F. Patrick Butler



"Fashion dies very young, so we must forgive it everything."

Jean Cocteau, French Playwright

"Where should one use perfume?" a young woman asked.
"Wherever one wants to be kissed," I said.

Coco Chanel

Chapter 1: La Belle Dame Sans...

Chapter 1: La Belle Dame Sans...

Somerset Maugham famously described the Cóte d'Azur as "a sunny place for shady people". And, it could be added, the vacation haunt of artists in all stripes and sizes. Maugham had bought Villa Blanche in Menton just up the road from Genoa; his neighbors were Picasso in Mougins, Graham Greene in Antibes, and Marc Chagall in Vence.

Not to be outdone, Cap d'Antibe had its Americans: Cole and Linda Porter, the Hemingways, Fitzgeralds and Murphys scampered about the sand and lingered in the warm waters of the French Riviera. However, the most famous woman in France, Coco Chanel, had come to the sea for a grander plan than any of these. She bought an elegant villa just up the road a few kilometers from the bathers, at Roquebrune, a small village high on the hillside overlooking the Mediterranean and not far from Menton. It was a beautiful summer retreat to which any number of exalted friends received invitations; however, as far as history records, despite neighborly distance to Cap d'Antibe, Menton and Mougins no suntan lotion ever changed hands.

As everyone knew, Coco was secretly being courted by the Duke of Westminster and if things went well -- a "surprise" pregnancy was not out of the question -- she would become a member of the royal family. The relationship or more precisely, the companionship, lasted over ten years (with various beaus and beauties flowing about in the nooks and crannies of each) and may have had more to do with his prestige and social standing than any personal attraction on her part. But he did have fine taste in cloths. If he indeed left some things to be desired, Coco became attracted to the Duke's clothing and began raiding his wardrobe for tweeds, waistcoats and cardigans. It didn't take long before Coco was applying the principles of Seville Row couture to her own concepts of women's fashion. And it didn't stop there. Cruises along the Riviera on the Duke's yacht where boat trousers, caps, T-shirts, and striped pullovers were commonplace, and considered inappropriate attire for women, she adopted all with ease.

Those were lighthearted times and prominent guests were frequently in residence at Roquebrune. At one point even the Churchills had come for a visit. Theirs was more than social visit of course. Winston, a wily politician knew strategic considerations were in play and sought to have his hand in the match. Keeping him happy on some of those quiet afternoons strained even the most determined guests so Coco would suggest piquet, the only two-person card game she knew. She worked creatively at losing otherwise the entire household would suffer Churchill's ill-tempered moods. Winston was fond of her:

"The famous Coco turned up & I took a gt fancy to her-a most capable & agreeable woman - much the strongest personality Benny (Duke of Westminister) has yet been up against," Winston wrote home to his wife from Bendor's hunting lodge at Mimizan in 1927. "She hunted vigorously all day, motored to Paris after dinner & is today engaged in passing and improving dresses on endless streams of mannequins."

It turned out well that he and Coco got along since it was this friendship, which she later leveraged into a plot with her Nazi lover to end the Second World War.

Chanel was forty-six that summer of '29, energetic and prominent, but there would never be talk of children again. The Duke, an acknowledged bon vivant and married twice before (but without heirs) avoided being too serious and she understood the penalties of a demeaning, artificial position. The relationship died a natural death. She had almost married one of the richest men in Europe; when she didn't, her explanation was: "There have been several Duchesses of Westminster.There is only one Chanel."



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