Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History

Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History

by Rhonda K. Garelick


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400069521
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/30/2014
Pages: 608
Sales rank: 330,253
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Rhonda K. Garelick writes on fashion, performance, art, and cultural politics. Her books include Rising Star: Dandyism, Gender, and Performance in the Fin de Siècle, Electric Salome: Loie Fuller’s Performance of Modernism, and, as co-editor, Fabulous Harlequin: ORLAN and the Patchwork Self. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, New York Newsday, International Herald Tribune, and The Sydney Morning Herald, as well as in numerous journals and museum catalogs in the United States and Europe. She is a Guggenheim fellow and has also received awards from the Getty Research Institute, the Dedalus Foundation, the American Association of University Women, the Whiting Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies. Garelick received her B.A. and Ph.D. in comparative literature and French from Yale University.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Early Life

If there’s one thing that interests no one, it’s someone’s life. If I wrote a book about my life, I would begin with today, with tomorrow. Why begin with childhood? Why youth? One should first offer an opinion about the era in which one is living—­that’s more logical, newer, and more amusing.

—­Coco Chanel

Gabrielle Chanel turned her existence into a glamorous, cinematic soap opera that garnered near-­constant chronicling by the press, but she always refused to offer concrete details of her earliest years. Instead, she chose to dispense occasional tidbits of truth, hidden amid the ever-­changing fantasies she used to embellish the grim reality of her childhood and, perhaps, to soften for herself the legacy of a youth beset by poverty, tragic loss, and wounding betrayals by those closest to her.

Ferociously determined till the very end to obscure her true origins, Chanel lived in the present tense. Such insistence upon the “now,” upon the “era in which one is living,” as she put it, may help account for the saving grace of her life: her startling ability to interpret the moment, to create relevant fashion for most of sixty years. Perhaps if Chanel had had a more accepting relationship to her own nineteenth-­century rural childhood, she would never have become a standard-­bearer for twentieth-­century urban womanhood.

But Chanel’s modernist revolution and its ongoing power have their roots in that long-­buried childhood of hers, in the flinty soil of France’s Cévennes region where she was born, in her hardscrabble, peasant ancestors, and in the two major institutions that left their aesthetic, moral, and psychological stamp on her: the Roman Catholic Church and the military.

Chanel liked to tell people that she was a native Auvergnat, born in the south central region of Auvergne, in France’s Massif Central—­a gorgeous, still heavily rural area known for its agriculture, its myriad volcanoes—­all extinct for thousands of years—­and its highly mineralized water, reputed to hold curative properties. It was a slight untruth. Although Auvergne played a significant role in Chanel’s life, and although her tempestuous nature often evoked comparisons with those many volcanoes, Gabrielle Chanel was actually born far from Auvergne’s rugged beauty, in the northwest Loire Valley town of Saumur. The small lie was telling, though.

Auvergne was, for generations, home to the Chanel family—­the region where her father, Albert Chanel, was born, the region where her grandparents eventually settled. Auvergne was also the place she was conceived. Claiming Auvergne as her birthplace, Chanel tried to knit herself a bit more tightly into her family history, into the clan that, for the most part, had severed its ties to her when she was a child. She later reciprocated the gesture.

In 1883, the year of Gabrielle’s birth, the Chanel family’s circumstances were bleak. Judged against even the modest standards of their rural peasant world, Gabrielle’s parents, Albert Chanel and Jeanne Devolle, began their life together at a great disadvantage. At twenty-­eight, Albert had little in the way of steady employment. With no trade, no particular skills, and owning almost nothing, he occupied one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder of nineteenth-­century France: Like his father before him, he was an itinerant peddler. But unlike his father, Albert did not restrict his travels to the family’s native area of southern France. Bolder, more adventurous, and quite comfortable out on his own, he peddled far and wide, moving north and west, riding a horse-­drawn cart filled with small notions and household wares.

He gained his meager livelihood selling merchandise to the housewives who gathered early in village squares on market days. Albert was well suited to his profession. While he may have been a gambler, a heavy drinker, and barely literate, he was also very charming. “The stands of itinerant peddlers were above all a show,” as historian Eugen Weber has written, and Albert was a natural showman. An easy talker, quick with a joke or a deft compliment, he excelled at the kind of patter that could clinch a sale. It didn’t hurt, either, that he was extremely handsome. Solidly built, with a glowing tan complexion, white teeth, a boyish snub nose, thick shiny black hair, and glittering dark eyes (Gabrielle resembled him strikingly), Albert Chanel knew just how attractive he was to women. By twenty-­eight, he had evolved into an accomplished seducer.

What chance could a nineteen-­year-­old orphan girl ever have had against the onslaught of Chanel-­style sex appeal? In 1881, Jeanne Devolle lived with her twenty-­one-­year-­old brother, Marin, a carpenter who—­in the absence of their parents—­provided for his sister as well as he could. Vagabonding through the Auvergne town of Courpière, Albert befriended Marin and, as was his wont, sweet-­talked the young man into renting him a room in the Devolle household for only a few francs. Once ensconced, it took him no time to set his sights on his host’s pretty and lonely younger sister, a girl who wore her heavy, glossy hair in braids wound around her head. It was an easy conquest. Jeanne fell madly and instantly in love, and in a flash, she was pregnant. Just as quickly, Albert was gone, packing up and fleeing the menace of domestic shackles.

It was the oldest story in the world, but Albert hadn’t counted on the tenacity of Jeanne’s family. At first, a desperate Jeanne sought refuge with one of her uncles on her mother’s side, Augustin Chardon, but when he discovered her condition he grew enraged and threw her out of the house. Marin intervened to help his sister, and after a time, their uncle took pity on the girl. The family resolved to track down the elusive Albert Chanel and hold him accountable. Saving Jeanne’s honor became a cause célèbre. Soon another uncle got involved, and then even the mayor of Courpière joined in the mission. With the mayor’s help, their little coalition succeeded in locating Albert’s parents, Henri-­Adrien and Virginie-­Angelina Chanel, who had settled in the nearby town Clermont-­Ferrand, close to Vichy. Although still peddlers, Henri and Angelina had entered semiretirement and restricted their selling to the town where they lived.

The Devolle contingent arrived at the modest home of Monsieur and Madame Chanel and confronted the couple with news of Jeanne’s pregnancy, along with a serious ultimatum: If the Chanels refused to divulge the whereabouts of their son or aid in finding him, Jeanne’s family intended to pursue legal action. Seducing and abandoning a woman counted as a crime, and if convicted, Albert risked deportation to a forced labor camp.

Such a turn of events could hardly have surprised Albert’s parents; shotgun weddings were a family tradition. Thirty years prior, the young Henri-­Adrien—­then a laborer on a silkworm farm—­had also seduced and impregnated a local teenaged girl, sixteen-­year-­old Virginie-­Angelina—­Coco Chanel’s grandmother. Then, too, outraged family members had intervened to coerce the perpetrator into marriage, after which the couple commenced their nomadic life as peddlers—­a life made all the more exhausting and precarious by the nineteen children Virginie-­Angelina would eventually bear.

Henri and Virginie-­Angelina managed to scare up their wayward son, who had drifted to the eastern Rhône Valley town of Aubenas, where he was living in a room above a local cabaret.

It made sense that Albert Chanel, who would always aspire toward a finer life, had settled into quarters above a cabaret—­it evoked an earlier, far more prosperous time for his family. Albert’s grandfather, Joseph Chanel, had once owned a cabaret in the town of Ponteils, France, and the profession of cabaretier had, for a time, afforded Joseph a level of security and social stature rarely experienced by the Chanel family. “My father always wished for a larger life,” Chanel told Louise de Vilmorin.

Later Albert would spin increasingly elaborate tales about fictional business ventures, and tell people that he, like his grandfather, owned a cabaret, or that he had bought a vineyard and become a wine merchant. But there was no hiding from reality when his parents and the Devolle-­Chardon family confronted him with Jeanne’s pregnancy, now in its ninth month. Under duress, Albert agreed to recognize his child, but obstinately refused to marry Jeanne. Bitter quarrels ensued, but the young man held his ground. He found nothing so distasteful as the prospect of marriage. In the end, Albert wheedled his way into an odd arrangement that bespoke his penchant for dissembling: He would agree to pretend to be married to Jeanne, a charade that wound up involving even his boss, the cabaret owner, who played along and signed his name as a witness on the couple’s faux marriage certificate.

This pretend marriage perpetuated another family custom, too: Chanel women resigning themselves to whatever commitment they could squeeze out of their shiftless men. Barely twenty years old, penniless, dishonored, and about to be a mother, Jeanne had little choice but to enter into this nonmarriage. Despite everything, she loved Albert with all the passion of an inexperienced young girl. Playing house with him and their new baby seemed like a good-­enough consolation prize—­far better than losing her handsome boyfriend forever to a far-­off labor camp.

Baby Julia Chanel was born just days after her parents’ play-­acted wedding, and not long after that, Albert prepared to take to the road again—­alone. Jeanne, however, would have none of it. Knowing she could not survive on her own and equally sure she could not return—­disgraced anew—­to her uncles in Courpière, she packed up her infant daughter and hit the road right alongside Albert, clinging to him, all pride cast aside. It was to be the tableau that defined the rest of her brief life.

The little family wended its way up to Saumur in the Loire Valley, where they lived in a single room in a house occupying a dark side street lined with commercial shops. Saumur owed its bustle and hum to the division of the French cavalry garrisoned there. These soldiers cut elegant figures in their fitted, gold-­buttoned riding jackets, and were so important to the town that Saumur—­unlike any other French city at the time—­kept its stores open late into the night during the week to accommodate the schedules of military men who had no wives to take care of errands for them.

Although Jeanne had managed to travel to Saumur hanging on to Albert’s coattails, she found herself largely alone upon their arrival. Albert had returned to peddling at regional markets and fairs, disappearing for long intervals. Now he was selling women’s undergarments and flannels, which, of course, required many flirtatious encounters with the local ladies. Left to provide for their infant alone, Jeanne found work as a kitchen maid and laundress, scraping stale food off dishes, carrying heavy piles of dirty sheets, bending over tin washtubs, scrubbing. Such work—­distasteful and exhausting for anyone—­would have proved especially taxing for Jeanne who, in addition to having to tote a three-­month-­old everywhere with her, was also pregnant once more.

Early happiness handicaps people. I do not regret having been profoundly unhappy.

—­Coco Chanel

On August 19, 1883, Jeanne went into labor and, with Albert nowhere to be found, managed somehow to make her way to the local Catholic charity hospital, run by the Soeurs de la Providence. With no family or friends present, Jeanne gave birth to her second child, another girl. Hospital employees served as the witnesses on the birth certificate, but since none could read or write, they simply made their mark on the official documents. Two days later, the local vicar baptized the baby in the hospital chapel. Two local Good Samaritans, a man named Moïse Lion and a woman known as the Widow Christenet, were pressed into service as godparents of convenience. Convenience, too, dictated the child’s name: Jeanne was too spent to think, so the nuns stepped in and christened the baby Gabrielle—­meaning “God is my might” in Hebrew.

Only Lion could read or write at all, and with Albert missing and Jeanne unable to leave her hospital bed, no one corrected the small mistake on the baptismal certificate, which announced the birth of Gabrielle Chasnel—­a misspelling of the last name that threw a near-­permanent obstacle into the path of this baby’s many future biographers.

Years later, Gabrielle added another alteration to her original name, claiming that her baptismal certificate read “Gabrielle Bonheur [Happiness] Chanel.” The nuns, she said, had gifted her with this middle name as a good-­luck charm. “Happiness” appears nowhere on those early documents. Chanel’s invention of this unusual middle name, and her attributing it to the intervention of nuns, suggest an attempt on her part to offer her child self, ex post facto, a shred of the tender concern and warm parental regard so absent in the circumstances of her actual birth. “The child I was remains with me today. . . . I have satisfied her needs,” Chanel told Louise de Vilmorin.

Such would be the pattern for the first decade of Gabrielle’s life. Albert roved the countryside leaving Jeanne behind to care for their expanding brood. When she became pregnant for the third time, in 1884, Albert finally agreed to legitimize their union, marrying her on November 17, 1884, in Courpière. The nicety of a marriage certificate in no way altered their relationship, although it did provide a modest dowry for Albert from the Devolle family, in the sum of about 5,000 francs, or about $20,000 in today’s dollars.

In 1885, Jeanne gave birth to her third child and first son, Alphonse—­once more in the charity ward, once more without Albert. This scenario, too, was part of a Chanel tradition. Virginie-­Angelina had given birth to Albert all alone in a charity ward, and her sisters-­in-­law had endured similar fates repeatedly. Henri’s brothers, the Chanel boys, were well known for siring large families, but generally evinced little concern for either their many children or the exhausted women who bore them.

That year, the family made its home in the town of Issoire, in Auvergne, where Albert set up shop at the local markets. They rarely stayed in one place long, and sometimes moved even from street to street within a single town. Albert preferred to station the family on the outskirts of cities, where rents were lower and he had easy access to roads. Typically Jeanne would follow Albert to the fairs, carting her children with her. The toddlers ran about with little supervision.

The Chanel children did not attend school, but played together in and around the artisans’ shops amid which they usually lived—­tallow candlemakers, potters, and rope makers who wove skeins of hemp. Via the easy osmosis of childhood observation, Coco absorbed from these neighbors a love and knowledge of craftsmanship—­an almost unconscious, physical understanding of how the human hand lends shape and purpose to raw materials.

Although largely absent and of no real help at home, Albert Chanel made his presence felt. Coco remembered her father as elusive but affectionate—­a man who would come in, kiss her on the top of her head, and leave again, the clip-­clop of his horse’s hooves growing fainter outside the door. She recalled his great sensitivity to smells and his love of cleanliness, which made him something of an anomaly for his class and era. Not only was clean water scarce at the time; bathing itself tended to be viewed as something of a health hazard. Albert, though, according to his daughter, was ahead of his time in matters of hygiene, insisting, for example, that the children’s hair be washed regularly with Savon de Marseilles, the traditional French soap made of Mediterranean seawater mixed with olive oil. Coco would develop a similar passion for freshness, and her preference for crisp, clean scents over heavy fragrances led to her later revolution of the perfume industry.

Table of Contents

Introduction xiii

Chapter 1 Early Life 3

Chapter 2 A New World 37

Chapter 3 Designing Together: Coco Chanel and Arthur Edward "Boy" Capel 53

Chapter 4 Grand Duke Dmitri 110

Chapter 5 My Heart Is in My Pocket: Coco and Pierre Reverdy 134

Chapter 6 Women Friends, Mimetic Contagion, and the Parisian Avant-Garde 146

Chapter 7 Antigone in Vogue: Chanel Costumes the Modernist Stage 164

Chapter 8 Bendor: The Richest Man in Europe 180

Chapter 9 The Patriotism of Luxury: Chanel and Paul Iribe 217

Chapter 10 The Pulse of History: Chanel, Fascism, and the Interwar Years 249

Chapter 11 Love, War, and Espionage 296

Chapter 12 Showing Them: Chanel Returns 353

Afterword 422

Acknowledgments 431

Bibliography 437

Notes 455

Illustration Credits 547

Index 549

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Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Beverly_D More than 1 year ago
2.5 stars. Overall, slightly more positive than meh, but it was a LOOONG read (608 pages); I've read books that were longer, but this one dragged. I received an ARC of this biography via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Coco Chanel is a difficult person to write a biography about, because she gave many interviews in her life that changed or distorted the historical facts. Did she grow up in difficult circumstances, with a mother who died in childbirth, and a father who abandoned her and her sister? Yes. Was she the mistress of many wealthy and powerful men? Yes. Did her designs change the world? I can agree with the author's point that they advanced the cause of women's liberation/freedom by NOT encasing them in corsets, yards and yards of fabric, but allowed and encouraged women to move. Did she collaborate with the Nazis? Yes; and although the author makes the argument that Chanel was naturally anti-Semitic and in whole-hearted agreement with the Third Reich; that could well be so, or there could have been deeper motives. (Perhaps trying to rescue her nephew/?illegitimate son?, imprisoned in a POW camp?) What I struggled with in this book was that it felt like the author was vehemently arguing with... someone, as if this was a thesis expanded into a book. I felt like I was being blasted with arguments and counter-arguments, and hello, I'm just here to read and learn. Some of the points included that Chanel loved the idea that she was putting women into a uniform of... Coco Chanel, that women were rushing to dress like her, move like her, and even smell like her. The resemblance between the "uniform" of Chanel, complete with a distinctive Double-C logo, with the uniforms of the Nazis, with their distinctive use of the swastika.  While I greatly appreciate that the author wasn't doing a PR-type whitewash of Mademoiselle Chanel, and the many deep historical details and intensive research that clearly went into this book, I felt the book could have been up to a third shorter, without losing any impact, if the repeated hammering of the theories of why Chanel did X or must have felt Y, were reduced in number. As a reader, I prefer being led and persuaded to form (what feels like) my own opinion about a subject, not told what I SHOULD believe