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.
By the time Chanel visited, Neiman Marcus had established itself as a specialty store of the finest caliber—certainly on par with Saks Fifth Avenue in New York and I. Magnin of San Francisco. But for Dallas, “the Store” was—and is—more than a store. It is a veritable institution, and its nine-story Renaissance Revival headquarters on the corner of Main and Ervay Streets emanates not merely fashion or luxury but style, the prospect of an education not in what to wear but in how to live. In a 1937 profile of Neiman Marcus titled “Dallas in Wonderland,” Fortune Editor Louis Kronenberger noted that “Dallas people lead you to the store in the same spirit that Parisians lead you to the Louvre.” Indeed, for the residents of what was then—and still would be in the mid-1950s—an upwardly mobile provincial city seeking to shed its backwater Texan roots, the windows of Neiman Marcus demanded nothing short of the reverence of art. After all, in more ways than one, it was the store, with Marcus at the helm, that would oversee the transformation of Dallas into the city it sought so desperately to be.
The year after Kronenberger’s piece appeared, for instance, Stanley Marcus, marketing genius that he was, created his annual Neiman Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion, a program under which the store would recognize a select few who had revolutionized the industry in some way. One cannot imagine any other circumstance under which the likes of which Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, or, for that matter, Coco Chanel would have come to a small city in north Texas where the steakhouse was still the epitome of haute cuisine. In any case, the publicity from these awards generated significant enough national attention that Dallas gradually became synonymous with a particular view of sophistication. In 1939, Collier’s magazine would proclaim that “at this moment the eyes and ears of the fashion world are focused not on Paris. Not on New York. Not on Hollywood. But on Dallas. Yes, Dallas, Texas.” In 1940, David L. Cohn, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, bought into that image, calling the city “a phenomenal city in a phenomenal state” and “a world detached from the continental United States.” Life magazine went on to feature Neiman Marcus in a photo essay shortly thereafter, and the mystique that the store had always so carefully maintained became America’s image of what Dallas was.
In a profound way, Marcus’ store was the face of the city, and the city became the store: Their ascents were parallel, and their fates were intertwined. Thanks in part to the prestige the store had bestowed on Dallas, the “phenomenal city” exploded in the 1940s and ’50s—and at a far faster rate than any other municipal area in Texas or elsewhere. National corporations began to relocate to Dallas in droves, and the city became the American Southwest’s major financial hub. A culture not merely of prosperity but of affluence pervaded what was still a small city in terms of population: The average family in those years took in approximately $3,600, which, as The Atlantic observed, meant that it could spend more in a month than an average family in Mississippi could in an entire year.
For the “Merchant Prince,” however, these times were not entirely rosy. In the mid-1950s, at the height of the McCarthy scare, an increasingly radical conservative electorate battered at the gates of Dallas’ genteel, ultimately practical, conservative establishment. Allan Shivers, the conservative Democrat, was governor, and he had delivered Texas to a Republican presidential candidate—Dwight D. Eisenhower—for the first time since Reconstruction, and a deeply rooted ultraconservatism slowly began to trickle into the annals of the Texas elite.
With heightened attention to communists and “un-American” activities came a nascent anti-Semitism, of which the likes of Stanley Marcus were the principal targets. In 1951, John Beaty, a radical right-wing English professor at Dallas’ Southern Methodist University, published The Iron Curtain Over America, a virulent condemnation of the Jews and their outsized influence over American life. His chief target was Marcus himself, who served on the university’s board of trustees and whom Beaty blamed when the university’s literary quarterly, The Southwest Review, responded critically to his pamphlet.
Marcus neglects to mention this episode in his otherwise candid memoir, Minding the Store, in which his only experiences with anti-Semitism come from his student days at Amherst and then at Harvard. His silence on the subject isn’t altogether unexpected: Marcus was in many ways the picture of American-Jewish assimilation, and taking a stand on any of these issues would only have further isolated him from the store he managed and, in a sense, the city it embodied. A founding member of Dallas’ Temple Emanuel, today the largest Reform congregation in the Southwest, he is nevertheless famous for joking that he was terrified of visiting Israel “because I might be converted.”
For the proprietor of a cultural institution that defined a city and its mores, distance from and indifference to the past were key.
In a certain sense, the same was true for Coco Chanel. When Chanel finally did arrive in Dallas on Sept. 9, 1957, she smiled for the cameras just as she had been when she landed at Love Field. She was there to sell, and sell she did. Dallas, unsurprisingly, adored Mademoiselle, and her suits flew off the racks.
Marcus also smiled for the cameras, heralding a visiting dignitary who, as he said in her citation, “revolutionized women’s fashion.” Standing at the podium, he signaled “the great innovator who emancipated the feminine silhouette … who elevated the status of costume jewelry to a position of fashionable respectability, who was the first to bring perfume from the chemist’s shop to the couturier’s boutique, who was never afraid of being copied, whose past accomplishments have had a tremendous influence on present fashions.”
The newspapers recorded the event just as Mr. Stanley hoped they would—in nothing short of glowing terms. Chanel, The Dallas Morning News declared, was tantamount to “a legend in her own time.”
What perhaps best encapsulates the visit, however, are two anecdotes Marcus recounted in Minding the Store with, of course, his trademark diplomacy.
He had gotten word that Chanel desperately wanted to visit a ranch, and so he threw a dinner party at his brother’s ranch one night in her honor. “It turned out,” he would later write, “that she didn’t like the taste of the barbecued meat and highly seasoned beans, so she dumped her plate surreptitiously under the table. Unfortunately, the contents hit the satin slippers of Elizabeth Arden, who was seated next to her.”
The other is Marcus’ personal impression of Chanel, something of which he included for all the major designers he knew. Most were glowing: Cristobal Balenciaga, for instance, “was a dedicated artist;” Christian Dior “a quiet man of superb taste;” Yves Saint Laurent “an interpreter of the social changes taking place.” He remembered Chanel, however, as “a supreme egotist,” and his praise for her social artistry was faint: “It would be an exaggeration for anyone to claim that they had ever had a conversation with Chanel, for she conducted a one-woman filibuster,” he wrote.
In a telegram to Marcus after her visit, Chanel wrote, “Always remembering fondly affectionate kindness expressed so graciously to me by your dear wife and mother all your family and associates.” All of whom, of course, were Jews. But what did that matter now? The moment had changed, and so had the “supreme egotist.”
“My heartfelt thanks and best wishes, Coco Chanel.”
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James McAuley is a Marshall Scholar at the University of Oxford.
James McAuley is a Global Opinions contributing columnist for The Washington Post, where he previously served as Paris correspondent. He holds a Ph.D. in French history from the University of Oxford, and is the author of The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France (Yale University Press, 2021).