Baudelaire Chanel


Extracts from Frédéric Charmat’s interview with Limouse on 25th March 1986, with Isée St. John Knowles attending.

© Société Baudelaire


LIMOUSE:    In my Baudelairean capacity and as a historian of the Société Baudelaire, I should set in their historic context the facts you adduce [in connection with Chanel’s attempt to take over full ownership of the Société des Parfums Chanel]. That context related to a definition proposed by Mademoiselle Chanel in November 1941, for the Société Baudelaire Dictionary. The title she first chose for her definition was ‘Parisian Dream’. Now, what does Baudelaire’s poem say to us?  That the poet’s imagination has the power to transcend care and squalor, conveying him into a realm of splendour and rapture.

FRÉDÉRIC CHARMAT    By squalor you surely mean the Ritz?
L.    Well, we can of course view the matter flippantly, and dabble idly in superficial considerations.

Limouse (1894 - 1989)

C.    Let us get to the heart of the matter. Give the world your insight into the care and squalor that beset Coco Chanel.
L.    For Mademoiselle Chanel, squalor was whatever impeded her freedom of thought and action.

C.    Such as the Wertheimers? After all, in 1941, she used the Vichy laws to accuse those Jews who lived abroad of impeding her liberty so as to dispossess them of their majority interest in the Société des Parfums Chanel.
L.    Are you asking a question, or is this an assertion tricked up as historical accuracy, such as journalists conjure up from their stock-in-trade to pander to public opinion? Now really, my dear Charmat, your critical mind as a seasoned art critic should steer you away from the shoals of generalisation used for playing to the gallery.

C.    My dear Limouse, I am merely asking you to shed light for me on this episode.
L.    Well then, let us embark on its narration. In 1940, as you are no doubt aware, the Wertheimers had the courage and the foresight to support General de Gaulle. Subsequently, from America where they took refuge, they furthered the Allied endeavour – entirely to their credit.

C.    In this I presume they fell foul of Coco Chanel?
L.    The expression, “fall foul of” is ill-chosen here. Mademoiselle Chanel clearly foresaw the pitfalls in her association with the Wertheimers – commonly known to favour the Allies – for the release of her nephew, André Palasse, then a prisoner in Nazi hands.

C.    And, since the Wertheimers were a hindrance, she wanted to oust them.
L.    How swift are you journalists to jump to conclusions. No, she didn’t wish to oust the Wertheimers on those grounds.

C.    In that case, was it because they were Jews?
L.    You really are way off the mark. You see, since 1937, friction had been recurring between Mademoiselle Chanel and the Wertheimers.

C.    It is common knowledge that she was aggrieved at the way the bargain had turned out between herself and the Wertheimers.
L.    That is entirely wide of the mark. The sore point to which I am referring concerned the Duchess of Windsor. Mademoiselle Chanel had devised a promotional campaign using the No.5 perfume to vindicate the Duke of Windsor. With the slogan, “A fragrance to adorn a Queen”, was to feature one of the sketches of the Duchess that Mademoiselle Chanel had commissioned from me.

ISÉE ST. JOHN KNOWLES: The Duke of Windsor, you will remember, had recently married Wallis Simpson, and felt snubbed by the Royal Family denying her the title “Your Royal Highness”.

L.    The Duke never forgave his kinsmen for this affront, which prevailed until his death. As it happens, the Wertheimers had decided to remain neutral in this controversy, which would otherwise have put them at loggerheads with the British Establishment. Mademoiselle Chanel, rightly or wrongly, believed that the Wertheimers’ enormous wealth was very largely attributable to her No.5 creation. She took umbrage at the Wertheimers’ thwarting of her plans.

C.    Correct me if I am wrong: before the war, Coco Chanel had such a minority stake in Société des Parfums Chanel that she could not prevail over the Wertheimers. During the Occupation, by contrast, I daresay she got the whip hand?
L.    I wonder whether your mistakenness is not tinged with complacency. My whole purpose in telling you how this grievance arose is to shed light on what subsequently transpired. But the Duchess of Windsor episode is wholly unrelated to Mademoiselle Chanel’s decision to take over the governance of the Société des Parfums.

C.    Can I ask you to come to the point and tell me what motivation underlay that decision? What drove her to use the Vichy laws to cast out the Wertheimers?
L.    Quite simply, the facts she uncovered about the running of the Société des Parfums Chanel. She came upon evidence pointing to a board instituted to evade the Vichy Arianisation laws. Unbeknownst to the Wertheimers, this board was viewed favourably by the Nazis. Now perhaps you have an inkling of what aroused her indignation.

C.    And that indignation was directed against whom?
L.    Certainly not against the Wertheimers. Mademoiselle Chanel never doubted the Wertheimers’ good faith, or the sincerity of their Gaullist loyalties. She told me so in as many words.

C.    Whom did she blame, then?
L.    Those to whom she contemptuously referred as the “tripatouilleurs” [wheeler-dealers].

C.    Félix Amiot?
L.    I have no recollection of her taxing Félix Amiot with “tripatouillage” [wheeling and dealing]. I rather think she had in mind some middlemen, obsequious men of straw, that sort of thing. But it went against the grain with her to waste her time with such menial wretches who bargained with the Nazis to buy their non-interference. Instead, her utmost endeavour was to raise from its ruins the beleaguered fortress of the Société des Parfums Chanel.

C.    How did she go about that?
L.    I remember her ire at a senior Nazi bureaucrat circumscribing her requests with a bamboozling plexus of statutory and regulatory minutiae designed to confuse and dissuade her from asserting her leadership.

C.    How did this wheeler-dealing come to her knowledge?
L.    Through undercover contacts.

C.    Vichy people?
L.    I wouldn’t refer to them as that. Let us call them French Nazis. They had knowledge about the Société des Parfums business that they were prepared to trade.

C.    For financial reward?
L.    No. Mademoiselle Chanel gave those informers introductions to friends from whom they could have gleaned information – that is, if Mademoiselle Chanel had not briefed her friends beforehand so as to frustrate the base designs of these individuals who were loathsome to her. Suffer me to revert briefly to my distinction between a Vichy man and a French Nazi. In this sordid affair, Vichy was cornered. Mademoiselle Chanel’s authoritative assiduousness was wearing that government down. In furtherance of her aim, she sought to confront the Vichy authorities with their own transgression of the law. She resorted to a brazen expedient to forestall Vichy’s attempt to wash its hands of the matter. Her motivation was not anti-Semitic. Devoid of all illusion, as she explained to me, she no longer had the latitude to undermine a Société des Parfums Chanel which, in her view, basked in the Nazis' complaisance. She believed that her only recourse was to have the law applied as it stood, and to denounce the illegality of certain unseemly moves. In arguing that the true owners were Jews, living abroad, she was forcing Vichy to act which, in the event, Vichy refrained from doing. Thus, she found herself out on her own yet again.

C.    Surely not entirely? Alone with her informers.
L.    Except that, from that point on, those informers were hard on her heels. In her definition for our Dictionary, she paralleled her circumstances with the poet of ‘To the Reader’, in his grim line, “Each day, we take one pace down Hell’s abyss”. Her mistake was to believe she could manipulate them, then cast them off when they no longer served her purpose.

C.    Are you saying it dawned on them that her leads were bogus?
L.    We haven’t got that far yet. We are still only in 1941, remember.

© Association Les amis de Frédéric Charmat

C.    Perhaps now I apprehend more clearly the sequence of events that led to Coco Chanel resorting to the Vichy laws. Nevertheless, I should like to know whether she felt any remorse at having been compelled to turn her heel on the Wertheimers faced as she was with a situation which doubtless she no longer controlled.

L.    It would be a misapprehension to suppose that she ever saw her action in such a light. In her eyes, she had never sought to betray the Wertheimers since the sympathetic regard of the Nazis for the docile menials had already gravely impaired the Wertheimers' interests.

C.    Did Coco Chanel at the time have anything left to strive for?
L.    She went on undeterred, seeking ways of putting her discoveries to use. In this connection, a journey to Spain enabled her to renew contact with the Windsors.

C.    The Windsors, who had close links with the Nazis.

L.    Including Nazi agents who had been dogging their footsteps for months, just as had the Allied intelligence services.

Frédéric Charmat

C.    How did the Duke of Windsor greet Coco Chanel’s return to the fray, seeking to redress the affront to the ducal couple?
L.    Mademoiselle Chanel never actually brought the matter up with me. But I imagine that the Duke must have been extremely flattered at her firmness of purpose. In any event, he lost no time in putting forward names to people a new board for the Société des Parfums Chanel, on which her powers would be unfettered. He went to the length of suggesting a friend of his to finance the venture, a Swede called Wenner-Gren, with more wealth to command than the Wertheimers.

S.J.K.     And, what’s more, in high favour with Goering.

C.    Was Goering informed of Coco Chanel’s project?
L.    That is something I shall never know. One thing I can assert is that the release of Mademoiselle Chanel’s nephew was attributable to her involvement of the Windsors in her scheme, and was not due to any collaboration with Vichy. From the disheartenment which had gripped her on uncovering the facts, her spirits rose again as 1941 drew to an end.

C.    Except that, for all Coco Chanel’s efforts, the board was left running the Société des Parfums Chanel.
L.    Admittedly it was, but only because Mademoiselle Chanel relinquished the project of her own accord. At this point, she acquainted the Société Baudelaire with an update to her definition entered in the Dictionary, to include her account of the events that had befallen the Société des Parfums since the outbreak of war.

C.    Why did she turn her back on a scheme she cherished, which she came so close to fulfilling?
L.    Churchill. His message, conveyed to Mademoiselle Chanel by mutual acquaintances, impressed upon her the gravity of involving the Duke of Windsor. Throwing on her the entire responsibility for this, Churchill warned Chanel that taking matters further would forfeit her his friendship and trust. She needed no further prompting to relinquish the entire scheme. She had perforce to deploy courage, resourcefulness and presence of mind to drop no hint of this volte-face to her entourage, laced as it was with untrustworthy denizens. She maintained an outward show of serenity for but a few months. I was amazed to discover, as concerns the Dictionary, that her account was now being pressed into the service of an entirely different definition. Casting aside the ‘Parisian Dream’, she transferred her affections to the ‘Lamentations of an Icarus’. On my enquiring as to this change of heart, she rejoindered that this poem better retraced the journey to the dashing of her hopes. Replying, I observed that, in his fall, Icarus had clung to “suns’ memories that sear”. Hers, I asserted, was a touchingly apt choice of poem since when all her hopes for this cherished scheme collapsed, she had fastened her gaze upon the memories of her reverent attachment for Churchill, in her mind, of far greater import than the fulfilment of her own aims.