Lisa Chaney has written biographies of J. M. Barrie, of Peter Pan fame, and of food writer Elizabeth David. Now she's turned her attention to someone very different in Coco Chanel: An Intimate Biography. Although there are several
biographies of Chanel, who was arguably the most influential designer of the 20th century, Chaney's is the most thorough to date.
Lisa, let’s begin with you and your background. How did you come to write a biography of Coco Chanel?
I’ll start with some comments on the two recent biographies. One was a woman who signed up to write her book after I signed to write mine, but she got her book out before I did. The other one started a little after I did.
As for the other books, I say in my introduction I thought it had all been said, but I got to looking at the previous biographies, and although they have some good points, there’s a lot missing. I signed the contract having read all the previous biographies, and then I wondered, “What have I done?” For the first few months I wondered what I had done.
The things that were missing were interesting. I tried very hard to put her into a cultural-social context, and I don’t think that’s ever been done before. I wanted to know why she was famous, and what she had done.
And then I found a lead, and then I found another lead. It’s a strange process I wanted to know about the gaps, the things that weren’t told about her. I ended up finding out a lot.
Although Chanel had affairs with numerous men and women, it's clear that her relationship with the British polo player and man about town, Arthur “Boy” Chapel, was special. How did you obtain access to his papers?
That was one of the most amazing experiences. I found it tremendously moving. It’s always been said that Chapel was very important to her. Chanel herself said that, “Without him I would have been nothing.” If she said that this man was the most important man in her life, then I needed to find out more about him.
It took about 18 months to find the letters from him. There was a lead here and there I finally discovered his grandson. He had recently made some discoveries.
Then I went and had tea in front of a crackling fire. We talked about two hours, but he hadn’t told me any new things. I thought it was about time to go. But at a certain point the old chap got up and said, “I think it’s time for a drink.” Then he came back and handed me an envelope, and said, “Open it.” Inside were the letters from his grandfather! They had been hidden since 1919! It was his grandmother [Diana Wyndham], whom he married instead of Chanel, who hid them. And the hairs started standing up on the back of my neck. It was just extraordinary to be sitting there and opening these letters. And suddenly I had it—I knew how to write about him and Chanel. And I was 18 months into the writing the book!
I’d like to ask you to comment on a key quotation from your book. You quote her as saying, “I belong to that breed of foolish women, women who think of only their work.” But of course that wasn’t true at all, as your book’s discussion of her many complicated relationships makes abundantly clear.
In one sense she meant that literally. I don’t think it’s a gnomic statement. I think she meant that she was foolish She had in some sense ruined her life, ruined her life emotionally. She ended up lonely and sad isn’t the right word. In some ways I found her tragic.
She was a proto-feminist. She suffered from some of the downsides of being a feminist. Yet she was extraordinarily powerful. Yet I hope that a sense of her femininity came across in the book. Although we’re all full of contradictions, she was that way more than most people. She suffered in a way because of that, but it also made her able to become the figure that she became.
Emotionally she became very sad. I think that she’s more interesting than someone in the classic rags to riches story. Sometimes such people become a tough old bag, and that’s it. But she was much more interesting and complex than that.
It often happens that people like Chanel who have experienced poverty and isolation have such a rage to survive that they have a certain amoral quality. Do you think that “amoral” is too strong a word for Coco Chanel?
In a way, no, I think it’s not. And you’re the first person who’s asked that question. In the book I think I say that neither was she a good person nor was she a bad person.
She did a lot for people. I worry that I didn’t put enough of that down. But I so much didn’t want to write an apology for Chanel, and be in any way coy. She did kindnesses for people that weren’t known. I would accept that she had a certain amoral quality.
I do think that she’s a lot more interesting than two of the other women in the 20th century who spring to mind: Elizabeth Arden and Estee Lauder. I actually think that Chanel is much more interesting than either of those women. They were successful and good at business, but none of that makes you the exceptional person that Chanel was.
In thinking about how to connect her with the culture of her time, I wonder if there’s not a similarity between her and the painter Piet Mondrian, who also radically simplified forms.
That’s very interesting indeed. I think that’s a perfectly valid question to posit. It relates to the notion of modernism, which relates to paring down. It relates to what she did — getting rid of decoration.
You comment that she took over the nuns’ limited palette of black, white, and beige. And Mondrian himself had a very limited palette.
Exactly. I didn’t write a great deal about the black, white, and beige thing. But I think you’re right. What she did in fashion was very much part of its time. Yet she is always both part of her time and always a step ahead too.
I have some questions about this comment in your book: “More than any other designer, Gabrielle had been responsible for the democratization of fashion.”Let’s start with the economics of fashion. Do you mean by this that Chanel designed clothing that shop assistants could afford? Did she have lines of clothing at various price points, as Ralph Lauren does today?
No, she didn’t. She really was what is called a couturier. Everything is made by hand for you personally, and it costs a great deal of money. But I really do mean that word, because when she used fabrics like the undyed jerseys, they had been used for men’s underwear. That was the beginning of the idea of democratization. She was using things that were not regarded in any way as distinguished or valuable. And she made them for the rich.
There was this strange tightrope that she walked. And that was part of the dynamism. She’s making haute couture, clothing for rich people, yet she is putting these people into fabrics, and using utterly simple designs, that in some way are related to what the poor had used in the past.
It’s a small thing, but it’s important that she used rabbit fur. It wasn’t mink, or ermine. She was poking fun at things that she was doing but another part of her was deadly serious in that she really wanted all women to be able to look as what she thought of as good.
Because the clothes were very simplified, it was really easy for women’s dressmakers to copy them. She was chucked out of the guild in Paris that controls fashion because she wouldn’t subscribe to the idea that everything she did had to be secret, and if anybody tried to copy her they were going to be threatened or sued. She wanted her clothes to go down into the streets.
That’s why it was so important that American Vogue, which was very important to her comeback in the '50s, made the brilliant comment about the little black dress: “It was a Chanel Ford.” They completely understood the idea that everyone can have this thing. You know that Ford wanted everyone to have a Model T Ford—which was originally black. It was so apt when an American journalist pointed this out. It does epitomize this idea about the democratization of clothes. So nowadays there’s hardly a woman in the West who does not own one single black dress.
She always remained true to her roots because she felt very strongly about the idea that she did not want only the rich to be able to dress well.