Baudelaire Chanel

COCO CHANEL AND ANTI-SEMITISM
FROM A SOCIÉTÉ BAUDELAIRE PERSPECTIVE

Extracts from the Frédéric Charmat interview with Lucia Artopoulos dated 2nd June 1986.


FRÉDÉRIC CHARMAT    During the Occupation, under your Presidency of the Société Baudelaire, its Executive Committee is acknowledged for its success in helping Jewish Baudelaireans.

LUCIA  ARTOPOULOS    Jews, and also Communists.

C.    Before meeting you, I interviewed the Jewish painter Benn and his wife, whose lives were saved by the action of your Executive Committee, presided by your father, Michel Artopoulos and then by yourself. Coco Chanel, on the other hand, cannot be said to have been outstanding in this respect.
A.    Chanel was intimately well-informed about us. Had she been anti-Semitic, she could have used the information in her possession to wreak immeasurable harm on us.

C.    “Us”, meaning the Société Baudelaire’s Executive Committee?
A.    Exactly. As early as 1937, she could have availed herself of situations that would have been a windfall to many an anti-Semite. Her projected Flowers of Evil collection could have attracted powerful patrons of the stamp of Léon Daudet and other influential anti-Semites who had wormed their way into hegemony over the Société Baudelaire Honorary Committee. From this course she refrained, in full awareness of the situation, since she was acquainted with the writings of Léon Daudet and his Action Française faction. The Occupation could have afforded Chanel the opportunity to swoop on and annihilate the Executive Committee. We’re talking about 1940. Does the name Fernand de Brinon mean anything to you?

C.    The one who met Hitler?
A.    Several times. Brinon was one of the founders of the Comité France-Allemagne in the 1930s. During the Occupation, Brinon served as Pétain’s Ambassador in Paris. As it happens, Brinon was related by marriage to a Jew, Emmanuel Berl, an assiduous contributor to the Société Baudelaire Dictionary.

C.    Was Brinon himself anti-Semitic?
A.    At a dinner with Chanel shortly after the promulgation of the Vichy racial laws in 1940, he claimed to be well-informed about the Jewish members of the Société Baudelaire. He asserted to her that those Jews could count on the protection of Otto Abetz if Chanel persuaded the Honorary Committee to secure Abetz’s election to the Honorary Presidency in succession to Albert Lebrun.

C.    So the President of the Republic, Albert Lebrun had been President of the Société Baudelaire during his tenure of public office?
A.    He was indeed. Let us return to Brinon, who took effrontery to the point of suggesting to Chanel that Abetz was one of the select few Nazi dignitaries who wasn’t anti-Semitic. Yet history has revealed the grim roll of crimes for which this repellent anti-Semite was answerable.

C.    In short, he was setting her a trap. Did Coco Chanel fall for it?
A.    I’m coming to that. First, though, you must be aware that the trap was baited with the basest of moral blackmail. In exchange for Chanel influencing the Honorary Committee’s decision, Brinon was offering the freedom of her beloved nephew, then in captivity.

C.    A monstrous piece of horse-trading.
A.    Replying to your earlier question, Chanel confined herself to saying that she had broken off all relations with the Société Baudelaire since 1937 – which of course was far from the case. Now if she had been anti-Semitic, she would unhesitatingly have fallen in with this squalid deal. This she did not do

C.    Have you ever met Coco Chanel?
A.    Yes, I did a few weeks after my father’s death.

C.    Your father, Michel Artopoulos, was he Jewish?
A.    No. And it was precisely because he wasn’t, in addition to his standing as a Baudelairean, that Vauxcelles appointed him as his successor to the presidency of the Executive Committee. Perhaps you are aware that, since 1872, with its establishment in Saint-Germain-des-Prés by Catulle Mendès, the Société Baudelaire Executive Committee had always been presided by Jewish writers.

C.    This is in contrast to the Honorary Committee which, if I understand you rightly, was impelled more by Léon Daudet and anti-Semitism. Both committees must have been at loggerheads, surely?
A.    The wrangling between them was unending. In the past, even the notorious Drumont took a hand in the in-fighting. But none of this is germane to Chanel.

C.    I should like you to relate to me what happened in October 1942.
A.    For some time, my father had been shadowed by the Gestapo, who were hoping he would lead them to a wanted Baudelairean Resistance fighter with whom he was actively involved. This Gestapo interest in the Société Baudelaire undoubtedly unnerved Dincklage, Chanel’s friend. For Gestapo sources had informed him that on several occasions, she had called at the Société Baudelaire’s Rue Jacob headquarters. She made no secret to him of the fact that she was working on a definition of Coco Chanel for the Société Dictionary, and intended to see her work through to completion. A heated argument ensued between the two. There had been many earlier quarrels, but none of such vehemence as on that occasion.

C.    Was it Coco Chanel who let you in on this?
A.    Several weeks elapsed before she could bring herself to tell us. Meanwhile, Dincklage gave orders for my father’s murder. Michel Artopoulos was only fifty-two years old. We could never have linked the murder to Dincklage, who was a complete stranger to us.

C.    Whom did you suspect?
A.    The Gestapo. And yet my father’s Resistance friend explained to us that had the Gestapo been responsible, further arrests would have been made. We then reconciled ourselves with the prospect of the murderers never being traced.

C.    But they were traced.
A.    Yes, but only thanks to Chanel.

C.    Tell us how.
A.    The first clue was a kingly wreath that Chanel had delivered to the Saint-Germain-des-Prés church.

C.    Did she attend your father’s funeral?
A.    No. Not long after, though, she called at Rue Jacob. She wordlessly brushed past everyone, went up to my mother and kissed her.

C.    Had she met your mother?
A.    No she hadn’t. She thereupon made this harrowing avowal, that her friend Dincklage had organised my father’s murder. She felt in duty bound to tell us so, in order to be at peace with her conscience. She then asked us a great many practical questions that were far from our minds: whether we were short of money, whether she could help in any way. But our need was for nothing bar the truth. We were soon left in no doubt her friend had arranged the murder to shield her from the Gestapo’s suspicion. And then, she produced a vase. With an almost touching artlessness, she drew from her handbag this slender vase that you can see behind you.

C.    The Gallé? 
A.    Yes. Look underneath, at the base.

© Société Baudelaire

C.    It’s chipped.
A.    It got chipped when Chanel and Dincklage quarrelled. The vase fell onto the floor.

C.    Why did she give it to you?
A.    It could have been have been her way of saying that we had common concerns, namely the Société Baudelaire, over which she would unhesitatingly clash with Dincklage.

C.    Can you entertain the possibility that, although Coco Chanel, no doubt sincerely, said how appalled she was, she may have accommodated after the war with her having cohabited with a murderer?
A.    His motive in instigating the murder was to save her life. Besides, I am convinced that Chanel underestimated Dincklage’s deviousness. That individual had feelers out, gathering information about everyone including her. He learnt that she had shelved her project to take over the Parfums Chanel business, regardless of all the elaborate fabrications she had concocted for him.

C.    How do you feel towards Coco Chanel when you look back on her demeanour towards the Société Baudelaire?

The Gallé vase,
commemorating Chanel’s clash with 'Spatz'
over the Société Baudelaire.

A.    Her sincerity and her generosity did her credit. In 1943, I learnt quite by chance, after the event, that she had bought up all the seats of the Salle Gaveau, where I gave a recital in my father’s memory. She gave the tickets away for distribution to Baudelaireans, including those deprived of civil rights.

C.    Did she attend your recital?
A.    She even came with company. I remember introducing her to Jacques Thibaud and Marguerite Long, who had returned from Switzerland especially to attend the commemoration. That was the last time I saw Chanel.


Lucia Artopoulos,
at the time of her meeting with Chanel in 1942.