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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

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THE SCENT OF EVIL

In the news again, fragrant Chanel,
a great designer but a vehement Jew hater and fervent supporter of Hitler

WICKED: Coco Chanel was was a fully-fledged Nazi agent

Much has been written and televised about Coco Chanel in the past few days thanks to the current retrospective from the V&A. Chanel was one of the most important designers of the 20th century. She changed how women looked and, because of her No5 scent, the perfumed trail they left as they wafted through the world’s most fashionable salons.


But that is only half the story and certainly not the most important half as I found out when researching my book, Toto and Coco: Spies, Seduction and the Fight for Survival (Kelvin House), Gabrielle Chanel was a vehement anti-Semite, a fervent supporter of Hitler and towards the end of the war when the tide had begun to turn for the Allies, she was a fully-fledged Nazi agent, codename Agent Westminster.


Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and main architect of the Holocaust, knew the game was nearly up and thought that some sort of cobbled together peace deal with Churchill might save him from the fate he so richly deserved (and would have got if he hadn’t possessed that little cyanide pill.) So he gave approval for Agent Westminster to leave her permanent suite at the Paris Ritz to travel to Madrid. There she met a senior British diplomat Henry Hankey who took a rambling six-page letter Chanel had handwritten to her old friend Winston Churchill.


She might as well have scribbled a note for the milkman because, although it reached Downing Street, either the Prime Minister didn’t read it or it was never shown to him (probably the latter.) And for all the boasting that ‘my dear friend Winston’ adored her, she should have known that a peace agreement was the last thing he was contemplating. He wanted Total Victory, absolutely nothing else would do. 


This was a most unlikely friendship; Chanel, born into poverty and after her mother had died and her wreck of a father abandoned her, she was brought up as an orphan by cruel nuns. And Churchill, grandson of the Duke of Marlborough and born in a palace. 


Their first meeting was brought about by another duke, the richest and most anti-Semitic man in England. Chanel became Hugh ‘Bendor’ Westminster’s lover in 1924. By then she had left poverty far behind thanks to a series of wealthy lovers, the sewing skills learnt at the orphanage, her undoubted design genius and a burning self-belief.


As Westminster’s chatelaine she met Churchill while shooting on her lover’s estate in Scotland and the future Prime Minister’s admiration was immediate. He wrote to his wife Clemmie: ‘The famous Chanel turned up and I took a great fancy to her … really a great and strong being, fit to rule a man and an empire.’ 


To put this into the context of the time, anti-Semitism was rife among the British upper classes, among them the pathetic Duke of York (no, not that one) later the uncrowned king who ended his days as Duke of Windsor. In the 1930s Rothermere of the Daily Mail was an apologist for Hitler and they all saw the evil little dictator as a bulwark against the rising tide of communism.


In the case of Chanel, her hatred of Jewish people was ingrained and not helped by the Sacred Heart of Mary nuns who blamed Jews for all that was wrong with the world. So it was a logical progression that once her five-year affair with Bendor Westminster had run its course, the next cab on the rank was Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a senior Nazi spy in Paris. They were together throughout the war and until 1948.


Make no mistake, Chanel was not just an anti-Semite, she was not just a ‘horizontal collaborator’ but a Nazi who should have been prosecuted for her activities. So why wasn’t she? After all court proceedings had begun not once but twice. But despite that she was able to flee with her millions and with Dincklage to neutral Switzerland after the liberation of Paris.


There was speculation that her old friend Churchill intervened. There have even been reports that she hedged her bets by working with the French Resistance. To which the answer is Volliger Blodsinn, or to those not familiar with the coarser element of the German language, Utter Bollocks. 


The heroine in my book is Toto Koopman, former Vogue and Chanel model and she certainly paid the price for being an Allied agent with the Italian Resistance. She was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp but, thankfully, survived (just.) 


In the case of Chanel, justice was never done. And the recent BBC2 Arena documentary, Coco Chanel Unbuttoned, whitewashed just how scheming, self-serving and wicked Chanel was. Her Nazi allegiance was skimped over as almost a bit of a lark, a silly diversion and not really relevant. We kept hearing tired phrases such as ‘her life was one of love and loss’ and ‘it was lived in luxury.’


The life of her one-time friend Toto Koopman was one of real love and loss. She had been beautiful, brilliantly clever and above all brave. After affairs with Beaverbrook (late of this parish) and his son Max (ditto) she threw in her lot with the Italians fighting the Nazis who by then had Chanel in their thrall. There was no luxury living in caves in the Italian mountains and in the squalor of Mussolini’s jails. But she did so because she believed that it was a good fight that had to be done and won.


Fortunately work has started on a documentary film about the brave Toto and it’s being made by double Oscar winner Rick Trank, head of Moriah Films. Be assured, as far as Chanel is concerned, this will be no whitewash. 

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On a lighter note, let me be the first to join Dismore Expeditions Inc’s The Hunt for the Duke. I will endeavour to persuade Drone Enterprises to sponsor the exercise (Qantas first class is very bearable) and who knows, there might be an Oscar-winning documentary in it.  


20 September 2023