An authentic reminiscence by Gabrielle Labrunie

Malcolm Muggeridge’s interview of Coco Chanel opportunely displays my great-aunt’s frankness in exposing her motivations.
Had the interviewer not been British, however, they would have been open to the most wayward misinterpretations.

Movingly vivid to me, some forty years after Coco Chanel’s death, is the sound of her voice transpiring from the words of that interview.

A few months ago, I gave an interview to a leading French newspaper relating Coco Chanel’s experience of the Second World War. With the authoritativeness of a Société Baudelaire historian, I imparted evidence to the journalist that ought to have provided Chanel’s counter-offensive to the decades of slurs on her name.

My sources were records of interviews and reminiscences by former Presidents of the Société Baudelaire, established in 1872 at Saint-Germain-des-Prés by close friends of the poet. The proceedings of that learned society, today buried in oblivion had, in the words of Simone de Beauvoir, writing to The Observer in 1980, elicited contributions from “the century’s most eminent artists and writers”.

Visitors seeking to discover Coco Chanel’s artistic contribution to the work of the Société may refer to the website I devoted to that Goddess of Dandyism,

There, the visitor will also become acquainted, in a chapter examining Chanel’s war, with her testimony to the Société Baudelaire.

I handed on this testimony to the journalist, also pointing her to the only interview given by Chanel on “her” war, in September 1944. For causes to which I am alas long inured, my words, enthusiastically received by the journalist, fell foul of the censor, who also elided the crucial Chanel interview.

In her lifetime, and in view of her world-wide acclaim, Chanel would undoubtedly have excoriated her covert opponents. Exhibiting long years of patience however, her enemies bided their time until she left this world before bravely unleashing their calumnious aspersions on her conduct during the Occupation. Faced with the relentlessness of their assaults, it may be disputed whether the best course was the disdainful silence to which Chanel’s great-niece, Gabrielle Labrunie, confined herself.

Had she been the monster
would undoubtedly have
held his hand and let
matters take their course.

Malcolm Muggeridge’s closest circle of family and friends.
He stands to the centre, third row from the front,
with Isée St. John Knowles behind him to the right,
wearing a white scarf.

Of Coco Chanel’s belatedly brave inquisitors not one ever stooped to investigate the whereabouts of the Muggeridge interview. None of them ever enquired what had motivated Muggeridge to withhold it both from MI6 and from his memoirs. None examined the impact of this interrogation on Malcolm Muggeridge’s literary work. In the author’s later years, I planned a Paris staging of his Liberation, a play drawing on his Rue Cambon meeting with Chanel. I canvassed prominent Resistance figures for their support, such as General de Bénouville, Soustelle and Chaban-Delmas; one after another, they paid lip-service to the author while fighting shy of any commitment.

As Soustelle vainly argued, if Chanel passed unscathed through the Liberation, it was Churchill’s intervention that saved her. And, as argued in the afore-mentioned website, had she been the monster portrayed, Churchill would undoubtedly have held his hand and let matters take their course.

A visitor swayed by affection for Coco Chanel should not expect the interview published below to nonpluss the accusations levelled at her. That is not its purpose. Unless these allegations are examined in depth, refuting them undocumented would be a debasement of scholarship. Especially with Chanel, whose complex personality is a shoal for the unwary, compounded of scorn for all that fails to excel; disdain for patriotism, politics and all that they stand for; yet also grounded in unconditional veneration for Baudelaire - and for Churchill, to her, the living embodiment of Dandyism.

After several decades of accusation, it is high time to let the defence take the stand. And what better advocate than Coco Chanel herself?

Isée St. John Knowles, F.R.S.A.