From inauspicious beginnings to fame and fortune, Coco Chanel, one of the world’s most revered women of fashion, found empowerment in her own way.
While she lived most of her time on earth in the public eye, accounts of some facets of her history have been up for debate, as she, the master of her own destiny, often changed the facts of her own history to suit her needs. Here are a few mysteries surrounding Miss Chanel.
According to most accounts, Coco’s parents named her Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel. At birth, someone entered her name into the registry as Gabrielle Bonheur Chasnel. This was later reported to be a clerical error as her mother was too ill to attend the registry and her father was traveling. Most sources agree that the name Coco came from a time in her early twenties when she worked on stage as a singer in clubs in Vichy and Moulins. The two songs she sang between other stage acts were “Ko Ko Ri Ko” and “Qui qu’avuCoco.” She later stated that the name came from a shortened version of the French word “cocotte,” which translates to “kept woman.” In some accounts, she states it was a nickname given to her by her father.
Most sources agree Coco was born to an unmarried couple named Eugenie (Jeanne) Devolleand Albert Chanel. Jeanne worked as a laundress, and Albert a traveling peddler. The couple later married. When she was twelve years old, her mother died from tuberculosis, and her father sent Coco and her sisters to an orphanage in Aubazine run by Catholic nuns. Although her life at the orphanage demanded frugality and strict discipline, this is where she learned to sew. Other accounts claim she perfected her sewing on weekend visits to see two of her aunts. Coco later told another version of the story: her father set out for America to seek his fortune and she was sent to live with her two aunts. She also claimed she was much younger than twelve years old when her mother died.
Coco Chanel never married, but ever the modern woman, she had many notable lovers—who helped to advance her career and status in life.
At the age of twenty, she started an affair with the French socialite, horse breeder and polo player Etienne Balsan. Balsan saw her at the Moulin and became smitten. Through Balsan, Coco met many influential people, including the wealthy Arthur “Boy” Capel, with whom she also had an enduring affair. Balsan financed a millinery shop for Chanel, and later, Capel helped her to establish a high-end boutique where she launched her famous jersey suits and the “little black dress.”
Both men left her to marry more socially “eligible” women of title, but they remained friends. When Capel died in a car crash in 1919, Chanel reportedly said, “In losing Capel, I lost everything. What followed was not a life of happiness.
In 1923, she met the Duke of Westminster while attending a party on his yacht. The two began a decade-long affair. He lavished her with expensive gifts and set her up in a home in the Mayfair district of London. In 1927, he gifted her with land on the French Riviera where she built a villa she named La Prusa.It is uncertain why the Duke and Chanel did not marry, but Chanel said of their break up, “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster, but there is only one Chanel.
During her involvement with the Duke, she met and charmed Edward III, the Prince of Wales. Some accounts state she had a fling with the Prince who was known for his philandering ways, but others don’t mention him.
(Check back next week for Seven Mysteries of Coco Chanel – Part Two!)