Coco Chanel: A fashion icon whose name has become shorthand for timeless French chic, a shrewd businesswoman who overcame a childhood of poverty to build a luxury supernova and a Nazi spy?
A new book by a Paris-based American historian suggests Chanel not only had a wartime affair with a German aristocrat and spy, but that she herself was also an agent of Germany's Abwehr military intelligence organization and a rabid anti-Semite.
Doubts about Chanel's loyalties during World War II have long festered, but "Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War" goes well beyond those previous allegations, citing as evidence documents culled from archives around the world.
The book, published Tuesday in the U.S. by Knopf, has ruffled feathers in France, where the luxury industry is a pillar of the economy, and Chanel is widely regarded as the crowning jewel.
The House of Chanel was quick to react, saying in a statement that "more than 57 books have been written about Gabrielle Chanel. We would encourage you to consult some of the more serious ones."
Hal Vaughan, an 84-year-old World War II veteran and longtime journalist who previously wrote two other history books, insists that he is serious. "Sleeping with the Enemy" is the fruit of more than four years of intense labor born out of an accidental find in France's national police archive, he said.
"I was looking for something else, and I come across this document saying 'Chanel is a Nazi agent. Her number is blah, blah, blah, and her pseudonym is Westminster,' " Vaughan said. "I look at this again, and I say, 'What the hell is this?' I couldn't believe my eyes!
"Then I really started hunting through all of the archives, in the United States, in London, in Berlin and in Rome, and I come across not one, but 20, 30, 40 absolutely solid archival materials on Chanel and her lover, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, who was a professional Abwehr spy," Vaughan said.
The book alleges that in 1940, Chanel was recruited into the Abwehr -- her nom de guerre borrowed from another of her lovers, the Duke of Westminster. A year later, she traveled to Spain on a spy mission -- on condition that the Nazis release her nephew from a military internment camp -- and later went to Berlin on the orders of a top SS general, the book says.