“Madsen ferrets out the seeming truth of a women appartently as deft at fabricating her life as she was with aneedle and thread.” Publishers Weekly
Alex Madsen brings to life Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, the queen of fashion who revolutionized women's styles forever.
“Madsen ferrets out the seeming truth of a women appartently as deft at fabricating her life as she was with aneedle and thread.” Publishers Weekly
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A Woman of Her Own
By Axel Madsen
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Axel Madsen
All rights reserved.
A Family to Disavow
She made up things.
Gabrielle Chanel—Coco to a few intimates and a hundred million women—came from nothing. She reinvented her childhood, describing nasty aunts who pulled her ears and humiliated her. After she became rich, she paid off her brothers to pretend they didn't exist.
She was the illegitimate daughter of itinerant market traders. Her mother died when she was twelve, her father disappeared, and she was brought up a charity ward in a nuns' orphanage. Deep in her veins ran the fear of being discovered a bastard. Although her parents married shortly after she was born, she could never live with the truth and spent her adult years perpetually revising her life story. She went to her grave as Gabrielle Chasnel because to correct legally the misspelled name on her birth certificate would reveal that she was born in a poorhouse hospice.
Throughout her life she would make up an interesting, if not consistent, romance about her own existence with a good deal of color and detail. She made her wastrel father into a refined horse trader, denied she had brothers and sisters, and pretended not to remember people she had known intimately as well as benefactors and clients who had been the backbone of her early success. The fabrications—possibilities, really, in her own mind—sustained her self-esteem, and she defended her stories with noble desperation. Her name came to mean emancipation and casual feminine allure, but when she became famous and everything was known about her—her income, love affairs, tastes, successes, and sorrows—she kept telling lies.
She spent a lifetime breaking with people who knew those odds and ends of her story that did not coincide with the legend she wanted to create. She distorted and exaggerated to her friends, to the reporters who interviewed her, and to the writers she asked to help prepare her memoirs. At one point in her life, Chanel engaged Louise de Vilmorin, the author of elegantly witty and mannered novels, to write her life story. However, when she read Vilmorin's notes of their previous conversation, Coco exclaimed, "But this is a novel!"
When in old age a young woman suggested she see a psychiatrist, Chanel looked dismayed—"I, who never told the truth to my priest?"
Her father was Albert Chanel, a twenty-seven-year-old trader in wine, bonnets, buttons, overalls, and kitchen aprons; her mother was nineteen-year-old Jeanne Devolle. Albert was not around that August 20, 1883, when Gabrielle was born in the poorhouse in Saumur, a garrison and market town on the Loire River. The birth was recorded the next afternoon. Two employees of the hospice went to city hall and declared a child of feminine gender had been born the previous afternoon at four, to Albert Chanel and Jeanne Devolle, "a married couple." No papers were presented.
It was not the first time hospice employees had done this, and deputy mayor François Poitou dutifully wrote it all down in his big round handwriting. No one knew how to spell Chanel, so Poitou improvised and the family name was recorded with an s, Chasnel. The two hospice employees were illiterates. The last line of the registration said they had not signed the certificate because, in the standard phrase, they declare not to know how.
Gabrielle was not Jeanne Devolle's first child. When Jeanne was seventeen, Albert had visited her native village of Courpière just long enough to father her first child, Julie.
Albert's family came from Ponteils, a village in the dark hills of the Cévennes, where, across from the church, they had been tavernkeepers from father to son since the mid-eighteenth century. The Chanel name appears often in the village records, since the tavernkeeper did witness duty at baptisms, weddings, and burials, strolling across the village square to scrawl the six letters of his name at the bottom of documents. Henri-Adrien, Albert's father, was the first of the Chanels to become a wayfaring peddler.
It is not known why Henri-Adrien did not become a tavernkeeper like his father before him, but we do know that at twenty-two he left Ponteils, unskilled and penniless, and after eight months of looking for work found a job as a laborer at a silkworm farm. The farmer had a sixteen-year-old daughter, Virginie Fournier. Henri-Adrien seduced her, and when her pregnancy could no longer be hidden, married her in the presence of his parents, who came down from the hills to stand by their boy. Once the couple had married, the Fourniers threw out their daughter and the author of her misfortune.
With his child bride, Henri-Adrien took to the road, to become a fairground and marketplace hawker. Albert was born in Nîmes, at the poorhouse hospice, in 1856. His father was "traveling." Three hospital employees registered the infant's birth. The family name was written Charnet.
Henri-Adrien returned to Nîmes just long enough to pick up his wife and newborn son before he and his family set off on the road again. Albert's siblings, like Albert himself, were born wherever the family happened to be laying over, always at the public hospital. As the years passed, Henri-Adrien and Virginie continued on the road but took to spending the winters in Clermont-Ferrand, the bustling capital of the ancient province of Auvergne.
Like his father, Albert left home and took to the road; in 1881 he stopped off in the village of Courpière. He rented a room from Marin Devolle and, perhaps to impress his landlord about his intention to stay, went to the town hall and had himself put on the electoral list.
As family lore had it, Albert could charm the birds from the trees. He knew how to prattle with village girls, and he cast his spell over them all—especially his landlord's sister, Jeanne Devolle. She and Marin had lost their mother when they were children, their father when they were in their teens. Though Marin and Jeanne Devolle were orphans, they were far from destitute. Marin had inherited his father's carpenter shop; Jeanne was going to be a seamstress like her mother. One night Albert arranged a rendezvous with her. In January 1882, he vanished, leaving Jeanne pregnant.
Eventually, Marin tracked down Albert's family in Clermont-Ferrand, and from them learned that Albert was in a town called Aubenas. Nine months pregnant, Jeanne set out alone for Aubenas, almost two hundred kilometers down the Allier Valley and across the Cévennes. She found Albert in the local tavern. He had a room at the tavern and transacted his business there. There, Julie was born on September 11, 1882. Business was bad, Albert told Jeanne. At her insistence, he agreed to recognize the child but refused to get married. Yet he must have consented to pretend they were married, for Julie Chanel was declared the child of a wedded couple.
It was Albert's ambition to be a wine merchant. Together, Albert and Jeanne headed to Saumur, the garrison town way up in the wine district in the Loire Valley. In Saumur they found a garret in the ramshackle part of town a few minutes from the Place de la Bilange, the better of Saumur's two open markets where the local gentry did its shopping. Before Julie was three months old, Jeanne was pregnant again.
In Coco Chanel's own retelling of the circumstances of her birth, her coming into the world in Saumur's hospice was the result of a misunderstanding. "My father wasn't there. The poor woman who was my mother was on her way to join him. I won't tell this somber story because it's terribly boring, but my mother suddenly felt faint. With the fashion of the day it was hard to see that the woman was going to have a baby, so some very nice people brought her home with them.
"'I have to find my husband,' my mother said.
"'You will leave tomorrow,' they told her.
"They called a doctor, who said, 'This lady isn't sick; she's having a baby.'
"Angrily, these charming people tossed my mother out in the street. She was taken to the hospital where I was born. At hospitals, they christen you right away. They gave me the name of the nun who took care of my mother. Her name was Gabrielle Bonheur."
Gabrielle Chanel offered a different version of the event to André-Louis Dubois, a fabric wholesaler who would remain a lifelong friend. She said her mother went into labor while en route to Saumur and that she had given birth to her in a train compartment.
Because the name had been chosen by the hospital and not by her family, she would disavow Gabrielle on many occasions.
Julie was two and Gabrielle a year old when Albert Chanel and Eugénie Jeanne Devolle got married on November 17, 1884. Their prenuptial agreement stipulated that besides a 5,000-franc dowry*, Jeanne was bringing to the marriage furniture and personal objects valued at 500 francs, and that both she and Albert willed their joint assets to whoever survived the other. In marrying Jeanne, Albert legalized his paternity and the girls' names were recorded in the livret de famille, the handbook issued to every couple for registration of births and deaths.
Marriage did not change life. Jeanne was soon pregnant again. With his family in tow, Albert remained a migrant market merchant. His territory was the markets and fairs of the Massif Central, the Auvergne region of mountains and limestone plateaus and deep gorges in south central France. Albert preferred market towns lucky enough to lie in the path of the railway because such centers saw commerce flourish and industry spring up.
Issoire was one such town, and it was located close to the region both Albert and Jeanne knew best. Surrounded by rich countryside, Issoire was on the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée railway line, forty-eight kilometers south of Clermont-Ferrand. A big central market was held every day in the shadow of the twelfth-century St. Austremoine Church.
Albert left his family in a one-room house he found in Issoire's Rue du Perrier while he made sorties to other towns or villages that fanned out from the railhead.
The Chanels moved several times but always lived in poor dwellings in Issoire's damp, narrow streets along a towpath where a few horses pulled barges to the last river mill still in service. In more vibrant parts of France, the industrial revolution was making steam churn engines and gas light up streets and houses. The neighborhoods where the Chanels lived belonged to the dying crafts—ropemakers, nailsmiths, potters and hemp weavers and chandlers. Albert bought his millinery stock from the hatters in their street.
A boy, Alphonse, was born March 15, 1885. Albert continued his errant life. Gabrielle would tell of a mistress her father had who bore him a son of about her own age, a half brother she never met. There is no evidence that Jeanne knew about her husband's womanizing and his swagger, but the family lore depicted him as always embroidering on his fortune, claiming his family owned land and vineyards.
Jeanne suffered from a condition that took her breath away and racked her with attacks of suffocation. Eternally pregnant, often on the move, she grew thin and sunken-eyed. When her uncle Augustin saw her, her sallow looks and interminable coughs reminded him of the disease that had carried off her mother, his sister Gilberte. Maybe Jeanne should return to live in Courpière. The air was pure there.
In 1887, Jeanne gave birth to a girl. The family was on the road again, and the baby was born in Saintes, the market town where Cognac's famous brandy was traded. Jeanne and Albert, or somebody at the hospice, named her Antoinette. She was to be Gabrielle's favorite sister.
Jeanne's health deteriorated, and she decided to return to her hometown, with her four kids and, for a time, her husband. They lived in her uncle Augustin's house. Albert was soon off again.
The time in Courpière was the best years in the children's marginal childhoods. Jeanne was never sure Albert would return, so she continued to go "on the road" with him. She entrusted the children to the care of her abundant family, and, in rain or shine, rode with her husband in the buggy and stood behind her own stand at a hundred town markets.
Julie grew up slow-witted and afraid of everything. Gabrielle preferred playing with her brother Alphonse. But she often played alone. Among Gabrielle's earliest memories was playing in an old churchyard with graves full of weeds. She thought of the cemetery as a secret garden and of herself as the queen and defender of its subterranean inhabitants. "I told myself that the dead are not really dead as long as people think about them." To Carmen Tessier, a France-Soir gossip columnist, she said she had her tombs, her dead, that her family tried to lure her away from the cemetery by telling her that none of her next-of-kin was buried there. "That didn't bother me. I brought flowers, and forks and spoons and whatever else I could steal at home, and spread out my loot around the graves. One day, my family discovered the stuff that was missing. They locked everything up and since I could no longer bring things to my dead, I forgot about them."
In other retellings, she brought her rag dolls to the churchyard and talked to her dead. Her own explanation for her childhood need to confide in the dead was that she was unloved. "Because I lived with people who were insensitive, I wanted to be sure that I was loved. I liked to talk to myself and I didn't do what I was told. That, no doubt, comes from the fact that the first beings to whom I opened my heart were dead people."
When she was an old woman, living alone and convinced that the people who surrounded her were only out for her money, journalists caught her in cemeteries talking to the dead.
In 1889 when Julie was seven, Gabrielle six, Alphonse four, and Antoinette two, their mother gave birth to another boy at the tavern in Guéret, a market town northeast of Limoges. They called him Lucien.
By the time Gabrielle was eleven, the life on the road, poverty, and constant pregnancies—another son named Augustin for Jeanne's uncle in Courpière died in infancy—had ruined Jeanne's health. She was in Brivela-Gaillarde, a market town halfway between Clermont-Ferrand and Bordeaux, when she fainted from shortness of breath and high fever. She was not well enough to leave the freezing room she was left in. One winter morning in February 1895, she was found dead. Her husband was "traveling." She was thirty-two.CHAPTER 2
Orphans, Foundlings, and Illegitimates
Albert Chanel disappeared for good. Julie, Gabrielle, and Antoinette spent the better part of the next six years at an orphanage at Aubazine near Brive-la-Gaillarde. No one in the family would take Alphonse and little Lucien either, and the boys were "placed" in a farm household, to become unpaid child labor from the age of eight.
Of the periods of Chanel's life, the years at Aubazine, the orphanage run by the sisters of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary, were to remain the most obscure. The word orphanage would never cross her lips, and when it came to writing her memoirs, she talked only of being thrown into a new life with several aunts and unnamed first cousins of her mother. A shortage of men, which she did not explain, had left all the aunts old maids. In her descriptions the aunts had neither names nor physical traits, but they were always dressed in black or gray, had dry hands, cold eyes, and black shawls wrapped over their chests. The "aunts," she would insist, did not like her. "People have said I cried when I was at my aunts' because they called me Gabrielle. I wasn't easy to handle."
To author-diplomat Paul Morand she described what happened when her father dropped her off at her aunts. "My aunts had already had dinner; we had not," she would say. "They were surprised that people who had traveled all day had not had anything to eat. That disturbed their program and their frugality, but they finally overcame their stark provincial rigidity and regretfully said, 'We will make you two soft-boiled eggs.'" Continuing her story in the third person, she said, "The little Coco guessed their loathing and feels hurt. She's dying of hunger, but at the sight of the eggs, she shook her head, and loudly said she didn't like eggs, that she hates them when in reality she loves soft-boiled eggs. After this first contact she needed to say no to everything that was offered to her, to the aunts, to everything that surrounds her, to a new life."
Gabrielle sometimes turned the loveless years with the "aunts" into inner strength: "I've been ungrateful toward the odious aunts. I owe them everything. A child in revolt becomes a person with armor and strength. It's the kisses, caresses, teachers and vitamins that kill children and turn them into unhappy or sickly adults. It's the mean and nasty aunts who create winners, and give them inferiority complexes, although in my case the result was a superiority complex. Under nastiness looms strength, under pride a taste for success and a passion for grandeur." In interpreting Chanel's accounts of her life with the aunts, more than one of her would-be biographers mentally substituted "nuns" for "aunts."
To confuse matters there was one aunt who took an interest in her—her father's sister, Louise Costier. Louise had been the first of the Chanels to marry a man who worked in an office. Paul Costier was a railway employee in Clermont-Ferrand, the central switching yard of the new Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée railroad. Gabrielle, along with her family, attended Louise's wedding.
Excerpted from Chanel by Axel Madsen. Copyright © 1990 Axel Madsen. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Meet the Author
Axel Madsen was a biographer and journalist. Born in Denmark and raised in Paris, he first began writing for the Paris edition of The New York Herald Tribune. He moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s, where he wrote biographies of Coco Chanel, Billy Wilder, John Jacob Astor, and Jacques Cousteau among others. He died in 2007.
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