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!)
When a female monarch rules for over 63 years, there is bound to be some scandal in association with her reign. Although Queen Victoria was known for her strict and stringent opinions on moral behavior, her reign, like many of those before and after, is tinged with mystery and social indiscretions.
Mystery #1) Eddy
Christened Albert Victor Christian Edward, “Eddy”, Queen Victoria’s grandson, had intrigue and scandal written all over him. His legacy is dubious at best.
The son of Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, (who had his own share of mistresses and scandals) and the long suffering Alexandra of Denmark, Eddy was second in line to the throne of England. His education proved difficult as he seemed uninterested in intellectual pursuits. Some explained his lack of intellectual prowess due to possible deafness inherited from his mother, or undiagnosed learning disabilities.
At 21 years of age, Eddy attended Trinity College, where he continued to have little interest in the academic life, but made friends such as don Oscar Browning – a man known to favor attractive male undergraduates. Whether Eddy engaged in any sexual experiences at Cambridge is undocumented, but in 1889, Eddy’s became a person of interest in association with the Cleveland Street Scandal. When the police uncovered the all-male house of ill repute on Cleveland street, people associated with the House of Windsor came into question, including Eddy. His father intervened in the investigation and no evidence against Eddy could be found or proven.
The next year, Eddy became ill with what may have been venereal disease. Doctors in attendance referred to it as “fever” or “gout.” Rumors spread of Eddy’s intimate relations with a chorus girl of the Gaiety Theater, Lydia Manton and later with chorus girl, Maude Richardson. The royal family reportedly payed off Maude for her silence. Shortly after, Eddy proposed to Princess Mary of Teck, and she accepted to the great relief of the royal family. But, the wedding never happened.
Succumbing to the influenza pandemic in 1889-92, Eddy developed pneumonia and died shortly after his 28th birthday.
In 1962 the first written mention of Eddy as Jack the Ripper surfaced. The story goes that Eddy fathered a child with a prostitute named Annie Crook. Annie’s friends knew of the scandal, and the Prince, suffering from advanced syphilis and resulting psychosis, brutally murdered them to keep them quiet. However, records show that at the time of his reported affair with Annie, and the resulting murders, Eddy was at Balmoral, the royal retreat in Scotland, with his grandmother, Queen Victoria, and other family members.
Mystery #2) Louise
Princess Louise, born during the revolution in 1848, seemed to rebel from the moment she came into the world. Talented, intelligent, artistic, and the most beautiful of Victoria’s four daughters, Louise’s vibrant nature endeared her to everyone, especially her father who gave her the pet name “Little Miss Why.”
Louise excelled in drawing, painting and dancing. Although an artistic career—or any career—was not appropriate for a princess, the queen allowed Louise to attend art school where she learned to sculpt. She later studied at the National Art Training School.
Historians assert that Louise had an affair with her brother Leopold’s tutor. Some accounts state she fell in love with the Reverend Robinson Duckworth between the years of 1866-1870. This same reverend, a friend of Lewis Carrol, was the inspiration for Carrol’s character the Duck in the Jury Box and the Duck in the Pool of Tears in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Hearing of Louise’s infatuation with a man 14 years her senior, the Queen quickly dismissed him.
Lucinda Hawksley, in her biography “The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter,” claims Louise had an affair with the tutor Walter Stirling, and that she actually gave birth to his child—a boy named Henry. She asserts that as soon as Louise gave birth, the queen arranged for the boy’s adoption by the royal gynecologist, Frederick Locock. Hawksley cannot prove this assertion with documentation, but states she has seen photos of the child who bore a remarkable resemblance to the royal family.
Louise served as unofficial secretary to her mother from 1966-1871 and worked closely with the queen’s assistant private secretary, Arthur Bigge. Rumors spread that the two also had an affair. Yet, the most scandalous rumor about Louise surfaced at the death of the famed sculptor, Joseph Edgar Boehm. Tales spread about his dying in her arms as they made love.
In 1890 Louise married the dashing John Campbell, the Marquess of Lorne and heir to the Dukedom Argyll. The couple traveled extensively together, but throughout the years remained childless and grew apart. Unhappy in her marriage and living away from her husband, Louise became romantically linked with artist Edwin Lutyens, her equerry Colonel William Probert, and an unnamed music master.
Louise also supported the suffragist movement, something the queen did not support, and associated socially with Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Garrett. Other friends included the artists Rosetti, Millais, Whister, and Mary Ann Evans, who wrote as George Eliot, and lived with a man out of wedlock.
Mystery #3) John Brown
The worst day of Queen Victoria’s life? The day her husband Albert died.
From that day forth, Victoria continued to have his clothes and shaving items laid out for him, and she slept with a plaster cast of his hand next to her bed. For the rest of her days, she wore widow’s weeds— modest dresses of solid black.
The second worst day for Victoria? When her loyal servant John Brown died.
Brown, a robust, handsome man of more than six feet tall doted upon the queen. He spent hours hand walking her horse as she rode throughout the beautiful grounds of Windsor, Osborn House, and Balmoral. After the death of Albert, Victoria relied on her devoted manservant from Scotland for everything.
Victoria’s children referred to him as “mama’s lover” probably due to the fact they slept in adjoining rooms. John Brown served as the queen’s constant companion and he pledged to be with her always. She gave him gifts, created two medals for him, commissioned a portrait of him and had statues and private memorials of him erected after his death. When Victoria passed, her son Edward VII had the statuary destroyed or removed. He also had over 300 letters of his mother’s burned, many of them mentioning Mr. Brown.
Speculation that the two secretly wed came about when one of the Queen’s chaplains claimed on his deathbed that he performed the ceremony. There was also talk of three additional children.
Premarital relations between John Brown and Victoria, or their possible marriage, has never been proven. However, when Victoria died, she requested a photo of him be placed in her coffin, along with a lock of his hair, some of his letters, and his mother’s wedding ring that he had gifted to her years before. The ring was placed on the third finger of her left hand and was disguised under strategically positioned flowers. Victoria also requested to be buried in her wedding veil, along with Albert’s dressing gown, and the plaster cast of his hand.
Did Prince Eddy have a dark side? Did Princess Louise have a child out of wedlock? Did Victoria enjoy friendship, relations, or even marriage to her handsome Scotsman? We may never know. In the case of Victoria, however, I find it interesting that her beloved husband and her devoted servant should have equal status in her voyage to the hereafter. Don’t you?
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In honor of the occasion, I will be reposting some of my previous articles about women who’ve helped pave the way for empowered women everywhere. Here is a two-part article I published in June of 2012 about Lillie Langtry, also known as The Jersey Lilly–a social climbing powerhouse who rocked Victorian England. Her popularity was so immense it became termed, “The Langtry Phenomenon.”
Considered the most beautiful woman in England, Royal Mistress to the Prince of Wales, paramour of the Earl of Shrewsbury and Prince Louis of Battenberg, Lillie Langtry, a Victorian beauty, caused a commotion wherever she went. She became a controversial figure who challenged Victorian society’s attitude toward women and paved the way for future women entrepreneurs all over the world.
Born in 1853 on the island of Jersey, located off the Normandy coast of France, Emilie Charlotte Le Bretton, affectionately called Lillie, grew up with six brothers. Her father was the Reverend William Corbet le Breton, the Dean of Jersey, and her mother, Emilie Davis, a woman noted for her beauty.
Lillie inherited her mother’s good looks and had many suitors on the island. One asked Lillie’s father for her hand, but the Reverend turned him down as Lillie was only fifteen years old. She paid the suitors no mind preferring to roughhouse with her boisterous brothers, join in their pranks, and ride horses bareback on the beaches and throughout the countryside of Jersey. Her father also insisted that she have the same educational opportunities as the boys and she proved to be an ardent and talented student.
When it became known that her father, the religious authority on the island, was a habitual philanderer, Lillie decided it was time to leave Jersey and wanted to sail to the continent and live in London. Her reprieve came in 1874 when at twenty years old she married Edward Langtry, a wealthy landowner, yachtsman, and angler. He took her from the island to his home in Southampton. Having escaped Jersey and her family’s troubles Lillie expected marriage to open up a whole new world for her. But, married life and her new husband proved to be disappointments. Edward often left Lillie alone in their grand house with no one for company except servants, to go on his sailing and fishing excursions.
Despondent and unhappy Lillie contracted Typhoid Fever. Her doctor, her sole source of company for weeks, soon became besotted with his beautiful patient. She confided in him that she wanted above anything else to move to London. When Edward returned from his adventures the doctor insisted that the couple move to London or else risk Lillie’s good health.
After the move, Lillie received word from her family that her younger brother Reggie was killed in a riding accident. She went home to comfort her mother and when she returned to London she wore a simple, black, form-fitting dress for all occasions – even soirees and balls — in honor of her favorite brother. The simplicity of her attire only enhanced her beauty.
Lillie and Edward were invited to a reception given by her father’s friend and fellow Jerseyman, the 7th Viscount Ranelagh, in Lownes Square. Many of the guests became enchanted with the Jersey beauty who stood out in contrast to the glittering and tailored ladies of London’s elite in her simple, black gown. Frank Miles, an up and coming young artist and guest, was so taken with her he immediately took out his sketch pad and made a line drawing of her right there at the party. Drawings of beautiful society women were printed on postcards and sold to the public. Miles’ postcard was an instant bestseller and out-sold all the other postcards of society beauties. Thrilled with the success of the postcards, Miles begged Lillie to honor him with a formal sitting. The resulting portrait was immensely popular and purchased by England’s Prince Leopold.
Lillie had arrived.
Soon, other artists were clamoring for her to sit for portraits. Sir John Everett Millais’ depiction of her became her most famous. Dressed in her usual black gown with a white lace collar Langtry held a Guernsey Lilly, as no lilies from Jersey were attainable. Millais named the portrait, A Jersey Lilly. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy and caused quite a stir. After the exhibition, Lilly was always referred to as “The Jersey Lilly.”