Two women, vastly different choices. Coco Chanel, Nancy Wake. What would you have done if you lived in France during the occupation?

By Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Author’s program note. In dealing with the events following the fall of France June 22, 1940 you must always ask yourself, “What would I have done to keep living?” Then remember that every single Frenchman and Frenchwoman had to ask this question…. and answer it, often paying with their lives if they made the wrong decision at the wrong time.

This is the story of two women, one internationally renowned, the most famous name in fashion, Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel….. and Nancy Wake. One you have heard of for years, may even have one of her creations near at hand… the other you may be hearing about for the very first time, for all that she was one of the great heroes of the French Resistance.

This is their story… and I suggest that before you dig in you search any search engine for Edith Piaf’s signature tune, “Non, Je ne regrette rien,” released in 1960. Then return to meet today’s protagonists, both of whom made decisions which could easily have cost their very lives and undoubtedly cost one her reputation.

Two events have inspired this article at this time.

First, an important new book on Chanel has just been released, “Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War”, author Hal Vaughan. Second, Nancy Wake died, at 98, August 7, 2011.


Born August 19, 1883 Chanel came into the world with nothing. Her childhood was chaotic; in 1895 her mother died of tuberculosis and her father left the family. Chanel spent 6 years in an orphanage. There she learned the trade of seamstress. She wanted to be a singer… but she didn’t have the talent. What she had was not mere talent, but genius. She had the skill, greater than any other couturier, to make a woman look chic, elegant, well (never over) dressed.

Chanel became a licensed modiste (hat maker) in 1910 and opened her first Paris boutique. The business took off when theatre actress Gabrielle Dorziat modelled her hats in the play “Bel Ami” by F. Noziere.

It was not only the clothes Chanel created which were impressive. All her life she managed to impress the right people; people who saw that she was going places. In 1920, for instance, she was introduced to ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev; she liked him and his family so much, she invited them to live with her. They were Russian emigres, broke, yet each of these titans recognized genius in the other. It is a very useful skill to possess, and Chanel had it in spades.

In 1924, Chanel made an agreement with the Wertheimer brothers, Pierre and Paul, directors of the eminent perfume house Bourgeois since 1917, creating a corporate entity “Parfums Chanel.” Chanel got 10 percent of the stock. Here was the root of her later problems. Almost immediately she regretted the deal she’d made and spent the next 20 years (including the years she spent in Nazi occupied France) to gain full control, denouncing Pierre Wertheimer as the “bandit who screwed me.”

Loyal, but to whom?

For years there have been doubts about just whom Chanel was loyal to during the occupation and Vichy regime. Now 84-year-old World War II veteran Hal Vaughan presents detailed documentation that is sure to make customers and fans squirm.

His first find was an accident; while working on another project in the French national police archives. It was a “smoking gun” making it crystal clear that Chanel was a Nazi agent. (Her code name was Westminster, which seems like an inside joke given the fact that the Duke of Westminster, the wealthiest peer of the British realm, refused to marry her. A gentleman, Westminster allowed her to claim it was he who had been rejected. She did so in this memorable line, “There have been several duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel.”

Chanel’s objective, like that of so many other French citizens, was to get through the war as comfortably and profitably as possible. This wasn’t necessarily bad; it all depended on the choices you made. And here is where Chanel went seriously wrong. First, she grew careless about her anti-Semite opinions. They were bigoted, lurid, and, importantly, unwise. Chanel had never been stifled; she was not going to be stifled now,, although every word she uttered on the subject was ill-advised.

She erred again by commencing an affaire with Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a professional Abwehr spy 12 years her junior. They lived in the famous Rtz Hotel, which was under Nazi control.

Vaughan’s book now takes the matter further. His book alleges that in 1940, Chanel was recruited into the Abwehr; a year later she traveled to Spain on a spy mission and later still went to Berlin on the orders of a top SS general. And now the facts so painful to read. Vaughan reports that Chanel’s anti-Semitism pushed her to try to capitalize on laws allowed for the expropriation of Jewish property to wrest control of the Chanel perfume lines from the Wertheimer brothers, who were Jewish. One is relieved to learn that Chanel and the Wertheimers continued to negotiate after the liberation. In May, 1947 the parties came to a mutual accommodation. Chanel in future would receive two percent of all Chanel No.5 sales worldwide, an agreement which guaranteed her about twenty five million dollars a year, some of which she could use to rehabilitate a reputation which embarrassed Chanel and her enterprises.

Nancy Wake.

While Chanel was attempting to rewrite history and buff her image, Nancy Wake was accepting one high-level decoration after another for the brave, dangerous, and constantly successful deeds she’d done and which turned her into one of the signature heroes of the Resistance.

A statement released by Australian prime minister Julia Gillard upon Wake’s death, said, “Nancy Wake was a woman of exceptional courage and resourcefulness whose daring exploits saved the lives of hundreds of Allied personnel and helped bring the Nazi occupation of France to an end.”

How did this happen?

Born in New Zealand she grew up in Australia after the family moved. She became a nurse, but her heart wasn’t in it. And when she got an inheritance from a New Zealand aunt she went out to see the world; in due course she became Paris correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. The outbreak of war in 1939 saw her in Marseille. It was there her notable career began, as she helped British servicemen and Jews escape the German occupying forces. She was never caught, but her husband, captured and tortured by the Gestapo, was not so lucky. She avenged him by participating in the heroic 1944 attack on the local Gestapo headquarters.

The Gestapo also bestowed her famous name, “The White Mouse,” because every time she was cornered, like a tiny mouse she managed to escape… to another daring deed and the highest decorations of France, the United States, Great Britain, and Australia. In due course, Wake helped to arm and lead 7,000 resistance fighters, perhaps her finest moment being the weakening of German defences before the D-Day invasion.

Two women, two choices.

It is easy to judge these women now, to laud Wake and condemn Coco Chanel. But that begs the essential question. If you had been in occupied France what would you have done? It’s not easy to say when the query is real, not academic… which is why in the teaching of history, it is essential to be scrupulously fair to the deceased… and never allow snap judgements and easy moralizing for matters as serious and perilous as this.

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About The Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is, where small and home-based businesses learn how to profit online. Dr. Lant is also a syndicated writer and author of 18 best-selling business books. Details at

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