Bloom: What first drew you to Coco Chanel as a subject for a biography?
Linda Simon: I’m interested in people who lived a life very different from what was expected of them. Chanel grew up poor and was destined to be the wife of a tradesman, maybe; no one had any aspirations for her. My other subjects, too—Alice Toklas, William James, especially—have rebelled to find their own way.
Bloom: You’ve written about other fascinating people, too, including Thornton Wilder and Gertrude Stein. What is it about a particular person that makes him or her compelling to research and write about?
LS: I’m interested in people who take a new path for themselves. It might seem on the surface that James, becoming a philosopher and college professor, was not a rebel. But he grew up thinking that he was weak, ineffectual, and destined to make only a small contribution to humankind. And then he became one of the most famous public intellectuals of his time. Wilder, too, broke ground as a playwright; and of course Stein and Toklas were meant to be nothing more than Jewish housewives.
Bloom: You mention that Chanel worked tirelessly to control her public image, and that she resorted to telling lies about her life to embellish the Chanel myth. How did you tease apart these various myths and deceptions to get at the truth about her? How did balancing the perception of her and the reality of her influence how you wrote about her?
LS: In any biography, there’s the subject’s truth and what the biographer concludes. I had lots of evidence about Chanel from people who knew her, so it wasn’t hard to see where she was inventing an image. Unfortunately, there was no paper trail in the form of letters or diaries, because those are often very revealing. But many people talked about her, so there were published interviews and memoirs. I also interviewed two women who knew her intimately (one, the model Bettina, and the other a psychoanalyst who had befriended Chanel late in her life) and were quite insightful.
Bloom: One of the stories surrounding Chanel is that she served as a spy for German intelligence during World War II, but that she was spared prosecution after the war because of a friendship with Winston Churchill. Are there kernels of truth in this story, or was this an example of how Chanel’s personal life (she was reportedly involved with a German general Walter Schellenberg) was conflated to create controversy?
LS: It was hard for me to imagine anyone entrusting Chanel with a spy mission. I could imagine, though, that she’d create a heroic story about her involvement with the Nazis. The Chanel archivists that I worked with thought the spy story was rubbish. Without any evidence, I just couldn’t go there in my book.
Bloom: You’ve also written non-fiction work other than biography; for example about the history of the circus and the cultural and scientific significance of electrification. What are the unique challenges and rewards of writing about people rather than events, discoveries, or organizations?
LS: My cultural histories are about people, too, just more of them! In my latest book, a history of the circus, my compelling question was: why has running away to join the circus endured as a myth of personal reinvention? So I really wanted to focus on individual circus performers and what motivated them. Cultural history is more challenging than biography because I had to find the parameters of the narrative. A biography has a built-in beginning and end; but I could still be researching the circus—or the coming of electricity. As a writer, I needed to find the shape of the story so I could decide when to stop doing research.
LS: I think it’s hard to establish your own authority as a writer. With students, they hear what their teacher advises, and through class workshops, they get advice from classmates. Professional writers sometimes have writing groups or trusted friends to whom they show works in progress. That process can be daunting for a writer; at some point, you need to feel convinced that you have control over your work, you know what you want to do, and you are willing to send something out into the world.
I taught my students that there are lots of ways professional writers work: some write and write, editing at the end of a long process of producing a manuscript; some edit as they go; some write better at midnight, others early in the day. Some use outlines, others not. There’s no one way to work, and each writer needs to find his or her own process. A writer learns to read like a reader, to get some distance from one’s work; that’s a hard lesson to learn, but once you can do that, you do gain confidence.
Bloom: Talk a bit about creative non-fiction writing – what do you think are the unique challenges of writing non-fiction as opposed to fiction? And since myth and truth are at the core of your biography of Chanel, how do you think non-fiction writing can both unravel and then unite the two?
LS: Nonfiction and fiction are closely related narrative forms. As a writer of nonfiction, I’m always interpreting evidence, and that process of interpretation comes close to fictional invention. which, after all, is an interpretation of reality. I also am deeply aware that “truth” can be debated; all I can do as a writer is convey the truth that I’ve deduced from evidence. Each person coming to that evidence may find a different way of expressing inferences. A biography, after all, is the intersection of my own biography—my experiences, people I’ve known, my personality— with that of my subject.
Bloom: Biography can reignite interest in a person – how did writing about Chanel bring something new of her to the world? What effect do you think your book has on Chanel’s legacy?
LS: I wrote against the myth that Chanel liberated women through her fashions. That simply was not true, both as fashion history and feminist history. Many designers pre-dated Chanel in getting rid of corsets and simplifying styles. And as far as Chanel’s being a liberated woman, she was so needy, so dependent on men to affirm her self-image, so eager for someone to love her that she hardly fits the model of being liberated. But she was an impressive businesswoman: because Chanel could wear her styles with aplomb, she was her own great publicist, a great advertisement. And because she socialized with celebrities and wealthy people, her clothes came to be associated with glamor. She knew instinctively how to create a market for her fashions.
Bloom: You write that despite the perception of Chanel as an “uber-Feminist,” she desired what earlier generations of women did: “marriage, protection, and love.” Do you think this contradiction fueled her fierce persistence? Or did it further complicate her talent?
LS: She wanted to be praised and affirmed. No one could praise her enough, and she was ferociously competitive. I think this fierceness did come from her insatiable desire to be loved, and it did seem to fuel her perfectionism. She worked very hard, and she drove her staff hard, too.
Bloom: Contrast what it was like to write about Chanel’s early life and career and her later-in-life comeback. Did her comeback, and both its successes and failures, help to reveal the myths that swirled around her? Did you find any particular era of her life more difficult (or more fun!) to write about?
LS: It was great fun to research this book, especially working in the Chanel archives in Paris, and I found her whole career fascinating. Her comeback was characterized by the styles we associate with Chanel’s legacy: the boxy, braid-trimmed jacket, the quilted bag, the toe-capped pumps. By that time, she was so difficult, so antagonistic to young designers, that it was hard to make her sympathetic. Anyone, though, could empathize with her loneliness. The saddest discovery was that because her arthritis was debilitating, she could no longer hold scissors. This was a designer who worked by cutting, cutting, cutting!
Bloom: The fashion industry has had its own struggles lately with myth, especially that of unrealistic body image and photo retouching. What do you think Chanel would have to say about this today? Does fashion today successfully share “the narrative of women’s lives”?
LS: Chanel hated women’s bodies. She thought breasts and hips were an abomination. At 5 feet two inches she weighed less than 110 pounds. She was bony, and she celebrated a boyish figure in her styles. It’s hard to say what fashion today is doing because couture is just not what it used to be. Chanel ended her career as ready-to-wear clothing, and casual clothing, was taking over. There’s so much today that is considered “fashion.” But Chanel helped to propagate an unrealistic body image; there weren’t many women in her own time who had her petite figure, and many resorted to crazy diets and binding undergarments to flatten their shapes.
Bloom: Forsyth Harmon quotes Chanel in her graphic piece: “At times your legend carries you along, at other times you drown in it.” After your experience researching Chanel intimately, what do you think she meant by this? Is there another quote from Chanel that you believe encapsulates her life and work?
LS: Like other celebrities, she knew that “Chanel” the public figure was not Chanel, the private woman. So she could bask in glamor as the renowned designer, which only contrasted more starkly with the loneliness she felt when she came back to her empty apartment at the Ritz. I like this quote, too: “Lie if you must, but never in detail, or to yourself.” To me it means that you can create yourself as a legend, even if you need to embellish the truth; but always keep in focus who you really are. It’s sad that the private Chanel was often so desperately unhappy.
Click here to read Forsyth Harmon’s Words in Pictures: Coco’s Comeback.
Linda Simon is professor emerita of English at Skidmore College in New York. She is the author of several books, including Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-Ray and The Greatest Shows on Earth: A History of the Circus.
Feature photo courtesy of Skidmore College.