I don’t know if this is true, but I have read in several places that the government of France reports that Chanel No. 5 perfume sells at the rate of one vial every 30 seconds. By my calculation, that means 2,880 vials a day. Sephora gets $85 for 1.7 ounces and $115 for 3.4 ounces, so we’re talking about something like $100 million a year. Besides being such a hot commodity, this perfume is a monument to the woman who introduced it in 1921, the fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel.

Chanel — the designer, not the perfume — is the subject of Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War, written by Hal Vaughan, who portrays her as a virulent anti-Semite who not only accommodated herself to the Nazi invasion of France but actually became a Nazi undercover agent.

When Chanel was 12, her mother had died and her father had left. She spent six years in the custody of Cistercian nuns and then stepped out into the world where she quickly progressed from cabaret singer and courtesan to fashion powerhouse. Her impact on style was enormous; her trade marks were jersey sportswear and the “little black dress” that made a lasting statement about the realtionship between simplicity and elegance.

When Germany invaded France in 1940, Chanel moved to the Ritz and accepted the occupation as the new normal. In fact, she took an influential German officer as one of her many lovers – and she continued to make millions. But Vaughn maintains that documents from that period show that Chanel did more than accept the reality of the Nazi presence, that she actually became an agent of the Abwehr intelligence agency and undertook secret missions in Berlin and Madrid. The book includes a copy of a document that seems to show that Chanel was designated Agent F-7124.

Significantly, Chanel, who was comfortable living in opulence in Paris while her countrymen suffered under the Nazi regime moved to neutral Switzerland for a while after the Third Reich collapsed. Vaughan points out that that move may have saved her from the fate of French collaborators who were publicly shamed, imprisoned or executed. Chanel was briefly arrested by the Free French, but she emerged from the war largely unscathed.

She returned to Paris in 1955 and resumed her career, getting a better reception in the United States than in France.

Vaughn portrays Chanel as anti-Semitic and speculates, without demonstrating it, that her antipathy toward Jews might have been instilled by her contact with the Catholic Church. He also reports in detail that after the initial success of the iconic perfume, Chanel transferred control of it to a Jewish family, the Wertheimers, in a deal that guaranteed her an annual return. Although she later tried unsuccessfully to get the franchise away from the family, and did negotiate a more favorable arrangement for herself, the Wertheimers still are the purveyors of Chanel No. 5.

Chanel was apolitical, and she actually fled Paris for a while in the uncertain aftermath of the invasion. There is nothing in Vaughn’s account to suggest that she was interested in the Nazis’ ambitions. Instead, it’s clear that her top priority was to continue her lavish, drug-ridden life. She also had a personal interest in staying on speaking terms with the Germans, because her nephew was a prisoner of war. She did everything she could until she got him released; in fact, Vaughan maintains that she was enticed to work for the Abwher in the first place because she thought her contacts could help her nephew.

Chanel had many liaisons with rich and powerful men, some of whom helped finance her career, but she never married, explaining that she “never wanted to weigh more  heavily on a man than a bird.” An interesting aspect of the story as Vaughn tells it is that, despite her relationship with the Germans, she had many close friends in Great Britain, including Winston Churchill.

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