When I heard the nasty rumors circulating online about Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War, a new book that unlocks the secrets of Coco Chanel’s WWII wartime activities I had to get my hands on a copy. After all, Coco Chanel was my idol since childhood and I didn’t want to look up to a Nazi spy. On the other hand, claiming someone was a Nazi spy is probably one of the worst things you could say about a person – and I wasn’t going to believe such an accusation without some proof. You see, a long, long time ago (in a land far away), I was an attorney. Though I no longer practice law, I don’t take accusations lightly and I firmly believe in “innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” That is the standard by which I deem things such as nasty Nazi spy rumors to be true or false. After reading Hal Vaughan’s Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War, I am not convinced.
The first half of the book is background information on Chanel and the Paris she inhabited. There is nothing about her behavior pre-WWII that would cast doubt on her character. Yet, the tone in which Hal Vaughan writes his book is one of a scorned lover. Or a woman hater. Or both. The book reads like a witch hunt and he simply did not like her. His distaste for Coco Chanel came across in everything he wrote from his description of her appearance to disparaging and sexist comments sprinkled throughout the book. As I was reading the first half of the book I found myself thinking that if it is with the same analysis that he comes to the Nazi spy conclusions, then his arguments are simply not credible. But I continued reading and waited to read something convincing.
The second half of the book is where Hal Vaughan lays out his evidence and presents his arguments claiming Coco Chanel was a Nazi spy. His conclusions are based on archival documents about Chanel’s wartime activities. Interestingly, Justine Picardie had access to the same documents and devotes two chapters to Chanel’s wartime activities in Coco Chanel: The Legend and The Life, and came to very different conclusions. How could two people read the same documents and come to such different conclusions?
Hal Vaughan had an idea in his head and he skews the documents to fit his hypothesis, whereas Justine Picardie approached the documents with an analytical eye and also with great knowledge of Coco Chanel. For example, one set of intelligence records claimed that Coco Chanel was married. That was simply not true – and something that could easily be verified with state records. If the intelligence could be wrong about something so easily verifiable, how could you believe anything else in the documents? At the very basis, the source material was not credible. This is just one example, but there are many more inconsistencies that just don’t add up. Whereas Hal Vaughan forces the pieces to fit, Justine Picardie lays them out before you and you conclude yourself that there is just no way they can fit together.
Even by giving Hal Vaughan the benefit of the doubt and accepting all of his arguments as true – then Chanel did two things: (1) she unsuccessfully tried to broker peace between Germany and England; and (2) she tried to gain control of her company using anti-Jewish laws. Picardie addresess both of these issues – Vaughan is not bringing anything new to the table. But these acts hardly make her a Nazi spy. Calling someone a Nazi spy implies that she is working for the Nazis. That simply was not the case. Though trying to gain control of her company through the use of anti-Jewish laws was unsavory, it also did not make her a Nazi spy.
The final thing that I considered when deciding whose arguments were more convincing were the actual writers themselves. Justine Picardie, a fashion writer, was the features director of British Vogue and has written for Harper’s Bazaar. Hal Vaughan was a journalist whose writing has been more political in nature. While Hal Vaughan’s knowledge of Coco Chanel was rudimentary, Justine Picardie literally walked where Coco Chanel walked visiting the convent where Chanel grew up and Chanel’s suite at the Ritz, among other places. She even tried on Chanel’s very own clothing. Picardie’s research was so deep that she delved into the very psyche of Coco Chanel. She knew that Chanel’s greatest creation was her own persona and that you can’t take things at face value when studying Coco Chanel. When comparing the two – there is in fact no comparison. Hal Vaughan’s book simply reads as an opportunistic book written to create lots of nasty headlines and rumors online with nothing to back them up. For that, he did succeed. In convincing me that Coco Chanel was a Nazi spy, he did not.
If this is issue is important to you I urge you to read both books and come to your own conclusion. Both books, Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War and Coco Chanel: The Legend and The Life are available online and you can hear the authors themselves debate the issue on BBC radio.