EDITOR'S NOTE: Miss Elsa Maxwell, whose activities are "society page" news in Europe as in America, says of herself that she has "lived several busy lives in forty-odd gay and happy years in an ever-changing world." She has managed not only to keep abreast of that world but even to precede it a little in her discovery of the intimate and unusual sides of the celebrities and personalities with whom she has rubbed shoulders. Musician, writer, party-giver — and famed especially for the originality of her parties — she avows "the golden West" as her native heath, and a belief In gayety, happiness, and good cheer as her unalterable philosophy.
It is so much more difficult to write about the living than the dead. The living can be resentful; the living can retaliate. The dead, "awakening from this dream called life," only smile secretly, as if to say: "Write about us as you will. Your futile words fall as impotently as summer rain on granite, so powerless are they to invade our silent reaches of eternal rest."
There is no rest, however, in any symposium on that strange. enigmatic character known to the world as Mlle. Gabrielle Chanel, couturière, best known to her intimates as "Coco."
Coco, small, sullen. jewel-like gamin of many facets, a Buddha who never found Benares, brooding on life, sans joie, and imposing her imperious will on the countless armies of the world's women, whom, like a satirical and sinister Bopeep, she has turned into willing sheep to baa at her commands. What a marvelous mutiny would occur on fashion's sea could her ewe lambs hear the echo of her mocking laughter as she puts them through the ever-changing torture chamber of style. For Chanel loathes fashion and she became the world's greatest dressmaker purely for revenge.
Next to fashion Chanel hates women, primarily because she knows them too well.
But I anticipate my story. To learn why Gabrielle Chanel hates women is too involved — women who have adored her; women who have breathlessly awaited her latest edict, recklessly cut off their hair, thrown away their corsets, loosened their brassières, pulled up their skirts above their knees, let them down again to sweep the ground at her behest; women whose gold has stuffed her crowded coffers. One would imagine that Chanel could only regard her exalted satellites with a certain, tenderness not unmixed with pity. But no, her hatred, like the Hound of Heaven, will hunt them down the ages. Saturnine, sarcastic, vitriol-tongued, with a rapier wit, the smoldering sadness in her dark eyes, defying the impertinence of her Puckish face, marks her as one of the strongest, shrewdest, captivating characters of our times. Insolently insular, destructive and disdainful. she completely dominates the picture in whatever setting she may be.
Who she was will always remain a mystery. She might easily be the illicit, elusive souvenir d'un prince des Indes. She might have been stolen with some priceless rug from Samarkand, or might be a modern Hatshepset, a female Pharaoh of the Faubourg St. Honoré, for, like her prototype of ancient Thebes, she was born a commerçante. To my mind, women good at figures and with business ability are rarefy ever mysterious or seductive. which renders Chanel the perfect paradox in pulchritude. For without the usual trappings and panoply of feminine allure her sex appeal is apparently far more insidious than her more flamboyantly sexy sisters'.
I remember not long ago discussing with her the exaggerated and square-shouldered effects in dress promulgated by Marlene Dietrich. I asked Chanel what possible influence this might have on future fashions. She laughed heartily as she replied that no German has ever yet succeeded in imposing any new or lasting note in la mode. "Look at German men," said Chanel. "The English have always created the chic in male apparel, as we French have dominated the world of women's fashions; though Germans dislike the British, they have always copied their clothes, and no German gentleman considers himself smart unless he has made his annual pilgrimage to Saville Row. And now that German women will no longer be permitted to emulate foreign culture, I am sure they will regret couturières even more than Corots."
But I digress; so back to the purlieus of Auvergne where Chanel, whose real name has never yet been known, was supposed to have begun her vicarious and variegated career as a diseuse in one of those haunts which correspond to our night clubs of today, which was frequented by the soldiers on service militaire in the barracks near by. The commanding officer, a common swaggering fellow, was the proud possessor of the person, though not the heart, of our fascinating heroine. His orderly happened to be a well known French sportsman of an old and honored line, whose temper was daily roused and goaded almost to madness by the unnecessarily humiliating tasks given him by his colonel. This may be mere conjecture, but it is certainly a fact that the French sportsman left no stone unturned in his whirlwind courtship of our Auvergnaise heroine until he had taken her away from under the very nose of his superior officer; and, when his time of service had expired, he whisked her off with him to Chantilly, where he was the owner of one of the larger racing stables in the pays.
His taste in the fair sex was on a par with his eye for a horse, and it is said that the antics and amusing argot of his latest acquisition daily delighted our rough-and-ready horseman whose hand was always firm on the snaffle of either filly or a charming fille; so she was supposed to have lived in the stables with the grooms and jockeys as companions, playing belotte, the great card game of the lower classes, with the stableboys, taking the horses over the jumps with the jockeys in the morning, being sent for by her sportsman friend to be made love to or to amuse, whichever the mood might be.
Coco, though untamed, was untiring in her efforts to please. Ageless then as she is ageless now, undoubtedly disillusioned in the cradle, her eyes must have been dazzled at Chantilly by the glint of the first rung in a glamorous golden ladder gleaming on the far horizon of her dawning dream of conquest — when at this momentous period of her life illusion stung her stagnant senses into real love. Love, engulfing and supreme, caught her in its net and in the nuances of a bewildering beauty her soul awakened to its first delicate vision of womanhood.
Until this time Coco had been on the defensive; not knowing fear, but suspicious of any overt act of kindness toward herself, she viewed with alarm the tentative approach of the first male whose eye did not appraise her amorous possibilities.
Boy Capel, English banker, darkly handsome, a Frenchman in feeling, supposed to have been the love-child of his mother and a great French prelate, while visiting the week-end at Chantilly had strolled idly in the direction of the stables and happened on as strange a scene as ever met. the eye.
It was the sportsman's custom to invite all the famous Parisian cocottes and mannequins to come to his house for tea after the races. Two of these elegantly, exquisitely attired creatures, having heard of Coco, had determined to track her to her lair, curiosity their motive. Coco, morose, monosyllabic, had met their advances in contemptuous silence, when one of the unwary women, uttering some derogatory observation on Coco's lack of savior-faire, was shocked into sudden reality by a brisk blow upon her overpainted cheek, which stung the tears to her eyes. A free-for-all ensued, Chanel emerging victorious and triumphant.
Capel, overcome with amusement at the vagaries of this strange little creature, fell an instant victim to her charm, and, I am told, then and there offered to set her up in a hat shop of her own. She confided to him that she had ideas about women's clothes — that she had watched all the different famous purveyors of fashion strut hack and forth every Sunday on her host's lawn, and that she thought them overdressed: that everything they wore was too artificial and complicated. She said she would make sincere clothes, simple in line and unaffected in detail. She said that women should dress more uniformly, more youthfully, that the clothes of that period made women all the same age — but old, and that she could make all women the same age — but young. It was youth that was needed in dress design today.
Capel must have mentally contrasted her with the pallid, pure English type of woman whom he was eventually to marry. Then and there he fell deeply and passionately in love with Coco, a love which was to live until his death. To say that she returned his love at this time would he "gilding the lily"; but she was undoubtedly drawn to him — the first man in her life who treated her with a certain courtesy and tenderness.
The French sportsman was to be sent on a mission to Russia, and Capel facing his host, told him frankly of his own interest in Coco, warning him of his intention to take her away from him if possible.
More amused than angry, the Frenchman went so far as to wish Capel luck; and each vied with the other in a curious courtship, with Capel the winner of the prize. From then on Coco's life was a young romantic dream of idyllic bliss. The gentleness and singleness of her lover's devotion was touching, particularly the delicacy with which he revealed to this bruised and trampled little soul new beauties in a life she had heretofore found only a hard and grim battlefield of sex. She was his confidante in everything. They say her remarkable business acumen was learned in her friendship with the English banker.
It was then. I believe, he revealed to her the contents of his will: that in the event of his death everything he possessed that he could legally leave away from his immediate family would go to her. (She gave most of Capel's fortune back to his widow — the daughter of the late Lord Ribblesdale, whom she persuaded Capel to marry, thinking it the best solution for his future — with the now famous observation that there was only one thing a Frenchwoman valued more than money, and that was love.)
During this time Capel's fortune augmented and tripled, his success even then being attributed to his Auvergnaise companion whose whimsical charm and mêchant wit was already tickling the ears of jaded Parisian clubmen and business associates.
His women friends cut him; his men friends congratulated him; his enemies envied him.
It was now, they tell me, that Coco determined to start on a business career of her own. She explained to the protesting Capel that she must have some occupation, that the urge to create was too great to disobey, so he reluctantly backed her and set her up in a small shop of her own in Paris. Immediately her influence was felt in fashion marts. Perhaps you women readers will remember the first simple little jerseys, now called tricots, with scarf and bag to match, accompanied by the small sailorlike caps, evolving into the Basque béret which she launched after her invasion of Biarritz in the Pyrenees.
The strength of Coco's hand at the helm of her small ship on the stormy sea of style was her ready, sometimes ruthless employment of anything or any one within her radius. Her inclusion of topography itself in her scheme proved her right to be eventually acknowledged the best dressmaker in Paris.
"No woman can be well dressed who is uncomfortable in her clothes. If she is yacht-minded she should be dressed for the water — if she likes to fly she should be dressed correctly for the air. At a ball she should be able to move comfortably, unhampered by trains to trip her in the dance." This was in the days when women were still hobbled, laced, and trussed like stuffed, uncomfortable peacocks. Coco, with her true discrimination and fine touch. gradually taught all women the real value of simplicity in attire.
Her success was inevitable, but her goal for the moment was blurred because of her utter absorption in her love for Capel. One day (he was to motor back to her from Cannes) on opening the morning journal she read in black headlines of her lover's death in a motor accident on the road near Fréjus, in Provence. Who knows her reaction at this moment of tragic realization? Who knows the agony of grief and despair she must have suffered in these first stark hours alone?
There was no woman friend near by to give a helping hand. She had always been an openly avowed enemy of her own sex.
So, as always in her life, she had to fight her great battle with sorrow by herself.
Several months later a small white cross appeared miraculously and mysteriously at the very spot where Capel had been killed. A peasant working in the fields near by confessed that night at the bistrot that he had seen a little lady drive up in a great motor car and kneel down by the cross in the road, seemingly overcome with emotion.
Then, standing up very straight, he distinctly heard her say that she would make every woman in the world wear black, in mourning for her lover.
How true this was no one knows, but suddenly and inevitably black became the most fashionable, widely worn color. No woman was considered chic unless she was dressed in black, and it is said that the great couturière, standing in the window of her private atelier in the Rue Cambon, had remarked to a friend," Look, nine women out of ten are wearing my color."
"But," protested the friend, "you never wear it yourself."
"Certainly not," replied Coco. "Do you think I want to look like all the millions of women who wear what I impose upon them?" Then, turning confidentially to her friend, she told her that "Entre nous, I detest the chic woman — the hours she spends in my fitting rooms plainly show that she has nothing else to do or think about. Voila! What will you? 1 charge her through the nose and she is happy to pay."
Curiously enough, with all the great wealth attained in apparently so diverting a fashion. Chanel could never have reached the position she now occupies without her masculine understanding of commercial problems. She is also generous to a fault, and no artist with the slightest claim to talent is turned away from her door. Sert, the great mural painter, Drian, Picasso, Marie Laurencin — all have been helped to fame and fortune by Chanel. The money which she accumulated, to count and hoard with the avariciousness of the true bourgeoise, she dispensed with a regal and reckless hand at the call of art for poets and writers, for musicians who otherwise could never gain a public hearing. She would hire the best concert hall in Paris, make out the program, blackmail her friends; and the critics to attend; and very soon a genuine clientele would be established for the artist and a new career would he launched by this intrepid entrepreneuse.
After the great grief over the loss of the only man she ever loved was slightly assuaged, she cast her eyes around her for new fields to conquer. In the business world she reigned supreme; in the Bohemian and artists' world her slightest whim was law — which recalls an anecdote concerning a great princess who had the temerity to dine at Chanel's house one evening. When questioned, at a tea party, about her reason for going to the house of this bizarre and slightly scandalous person, the princess haughtily replied that she was sufficiently sure of her social position to dine where she pleased.
"But," said a champion of Coco, overhearing the conversation, "Chanel must have been more sure of her social position to have received you." And the laugh was on the princess.
It was at this period of her career that she met His Imperial Highness the Grand Duc — . Young, melancholy, and beautiful, probably the most chic man in Europe, he fell deeply in love with Chanel. That she returned his love is doubtful, He was an oblique and sensitive creature, too introspective, and lacking the rugged brutal quality essential to dominate this miniature female Stalin of the Rue Cambon. The Grand Duc — , caught in the web of a genuine emotion, suffered undoubtedly, but Russians are habituated to suffering, so no one noticed except, perhaps, the Grand Duc's sister, the Grand Duchess. Chanel inherited Her Imperial Highness among her other revolutionary relics.
I remember dining with the Grand Duc at La Rue's in the Place de la Madeleine, the night he had definitely received his congé from Chanel. In the middle of the soup he buried his head in his hands and muttered to me in an undertone that he was the most unhappy of men. (He is now quite happily married to the most beautiful and amusing woman in the world.)
I asked him what had happened, and he groaned," She is salmon fishing in Scotland."
I inquired politely, "Why salmon fishing?"
He replied dully, "Because, like a clever woman, she always takes up the favorite sport of her amants."
"But," I said, "you played polo."
"What were you wearing yesterday, Elsa, in the country?"
"A tricot and a shirt," I replied innocently.
"What kind of shirt? " relentlessly pursued the Grand Duc.
"I hadn't noticed." I protested. "Why?"
"You wore a polo shirt," said the Grand Duc in an agonized voice. And there was nothing more to say when I suddenly remembered that we had all worn polo shirts that season; and now I knew why. It was only Coco dramatizing another adieu by introducing a priceless new chef d'oeuvre.
During the reign of His Imperial Highness the turn in the tide of her social fortunes was definitely felt. Duchesses clamored to go to her house, her thinly disguised contempt for them only adding fuel to their determined onslaught and attack upon her doors. I should say her salon today is one of the most interesting and amusing in Paris, and her parties are beautifully arranged. But your hostess you rarely see. It really bores her to receive. The great world for her is rather a joke. She knows too many of its many secrets; her chief relaxation being in the semimonde.
Her insolence, however. is proverbial. I think really she despises the circle around her who cavort so comically to her slightest caprice.
When a certain British duke blundered breezily into a frantic friendship with Chanel, he not speaking a word of French nor she of English, and managed to convey to her in sign language his desire for an immediate marriage, her reply remains a classic:
"No. your Grace. History has recorded many duchesses of your line, but history will record only one Chanel."
Publication Date: December 9, 1933