Baudelaire Chanel


© Gerald Scarfe

By the time the author, former editor of Punch and TV personality, Malcolm Muggeridge, wrote The Infernal Grove, his second volume of memoirs, Chanel historians could little suspect that his archives housed the record of a unique interview, given to him following the Liberation of Paris by the empress of French couture. In 1973, when the memorialist took up his pen, Chanel had recently died.

That interview is indeed unique, since she never made any other pronouncement about her war years. And yet, to Muggeridge, the 70-year-old chronicler of Wasted Time, it was an outright failure. The former MI6 agent was chagrined to uncover nothing that could indict Chanel, despite his inquisitorial command of the proceedings. The interview was shamefacedly put aside, buried in Muggeridge’s extensive archives.

Shortly after being questioned and then released without charge by the FFI (Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur) Chanel hosted a dinner at Rue Cambon to which Muggeridge was invited. This was in September 1944. In his memoirs, Muggeridge intentionally omitted the presence at the table of another woman, a photographer, who had induced Chanel to include among her guests the MI6 British agent. Muggeridge was romantically involved with that photographer who, during the Occupation of Paris, had been in love with a Nazi officer.

Fearing that, on learning the truth, Muggeridge would view her unfavourably, the photographer relied on Chanel’s embassy to unfold her past, not as a betrayal, but as dictated by love.
In order to dispel the impression of a carefully orchestrated encounter, Chanel persuaded an old friend to join the gathering.

Malcolm Muggeridge through the eyes of Gerald Scarfe
on the front page of the Sunday Times Weekly Review.
In his memoirs, the Chronicler of Wasted Time
sought to banish the Chanel interview from his mind,
even though, some years later,
it was fortuitously forced back on his attention.

©  Société Baudelaire

The discussion ranged from trivia to such august considerations as the censorship of writers and artists in time of war. Muggeridge was quick to avail himself of the opening that evening afforded of harvesting intelligence for MI6 about Chanel’s dealings with her country’s enemy. He offered to interview her voluntarily, on the subject of ‘Chanel’s war’, holding out the prospect of publication in a British newspaper.

As Chanel narrated her experiences, Muggeridge became increasingly convinced that she supported neither the Allies, nor the enemy. She had fought another war, with other values to uphold – her own. Her resistance was that of a dandy, and her several invocations of Baudelaire came as no surprise.

There was no doubt that, driven by fear of FFI reprisals, the photographer had unwittingly misled a disheartened Muggeridge. It dawned on him, however, on leaving Rue Cambon, that the arguments he had just heard bore significant literary potential.

A few weeks after his demobilisation, Liberation was written.