The Queen of Paris: A Novel of Coco Chanel

The Queen of Paris: A Novel of Coco Chanel

by Pamela Binnings Ewen


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Legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel is revered for her sophisticated style—the iconic little black dress—and famed for her intoxicating perfume Chanel No. 5. Yet behind the public persona is a complicated woman of intrigue, shadowed by mysterious rumors. The Queen of Paris, the new novel from award-winning author Pamela Binnings Ewen, vividly imagines the hidden life of Chanel during the four years of Nazi occupation in Paris in the midst of WWII—as discovered in recently unearthed wartime files.

Coco Chanel could be cheerful, lighthearted, and generous; she also could be ruthless, manipulative, even cruel. Against the winds of war, with the Wehrmacht marching down the Champs-Élysées, Chanel finds herself residing alongside the Reich’s High Command in the Hotel Ritz. Surrounded by the enemy, Chanel wages a private war of her own to wrestle full control of her perfume company from the hands of her Jewish business partner, Pierre Wertheimer. With anti-Semitism on the rise, he has escaped to the United States with the confidential formula for Chanel No. 5. Distrustful of his intentions to set up production on the outskirts of New York City, Chanel fights to seize ownership. The House of Chanel shall not fall.

While Chanel struggles to keep her livelihood intact, Paris sinks under the iron fist of German rule. Chanel—a woman made of sparkling granite—will do anything to survive. She will even agree to collaborate with the Nazis in order to protect her darkest secrets. When she is covertly recruited by Germany to spy for the Reich, she becomes Agent F-7124, code name: Westminster. But why? And to what lengths will she go to keep her stormy past from haunting her future?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982546847
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Publication date: 04/07/2020
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 52,221
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Pamela Binnings Ewen is the author of one nonfiction book, Faith on Trial, and five novels, including The Moon in the Mango Tree, awarded the 2012 Eudora Welty Memorial Award. After practicing law for many years, she retired to write. She is a founder of the Northshore Literary Society in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, in the greater New Orleans area. She’s also served on the boards of the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society and Tennessee Williams Festival. Visit Pamela at

Read an Excerpt


France, the region of Provence

Spring 1940

Cannes, old and dense, still the rococo queen of the Côte d'Azur, is a palette of muted pastel this early May morning. Spring has arrived in Provence and the light is radiant, glazing the town in an apricot glow. Across the boulevard, the sandy beach is white, and flecks of gold sparkle in the green sea. On the Côte d'Azur you'd never know that the iron fist of the Reich already grips Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, and Denmark. But the gossip around town is that they're headed this way.

Gabrielle Chanel — Coco to most — does not believe this is true. She sits at a shaded table off the boulevard across from the sea with a cup of tea before her, as she does almost every morning when she's at La Pausa, her villa on the coast. She glances about, breathing in the fresh salt air. It's good to get away from Paris for a while, away from the tension of the war, of guessing what comes next, and away from the hoards invading Paris from towns and farms close to the German border. migration is all for nothing, they'll run back home and then Paris will return to normal.

Coco is not worried; merely annoyed. France declared war on Germany nine months ago, and nothing's happened since. Not here on the Riviera at least. This is a phony war, Coco thinks. Even the Duke and Duchess of Windsor remain in residence not far from here, in Cap d'Antibes. If a German invasion were imminent David would be the first to flee despite his friendship with the German Führer. The former king of England — Edward VIII, known as David to his inner circle — makes no secret of his admiration for Hitler. And, after David abandoned his throne for the woman he loved, the Führer hosted him in Berlin with all the trappings of the throne. But facing a real war is something else. David isn't nearly as tough as Wallis; the duchess's pleasant manners and polished exterior hide a needle sharp spine, which when necessary, carries the venomous sting of a scorpion fish. Coco has seen Wallis cut other women dead when they get too close to David.

Still, most men and, initially, many women fall for Wallis's camouflage. Even Hitler's difficult Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop fell in love with her. At least that was the rumor. He'd sent Wallis a bouquet of red carnations every morning in the months before she and David married, even as Britain roiled with the scandal of David's abdication.

Coco wrinkles her nose, musing — why carnations instead of roses? — while her eyes roam over the wide boulevard to her left, to the beach on the other side and then out across the water. Through the shimmering haze of sun she glimpses the silhouette of a schooner anchored far offshore. She shades her eyes, peering at the boat. For a moment she'd thought it was the Flying Cloud out there, one of Westminster's yachts. But, of course, that is impossible.

The last time she was aboard the Flying Cloud was on a spring day just like this one, years ago. The yacht belonged to the richest man in England, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster — Bendor, to his friends. She'd been standing on the main deck that morning enjoying the view, the harbor water still as glass, watching the dozens of smaller boats anchored between the Flying Cloud and the beach. Bendor walked up behind and kissed the nape of her neck, surprising Coco. And then, leaning on the railing, he'd looked out over the harbor and said he had something important to discuss. She knew immediately what was going on.

So you say —

At last he would ask the question. She would make him wait for her answer, she'd decided, after her own years of waiting. After all, this is a woman's prerogative. He should have to suffer for the delay, at least a little.

Filled with pleasure and a sense that her future was now secure, she'd stood quietly beside him while he'd gathered his thoughts. But after the first words, she'd had to turn away while he cheerfully announced that he'd asked a lovely English lady to be his wife and the lady had agreed. Bendor had rested his hand on her arm, saying he looked forward to introducing them. Ah, yes, the mistress and the future wife.

Humiliation had washed through her in that instant and every muscle in her body had tensed while she'd absorbed the news. Bendor was marrying someone else instead of Coco! Her lover was marrying a rose of England. A woman who, unlike Coco, was born on the right side of an invisible line. The same line which had barred Coco from attending public galas and private parties on Westminster's arm. The same line which kept her from entering the paddock at the racecourses with him, or the duke's boxes at the opera and ballet.

Her hand trembles now as she picks up the teacup again, recalling the moment. Bendor's look had been happy and expectant as he'd waited for her congratulations, while her thoughts spun and hot fury coiled in her chest. She'd braced her arms on the ship railing, taking quick breaths, fighting to calm the rage. She remembers settling her thoughts on the simplest things while minutes passed — the sun warming her shoulders, bathers racing across the very same Cannes beach then splashing through the shallows.

Without a second thought, she'd reached back to the spot where he'd kissed the nape of her neck and lifted the long ropes of pearls from around her throat in one fell swoop — large creamy pearls, priceless pearls, gifts from him. Emitting a sound from the back of his throat, Bendor, suddenly realizing, had reached out in the same instant that she'd leaned over the railing and dropped the necklaces into the sea.

He'd let out such a roar.

Westminster's eyes had bulged and he'd simply panicked, whirling about, shouting all-hands-on-deck, all hands must come to dive! Even as the clamor began — whistles blowing, the sound of shoes running, Bendor howling — she'd dropped the emerald bracelets from her wrists, too, and, as if in a dream she'd watched them follow the pearls into the deep, dark water below.

She smiles to herself now, sipping her tea. Time does not heal all wounds; but that was all so long ago.

"Mademoiselle!" She starts as a shout from the distance breaks into her thoughts and the Flying Cloud disappears.

Coco looks up, squinting through the sunshine at someone hurrying down the pavement toward her. Charles Prudone! What is he doing here? The managing director of the House of Chanel should be attending to business at the Maison in Paris, not charging down the Boulevard in Cannes. Her line of couture may be finished, but there is still a small staff on rue Cambon selling perfume and cosmetics. She leans back, waiting. Really, she's never seen the director move this fast before.

"I hoped I would find you here," he gasps as he reaches her, bracing against the edge of the table.

Lifting a brow, she smiles. "Good morning, Director Prudone." His suit and tie are rumpled, she observes, as if he'd slept in his clothes last night. His face is flushed; his breath comes hard and shallow. "Please sit." She indicates the chair. "What brings you to Cannes?"

"I've brought a letter, mademoiselle." From across the table he hands over an envelope. "It's marked urgent, so I took it upon myself to catch the overnight express. I've just come from the station." She takes the envelope, studying the return address. The sender is Georges Baudin, general manager of the perfume plant in Neuilly, which produces her fragrances.

"The letter was delivered yesterday." Monsieur Prudone whips a handkerchief from his pocket and wipes his forehead. Lifting his hat, he drops into the chair.

In silence Coco slits open the envelope and pulls out the letter. She scans the page; then, pressing her lips together, begins again, reading slowly. Impossible! Her heart skips a beat. She looks up, gazing past the director. This cannot be true.

Suddenly aware of Prudone's fixed attention, she steadies her hand, folds the letter in half, and slips it back into the envelope. She watches a yellow cat sitting on the pavement behind the director. The cat twists, licking its shortened tail, slowly, as if time does not exist.

But time does exist, and if what this letter says is correct, she must take action at once. The cat stretches then leaps to the curb, startling Coco just as a flash of green appears in the corner of her eye and an automobile flies around the corner. She drops the envelope onto the table as the feline darts under the wheels, tires squeal, the horn blasts, and the car streaks by.

Prudone turns, following her eyes. But by now both the automobile and the cat have disappeared. Coco fixes her eyes on the spot, but the street is deserted, and pristine.

The director stares at her. "Are you all right, mademoiselle?"

She nods. He waves to the waiter even as the man appears at her side with a clean white linen napkin folded over his arm. The waiter lifts his brows, bending toward her.

She points. "A cat was just there, in that very spot when the automobile raced around the corner." She turns to him. "Have I imagined this?"

The waiter merely straightens and smiles. "Was it perhaps a large yellow cat with only half a tail, mademoiselle?"

She nods, still stunned. "Why yes, I believe you're right."

The man folds his arms over his chest. "Then you have witnessed one of La Bohemian's finest tricks. Disappearing." Jutting out his bottom lip, he shrugs. "She escapes every calamity. It's a gypsy's trick, like magic."

With a sigh Coco glances back down at the letter lying before her. She could use a little magic right now.

"Shall I bring another pot of tea? This one must be cold."

"No, thank you." She waves him off. "I am fine."

The waiter turns to Prudone. "Something for you, monsieur? An aperitif? Tea?"

The director shakes his head, glancing at his watch. "Not today. I don't have the time." As the fellow hurries off, he turns back to Coco. "The letter. Have I brought bad news?"

"Yes, Monsieur Prudone, this is indeed bad news. But you were correct to come. This is an urgent matter."

He opens his mouth to speak, but she lifts her hand. "Silence, please. I must think." Her response must be swift and fatal to Pierre. She should have known Pierre Wertheimer would pull a trick like this, now that he's moved from France to America. He'd left to escape the German threats of war, so he'd said — and now comes this letter! From the day they'd created Société Mademoiselle together to sell No. 5, back in 1924, she's had to fight to protect her rights to her perfume, and her name.

What a fool she was. But she was only beginning to gain success with her dresses at the Paris Maison when they met, and she'd just created No. 5, and Pierre, with all his money and his huge perfume companies, wanted to invest. And his company, Lenthal, owned the factory right outside of Paris, which was ready to produce and distribute her perfume right away. The idea of a partnership between them had seemed a dream.

They made a deal — and she'd ended up owning only ten percent of the shares of Société Mademoiselle, abandoning control to Pierre and his brother Paul. She was a novice in the business of perfume in those early days, focusing her energy on building her name in couture, leaving the details of the agreement to Pierre. And, he — so debonair, successful, and rich — had seemed so wise. He handled all the contracts, all the legal threads in the final documents, and she'd not understood he would not have her best interests at heart.

From under her lashes she studies the director. She will need his assistance, and for that she must confide in him. She trusts no one. Still, he has been with her for years. He understands the value of discretion, especially in the competitive world of fashion — couture and perfume. And he is fully aware that discretion is a constant condition of employment.

Coco clasps her hands, fixing her eyes on him. "I must take you into my confidence, Director Prudone." She waits for a beat. When he nods, she continues. "It seems that my business partner is a thief."

"Pardon?" His eyes grow wide. "Are you speaking of Monsieur Wertheimer?"

"Yes. Yes!" She takes a breath, struggling to tamp down fresh fury.

A deep line forms between the director's eyes. He leans forward, as if someone may be listening and lowers his voice. "But I understood that Monsieur Wertheimer and his brother and their families moved to America a few months ago." He tilts his head to one side. "New York City, as I recall?"

"Yes. They immigrated." After Hitler invaded Poland, Pierre had thought the writing was on the wall for Jewish families. He thought the phony war was real. She picks up the envelope, using it to fan her face.

The director stammers, "But what ..."

"According to Monsieur Baudin, Pierre has taken — no, Pierre Wertheimer has stolen my formula for No. 5 from the factory."

"Stolen!" Prudone looks away. "I've always thought him a gentleman. Are you certain there is no mistake, mademoiselle?"

"Yes, Monsieur Prudone. I am quite sure. It appears Alain Jobert, Pierre's right-hand man, arrived at Neuilly from New York two days ago bearing a written power of attorney and instructions from Pierre to hand over the formula for Chanel No. 5." Pausing, she fingers her pearls. "Monsieur Baudin seems to believe he had no choice but to comply. Alain Jobert then left with the formula for my most precious perfume in his briefcase."

Prudone's expression at last acknowledges the full meaning of her words. The formula has been stolen. The No. 5 formula has never left the vault at Neuilly, because a perfume formula, like even the best chef 's recipes, depends entirely on secrecy. Only three people hold the combination to that vault: Coco, Pierre, and Georges Baudin.

Of course, trusting no one, Coco also has her own copy of the formula in her vault at the Maison.

Prudone shakes his head. "Monsieur Wertheimer a thief! Mademoiselle, how is this possible without your consent?"

"Not so difficult to understand. Alain Jobert is sometimes quite intimidating." Her smile is bitter.

"But everyone knows No. 5 is yours. The formula is yours."

"Yes," she spits out the words. "But as Monsieur Baudin reminds me in this letter, Pierre Wertheimer controls the company."

Prudone wears a puzzled expression as his voice softens to a conciliatory lull. "The theft will be futile, mademoiselle. The world knows you created No. 5. Why the perfume even bears your name. And No. 5 has always been produced at Neuilly. What use would Monsieur Wertheimer have for the formula in America?"

Indeed, that is the question.

Suddenly the picture becomes clear. Pierre is planning never to return to France. He would only dare to lift the No. 5 formula from Neuilly for one reason: he plans to produce the perfume in America. This is his opportunity to get rid of her complaints once and for all. He's moving their business to New York, leaving Coco behind. He will never return to France. He will cut her out while she's trapped in Europe by the threat of war. Regardless of the outcome with Germany, he will abandon her.

No. 5 has always been produced at Neuilly. Why else was Pierre so sly, so secretive, sending Alain instead of talking over the change with her? Absorbing the full import of her partner's betrayal, Coco slams her hand down on the table and Prudone flinches. No one knows how dependent she's become on the perfume's revenues. Yes, she has savings in the form of gold and investments locked up in her vault in Geneva. But since closing her line of couture last year after the worker's strike, No. 5 has become her primary source of income.

She lifts her chin. "No. 5 is mine, Monsieur Prudone. The formula is mine. I am the creative partner in the company. No. 5 was only my first fragrance, but it is the finest. I composed it after years of planning, and months of work in dank chemistry labs in Grasse."

Pierre has done it this time. Why, even if she desired to revive her couture line, because of Hitler's rampage in other parts of Europe, it is almost impossible to obtain supplies and fabric at this point. Since France declared war on Germany, even fabric mills in France have been requisitioned for the phony war. She clicks her tongue against her teeth thinking of the lost silks and wools and linens.

It wasn't the war that shut you down. It was your temper, Coco.

Well, that was not my fault.


Excerpted from "The Queen of Paris"
by .
Copyright © 2019 TK.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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