Licentiate Column 15/12/11: Chanel, An Intimate Life Review

Coco Chanel always held the reins tightly on her public image. Towards the end of her life, she commissioned highly-engaged Hussard writer Michel Deon to follow her every move, absorb her acerbic bon mots and process her essence into a book. The manuscript was never published. Chanel had given Deon the version of her life that she had wanted told, but even that was far too truthful and by association, painful.

Deon, now in his nineties and living in Galway, summarily burned the manuscript. He saw no point in releasing it after her death. Why resurrect a ghost?

It’s a question that many Chanel biographers have tried (and failed) to answer. Was she a Nazi spy? A drug addict? Gay? Who was the real Chanel? What secrets did she hold close – what misdeeds does she still hide?

Lisa Chaney addresses these issues in her new biography, ‘Chanel: An Intimate Life’, just one in a slew of Chanel bios that are doing the rounds. They run the gamut of the laudatory (Justine Picardie’s ‘Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life’ includes many exclusive drawings by Karl Lagerfeld while ‘Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel, Nazi Agent’ by Hal Vaughan might as well posthumously shave Chanel’s head and daub a few mud swastikas here and there for dramatic effect).

There’s a Chanel out there for everyone. You want Chanel the genius? Go for Picardie. Chanel the collaborator? Vaughan’s effort should do the trick. Chanel the woman? No such book will ever exist – but Chaney’s effort may well be the closest we get to her. Your want a real biography? Go to the biographer.

The overall tone of the book is very placid and even-keeled. Chaney does not romanticise her subject’s upbringing or postulate too romantically on what is already a very romantic story. A young girl dumped in an orphanage, becomes first a courtesan (of sorts), a PR savvy milliner and, transformed by insurmountable heartbreak, evolves into a couturier with razor-sharp instinct and intuitive business acumen.

The picture built up of Chanel is not entirely pleasant. The latter half of her life includes almost certain Nazi collaboration (and definite ‘horizontal collaboration’), underhanded business tactics from all sides and the eventual degradation of a strong-willed woman into a ratchety, lonely one. Chaney remains analytical in her approach, filling it with as many first-hand accounts and definite documents as she can. Perhaps because of this, Chanel becomes more of a human being to the reader towards the end of her life – which is sad because we never really get to see Chanel the dynamo, the seductress, the inspiration in her entirety – very few people who are still alive can recollect her in this way.

A slight note of apologism creeps into the books when dealing with Chanel’s World War II years. Biographers betray the sympathy they hold for their subjects by not judging events through that events historical context. Chaney does do that, but wishes to define it further by what Chanel may have felt. This is something unproven and thus unjustifiable – much like the woman herself.

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