Almost a century has passed since it was invented, but it has never been off the international sales chart. Its composition was considered revolutionary when it was created in 1920, and even its bottle caused a small revolution by echoing the influences of Cubism. And one short sentence by a very blonde Hollywood star endowed it with a sexy and desirable halo that accompanies it to this day. In 1954, when Marilyn Monroe was asked in an interview what she usually wears when she gets into bed, she answered, “Only a few drops of Chanel No. 5.”
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The woman who created this perfume made millions of course, became one of the richest women in the world, and at the same time controlled a highly successful elite fashion empire. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel has long been a genuine icon, a highly esteemed woman who for many represents a model of female independence, success and good taste.
But this blinding image conceals a very dark past. During World War II Coco Chanel not only had a long affair with a senior Nazi officer and agreed to be a spy in the service of the Third Reich, she also decided to exploit the Aryan laws in order to deprive her Jewish partners – without whom it is doubtful whether her perfume would have had such great success – of their rights and their property.
“The No. 5 War,” a new documentary that will premiere at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival next Monday and Tuesday, reveals new details about the woman whom the fashion world so loves to love. French director Stephane Benhamou spent long days in French archives, burrowed into old files and pulled out yellowing documents – which not only enabled him to tell the story of one of the most popular fragrances in the world, but also proved beyond any doubt that Chanel was ready to exploit the Nazi race laws to increase her wealth and power.
In a phone interview, Benhamou says that until now it was known that during the war Chanel had a German lover, as was true of many actresses at the time. He says that people always thought it was nothing more than a love story, but now it’s clear – thanks in part to a document they found in the French archive, revealed for the first time in the film, and in “Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War,” the biography that was published a few years ago by Hal Vaughan – that her German lover helped when she tried to take over the company that created and marketed the perfume.
In effect she tried to steal it from the Wertheimers, two Jewish brothers who were her partners. Until that moment the contract with them guaranteed her only 10 percent of the profits. She felt that she deserved more, and therefore tried to exploit the Nazi laws to take over the company.
Benhamou believes that when the film is aired on French television there will definitely be a strong reaction. The French channel scheduled to air the film in February has already sent it for a meticulous examination by a law firm to ensure that there won’t be problems. They assume that the Chanel company lawyers are liable to be very aggressive to prevent the broadcast.
Only 10 percent?
It was Chanel’s partner who suggested to her in the late 1920s to create a perfume of her own. When she declared that she was revolted by the fragrances of perfumes sold at the time in the stores and by the uninspired bottles in which they were sold, he presented the French high priestess of haute couture with her next challenge: to put out a perfume that would bear her personal stamp. Chanel was enthusiastic.
She decided to create a fragrance that wouldn’t be based on a concentrate of flowers, as was customary at the time, and joined forces with celebrity perfumer Ernest Beaux, asking him to create several perfumes for her. In 1920 he presented her with a number of fragrances he had compounded for her, and she chose the one in the small bottle with the number 5. She told him that she presented her new collection every year on May 5, which is the fifth month of the year. She decided that this was a sign of good luck, and gave the name to the perfume.
Chanel chose a bottle with an elegant rectangular design. At first she actually planned to give it out free of charge, as a Christmas gift to selected customers of her fashion house. Only upon encountering the great enthusiasm it aroused when she first presented it on May 5, 1921 in her Paris boutique did she realize its business potential. She told her customers to sprinkle it on their bodies wherever they wanted to be kissed, according to the film “The No. 5 War” (to be aired January 28 on Hot channel 8). The result was immediate: The new perfume became a sensation.
The experienced businesswoman wanted to begin mass marketing of Chanel No. 5 in large department stores, but the owner of Galeries Lafayette explained to her that her means of production would be unable to meet the demand. He offered to introduce her to two of his business partners, brothers Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, who controlled a family perfume and cosmetics business.
In 1924 the parties signed a business contract and the new company was established. Chanel gave the company the rights over her perfume, and the Wertheimers promised to handle all the production, marketing and advertising costs. It was agreed that she would receive 10 percent of the profits, 70 percent would go to the brothers and the remaining 20 percent was promised to a third partner, the owner of Galeries Lafayette, who promised to help with distribution.
Benhamou says that at first, when they promised her 10 percent of the profits, she was very happy. In 1927 her perfume was the most widely sold in the world and people began to tell her, “It’s named after you, why are you getting only 10 percent?” Benhamou adds that Chanel turned to Pierre Wertheimer and he explained that he and his brother had taken a big risk in this deal, and that they were also bearing the heavy expenses of production, marketing and international advertising. Chanel didn’t accept that, and for 10 years tried unsuccessfully to change the arrangement with the help of an attorney. When World War II broke out and there was an upsurge in anti-Semitism, she decided to use the Aryan laws to attain her goal.
Perfumes or planes?
With the start of the war, the Wertheimers, who were Jews, realized they had to leave France quickly. They transferred all their businesses to Felix Amiot, an aircraft manufacturer who was a friend of theirs, and a few days before the Nazi army occupied Paris they fled to New York.
Chanel, on the other hand, flourished under the Vichy regime, and fell in love with a German intelligence officer she met at the Ritz who was 13 years her junior. When she heard that the brothers had begun to produce her perfume in the United States, where it was hugely successful, she fumed once again. She assumed that her perfume was being manufactured without the unique jasmine flowers that grow only in France, and sent an announcement to the press saying that the perfume manufactured by the brothers had nothing in common with hers (the film, incidentally, includes a James Bond-like scene showing how the brothers managed to get their hands on those unique jasmine flowers). She was also steaming when she discovered that the brothers had sold their French company to someone other than her.
When the Vichy regime ordered the transfer of Jewish-owned business to French-Aryan hands, Chanel realized that she could take over the company. In 1941 she wrote a letter to the relevant government officials in which she claimed that the sale of the Wertheimers’ company to their friend Amiot was fictitious, and that in fact the company was still in Jewish hands, and therefore she requested that all the company’s shares be transferred to her.
Her German lover convinced her to agree to exploit her friendly relations with Winston Churchill in an espionage mission on behalf of the Nazi regime, which would increase her chances of getting control of the perfume company. She tried to meet with her British friend to offer him a peace agreement dictated to her by the Nazi intelligence services, but Churchill didn’t bother to reply.
Benhamou says Chanel used all her connections with senior Nazi officials to try to transfer into her hands – in effect, to steal – the property of the Jewish brothers. The story didn’t end well for Chanel. The man to whom the Wertheimers had sold their company had a factory that manufactured military aircraft. The Nazis bought planes from him and finally, when the Germans had to decide between him and Chanel, they asked themselves what would be of greater help to their war effort, planes or perfume?
Chanel’s attempt to take over the company that manufactured her perfume failed. After the war, when in Paris they began persecuting Nazi collaborators, she was summoned for questioning and only thanks to her friend from 10 Downing Street, who intervened on her behalf, was she released without being punished for her behavior. She moved to Switzerland, where she remained for eight years to ensure that she wouldn’t be punished for her wartime activities. At the same time, Pierre Wertheimer gave her $9 million for her percentage of the perfume sales during the war. The tens of millions that she pocketed later on thanks to this perfume made her one of the richest women in the world.
Benhamou says Chanel never explained her behavior during the war. She refused to answer questions on the subject, and after the war the Wertheimers refused to sue her because they didn’t want to damage her image. The director, who will come to Jerusalem to present the film, says that they realized it could do them more harm than good. He notes that there are many French firms that were accused of collaboration with the Germans, and suffered considerable business losses after the war.
Benhamou himself is Jewish, as are many of those who worked with him on the film. But he says he hopes that not only Jews will bother to watch it and see the truth about Chanel, explaining his motivation for the project: He finds the hiding of this part of history for commercial reasons to be intolerable. Today people speak of Chanel as a model of French excellence, but Benhamou insists it must not be forgotten that she tried to steal Jewish property, and that one can’t refuse to acknowledge the truth for the sake of commerce.