Coco Chanel and Malcolm Muggeridge: The untold encounter
In September 1944, a mere month after the Libération de Paris, a photographer friend of French fashion designer Coco Chanel set up a dinner with British writer and spy Malcolm Muggeridge at Chanel’s rue Cambon flat. This was the first and only encounter between the couturière and the journalist.
The dinner was arranged so that Chanel could disclose to Muggeridge the wartime relationship between this friend and an unnamed German officer. Despite her recent affair with Muggeridge, the photographer was still in love with the German officer. She feared the writer might think her relationship with him was only a ploy so she wouldn’t suffer from Resistance reprisals following the Libération de Paris. The photographer begged Chanel to break the news to Muggeridge diplomatically over dinner, even though that part did not quite work out.
For Isée St John Knowles, president of the Société Baudelaire and publisher of the Chanel-Muggeridge interview, it was Chanel’s Baudelairean ideals and behaviour, as well as her personal fight against those who debased and demeaned what she held dear, rather than her love life, that explain the ongoing controversy around her wartime activities.
Between 1937 and 1960, Coco Chanel worked on a Baudelaire-inspired collection and a Baudelaire-inspired fragrance, as part of her activities within the Société Baudelaire, a group aiming to perpetuate the work and aesthetics of the poet. Neither project materialised since Chanel decided not to run for the honorary presidency of the Société Baudelaire in 1960, upon learning Charles de Gaulle was about to throw his hat in the race.
"Any manifestation of Baudelairean autonomy will be marked down as subversive, since its moral frame of reference is alien to collective thinking, even when harnessed to serve humanist ideals in time of war”, argues Knowles. She was “a Baudelairean Dandy, of an independent cast of mind, who proudly clung to her autonomy in defiance of the historical context. The Allies, on the other hand, seeking to uphold humanist values, fought the war from a totally different perspective”.
Available on Chanel’s War, The Unpublished Interview, a website set up by the Société Baudelaire, the interview transcript reveals a teasing Chanel, who is very aware of the end-of-war situation, and of what is being said about her relationship with von Dincklage and other German sympathisers. The designer had apparently “welcomed the opportunity of being interviewed. She saw it as a challenge. She believed that she was a match for secret agents, be they Allies or Nazis.”
Muggeridge likely knew of the nature of Chanel’s wartime activities before they even met, something Knowles believes the designer to have been aware of, and the reason why she focused more on moral questions than on cataloging what she’d been up to during the previous five years.
The interview, key to better understanding Chanel’s war views, almost didn’t surface. It remained unknown until 1976, when Knowles stumbled upon it while researching a book on Muggeridge at the writer’s own house. Six years later, extracts were made available but didn’t get published because of the French mentality of sanctifying the Resistance.
Furthermore, Muggeridge was less than impressed with Chanel. He found neither her teasing, (“I have heard so much about you, Mr. Muggeridge. I believe you have come to liberate us. How very solicitous of you”) nor her insensitivity, endearing. Although he used the encounter as a basis for his play Liberation and mentioned it in a letter to Jacques Soustelle, the ethnologist who became Governor General of Algeria, his strong dislike of Chanel’s character led him to disregard the dinner, not mentioning it, for instance, as part of his 1973 biography, Chronicles of Wasted Time.
Knowles only recently decided to publish the interview as a follow up to the first website published by the Société Baudelaire, explaining why Chanel is the ultimate Baudelairean Dandy. He feared it would otherwise never be made public. It is part of his ongoing fight to clear up Chanel’s name, a struggle Gabrielle Labrunie, Chanel’s great-niece, backs him in.
Part of this mission, which doesn’t have any official support from the Chanel fashion house, is to make sure that all the historical documents about the designer that were collected during the war are available to the public. According to Knowles, many testimonies have been amputated over the years, sometimes by biographers or historians. The remaining ones, the ones that could clear her name are in private collections and “the private hands in which they lie are resolutely opposed to divulging them for fear of damaging Chanel’s image”.
In a bid to end the debate once and for all, Knowles is to write a book, again with Labrunie’s blessing. Let’s hope it doesn’t face the same lengthy and dramatic publishing history as Muggeridge’s interview of Chanel.
All quotes are lifted from an exclusive email interview with Isée St John Knowles, 5-9 July 2013, which constitutes the sole basis for this article. Thanks to Dawn Jones of clickymedia for her help in organising the interview.
The Malcolm Muggeridge photographs are drawn from Malcolm Muggeridge’s private collection. Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders. Omissions are unintentional and will be corrected; Malcolm Muggeridge through the eyes of Gerald Scarfe on the front page of the Sunday Times Weekly Review; Chanel pictures were sourced from Google Image.