Coco At The Ritz

September 1, 2021

One morn­ing in late August 1944, as World War II draws to a close, Coco Chanel is arrest­ed in her suite at the Ritz Hotel in Paris on charges of trea­son to France, stem­ming from her romance with a Nazi spy.

Her two-hour inter­ro­ga­tion at the Pre­fec­ture of Police offers a grip­ping bat­tle of wits between the famous­ly acer­bic design­er and a hos­tile sol­dier of the Resis­tance, who attacks her as a Ger­man col­lab­o­ra­tor. Flash­back scenes of Chanel’s life dur­ing the Paris Occu­pa­tion explore her moti­va­tions and her betray­al of her Jew­ish part­ners and a close Jew­ish friend.

Though Chanel epit­o­mizes the treach­ery of France dur­ing World War II, at heart this is a nov­el about the choic­es one woman made when the stakes were the high­est and the per­ilous, even dead­ly, con­se­quences
to those around her. In today’s world, a time when anti­semitism and hatred in gen­er­al have explod­ed anew, it’s a cau­tion­ary tale about the neces­si­ty of stand­ing against evil when it stares you – seduc­tive­ly – in the face.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Gioia Diliberto

  1. Hav­ing start­ed with noth­ing, Chanel man­aged to build a pres­ti­gious fash­ion empire with the help of some influ­en­tial, wealthy friends. Do you think, above all, oppor­tunism led her to become involved with Spatz von Dinck­lage? What do you think were her oth­er motives?
  2. Do you think Chanel’s motive in return­ing to Paris at the end of the sum­mer of 1940 was pri­mar­i­ly to work on hav­ing her nephew released from a Ger­man pris­on­er of war camp? After her nephew was released, why do you think she remained at the Ritz, instead of wait­ing out the Nazi Occu­pa­tion at her coun­try house in the unoc­cu­pied zone?
  3. In your opin­ion, what was Chanel’s atti­tude toward the Ger­mans? She was on the record mak­ing anti-Semit­ic remarks, but do you think she actu­al­ly sup­port­ed Nazi ideology?
  4. How is your view of Chanel’s char­ac­ter com­pli­cat­ed by her friend­ships? She was close to a vari­ety of peo­ple of vary­ing moral rec­ti­tude and back­grounds. The poet Pierre Reverdy was a mem­ber of the Resis­tance; the arts patron Misia Sert was vocal­ly anti-Ger­man; the poet Max Jacob was Jew­ish and the recip­i­ent of her finan­cial help; Serge Lifar, the bal­let mas­ter of the Paris Opera, was a bla­tant col­lab­o­ra­tor; and Jean Cocteau, the artist and direc­tor, con­sort­ed with Ger­mans but came to Jacob’s aid in the end.
  5. On page 205 (all page num­bers refer to the hard­cov­er edi­tion), Coco hides the peti­tion Jean Cocteau cir­cu­lat­ed for Max Jacob under a seat cush­ion, telling her­self she’ll sign it lat­er when Spatz isn’t lis­ten­ing from the next room. This is cow­ard­ly behav­ior from some­one who always prid­ed her­self on her bold­ness and inde­pen­dence. What do you think her real motive was in not sign­ing the peti­tion immediately?
  6. After the Lib­er­a­tion of Paris and the very real threat of her arrest, why do you think Chanel decides to stay in Paris instead of flee­ing with Spatz, as he urges her to do?
  7. The Inter­roga­tor has a cat­a­log of charges he lev­els at Chanel, from sleep­ing with the ene­my to denounc­ing her Jew­ish part­ners to the Gestapo in an effort to get full con­trol of her per­fume com­pa­ny. Which to you is the most damn­ing and why?
  8. On page 124, Chanel gets rid of Pierre Reverdy’s trans­mit­ters, which he’d stashed in her coun­try house base­ment, hop­ing to use them to com­mu­ni­cate with his col­leagues in the Resis­tance. How did you feel about Coco’s actions here? Did you think she was act­ing out of a desire to pro­tect her­self and her house­hold, or did you see this as more evi­dence of her collaboration?
  9. On page 250, Chanel grabs the scis­sors from the Inter­roga­tor and begins hack­ing her hair off. In your opin­ion why does she do this? Do you think the pres­ence of scis­sors in the nov­el has a sym­bol­ic mean­ing, and if so, what do they represent?
  10. At the end of the nov­el Chanel flees to Switzer­land. In real life, she lived there in exile for almost ten years. As she is por­trayed in the nov­el, do you think Chanel feels guilt and remorse, or is she sim­ply relieved to have escaped prison?
  11. In your view, is wear­ing Chanel clothes, car­ry­ing a Chanel hand­bag or using Chanel lip­stick and per­fume prob­lem­at­ic giv­en how Chanel behaved dur­ing World War II? Should Chanel be can­celed? That is, do you think con­sumers should boy­cott the brand because of the founder’s tar­nished legacy?