Monday, April 9, 2012

Chanel, an Intimate Life by Lisa Chaney: book review

The ultra-patriotic French won't be too pleased with Lisa Chaney's book on Chanel and her life unfolded in intimate detail for the tome she has signed, "Chanel an Intimate Life". Not only because there is a significant deconstruction of the myth that Chanel herself (and the people at Chanel) have built about that instantly picked-up logo, but also because they're painted in truer colors than the De Gaulle resistance fighters have always strived to present the WWII heroic romance. Chaney simply puts things into an historical perspective: Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel's link to Nazi officer Von Dincklage is a reflection of many common people's strive for survival through if not collaboration, then through "waiting it out". In fact the chapter recounting her passage into the war, when she closed her atelier, is titled "Survival".

Coco Chanel & Salvador Dali, scanned from Chanel an Intimate Life by

Modern readers will also get a mixed bag of feelings reading about women in the drawing of the 19th century who activately sought to cling to men for their survival: if they were unlucky and emotional, acting desperate for men who didn't give them much of a chance and used them as both recreational ground and reproductive machines, like Gabrielle's own unfortunate mother; if they were shrewd and calculating, using their guiles and beauty as hard currency to become irregulières and in some select cases grandes horizontales, i.e. famous courtesans, such as La Belle Otéro and Liane de Pougy. It is in this dubious (but often glamorized) latter milieu that Gabrielle Chanel gets into cognizantly, as an irregulière , a kept woman, after her lonely childhood and her early cabaret days, where she meets her formative lover and "the man of her life", Arthur "Boy" Capel. The book in fact starts with one of the discussions the famous designer has with Capel after he has successfully backed her up in her initial millinery projects: "I thought I'd given you a plaything, I gave you freedom" he sighs.

Chaney goes into much detail about the emotional life of Chanel and even though this portrayal is necessarily based on letters and biographies such as the memoir taken by Paul Morand, which can only reveal so much, and second-hand testimonies, which sometimes bear the special weight of the narrator, it seems that Gabrielle was a much more sensitive, responsive and agitated creature than we take her to be, especially after Capel's tragic death. I was especially distraught when reading about her final days, when the cocaine habit had taken the worst of her and she had been giving instructions to be tied on her bed at night so that she would avoid somnambulating naked amidst the corridors and the lobby of the Ritz that was to become her permanent residence.

The author takes things at the very top; the family background in rural France and the troubled formative years of Gabrielle Chanel which end in her abandonment by her father to Aubazine, the nun-run orphanage where she acquires much of her love for austerity, sharpness of aesthetics and love for the smell of cleanness. This is where her ideal for a perfume, to be later on materialized in the stupendous Chanel No.5. composed by Ernest Beaux, first takes seed: She admires the grandes cocottes because they smell pleasant. Speaking of society women Chanel would often say: "Ah yes, those women dressed in ball gowns, whose photographs we contemplate with a touch of nostalgia, were dirty....They were dirty. Are you surprised? But that's the way it was." Instead her own perfume differentiates itself in that it is a contstructed scent, not mimicking nature in order to mask humanity, but which relays the idea of a clean human being ready to please and be pleased. The book doesn't devote as much space or interest in Chanel No.5 or any of the other acclaimed perfumes issued when Chanel was alive, such as Bois des Iles, Cuir de Russie, Chanel Gardenia or Chanel No.19 perfume (or the even more cryptic and mystery ladden Chanel No.46 issued during the war). It certainly isn't as jam-packed with theories and factoids as the rewriting of the No.5 legend that Tilar Mazzeo undertook in The Secret of Chanel No.5 book. But there are still some interesting facts about the creation of this icon in the fragrance industry for those interested.

What the book seems to be unable to convincingly showcase, much as it tries and partially succeeds into, is show the genius of Chanel's fashions. The problem is one of format, rather than of effort: Only a coffee table book format could do justice to the wonderful designs that truly liberated women from the restrictions of La Belle Epoque which relished effect rather than functionality. Chaney does give emphasis into the silhouette that Chanel established, gives plenty of insight into how the atelier worked and lots of gossip on the relationship of Coco Chanel with her contemporaries and colleagues, from Poiret (her first potent rival) and Schiaparelli (whom she loathed) to Balenciaga (whom she respected, even though she never showed him the graciousness he exhibited towards her). There is also plenty of insights into her property (with extensive references to La Pausa, the house she had built and which she oversaw herself); her conducting of business, including her turbulent relationship with the Wertheimers; her entourage of artists and entrepreneurs from Serge Lifar and Diaghilev to her confidante Misia Sert, Cocteau and Reverdy; and of course her string of influential lovers after the loss of Capel, among which feature prominently the emigré count Dmitri Pavlovich, composer Igor Stravinsky and "Bend d'Or" commonly known as the Duke of Westminster.

Lisa Chaney is thorough and if you thought this is just a book on Coco's fashions or Chanel perfumes, you're in for a surprise. The scope covered is much, much wider, taking the stepping stone of a biography into a glimpse of European history: a dying era, a mad resurgence, a world wide war and the growth that follows its aftermath. It's not light reading, but it's worth it.

Disclosure: I was sent a copy for reviewing purposes. 


  1. Eleonore18:11

    I do agree with you, I've read several books about Chanel but I did enjoy reading this one: thorough, serious, well written and very interesting (entertaining at the same time)

  2. Anonymous20:28

    I enjoyed the book and appreciated the author's honesty about the realities of "a woman's place" in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, as well as the complex issues of survival and collaboration during World War II. I did come away with a greater knowledge and appreciation of Chanel's designs, how her clothes revolutionized fashion, and how they influenced and were influenced by women's changing roles after World War I. Not to mention a desire to wear her designs in wool and silk jersey!

  3. annemariec20:49

    Thanks for this thorough review. I recently read both this book and Justine Picardie's slightly earlier biography. I enjoyed both and will probably re-read both, but Chaney's biography is painted in plainer colours (well-suited to Chabel) than Picardie's. Picardie's book wanders a long way from its subject, as it includes very extensive discussions of Misia Sert and the Duke of Westminster. It is almost as if the author found more interesting primary source material in researching those lives than she did in Chanel's!

    Chaney's treatment of the fundamentals of Chanel's life - the business of designing and selling clothes - is much better than Picardie's. Picardie is too tempted to gossip about Chanel's friends. Chaney manages to cut through the Chanel mystique and her's is the more clear-eyed biography, I thought.

    Both books are better than Mazzeo's breathless and sensationalised history of Chanel No 5.

  4. Eleonore,

    thanks, it is indeed thorough. Everything one would be curious about is there. And not too much conjecture either.

  5. Olfacta14:16

    I hadn't read any of the previous books about Chanel, but, having read this one, don't think I need to.

  6. Patty,

    the book does give a very thorough look into what was expected from women in those times and how Chanel sorta broke with that tradition, even if she was at first peripherally "touching" that world. The most important thing: it's not written from some invested point of view nor is there any feminist polemics in it, which makes it even more interesting and eye-opening.
    It did bring on a renewed interest in her fashions and how they indeed revolutionized the way we think about feminine dressing.

  7. annemarie,

    thanks for the fascinating comparison between this one and Picardie's biography which I hadn't read. I relied on Roux's info for my "intimate" knowledge on Chanel but the current book enriches that knowledge and provides a great historical insight (in terms of businesses and fashion houses in particular as well).

    I agree with you on the sensationalised front! (too many theories and conjectures that are just too good to be true...or even 100% logical)

  8. P,

    excellent point, what more could one want? It's exhaustive.

    Hope you're well! :-) (Did you celebrate Easter? We're having ours on Sunday)

  9. Hi E -- Yes, we did, at an old friend's house with Ceole food and (too much) wine. Hope yours is as festive!

  10. P,

    LOVE Creole cuisine!! (and wine)
    Sounds like fun!

    Thanks for the wishes, hope it proves as lovely as dreamt about.

  11. This is an excellent review. Thank you so much!


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