I think I’d made the comment here that one thing the world does not need is another book about Coco Chanel. Between 2009 and 2012, at least twelve books on Chanel’s life were published. What more was there to say?
As it happens, I was wrong. The world does need Mademoiselle:Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History , a book that at over 600 pages (including notes and references) attempts to set the story of Chanel’s life straight, and to place it and her work into the historical framework of the Twentieth Century. It was a huge task, especially considering the myths surrounding the woman and her namesake business.
Through meticulous research and the locating of some key new resources such as the diaries and private papers of some of Chanel’s lovers, Rhonda Garelick has painted the most authentic portrait of Chanel to date. It isn’t as though there is a lot of new material, because there is not. What makes this book so good is that Garelick cuts to the heart of the many conflicting stories about Chanel, and through her research comes up with the most plausible versions. To add to the narrative, she also relates the alternate versions when there is any question as to the truth.
Most people writing about Chanel point out how she appropriated the clothing of her lovers. What Garelick adds to this is how she also absorbed and reflected their ideological and political views as well. Unfortunately, Chanel seemed to be attracted to men who were openly anti-semitic and who leaned toward fascism.
With the exception of Hal Vaughan’s Sleeping with the Enemy, most books about Chanel have reduced her life during the years between 1939 and 1945 to that of an aging romantic woman becoming infatuated with a younger German army officer. With Mademoiselle, there is no white-washing of history. Drawing on the research of Hal Vaughan, Garelick clearly presents the truth that Chanel was a spy for Germany. There is also proof that she exposed an acquaintance as being Jewish, and that she went into at least one apartment that had been abandoned by its fleeing Jewish occupant and helped herself to art and antiques.
Garelick points out in her introduction that Chanel has become a popular first name for baby girls. I’ve got to assume that the parents of these babies know nothing about Chanel the woman. As much as we might acknowledge her talent, Chanel was not a nice person, and she certainly would not be a good role model for your kid.
It also brings up the disturbing question of how much are we willing to overlook in the admiration of Chanel’s design talent and in the pursuit of style. Should we be like the Jewish Wertheimer family who continued to do business with Chanel even though she tried to “aryanize” their business during WWII, and who continue to protect her image even today?
Almost 45% of the book consists of end notes and the bibliography. Unfortunately I was reading a advance reviewer’s copy on my e-reader and the notes were not linked. I finally gave up tying to flip back and forth and read the notes at the end of each chapter. They added a lot to the narrative.
My thanks to NetGalley and Random House.