Louise's Reviews > Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel, Nazi Agent

Sleeping with the Enemy by Hal Vaughan
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's review
May 06, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: wwii, biography, france-bio-hist, fashion-biography
Read in April, 2012

This book covers an important period, often breezed over, in the life of Coco Chanel. When her biographers speak of her romance with the German "officer" they usually cite the age difference, and maybe the self-absolving quote attributed to Chanel "At my age, when a handsome young man pays attention, one does not ask for his passport". This book has the most material I have seen assembled on not just this part of her life, but also on this "officer".

While the first part of the book re-tells the story of Chanel, its real contribution is documenting the pre-war activities of Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage ("Spatz"). Hal Vaughan shows that he is no ordinary "officer" but a spy, deeply plugged into the Nazi intelligence service. His charm, fluency in French and social status made him ideal for the job of gathering information and making contacts among France's elite before and during the war. He is an ideal escort for a lonely, idle, glamorous and wealthy retiree.

Other biographers have cited Chanel's war time residence at Ritz Hotel. Some describe her room, the dining facility and/or the general ambiance. Vaughan shows it to be primarily a residence for the elite among the German occupiers.

Not much evidence is given to show Chanel as a spy, nor Nazi-style anti-Semite. The sponsorship of Iribe's right wing publication is given as an example of Chanel's political leanings and some of her quoted comments show a disparaging attitude towards Jews. In her trip to Spain to plea with the Nazis to free her nephew, she gave no relevant information. Many would have spoken for friends and family in this way if they could. The second trip to Spain for a "peace" initiative seems bizarre, perhaps there is some motive that is lost to history; regardless, nothing substantive was given at this time either. It seems that it was her Jewish partners that made the ownership arrangements to keep Chanel alive under Christian ownership during the war and Chanel isn't shown to use her connections to wrest control. (After the war, she deepens her association with her Jewish partners.) The treatment of French Jews and of Jewish refugees was of no apparent concern to her, but neither was the plight of anyone else.

What Chanel did was make life comfortable and easy for a very well placed Nazi. She most likely helped him navigate France in ways for which there is no record. She obviously slept with him, acts for which other women paraded through the streets of France, nude with their heads shorn. Chanel clearly got off easy. Winston Churchill is noted as her savior, but it could have been Pierre Reverdy who may have had influence with the Resistance leaders who came to power after the war.

The book has very good photos, placed with the text to which they relate. There are photos of all the principle people, Chanel's striking workers, her trial, Dincklage's mother's residence and more.

While not the most exciting read, this book is important for its well footnoted documentation of this period, and in particular, the activities of the Baron von Dincklage.

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