudelaire I had the honor of conducting an exclusive interview with Isée St. John Knowles, the President of the Société Baudelaire. I asked him questions about Coco Chanel’s activities with the Société Baudelaire as well as the Muggeridge interview. Please read the interview below…
Exclusive Interview with Isée St. John Knowles, President, Société Baudelaire
Did you ever have occasion to meet Mlle. Chanel? If so, what could you tell us about her that may not be apparent from photos and biographies? If not, what characteristics did the Société Baudelaire see in her that led them to consider her as candidate for the Honorary Presidency of the Société Baudelaire?
I never had the fortune to meet Coco Chanel, although this could have been arranged. I was a mere 19 years old when she died. Nevertheless, I have researched Chanel for many years, especially her experience of the war. Doubtless, I was impelled by the need to answer the question of Chanel’s Baudelairean authenticity. Why did Baudelaire scholars so seriously entertain her candidature for the Société Baudelaire Honorary Presidency? For Chanel herself would have disavowed any claim to being a Baudelairean exegete. Even her personal library yields no evidence of her ever having read a single critical work on Baudelaire. She had, however, read the author himself and discussed his thinking with leading Société Baudelaire authorities. Moreover, in her own ineffable way, she venerated Baudelaire even before having debated his work. In her conviction, Baudelaire stood for values which she herself had upheld in all her trials from girlhood onwards. She believed that Baudelaire’s insights conferred meaning on her own tragedies, giving her the strength to triumph over them. Not even Chanel’s detractors during the Société’s election campaign would ever have questioned her authenticity as a Baudelairean.
Are you familiar with Hal Vaughan’s recent biography of Coco Chanel, Sleeping With the Enemy? How do you respond to his accusations?
Yes, I am conversant both with Hal Vaughan’s work and with almost all the key documents upon which he constructed his case. For decades, in point of fact, these documents were known to the Société Baudelaire. You ask me how I would respond to his book: in order to sell well, an author needs to simplify the arguments. He must fight shy of historic complexities – abhorred by the average media man. Bear in mind, on the other hand, that the Chanel war story is an intricate puzzle, with many missing pieces, including dates that often defy precision and may even conflict. On such insecure foundations as these, establishing the facts will always be a challenge, and one that must be faced. You will readily appreciate the perplexity of the historian’s task in uncovering the truth about the Chanel war story when I stress that, from Vaughan’s own documentation, conclusions can legitimately be inferred about Chanel’s war conduct that are at variance – and sometimes radically in conflict – with his own. To summarise, if Vaughan has set out objectively-presented facts for his reader, his publication may be regarded as a genuine search for historical truth. If, on the other hand, it puts a construction on the facts adduced such as to infer Chanel’s purported guilt of treason and anti-Semitism, then the book should be read as a fiction targeting desperate American housewives.
Does Hal Vaughan know of the Muggeridge interview? If so, how has Hal Vaughan responded to knowledge of the Muggeridge interview of Coco Chanel?
I concede – reluctantly – that neither Vaughan nor any professional historian can fairly be taxed with failing to include the Muggeridge interview with Chanel held in September 1944. For Muggeridge himself used every possible device to deter future historians. At the meeting, he conceived an aversion for Chanel and, in his memoirs, intentionally minimised her significance. Even so, the Rue Cambon meeting provided the underlying themes for his play, Liberation. Only a historian who knew Muggeridge well – as I did – could have discovered in his compendious archives the unedited version of the Chanel interview. Through my agency, Muggeridge acquainted with its existence Jacques Soustelle and other informed witnesses, and only in its edited version. The unabridged version, which also referred to a third person’s relationship with Muggeridge, was destroyed.
Does the Société Baudelaire retain any of the sketches of Chanel’s Flowers of Evil collection or any information on the plans for the fragrance?
Some sketches for gowns chosen by Chanel to feature in her proposed collection on the Flowers of Evil were published in various fashion journals of the day. At the time, there was no inkling of their future use by the designer to interpret Baudelaire’s poems. Given minimal research into Chanel archives, the aborted fashion show for which they were intended could be reconstructed. Chanel passed on to the Baudelairean painter Limouse the full arguments justifying her choice of poems. For the fragrance, the Société was involved from its conception to its naming by Chanel.
In your opinion, does the House of Chanel still embody the philosophy of the Baudelairean Dandy?
Sadly, with Chanel’s passing, the philosophy of the Baudelairean Dandy has been altogether superseded by the cult of celebrity, as practised by the couturiers of our day. Baudelairean Dandyism is solely concerned with the disinterested aspiration of a singularly noble mind to live according to the highest ideals. And in that, Coco Chanel excelled.