THE ONLY INTERVIEW COCO CHANEL EVER GAVE RECOUNTING “HER WAR”
In a letter to Jacques Soustelle dated 28 August 1982, Muggeridge refers to this interview given in September 1944.
Chanel’s contempt for the “baser specimens of humanity”
COCO CHANEL: I have heard so much about you, Mr. Muggeridge. I believe you have come to liberate us. How very solicitous of you.
MALCOLM MUGGERIDGE: Even so. Could I perhaps elicit some intelligence from you concerning your valiant deeds during these past years? By the way, please understand that I have liberated no-one and nothing.
C: Have you been acquainted with the FFI investigation?
M: If I wished, a copy of their report on you could reach me by tomorrow. But I would much prefer to hear your side of the story. Did the FFI demean themselves towards you with reasonable courtesy?
C: It is odd how my feelings have evolved. At first, their conduct incensed me. Now, I feel almost sorry for those ruffians. One should refrain from contempt for the baser specimens of humanity, for whom liberation amounts to shaving the heads of women who have slept with Germans.
M: Should I take it that you have a low regard for the Resistance?
C: A major shortcoming of the Resistance is the outnumbering, before long, of the genuine warriors by camera-carrying midgets intent on leaving a record of their purported heroism.
M: Surely General de Gaulle does not fit this description?
C: You’re right. He is too tall to qualify as a midget.
M: Does he not inspire in you one spark of appreciation?
C: I wholeheartedly welcomed his eulogy of French valour, to which he attributed the liberation of Paris. Have you listened to him lately? He will soon be claiming that the Resistance has liberated the world. And why shouldn’t he? A countless following of French half-wits will believe him.
M: Have politics ever riveted your attention?
C: No. Mediocrity doesn’t appeal to me.
Chanel’s low regard for Allies and Nazis alike
M: If you were to write your memoirs, what wartime revelations would you make?
C: This is such a difficult question, isn’t it?
M: Well, let me make it easier for you. Which side were you on?
C: On neither side, of course. I stood up for myself as I always have done. Nobody has ever told Coco Chanel what to think.
MALCOLM MUGGERIDGE: And what do you think about patriotism?
COCO CHANEL: What every Englishman thinks about patriotism, the last refuge of a scoundrel.
M: Manifestly, Coco Chanel is well-read.
C: That too, I owe to an Englishman.
M: The Duke of Westminster? Surely, he wouldn’t have wasted his time on books?
C: I am referring to Arthur Capel. Does the name ‘Boy’ Capel mean anything to you?
M: I’m afraid not.
C: He was the man I loved.
M: How nice.
C: A true dandy.
M: Does that make him any better than the rest of us?
C: You are not a poet, Mr. Muggeridge. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be working in espionage.
M: So I am not a poet. I venture to state, therefore, that during the years of conflict, you shared your life with a German. Indeed, you may still be doing so. Do you also assert that you are in love with him?
C: What does it matter whether he be German or Chinese? Besides, what makes you think I am in love with him? I simply value his friendship. And even so, he knows very little about me.
M: So, there were things you needed to keep secret from him?
C: Mr. Muggeridge, I have learnt to dissemble my true feelings. I have misled people, so many people, that I too could have worked in espionage.
M: Who trained you?
C: I trained myself. Long ago, `Boy’ Capel introduced me to ‘Bludgeon the Poor!’ (Assommons les pauvres!) which, rejecting resignation, informed my moral outlook for life. I was that pauper whom Baudelaire needed to shake out of passivity. I doubt whether you understand.
M: Tell me about your German friend. Was he a Nazi?
C: ‘Spatz’ cared for me with great affection. He still does. If anything had leaked to him about the stratagems I engineered during those harrowing years, his anxiety would have betrayed him to his colleagues. I could not afford to risk any of that knowledge in his hands.
M: You confessed to me a moment ago that you had deceived many people. Do you now intend to deceive me?
C: If I intended to, would I forewarn you?
M: Which was Coco Chanel’s finest hour?
C: There were several. Once, well before the war, I remember confuting one of Westminster’s favourite maxims, “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”. In the annals of popular wisdom, this is one of the most cretinous sayings I have come across.
M: Is that because, since both are devils, there is little choice? And should I infer that the Nazis and the Allies are no better than each other?
C: No, you may not infer such a fabrication. There is much to distinguish them. In my view, nevertheless, both were fiends incarnate.
MALCOLM MUGGERIDGE: Could you substantiate?
COCO CHANEL: Your allies accommodate with Stalin, a mass-murderer. The Germans, on the other hand, fought against the mass-murderer, but are set on destroying civilisation. How, in these circumstances, can I be expected to choose between the two?
M: Perhaps because those circumstances to which you allude have not always prevailed. For the first two years of the war, I remind you that Stalin was opposed to the Allies. Why did you not support us then?
C: My dear Mr. Muggeridge, during the first two years of the war, your Allies did not even exist. The fate of the world hinged on one man - a friend of mine, Winston Churchill. He, and he alone stood up to Hitler. Sadly though, Churchill has already lost the war.
M: With great respect, he is winning the war, actually.
C: Far from it. Can you possibly conceive appeasing Stalin as a victory for Winston, proud of his forebears as he is? Winston is a dandy and a visionary. Unfortunately, in winning wars, principles are inevitably debased. That’s politics. As early as the 1930s, when Winston confronted Hitler on his own, he must have realised that, with war looming sooner or later, he would be forced to make compromises. Unlike him, I have steadfastly refused to make concessions that would undermine my ideals.
Chanel incensed with the fraudulent handling of her business
M: Turning to another fine hour - or was it? You are alleged to have availed yourself of Vichy regulations to break faith with your business partners. Would you disclaim that?
C: For heaven’s sake! The situation has been presented to you in such a spurious light.
M: Please answer my question.
C: A fraud had been committed - one without precedent in my business. A fraud so blatant that it could have hit the headlines in the world’s newspapers. Substantial bribes had been proffered. And snatched up by venal Nazis. Such was the plight others had wound me into.
M: Why were fraudsters resorted-to in the first place?
C: I will come to that in a minute. When I uncovered this shabby deceit, I was advised to invoke the full might of the Vichy regime to secure the arrest of every one of those wrongdoers. Naturally, I rejected this advice. No fraudster was prosecuted through any act of mine. Now I shall come to your question. What was the fraudsters’ motivation in so ruthlessly double-crossing me? It was because, for personal reasons, I urgently needed to regain control of my business.
C: A close relative whom I treated like my own son, and who was in poor health, had been taken prisoner by the Nazis. Now, my business partners are Jews, influential Jews as it happens. I felt that before long, they would throw in their lot with the Allies. I could not imperil the captive André’s life by my association with overt opponents of Nazism. My business partner was far from unaware of my predicament. He had also been made aware that I would not disown our long-established ties, but that circumstances compelled me then to suspend our contract for a time.
M: Those business partners, did they actively support the Allied effort?
C: After a fashion, they did, mingling the sale of perfumes with anti-Nazi propaganda. In the event, my tirelessly publicised determination to wrest back control of the business neutralised most of the adverse repercussions on me from an unwilling association with their propaganda.
M: Will you ever consider working with them again?
C: I will. In the past, even when our partnership better resembled a slanging match, our relationship somehow survived.
M: Naturally, I cannot comment on the fraud you allege, since I am not in possession of the facts. Even so, can you reasonably expect influential Jews to remain silent in the face of an ideology which vows to oppress their people and many others? Would you concede that the resolute gearing of their business to promoting the Allies should override personal factors, however pressing?
COCO CHANEL: I go along with that. I could not expect them to take any different line, and therefore took matters with the fraudsters no further. But I can never forgive their withholding their trust when I needed it at a critical point in my life.
MALCOLM MUGGERIDGE: What happened to your son?
C: He was eventually released. My joy was beyond words. It was as though the bells you heard chiming throughout Paris were all pealing together within me. If that boy had perished in a Nazi compound, I could never have gone on living. I would have killed myself.
M: What ransom did the Nazis exact from you for his release?
C: My not being more censorious towards them than I was.
M: Had you held out any promises to them?
C: I promised them that my close acquaintance with Churchill assured me of his steadfast trust. However, it took me quite a while to identify the right quarters in which to impart this intelligence. I liaised with generously-rewarded informers.
Chanel’s disregard for her own safety
M: Did you make any further promises?
C: I didn’t need to. I merely laid a trail for them to follow. By then, new opportunities were opening.
M: What do you have in mind?
C: The collapse of morale among several senior Nazi officials; that was the opening I had been seeking. At that point, I targeted the man whose vulnerability I could turn to my advantage. He was the head of Foreign Intelligence.
M: What is his name?
C: Schellenberg. Do you know him?
M: I know of him. What were you hoping to achieve?
C: My freedom.
M: I don’t understand.
C: England still lay beyond my reach. I couldn’t travel there without German authorisation.
M: Why England?
C: To settle in London and make it my home. My heart has always leaned towards England, and with the close friendship of Winston, the hero who brought hope to the world, I could not imagine a happier life for myself.
M: We have focused up to now on your Nazi connections. Nevertheless, if your strategy was to succeed, it would also have called for British contacts.
C: It did: Hoare.
M: Our man in Madrid?
C: He did his best, considering how impeded he was.
M: Did you divulge your true goal to him?
COCO CHANEL: I acquainted him first with a plan which was a pretext, masking my true goal. This smoke-screen was a secret peace plan I was required to convey to Churchill. That was why I had approached Schellenberg in the first place. That plan, Winston would have used it to light his cigar with. Nevertheless it supplied me with the opportunity to travel to Madrid. Even the very cautious Hoare at first agreed that, under cover of the smoke-screen plan I should implement my own.
MALCOLM MUGGERIDGE: You say that he agreed at first. Am I to infer that he later changed his mind?
C: He mistrusted a professed friend of mine who was journeying with me, and whom I had saved from execution by the Italian Fascists. She was English, on friendly terms with Winston and Westminster. Hoare’s suspicions proved to be justified: she betrayed me.
M: How did you learn that your friend would be put to death?
C: An informer revealed to me that she was to be tried for treason and her arrest was imminent. I then organised her rescue.
M: Did Nazis contribute any help?
M: Where did you flee to?
C: First Paris, then Madrid.
M: Did she betray you because she could not fathom your reasons for rescuing her?
C: Her mind was confused. Vera was somewhat dense at the best of times, charming though she was. Besides, she was an unwavering Fascist and a compulsive liar, a lethal combination.
M: You say an English Fascist?
C: For some time, British Intelligence had viewed her Fascist affiliations with disfavour.
M: Is it not then irrational for the Fascists to plan her execution?
C: Vera went to pieces when her husband was taken prisoner. She turned for help to anyone she could find, even Winston himself. Unbeknownst to her, however, the Fascists were scrutinising her every move.
M: How in the end did she betray you?
C: She falsely reported me to Hoare as being Schellenberg’s mistress.
M: Was there any substance in that?
C: Mr. Muggeridge, disregarding the fact that I am old enough to be Schellenberg’s mother, I would feel nauseated to be coupled with a man whose ideology has debased our hearts.
M: Did your friend’s treachery jeopardise your own plan to reach England?
C: It wrecked it. The Nazis helped Vera’s rescue in return for her involvement in Schellenberg’s peace plan. Clearly, I had no intention of implicating her, but that plan was my only means for getting her safely to Madrid.
M: How did Schellenberg react?
C: I assured him that the Vera shambles had left his initial design undamaged; that in no time, Churchill would be in better health and that a meeting would be convened in London thereupon. All the while, I feared that he would find my explanation implausible. He summoned me to Berlin.
M: Did you go?
C: I had no choice. At our interview, he told me unequivocally that he had lost confidence in me; that I was a mere amateur, playing in a world of professionals.
M: Close to the mark, wouldn’t you say?
C: I’ll let you be judge of that, Mr. Muggeridge.
The liberation of a dandy
M: Where does Coco Chanel go from here? To London?
C: There’s no point now. In these changed circumstances, the symbolic forcefulness of my endeavour is spent. As I now feel, I would wish to be borne off anywhere out of this world.
M: You may do so still, with your books to help you. What about that poet of ‘Bludgeon the Poor!’? Can’t he console you now?
C: Baudelaire, it is true, means more to me now than ever before.
M: Have you thought of writing your memoirs?
C: As a young girl, Mr. Muggeridge, I was very proud at overcoming a reading handicap whilst other girls of my age read abundantly. Don’t ask me now to get the better of my plethoric spelling mistakes in order to write memoirs. Why don’t you write them? I shall assent to your fee, regardless of its amount.
M: Give me one convincing reason, barring the financial incentive, why the memoirs of Coco Chanel should be worthy of my notice.
C: Because I am perhaps the only person you know who is brave enough to speak out against a liberation culminating in the shaving of women’s heads; and because I do believe that I have been liberated, Mr. Muggeridge, not by those loathsome liberators of yours, but by my love for André.