On the 40-year Anniversary of her Death, a Look Back at the Complicated Life and Legacy of Coco Chanel
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel spoke those words to her friend, the author Paul Morand, in the winter of 1946. She was living in St. Moritz, Switzerland, having fled Paris after the Nazis liberated the city to its rightful occupants, and continued, “I have reluctantly decided to place myself on stage and impose my presence upon you.” Over the next several days, Chanel proceeded to tell Morand her life story, perhaps in an effort clear the record and remind the world of her talents. It is clear the designer was all too aware of the fact that, as far as her Parisian clientele was concerned, she was dead.
The bitingly frank designer from the French countryside, however, was not dead at all. It would be another 35 years before Chanel passed away, not in self-imposed exile in Switzerland, but at her long-time home at the Hotel Ritz Paris, 40 years ago on this day in 1971.
But Chanel was dead to Parisians for a single reason: Her rather comfortable survival of the German occupation of the city in the arms of Nazi officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage at the Ritz. To add insult to injury, Chanel didn’t just play house with a Nazi; she willingly collaborated with many of them. She frequently met with Walter Schellenberg, Hitler’s chief of foreign intelligence (and even paid for his funeral in 1952). After the war, Chanel was arrested. She was released under circumstances that are still unclear, and promptly fled to Switzerland, where she would spend nearly 10 years in self-imposed exile.
But by the summer of 1953, Chanel was restless and ready to get back to her life’s work. She contacted Carmel Snow, editor at Harper’s Bazaar, about the possibility of producing a ready-to-wear line in America in order to finance her return. Instead, an arrangement was made with the same company that had already made a fortune producing Chanel No. 5 to provide financial backing for her return to fashion design.
The collection Chanel showed on February 5, 1954, surprised editors, critics and buyers simply because there was nothing surprising about it: It was classic Chanel. There were tweed suits and quilted bags. The European press called the show a “fiasco.” A London critic dubbed it a collection for “mums.” He added, “Though personally we like to see mums with a bit more dash.”
Editors and critics in America held an entirely different opinion. Life magazine called the collection “refreshing after the ‘poured on’ look of some styles.” Over at Vogue, it was suggested—with just a hint of condescension—that the cold reaction in Europe stemmed from a collection “suited perhaps more for meticulous private clients than for astonishing the multitudes.” Those clients emerged as soon as the clothes hit the stores, and soon the multitudes did, too. One has to assume, though, that Europe’s cold reaction was what Vogue didn’t want to remind its readers of: A long-held resentment for a woman who so quickly and easily betrayed her country in exchange for a warm bed and hot meals at the Ritz.
But thanks to the reaction in the U.S., Chanel was reborn. Europeans eventually cooled their jets and her business flourished there, too. She continued to design for the next 17 years and was at work on an upcoming collection when she quietly passed away in her hotel room. Of course, to say that Chanel “passed away” seems to imply that she left us. Morand gathered the notes from his conversation with the designer, and in 1971 published The Allure of Chanel, a slim biography based on his conversations with her in St. Moritz. That book captured the designer’s spirit and helped create the legend of Chanel. So by her own definition, Chanel is still here. After all, we are still thinking about her. —Katrina Ernst
Credits: Top: Chanel © Shel Hershron/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Middle: Harper’s Bazaar Mrs. Carmel Snow chatting with Gabrielle Chanel on December 1, 1952: Walter Sanders/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images. Bottom: Models wearing Chanel in a 1952 Vogue, shot by Norman Parkinson.