You may have heard her story but if not, this is how her story unfolded after all: After Coco Chanels mother’s passed away, Coco Chanel’s father took Coco and her two sisters off at the orphanage at the abbey of Aubazine in Corrèze, France, and abandoned them right there at the convent of Aubazine. She was only eleven years old.
Chanel spent six years at the orphanage, until the age of 18, where leading a simple life where the future designer learned to sew. Much of Coco Chanel’s design lexicon is rooted in her time at the orphanage at Aubazine.
The secret life of Coco Chanel
Those on whom legends are built are their legends,’ declared Coco Chanel to her friend Paul Morand, one of several writers to whom she tried, and failed, to tell the story of her life. ‘People’s lives are an enigma,’ she said to another friend, Claude Delay, not long before her death.
‘I don’t like the family,’ she also told Delay. ‘You’re born in it, not of it. I don’t know anything more terrifying than the family.’ And so she circled around and about it, telling and retelling the narrative of her youth, remaking history just as she remade the sleeves of a jacket, unfastening its seams and cutting its threads, and then sewing it back together again.
The official record shows that her mother, Eugénie, gave birth to Gabrielle on 19 August 1883 in the poorhouse in Saumur, a market town on the river Loire. Eugénie (known as Jeanne) was 20, Chanel’s father Henri-Albert (known as Albert) was 28, and listed as a marchland , or merchant, on Gabrielle’s birth certificate. They were not yet married but already had one daughter, Julia, born less than a year previously.
Gabrielle Bonheur, a nun in the hospice where Chanel was born, was made her godmother, and so, according to Chanel, ‘I was baptised Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel’. Gabrielle she stayed throughout her childhood – Coco was a creation that came later – although she invented a story that is revealing in its untruths: ‘My father used to call me “Little Coco” until something better should come along,’ she told Marcel Haedrich (editor-in-chief of Marie-Claire). ‘He didn’t like [the name] “Gabrielle” at all; it hadn’t been his choice.’ At times Gabrielle declared Coco to be an ‘awful’ name; and yet she was proud of its recognition throughout the world, evidence of her indisputable presence.
Her mother figures only as a shadowy invalid in Gabrielle’s memories. Chanel was to claim that her mother died of tuberculosis, which was not necessarily an accurate diagnosis of what killed Jeanne; poverty, pregnancy and pneumonia were as likely to blame. In Chanel’s account to Delay, the family lived in a large enough house for the children – two boys and three girls – to be kept in isolation from their sick mother. In fact, they were crowded with her into one room in the railway town of Brive-la-Gaillarde, on the main line from Paris to Toulouse.
After their mother’s death Albert took the children to Aubazine, and there he abandoned them. Her brothers were left with a peasant family and the three girls were handed over to the nuns who ran an orphanage within the abbey walls.
Chanel lived here until she was 18, as did her sisters. One of them, Julia, fell pregnant here in mysterious circumstances; a nominal father was found to give the baby boy a name – on his birth certificate he was registered as André Palasse – but when Julia died the boy was left an orphan.
Chanel seldom referred to her elder sister; on the occasions she did, her remarks were contradictory. ‘She only loved the convent,’ she told Delay, yet also claimed that Julia had loved her husband, that she killed herself by slitting her wrists when she discovered that he had a mistress. Whatever the true circumstances of André’s birth, Chanel took on her six-year-old nephew and brought him up as her own (she chose not to keep him in Paris with her, but sent him to be educated at an English boarding school).
People used to speculate about André’s origins, as they still do. Even now, if you talk to the elderly lady who lives in a house across the road from the abbey, you might hear another story, that the baby was Gabrielle’s, not Julia’s. ‘That’s what I heard,’ she says, ‘but who knows if it is true?’
When Gabrielle turned 18 she left the nuns at Aubazine, who kept on only those girls with a religious vocation to join the order’s novitiate. She was sent to the Notre Dame school in Moulins, a religious institution run by canonesses where her aunt Adrienne – only a year older than her – was already being educated. At the school she was given further instruction in how to sew, which had already formed a substantial part of her education at Aubazine.
The Mother Superior at Notre Dame found employment for Adrienne and Gabrielle as shop assistants and seamstresses in a draper’s store on the rue de l’Horloge, which sold trousseaux and mourning clothes to the local gentry, as well as layettes for newborn babies. The girls shared an attic bedroom above the shop, and also worked at the weekends for a nearby tailor, altering breeches for cavalry officers. It was there that Gabrielle and Adrienne were spotted by half a dozen men, who started taking them out to La Rotonde, a pavilion in a park in Moulins, where concerts were held for audiences from the local barracks.
They were rowdy affairs – a combination of music hall and soldiers’ saloon – but Gabrielle was determined to start singing on stage, and eventually found a regular slot. She had only two songs in her repertoire: ‘Ko Ko Ri Ko’ (its refrain was the French version of ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’) and ‘Qui qu’a vu Coco? ‘, a ditty about a girl who had lost her dog. Soon the audience greeted her with barnyard cockerel calls, and christened her with the name of the lost dog. Thus Gabrielle became Coco.
Chanel never talked about this episode of her life, other than to deny it to Paul Morand, dismissing it as foolish legend, along with the other stories in circulation: ‘that I have come up from goodness knows where; from the music hall, the opera or the brothel; I’m sorry, for that would have been more amusing.’ She did, however, mention the name of a cavalry officer, Etienne Balsan, who around this time was to become her lover.
There are many mysteries in the myth of Coco Chanel, but few more perplexing than her years with Etienne Balsan at Royallieu, a former abbey in Compiègne where he kept a racing stable. Balsan never gave away her secrets, however often he was questioned in later life, when Chanel was far more famous than him. In the drama of Chanel’s life, Balsan has been cast as a rich playboy, the roué who introduced the little orphaned seamstress into the decadent world of the Belle Époque, deflowering her in an unsentimental education. While there may be some truth in this portrait, Chanel also used Balsan as a stepping stone from Moulins to Paris.
The two of them continued to be friends until his death in 1953, and if their initial sexual relationship had been characterised by his infidelities, Balsan nevertheless displayed a lifelong loyalty to Chanel. He remained unmarried, apparently unrepentant and unfailingly discreet.
It was while at Royallieu that Chanel met Boy Capel. His name was Arthur Capel, but his friends called him Boy. Boy’s origins were swathed in romance, and he came to Paris amid murmured speculation that he was connected in some mysterious way to the British aristocracy through the Capell family; or that he was the illegitimate son of a rich French father, possibly a Jewish financier. The more prosaic version is that he was exactly who he said he was: the son of Arthur and Bertha Capel, raised with two sisters in a prosperous Catholic family whose money came from coalminers in the north of England. Capel was also an accomplished playboy and polo player, sharing an enthusiasm for fast horses and pretty women with his friend Etienne Balsan.
It was 1909, and Chanel was 26, just under two years younger than Capel; though she told Claude Delay that Boy called her ‘my dear child’ when she declared that she was leaving Balsan for him. She held out the letter she had written to Balsan to explain her decision – ‘My dear Etienne, I shall never be able to repay the kindness and comfort you’ve given me while I’ve been with you.’ Boy wouldn’t listen to her, wouldn’t allow her to leave, but she followed him, and dashed on to the train with her suitcase. Three days later Balsan arrived in Paris; jealousy had made him realise that he loved her after all.
Many years later, confiding in Marcel Haedrich, Chanel said that she went on seeing Etienne Balsan after she left Royallieu, and he continued to declare his love for her. ‘We lunched and dined together, Etienne, Boy and I. Occasionally Etienne talked about killing himself, and I wept. I wept so! “You aren’t going to let Etienne kill himself,” I said to myself. “You’ll set them both free. Go throw yourself into the Seine!”‘ Other, less torrid versions give more emphasis to Etienne and Boy’s financial discussions about who should pay what to keep Chanel.
Eventually, after protracted negotiations, Balsan and Capel agreed to share the cost of setting her up in business to sell the hats that she was already making for herself, and for her friends (and their girlfriends). Capel covered the running costs; Balsan provided the Paris premises.
Coco dressed like a young convent girl or a schoolboy, and made hats that were stripped of embellishments, of the frills and furbelows that she dismissed as weighing a woman down, and being too cumbersome to let her think straight. They weren’t entirely original – at first, she bought simple straw boaters from the Galeries Lafayette department store, and then trimmed them with ribbon – but they were chic. ‘Nothing makes a woman look older than obvious expensiveness, ornateness, complication,’ she said to Claude Delay in old age, still wearing the little straw hats of her youth. ‘I still dress as I always did, like a schoolgirl.’ And in doing so, Coco began to edge her way to the centre of attention, elbowing past her rivals and competitors, whether the society ladies or the cocottes or couturiers. (Paul Poiret, whose fame at the time was such that he dubbed himself the King of Fashion, said of Chanel’s early days as a milliner, ‘We ought to have been on guard against that boyish head. It was going to give us every kind of shock, and produce, out of its little conjuror’s hat, gowns and coiffures and jewels and boutiques.’)
Chanel’s business was growing, and she began to sell clothes, as well as hats. But for all the outward success of her designs – and the impeccable surface that she presented to the outside world – inside something was troubling her. ‘I often fainted,’ she told Haedrich. ‘I had too much emotion, too much excitement, I lived too intensely. My nerves couldn’t stand it.’ When she worked, she said, her health recovered; and although she never admitted it, the House of Chanel seemed to give her more stability – a sense of where she stood in the world – than she gained from Boy Capel.
Hence the story she often told of her distress at discovering that Capel had deposited bank securities as a guarantee for her business and overdrafts, and that the money she believed she was making had not yet repaid her debt.
On the evening he told her this, they had been on their way to dinner in Saint-Germain; she immediately insisted that they return to the apartment they now shared in Paris. ‘I felt sick,’ she told Morand. ‘Impossible to eat … I began to hate this well-brought-up man who was paying for me. I threw my handbag straight at his face and I fled.’ The following morning, she told Morand, she went back to rue Cambon at dawn. ‘”Angle,” I said to my head seamstress, “I am not here to have fun, or to spend money like water. I am here to make a fortune.”‘
A year later Chanel was earning sufficient money to have no more need of Capel’s financial support, and she rejoiced in her independence. Her clothes looked simple – sleek and fluid, designed to be worn without corsets and with insouciance – and she sometimes gave the impression that her success as a designer had come as easily as slipping on a cardigan.
The rewards were considerable, for her work, like her clothes, liberated Chanel from other constrictions. ‘I was my own master, and I depended on myself alone,’ she told Morand. ‘Boy Capel was well aware that he didn’t control me: “I thought I’d given you a plaything, I gave you freedom,” he once said to me in a melancholy voice.’
Even so, the House of Chanel still linked them together; for in some unspoken way they had set it up as partners. There was no business contract to bind them together, just as there was no marriage certificate, but it nevertheless joined them, as the double C logo seems to suggest; Chanel and Capel; overlapping, but also facing away from each other.
A few months before the end of the war in July 1918, an aristocratic beauty named Diana Wyndham wrote a letter to her friend Duff Cooper, from Beaufort Castle in Scotland. ‘Dearest Duff,’ she wrote, ‘Lots of things have happened since I saw you – I’ve been ill, we’ve nearly lost the war, and I think I’m going to marry Capel after all – so next time I see you, you’ll be staying with me in my luxurious apartment in the avenue du Bois.’ If Diana was not yet pregnant with Capel’s child when she wrote to Duff Cooper, she would have been soon afterwards, given the birth of her first baby the following April.
In later life Chanel did not discuss her lover’s marriage to Diana; in fact, she barely acknowledged that it had taken place. She already knew that he had other women, other mistresses, and perhaps she understood that nothing would come of his earlier promises that she would be his wife.
While Arthur Capel had been searching for an aristocratic wife, Chanel made herself look like a boy: breastless and hipless and shorn of the conventions of womanhood. ‘In 1917 I slashed my thick hair,’ she said to Morand; ‘to begin with I trimmed it bit by bit. Finally, I wore it short.’ When people asked her why, she answered, ‘Because it annoys me. And everyone went into raptures, saying I looked like “a young boy, a little shepherd”. (That was beginning to become a compliment, for a woman.)’
Chanel gave a different, and more detailed version of that radical haircut to Claude Delay. Her story started with a trip to the opera with friends. She was dressing for the evening. ‘I’d never been to the Opera before. I had a white dress made by my own modistes. My hair, which came down below my waist, was done up round my head in three braids – all that mass set straight upon that thin body.’ She had so much hair, she said, that it was ‘crushing me to death’; but fate intervened, and gave her freedom. ‘There was a gas burner in the bathroom. I turned on the hot tap to wash my hands again, the water wasn’t hot, so I fiddled with the pilot-light and the whole thing exploded. My white dress was covered in soot, my hair – the less said, the better. I only had to wash my face again – I didn’t use make-up. In those days only the cocottes used make-up and were elegant. The women of the bourgeoisie weren’t groomed – and they wore hats that flopped all over the place, with birds’ nests and butterflies.’
But nothing was going to stop her from going out that night, not even her burned hair. ‘I took a pair of scissors and cut one braid off. The hair sprang out at once all round my face. In those days I had hair like sable.’ Undaunted, she cut off the second braid, and then told her maid to cut off the third; the girl began to cry, but Chanel didn’t care – or, at least, she said she didn’t care about the loss of her hair, or of the soot-stained white dress. ‘I slipped on a black dress I had, crossed over in front – what a marvellous thing, youth – and caught in at the waist, with a sort of minaret on top.’ With bobbed hair and little black dress Chanel was neither slave girl nor wife, but something of her own making. Everyone at the opera was looking at her, she told Delay.
‘When I got back that evening the maid had washed my hair and my braids were waiting for me in the bathroom like three dead bodies.’ Thereafter, whenever designing a new fashion collection, she cut off her own hair.
On the wild western edge of Scotland, not far from Cape Wrath, a river runs through heather-covered hillsides, towards the dark waters of Loch Stack. It is as remote a place as any in Europe.
Comprising over 100,000 acres, the Reay Forest estate was leased by the 1st Duke of Westminster in 1866 from his father-in-law, the Duke of Sutherland, and bought outright in 1920 by his heir, the 2nd Duke of Westminster (known as Bendor, after his grandfather’s Derby-winning stallion).
On a summer’s afternoon, the pale-grey sky reflected in the quiet pools of the River Laxford, it seems unassailably distant from Paris. But in the fishing records of the Reay estate office, there are leather-bound volumes containing pages that mark the visits of Mademoiselle Chanel to the river, and her considerable success as a fisherwoman. The first date her name appears is 27 May 1925; according to the records, she caught a 9lb salmon in the Duke’s pool. A few days later, on 1 June, Mademoiselle Chanel had landed a bigger fish – over 12lb, and half a pound heavier than the salmon caught that day by her host. As the summer progressed, so did Mademoiselle’s fishing skills; she was on the River Laxford and Loch Stack throughout June, July and August, reeling in salmon and sea trout.
Two years later, in 1927, after Chanel had enjoyed a third summer of fishing with the Duke of Westminster on the Laxford, Winston Churchill joined them for a week at the end of September. Churchill’s friendship with Bendor (whom he called Bennie) was long-standing, and they had remained close throughout the Duke’s two marriages (to Shelagh Cornwallis-West, from whom he had separated in 1913, and Violet Nelson, his wife from 1920 to 1924). Indeed, Churchill and the Duke were related through marriage, for after the death of Winston’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, his mother had married Bendor’s brother-in-law, George Cornwallis-West, in 1900.
Thus Churchill had been a frequent visitor to Bendor’s houses on the Sutherland estate – Stack Lodge, beside the River Laxford, and Lochmore, a granite mansion overlooking the loch – and it was from Stack that he wrote to his wife, Clemmie, in early October 1927: ‘Coco is here in place of Violet. She fishes from morn till night, & in 2 months has killed 50 salmon. She is vy agreeable – really a gt & strong being fit to rule a man or an Empire. Bennie vy well & I think extremely happy to be mated with an equal – her ability balancing his power.’
Coco Chanel had first met the Duke in Monte Carlo at the end of 1923. Over 6ft tall, heavily set, and weather-beaten from sailing and shooting, but still handsome at 44, Bendor was hugely attractive to women, without being particularly sophisticated. He was the richest man in Britain, with an income reputed to be a guinea a minute.
Chanel’s lover at the time was the Grand Duke Dmitri, who was dependent on her financial support. But as was clear from her very first dinner with Westminster, her substantial wealth was entirely eclipsed by his. For here was a man, like Boy Capel before him, who could provide her with absolute financial security, even if she chose not to accept it, yet whose fidelity could never be guaranteed.
Chanel’s hesitation, for several months, before embarking upon an affair with the Duke is suggestive, among other things, of her uncertainty when faced with this complex equation of loss and gain, or the unanswerable question of whether love, like money, could be counted upon. In the end, she told Claude Delay, she favoured Westminster over Dmitri – ‘I chose the one who protected me best’ – but she could never fully trust either. There were good reasons not to do so – both men were incorrigible womanisers – and yet perhaps there was something in their lack of commitment that was familiar to her.
By the spring of 1924, Coco and Bendor were an item: he was seen at rehearsals for Le Train blue, the Ballets Russes production for which she had designed the costumes; and she joined him for cruises aboard his yacht, the Flying Cloud.
At Eaton, his estate in Cheshire, she slipped into the role of chatelaine with the same ease as she wore her silk fringed evening gowns, in sapphire blue or black, designed so as not to crease when they were packed for travelling. She rode and hunted at Eaton and accompanied Bendor to the races; and after he bought another Scottish mansion, Rosehall, in 1926, she decorated it with her usual style.
As it happened, Chanel was also incorporating something of Scotland into her new designs. At Lochmore, she borrowed Bendor’s clothes, making his tweeds her own, and wearing them with a panache not usually associated with traditional sporting garb. Having adopted the Duke’s wardrobe, she then started sourcing fabrics from a Scottish tweed mill, and turning them into her characteristically soft little jackets and suits. Something of the same process occurred during her stays in Eaton, where she was inspired by the striped waistcoats of Bendor’s liveried footmen and butlers, transforming them into what became known to readers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar as ‘Chanel’s English Look’, which also included the loose woollen cardigans that she herself wore with the yards of real pearls that the Duke gave to her, a new rope for every birthday, and many others besides.
If the Duke of Westminster reigned over Eaton and Lochmore, and set the course of journeys aboard his yachts, there was one place that Chanel could call her own, where he would be her guest. La Pausa was entirely her creation, a graceful villa on the French Riviera.
Chanel was by no means the first to arrive in the Riviera colony of bohemian Americans and Europeans, nor did she invent its associated fashions. But as was often the case in her career as a designer, she was quick to distil its essence, absorbing it into her own style, and selling it to customers eager for her clothes.
Salvador Dalí and his wife were frequent visitors, as was Churchill, although he holidayed at the villa more often after its sale to Emery Reeves, his literary agent, in 1953.
But the angry sound of arguments between the Duke and Chanel began to disturb the peace of La Pausa, waking up the other guests in the night; and when she joined him on the Flying Cloud the rows continued, always about his infidelities and her humiliation. Once, when Bendor tried to make amends for an affair that Chanel had discovered by giving her a large emerald, she accepted it from him, and then, without a word, let it slip from her hands overboard into the sea.
By the end of 1929 it was clear that Bendor was determined to find a new wife who could bear him a son. At 46, Chanel still looked remarkably youthful – it is likely that the Duke believed her to be younger than she was – and their affair was not yet over. But Bendor took little time in proposing to a young Englishwoman, Loelia Ponsonby. They were engaged just before Christmas, and married in February 1930; not that this got in the way of his seasonal visit to the Riviera.
Lobelia’s subsequent memoir, Grace and Favour, described how he set off for France the morning after their engagement, to spend Christmas in Monte Carlo: ‘I had a dreadful suspicion that a particularly elegant French lady would be meeting him there.’ The following month Loelia was given no choice but to be presented by the Duke to Chanel in Paris, as if by way of inspection. On their way to her apartment, Bendor stopped to buy a present at Van Cleef & Arpels: ‘when he came out he patted his pocket and said, “Not for you.”
‘At that time Mademoiselle Chanel was at the height of her fame, her quiet, neat, uncomplicated clothes being considered the epitome of all that was most chic. She was wearing a dark blue suit and a white blouse with very light stockings (light stockings were one of her credos). Described in this way she sounds as if she looked like a high-school girl, but the effect was of extreme sophistication.’
More than 30 years after this alarming introduction, Loelia still recalled the dazzle of Chanel’s jewels. ‘When I saw her she was hung with every kind of necklace and bracelet, which rattled as she moved. Her sitting-room was luxurious and lavish and she sat in a large armchair, a pair of tall Coromandel screens … making an effective backcloth. I perched, rather at a disadvantage, on a stool at her feet feeling that I was being looked over to see whether I was a suitable bride for her old admirer – and I very much doubted whether I, or my tweed suit, passed the test … Frantically searching around for something to say, I mentioned that Mrs George Keppel had given me a Chanel necklace as a Christmas present. At once I was made to describe it. No, said Mademoiselle Chanel. It had certainly not come from her. She would never dream of having anything like that on sale. And the conversation dropped with a bang.’
Poor Loelia, whose marriage was doomed from the start, and whose honeymoon on the Flying Cloud was as miserable as her meeting with Chanel. ‘I think I can claim to be the worst sailor in the world,’ confessed Loelia.
As for Chanel, she kept as hard and lovely a look on her face as a Scott Fitzgerald heroine, displaying a brittle fortitude while she lost her beloved Bendor to another woman. But two days after the Duke’s wedding to Loelia, he came to see Coco in Paris, and then, at last, she cried.
Written by Justine Picardie from her book of – “Coco Chanel : The Legend and the Life “