I began this biography without any specific knowledge of the person behind the Chanel brand, and now, I can say quite confidently that I probably know more about Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel than I ever really needed to know. To be fair, that is not a bad thing. Rhonda Garelick’s book is fiercely researched, punctuated at times with triumphant announcements regarding new information for what must be an already well-trod field. I was fascinated by Chanel’s rags to riches story, awed even by the tremendous wealth she accumulated despite some questionable business deals and poor judgement when it came to men.
At times, I imagined Mademoiselle Chanel as the Forrest Gump of Fashion — there was literally no movement or trend in her long lifetime that she didn’t get in on, no historic moment she missed. Unfortunately, this put her right in the center of several unsavory situations, and facts about her Nazi ties later in the book leveled the esteem I had begun to feel for her .
Chanel was the embodiment of two clashing extremes — a lonely girl searching for true love, and a ruthless business-woman using a combination of genius and feminine wiles to win her way to the top. (Yes, I did use the term “feminine wiles” — sorry about that, but that is the nicest way I could describe it. Besides, she really was a master manipulator.) At times I did not buy the true love thing, especially when she seemed hell-bent on “marrying up”, but I did not, in the end, believe she was ever content or truly happy. Yes, rich, immeasurably wealthy. When I was young and single, I used to quote a Joan Rivers line, “People always say that money is not the key to happiness, but I always figured if you have enough money, you can have a key made.” I think Coco Chanel believed that too. But somehow, reading this book made me appreciate my ordinary life and my loving family just that much more.