Thanks to her introduction of the little black dress, trademark suits and Chanel No. 5 perfume, Coco Chanel is credited with transforming sartorial tastes for the modern woman of the 20th century, her name becoming synonymous with impeccable fashion sense.
In recent years, however, the availability of declassified French government documents has revealed her covert work for Nazi military intelligence during World War II.
Chanel grew up in poverty but rose through the ranks of society by the start of WWII
Born into poverty in 1883 and sent off to a convent-orphanage at age 12, Chanel overcame her rough beginnings to debut her visionary women's wear by World War I.
Her meteoric rise thrust her into the stratosphere of Europe's most powerful and influential figures. Along with hobnobbing with artistic luminaries like Pablo Picasso and Serge Diaghilev, she became friends with Winston Churchill and mistress of Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster.
Chanel's prominent standing and connections helped her regain control over her life at a crucial time, as Adolf Hitler's forces began closing in on Germany's neighbors in the late 1930s.
Chanel dated a German military officer
After the Nazis took over Paris in 1940, Chanel cozied up to Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, an officer in Abwehr, the German military intelligence. Their romance enabled Chanel to move into comfortable living quarters at Paris' Hôtel Ritz, then doubling as a German headquarters, and kept her firmly entrenched in high society, which also had been infiltrated by German officers.
Chanel's relations with Dincklage also allowed her to deal with important personal matters. Most pressing was her need to see to the release of her nephew André Palasse, who was imprisoned in a German stalag in 1940.
Then there were her business interests: Since 1924, when the Jewish Wertheimer family had backed the launch of her perfume line in exchange for most of the profits, the fashion maven had sought to renegotiate things on more favorable terms. Now, with "Aryanization" laws forcing Jews to give up their businesses, Chanel saw the opportunity to reclaim a lucrative branch of her empire.
Chanel became Abwehr Agent F-7124 in 1941
Dincklage introduced his lover to another prominent Abwehr agent, Baron Louis de Vaufreland, who allegedly promised to help Chanel free her nephew in exchange for her service to Berlin. Sometime in 1941, Chanel was registered as Agent F-7124, with the code name of "Westminster," after her former flame.
Tasked with obtaining "political information" from colleagues in Madrid, Chanel traveled to the Spanish city for a few months in mid-1941 with Vaufreland, under the guise of business dealings. According to Hal Vaughn's book Sleeping with the Enemy, there is a record of her dinner with British diplomat Brian Wallace, during which she casually discussed life in occupied Paris and the animosity the French and Germans held toward each other.
It's unclear whether Chanel's interactions in Madrid moved the needle in any way, but they were apparently enough to impress Abwehr supervisors and earn the release of Palasse.
However, her desire to reclaim her perfume profits reached a dead end, as she learned that the Wertheimers had transferred control of the company to a non-Jewish Frenchman named Félix Amiot before fleeing to the United States.
She was outed as a German spy in 1944
Sometime between late 1943 and early 1944, with the tide turning against Germany, Chanel was tapped for another mission by General Walter Schellenberg of the SS. Named "Operation Modellhut" – German for "model hat" – she was to use her personal connection to Churchill, now England's prime minister, to relay word that many SS senior officers were seeking an end to the bloodshed.
Chanel arranged for the release of Vera Lombardi, a mutual friend of hers and Churchill's, from an Italian prison. They traveled to Madrid with Dincklage, where Lombardi was instructed to hand over Chanel's letter to Churchill at the British Embassy.
However, this plan was blown up when Lombardi denounced Chanel and her associates as German spies. Lombardi was taken back into custody, though Chanel managed to safely return to Paris.
Chanel escaped punishment and erased evidence of her actions that tied her to Abwehr
In August 1944, a few months after the Madrid fiasco, French forces reclaimed Paris from the Germans. With her reputation as a "horizontal collaborator," Chanel was taken in for questioning before the Free French Purge Committee, though she was released in short order and promptly fled to Switzerland.
After the war's conclusion, Chanel appeared in a French court to account for sworn testimony from arrested German officers that tied her to Abwehr. She managed to wriggle her way out of trouble, confirming that Vaufreland had promised to get her nephew out of prison but otherwise denying the extent of their interactions.
According to Sleeping with the Enemy, Chanel also took care to erase evidence of her actions, where possible. Upon learning that an ailing Schellenberg was planning to publish his memoir, Chanel paid his medical bills and ensured his family was on sound financial footing; the subsequent memoir had no mention of her involvement as an agent.
Ultimately, Chanel never endured any ramifications for her wartime dealings with the Nazis. She made a celebrated return to the fashion world in 1954, aided by the very same Wertheimer family she had fought for so many years, and lived out her years as a celebrity, before her death at the Hôtel Ritz in 1971.