When Stanley Marcus Invited Nazi Collaborator Coco Chanel to Dallas
In the late 1950s, the Jewish department store mogul salvaged Chanel’s reputation—and burnished his own
This week, Karl Lagerfeld and the House of Chanel returned to Dallas, Texas, for the first time since 1957. The reason was the Métier d’Art, the annual showcase of the various couture collections and the debut of Lagerfeld’s new short biopic about Coco Chanel, The Return. Dallas is a fitting location for the debut of such a film. “I love Texas. I love Texans,” Lagerfeld told Women’s Wear Daily recently. But Chanel’s own feelings were a bit more complicated.
On her arrival in Dallas in 1957, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, 74 at the time, desperately needed to dispel the shame of her anti-Semitic, collaborationist wartime activities in occupied France. She was invited to Dallas by Stanley Marcus, the cultivated, Harvard-educated “Merchant Prince,” who ran the Neiman Marcus department store. The unspoken bargain between them, according to her many biographers, was this: Chanel would receive one of Neiman Marcus’ annual Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion Awards—and all the sales that would inevitably follow—and “The Store,” as it was (and still is) known, would receive a state visit from fashion’s dowager queen.
Marcus, bald and regal, greeted Chanel at the airport when she arrived: Theirs was the eager embrace of two master opportunists presented with a magically opportune moment. Beneath the opportunity, however, was irony: Chanel had spent a considerable portion of the war attempting to benefit financially from the Nazi persecution of Jews, capitalizing on legislation prohibiting Jews from owning and operating businesses to wrest control of the eternally lucrative “Parfums Chanel” from the two Jewish businessmen, Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, who established it under her name in 1924. A letter survives dated May 5, 1941, in which Chanel wrote to the relevant government official that the company was “still the property of Jews” and thus should be reallocated to her as the major minority shareholder.
But 16 years later, there she was, hugging Stanley Marcus like an old friend and pecking his cheeks à la française, charmed to be getting an award from a luxury brand that was most definitely “still the property of Jews.” Had the so-called “Mademoiselle” changed her mind on the exact type of Jewish retailer that, in her words, had “screwed” her in the past? What did the discerning and eccentric “Mr. Stanley”—the man who was famous for saying, “I have the simplest taste; I am always satisfied with the best”—make of his honored guest’s sordid wartime past? Did he know? Did it matter?
Chanel’s anti-Semitism is the principal skeleton in an otherwise fabulously well-appointed closet, the little black smudge on a white jersey blouse that can’t quite ever be scrubbed out. All of her major biographers naturally mention her highly publicized affair with Hugh Grosvenor, the 2nd Duke of Westminster, a known anti-Semite, and, most of all, her controversial “collaboration horizontale” with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, an attaché to the German Embassy in Paris and 13 years her junior. (“Really, sir,” Chanel would later explain to Cecil Beaton after the war, attempting to laugh off the entire affair, “a woman of my age cannot be expected to look at his passport if she has the chance of a lover.”)
But von Dincklage was more than a younger, athletic lover: Chanel’s original and perhaps most thorough biographer, Edmonde Charles-Roux, has identified him as an operative of the Reich intelligence ministry. Pierre Galante, another of her seemingly innumerable biographers, considered him an Abwehr agent. In either case, neither identity alone suggests anti-Semitism on Chanel’s part per se, only the kind of opportunistic liaison for which Mademoiselle—an ex-orphan and classic demi-mondaine with a taste for luxury and a head for calculation—was already well known in prewar Paris’ bon chic, bon genre circles. Somehow, when food had virtually evaporated from the city during the Occupation and its luxury apartments had been confiscated for Nazi use, Chanel managed to scrape by just fine, largely thanks to von Dincklage’s assistance. In the words of Jean d’Harcourt, the son of Chanel’s close friend Antoinette d’Harcourt (née Rothschild): “You know, she kept a car, and a driver, and petrol throughout the war: that was most unusual, unless you were a Minister from the Vichy government but, otherwise, no one had that!”
Sexual opportunism was by no means the exclusive province of the aging Mademoiselle: Many other so-called femmes tondues would carry on affairs with Nazi officers and soldiers throughout the occupation, as immortalized in the second volume of Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Francaise and in the flashback scenes of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour. As complex and as human as these liaisons were, they were fundamentally defined by the Occupation’s reconstruction of power relations between men and women and soldiers and citizens. For this reason, collaborations horizontales are often described, with the largesse of hindsight, as survival mechanisms. “Survival,” as it happens, is the label most often assigned to this particular chapter of Chanel’s life, at least in her major biographies. Mademoiselle, the idea goes, had to make it through the war somehow, just like every other French woman.
The problem with this line of defense, however, is that survival was hardly the desired end of Chanel’s wartime opportunism. Quite the contrary. In fact, the abandoned orphan who had fought her way from the strictures of a Catholic convent to the upper echelons of Parisian society seems to have seen in the war yet another opportunity for profit and self-promotion. Now was a moment in which she could finally capitalize on an anti-Semitism that had long been part of her worldview but had only recently become acceptable to advertise in public. If she hadn’t been able to defeat the Wertheimer brothers in the past, she certainly could now, because they were Jews and therefore part of a growing menace that threatened the social fabric.
Perhaps the most revealing anecdote along these lines appears in the diary of one Boulos Ristelhueber, a confidante of the legendary Paris hostess Misia Sert, who lured the likes of Diaghilev, Proust, and, of course, Chanel to her artistic salons over the years. (Despite the fact that Misia herself was Catholic, Chanel would later say that her friend had a “Jewish soul” due to her perpetual associations with “the Jews themselves.”) In a diary entry from Dec. 29, 1941, well over a year into the Occupation and months after Chanel had written to the local authorities against the Wertheimers, Ristelhueber mentions the following:
Spent an evening at Misia’s with Coco Chanel and Francois d’Harcourt. Coco goes into a tirade against the Jews. The conversation is dangerous, given Antoinette’s origins [Antoinette d’Harcourt was a Rothschild] and the presence of the Duke [Duc Francois d’Harcourt was Antoinette’s husband]. … Sert’s chauffeur drove me home in such blackness that half the time we were on the pavement.
Likewise, James Brady, an American correspondent for Women’s Wear Daily, would notice much the same in an interview with Mademoiselle in 1961 (after her visit to Dallas and Neiman Marcus). A similar sentiment trickled through their conversations. “She was a biased mass of contradictions,” he recalled. “If the vintages failed, the franc weakened. ‘C’est les juifs. It’s the Jews.’ Yet her closest friend was the Baroness Marie-Helene de Rothschild. She complained that blacks smelled different and then rhapsodized about a certain black prizefighter. ‘That man and I … how we danced.’ ”
On a ranch not far from Dallas, she would dance with Stanley Marcus as well.
In 1957, Stanley Marcus, at age 52, was that rare blend of fixture and outsider in his community, a man whose name almost everyone knew but whose cosmopolitan, Renaissance sensibility—not to mention liberal politics—kept him somewhat removed from the Dallas establishment, the heart and soul of his consumer base. At the same time, however, he was an integral part of the city, in many ways its unelected mayor.
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