Coco Chanel's Crumbling Mansion: A Look Into the Fashion Icon's Life and Secrets
| LAST UPDATE 06/14/2021
In the Scottish Highlands sits an abandoned mansion that was once the love nest of Coco Chanel and the Duke of Westminster. The estate gives a glimpse into the lavish life, and secrets, of the iconic designer.
Chanel and the Duke Made Rosehall Their Love Nest
In the 1920s, Coco Chanel began a long romantic relationship with Hugh "Bendor" Grosvenor, the second Duke of Westminster. Hugh was one of the richest men in the world and Chanel was building an empire.
The Duke and the fashion mogul spent much of their time together in Rosehall Estate, their summer home in the Scottish countryside. The beautiful mansion, which Coco decorated herself, has now been abandoned for over 50 years yet remnants of their opulent lives remain. But who was Chanel before living a life of luxury?
"With Money You Can Do Anything"
The legendary fashion designer was born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel in 1883 in Saumur, France. The young girl grew up in poverty, living in a one-room apartment with her parents and siblings. The child's mother was a laundrywoman and the father a vendor.
The clan led a destitute and frugal life. Later on, Chanel reflected that by age 12 she knew that, "Without money, you are nothing, that with money you can do anything... I would say to myself over and over, 'Money is the key to freedom.'" More tragedy would soon strike the family.
She Learned To Sew at the Orphanage
When Chanel was 11 years old, her mother died from bronchitis. A year later the young girl's father, Albert, sent all of his children away. Little Gabrielle and her sisters were sent to an orphanage, while the boys of the family were sent to work on farms.
Young Chanel struggled greatly throughout her childhood. Yet the girl's experiences as an orphan were crucial to her future career. The nuns at the institution taught the child how to sew, and their black and white wardrobe inspired her aesthetic. The little lady would soon move on to greater things.
"Coco! Coco!" How Gabrielle Became Coco
When Chanel turned 18, she left the orphanage and began working in a tailor's shop. At night, the young lady sang at a cabaret, Moulins, along with her aunt, Adrienne. Adrienne was about a year older than her niece and the two performed for some extra money. It is because of this job that Gabrielle came to be known as Coco.
When she performed, the crowd requested encores by yelling, "Coco! Coco!" "Coco" was a French term for a child or a kept woman. It was unclear which meaning the audience attributed to the singer, but the name stuck. Little did the seamstress know that in the audience was a man who would change her life.
He Introduced Her To a Lavish Lifestyle
Working Moulins, the young woman met many men who were interested in her affection. But none of them caught Coco's attention like Etienne Balsan, a French ex-cavalry officer and textile heir. The 23-year-old began a relationship with Balsan, which would prove to be beneficial in many ways.
The French vet helped Chanel establish her millinery business, where the designer made and sold women's hats. The man's connections not only helped young Coco's career take off, but they also introduced her to a lavish lifestyle and a useful social network. But after three years, the couple's relationship took a turn for the worse.
Chanel's First Big Love
In 1908, Balsan introduced Chanel to Captain Arthur Edward 'Boy' Capel. Capel was a charming English man and the hat designer was quickly smitten. Boy became one of her greatest loves. "He was one of the most important people in her life, if not the key person," said writer and biographer Lisa Chaney.
Arthur helped Coco with the financial aspects of her growing business. But his impact on the designer's success went beyond money. The creator's use of unorthodox fabrics reportedly had their roots in her romance with Capel, whose men's wardrobe inspired ideas of fashion and comfort. Chanel's business was about to take off.
"The Most Glittering, Famous, and Interesting Wits"
Coco's designs were soon in national magazines. She opened two boutiques and then a third on the legendary Rue Cambon in Paris. The designer was surrounded by a mix of aristocrats and artists. Chanel was in "two worlds that are... mutually exclusive: the world of society... and... of the artist," said Chaney.
These universes came together at Coco's gatherings. Her lunches had "the most glittering, famous and interesting wits," said film director Luchino Visconti. Amidst the glamour, the prominent fashion icon didn't foresee the tragedy that would soon befall her.
"I Lost Everything When I lost Capel"
Chanel and Boy undoubtedly shared a special bond. "He was my father, my brother, my entire family," she said of him. But in 1918, Capel married Diana Wyndham, the daughter of a Lord. The former couple remained friends until the loving man died in a car accident in December 1919. "His death was a terrible blow to me," Coco said.
"I lost everything when I lost Capel. He left a void in me that the years have not filled." The woman mourned for months and buried herself in work. Around her, the world was unaware that the death of the designer's former lover was about to inspire something that would become emblematic of Chanel in many corners of the world.
The Creation of the Iconic Chanel Logo
The iconic designer met Ernest Beaux in 1920. Ernest later helped Coco create her renowned perfume, Chanel No. 5. It was on this fragrance's bottle that the interlocking "Cs," the logo of the iconic brand, first appeared around 1924. Theories on what inspired the symbol vary, but one speculation relates to Boy Capel.
It's hypothesized that the overlocking "Cs" were made to represent Capel and Chanel. Although never confirmed by the creator herself, it's possible she used the symbol as a way to keep his memory alive. As the logo came to adorn earrings, necklaces, and handbags, Coco met the next great love of her life.
She Was Surrounded by Aristocrats
Coco was a part of Europe's high society, interacting with the likes of Picasso and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, the grandson of Tsar Alexander II. "Society people amuse me more than others. They have wit, tact, a charming disloyalty, a well-bred nonchalance, and an arrogance that is very specific," Chanel shared.
She said, "...They know how to arrive at the right time and to leave when necessary." In the mid-1920s, the designer accessed the highest levels of the British aristocracy. Coco had no idea that she would spend much of her time away from the parties of the city and in the Scottish countryside with a great man.
The Duke Was Quickly Enchanted by Coco
The woman who grew up in poverty now socialized with British royalty, including Edward, Prince of Wales, and Engish politicians such as Winston Churchill. In 1923, Chanel was in Monte Carlo when she met the Duke of Westminster, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, one of the richest men in the world.
The Duke was quickly enchanted by the successful designer and the two began what would be a long-lasting love affair. The exceptionally wealthy Grosvenor gifted Coco lavish jewels and expensive art. But perhaps most notable were the homes that the 40-year-old woman received from her man.
They Lived a Lavish Life Together
The Duke of Westminster was reportedly the richest man in Britain. The British aristocrat had been married twice and had two daughters, whom Chanel met. The two lived a life of lavish together, hosting and attending grand parties where Coco made many connections.
The couple also spent time in Grosvenor's many properties throughout Europe. He had a country house in Cheshire, Eaton Hall, a Scottish estate in the Highlands, and a home in London, Bourdon House. But the love birds held one of these homes especially close to their hearts, the mystical mansion in the Highlands.
A 700-Acre Love Nest
The Duke's Scottish property, Rosehall Estate, encompassed 700 acres of land. The mansion was originally built in 1820 and became a love nest for Chanel and Grosvenor. There, the two had private and intimate time, as well as hosted prominent friends.
The love birds had plenty of room on the estate for their parties and alone time. On the 700 acres of land were five outbuildings with incredible views over the Scottish Highlands, a lake, a garden, and a river. While Rosehall became a relaxing getaway for the two, the Duke also gifted Coco her own incredible home.
A Home on the French Riviera
In 1927 Hugh purchased land on the French Riviera. Here, Chanel built her villa La Pausa. Ballard, 1940s US Vogue editor, said the villa was "The most comfortable, relaxing place..." The editor shared that Coco usually stayed in her private quarters until lunch. "No one missed lunch - it was far too entertaining," she said.
The designer worked with architect Robert Streitz to help make La Pausa reflect her aesthetic. The staircase and patio had elements inspired by the orphanage where little Coco grew up. The fashionista also took her style to the Scottish Highlands, where she redecorated the incredible mansion so beloved by her and the Duke.
Chanel Redecorated the Estate
The 700-acre estate was surrounded by nature, which the couple often relished in. But the pair also spent much time inside the 22-room mansion, which Chanel redecorated to be more in line with her Parisian background. Similar to her clothing designs, the house was bathed in neutral colors and displayed Coco's unique aesthetic.
"The striking simplicity, with shades of beige and basic... chimneypieces in painted timber, would have been significantly radical for its time," said the Historic Environment Scotland, which preserves historic sites in the country. Perhaps equally as striking as the home's décor were the people that passed through its doors.
They Hosted the Likes of Winston Churchill
The lovers hosted a variety of guests on their estate, including Winston Churchill. "This is a very agreeable house in a Highland valley," Churchill wrote about the property. "... The air is most exhilarating, keen and yet caressing." The trio often fished together, and Winston developed a deep appreciation for Coco.
"[Chanel] fishes from morn till night..." he wrote to his wife in 1927. "She is... a really gt [great] and strong fit to a rule a man or an Empire. Bennie [the Duke] vy well and I think extremely happy to be mated with an equal." Coco welcomed friends to the breathtaking mansion, but her other home also saw some notable faces.
Her Parties Were Envied by Many
The famous designer planned some of the most elaborate parties when she was in Paris. Coco went to great lengths to make the parties as aesthetically pleasing as her fashion. One guest wrote of the "multitude of peonies" that decorated tables, and said the events were "moving parties which made several people envious."
Another guest said of Chanel, "As always, she [Coco] flirted with the men... Pretending she was completely captivated, when suddenly pfft! Nobody there! ... She disappeared around two in the morning, so as not to miss her beauty sleep." Her charming ways were no secret, and the taken lady was soon courted by many.
A Romantic Moment With the Prince of Wales
Coco had been introduced to the Duke by her friend Vera Bate Lombardi, a well-connected British socialite. Through Lombardi, the designer also met the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII. Prince Edward was allegedly infatuated with the fashion icon and tried wooing her despite her relationship with the Duke.
Vogue editor Diana Vreeland divulged years later that, "The passionate, focused and fiercely independent Chanel, a virtual tour de force," and the Prince of Wales "Had a great romantic moment together." Perhaps in part due to their flirtatious ways, Coco and the Duke of Westminster's relationship faced trouble in paradise.
"There Is Only One Chanel"
In the early 1930s, ten years into Chanel and Grosvenor's long relationship, their chemistry began to dwindle. Coco would soon miss her time at the love nest mansion. The Duke married magazine editor Loelia Mary Ponsonby in 1930, but Loelia hadn't been his first pick for a wife.
Hugh allegedly proposed to Chanel before the duo separated. When asked why she rejected the offer, Coco is said to have answered, "There have been several Duchesses of Westminster - there is only one Chanel." The designer stayed busy with work, but little did she know her seat on the fashion throne would soon be threatened.
She Was Invited To Hollywood
In 1931, Chanel visited Monte Carlo with the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich. There, Pavlovich introduced Coco to film producer Samuel Goldwyn. Goldwyn offered the iconic designer a million dollars (about $75 million today) to come to Hollywood twice a year and design costumes for MGM. Shortly after, she accepted the deal.
In 1932, traveling from New York to California in an opulent train carriage customized specifically for her, Coco was interviewed by Colliers magazine. The designer said she was going to Hollywood to "see what the pictures have to offer me and what I have to offer the pictures." The new venture did not go as the fashionista hoped.
Critics Ridiculed Her
Coco's design palette was in contrast to the Hollywood wardrobe. Criticizing the designer's muted colors and tweeds, The New Yorker wrote, "[She] made a lady look like a lady. Hollywood wants a lady to look like two ladies." Chanel was further threatened by rival Elsa Schiaparelli and her fresh, critically acclaimed designs.
Coco tried to maintain her reputation by creating a wardrobe for a Jean Cocteau theatre piece but faced ridicule. A critic wrote "... The actors looked like... mummies or victims of some terrible accident." As she tried to regain critical acclaim, the war arrived and the fashionista became involved in something unimaginable.
War Was Not a Time for Fashion
Chanel was collaborating with artist Salvador Dalí for a Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo production when Great Britain declared war in September 1939. The project left Europe and Coco went back to Paris, where shortly after she closed all of her shops. The designer said it was not a time for fashion, as the world was at war.
Chanel faced criticism when 4,000 employees lost their jobs due to the store closings. Nonetheless, the fashion designer continued to reside in Paris throughout the Nazi occupation of France. In this time, she became involved with a prominent German officer, which raised dire suspicions.
She Was Involved With a German Diplomat
During the German occupation, Chanel resided at the Hotel Ritz. The hotel was the go-to place of residence for high-ranking German military staff. It later came to light that her stay at the property had been arranged by a German officer, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage.
Gunther von Dincklage a German diplomat and a former Prussian Army officer and Attorney General. He had been involved in military intelligence since 1920. Having gone from a Scottish estate with a largely unproblematic lover to the Ritz with a German official, Chanel's reputation was called into question.
A Beneficial Relationship
Chanel's relationship with Gunther von Dincklage was a rather beneficial one. While many suffered the financial effects of the war, Coco had a comfortable living situation arranged by her lover. Being with Hans also kept Chanel entrenched in France's high society, which had been permeated by German officers.
The German diplomat helped the fashion designer with more personal matters, as well. When Coco's nephew, Andrew Palasse, was imprisoned in a German Stalag, or prisoner of war camp, Hans helped arrange his release. Chanel soon used her new connections to get some business revenge.
She Wanted Justice
With the help of Hans Gunther von Dincklage and other German officials, Chanel sought justice for a business transaction that happened in 1924. In a deal to sell Chanel No. 5 in department stores, the entrepreneur had her name on the bottle but received just 10% of the profits.
Pierre Wertheimer, a businessman, produced the perfume in mass quantities and received 70% of the profits. The other 20% went to the man who brokered the deal, Theophile Bader, founder of the famous French department store Galeries Lafayette. Coco fought the deal for years in court.
She Wanted To Put Them Out of Business
The fashion mogul wreaked so much havoc over the arrangement that the Wertheimer business had a lawyer whose sole job was to handle issues with Chanel. During the Second World War, Coco tried using her connections and new German laws to put the Wertheimer family out of business.
But to avoid losing their wealth to Chanel, the family sold the majority stake to someone else. Thanks to their quick-thinking, Coco was unable to run the brothers out of business. The socialite's connections and embrace of the German occupation would soon call her integrity into question.
They Suspected She Was a Spy
When the war ended, the famous designer was interrogated about her and von Dincklage's relationship. Archival documents later revealed that the French Police had a folder on Chanel and described her as "Couturier and perfumer. Pseudonym: Westminster. Agent reference: F7124."
The police had assigned the fashion icon a spy number. Yet she never faced charges as a collaborator, allegedly because of an intervention by Churchill. Whether from guilt or simply for more privacy, Coco left for Switzerland shortly after the interrogations. Little did she know what would soon happen in her beloved Rosehall Estate.
Her Former Lover Died in Their Mansion
As Chanel lived a secluded life in Switzerland, her old lover and Duke of Westminster, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, was struggling with his health. In 1953, at the age of 74, Hugh died in the very Scottish estate that he and Coco had enjoyed together for all those years.
After his death, the mansion was abandoned. Footage showed the house surrounded by long grass and bushes. The walls inside cracked and dampened and the home was unvisited for years. But treasures from Coco Chanel's past remained in the house, and would later be discovered by excited explorers.
Chanel Made a Comeback
Chanel lived in Switzerland for nine years after the war. She then returned to Paris and, in 1954, reopened her couture house. Coco wanted to enter the world of fashion for the first time in 15 years since she closed her stores at the start of the 1930s.
The French press were cautious in reviewing the 1954 comeback collection, as they had not forgotten her collaboration with the enemy. Chanel died on January 10, 1971, at the age of 87. She had become increasingly isolated with time, a transition that mirrored that of the once-lavish home Coco had inhabited with her great love.
"It Was Fascinating Wondering Which Room Coco... Would Have Slept in"
The Scottish mansion had been abandoned for over five decades. Almost 50 years after Chanel's death, the property was entered by urban explorer Matt Nadin, who was in awe of the manor. "Some of the rooms were absolutely massive," he said. "Some of the windows must have been 15 feet tall..."
Nadin continued, "But it was riddled with damp and the walls were full of cracks." Matt felt the energy of the past inhabitants and said, "It was fascinating wondering which room Coco Chanel would have slept in and the wild parties that would have gone on." He was surprised to find treasures between the dilapidated walls.
Inside the old mansion were remnants left by the previous owners. Amongst other things, Nadin found a dusty chaise lounge where Coco possibly laid. A horse-drawn fire-engine cart complete with hoses was also on the grounds, along with a pair of skis, and an ancient range cooker.
The house had multiple cast iron fireplaces and ornate furniture including beds, wardrobes, dresses, and a roll-top bath. Since being abandoned, the country house waited to be bought and returned to its glorious form. That possibility eventually arrived.
It Was To Be Made Into a Hotel
The mansion was owned and protected by various business and estate agencies before it was marketed by RE/MAX, a London-based real estate agency. The crumbling, 700-acre property was marketed for about $3.9 million. The once beautiful home went unsold for over four years until it was reportedly bought for an undisclosed amount.
There were plans to turn the previously glamorous mansion into a luxury boutique hotel. Visitors would reside in the same spaces where Coco Chanel hosted the most elite members of European society. But a visit to the house may be tainted by some late revelations about the famous designer's role as a German spy.
Chanel Had Been a Spy
Towards the end of 2014, post-World War II documents held by French intelligence became declassified and were released to the public. Some of these papers confirmed Coco Chanel's suspected involvement in German intelligence. The late designer was directly involved in a plan to help Germany take control of Madrid.
Chanel's grand-niece, Madame Gabrielle Labrunie, later said of her relative's involvement in the war, "You know... these were very difficult times, and people had to do very terrible things to get along." While Coco may have lost admirers due to the revelations, her legendary brand stood strong.
Agent F-7124 Traveled To Madrid
The declassified papers showed that the fashion icon indeed worked for the Germans in exchange for the release of her nephew. Gunther von Dincklage introduced Coco to Baron Louis de Vaufreland, another German intelligence official. It was Louis, not Hans, who made a deal with Chanel.
Vaufreland promised to help free Coco's nephew in exchange for her service to Berlin. This deal was likely what got the businesswoman registered as Agent F-7124. In mid-1942, the new agent traveled to Madrid with Louis on a mission disguised as a business trip.
She Was Rewarded for Her Actions
During the feigned business trip, Chanel needed to obtain political information from colleagues and acquaintances in the Spanish capital. She was to use her impressive networking for the benefit of German intelligence and no one was to suspect a thing of the beloved fashion designer.
According to Hal Vaughan's book Sleeping with the Enemy, Chanel met with old friends and business partners while in Madrid. During one dinner, she casually chatted about life in occupied Paris as she secretly digged for information. Coco's participation led to the release of her nephew, and the fashionista was soon sent on a riskier mission.
Operation Model Hat
In late 1943, Germany was losing power and its dominance in the war. It was then, between the end of 1943 and early 1944, that Chanel was tasked with another assignment by General Walter Schellenberg of the SS. The mission was given the code-name "Operation Modellhut," German for "model hat."
By this time, Coco's old friend, Winston Churchill, was the prime minister of England. The spy was instructed to use her personal relationship with Winston Churchill to pass on the message that many SS senior officers were seeking an end to the war. What came next was a thrilling and frightening turn of events.
Coco Was Almost Discovered
Using her networks, Chanel arranged for a mutual friend of hers and Churchill's, Vera Lombardi, to be released from an Italian Prison. After Lombardi was let out, she traveled to Madrid with Coco and Gunther von Dincklage. It was in Spain that things got messy.
Vera was instructed to hand Chanel's letter, with the message from the Germans, to Churchill at the British Embassy. Instead, she denounced Chanel as a German spy. Coco's connections helped her return safely to Paris, while Lombardi was taken back into custody. But this wasn't the last time the icon risked being revealed.
She Kept Her Involvement With the Enemy Hidden
Chanel continued to cover up her actions once the war ended. According to Sleeping with the Enemy, the fashion designer went to great lengths after the war to keep her involvement with the enemy hidden. Especially her participation in Operation Model Hat, which involved Churchill.
Chanel worried when she heard that Schellenberg, the officer who tasked her with Operation Model Hat, was going to publish a post-war memoir. Schellenberg was sick at the time and so Chanel paid for his medical bills to assure she was not incriminated in his book. Only time would tell if her plan was effective.
Traces of Chanel on London Lampposts
The published memoir had no mention of Coco's involvement as a German spy, and she died without facing any ramifications for the wartime betrayals. While Chanel managed to erase her mark on the wrong side of history, the designer also found a way to occupy the streets of Europe long after her death.
In the Westminster area of London, black lampposts were decorated with interlocking C's that appeared similar to the Chanel logo. Legend has it that the Duke of Westminster had his lover's initials put on the street posts, leaving an ever-lasting Coco mark on the streets of London. The logo isn't the only remaining trace of romance.
Her Love Affair Changed the World of Fashion
Remnants of the relationship between Chanel and the Duke of Westminster may be found on London sidewalks and they can definitely be found in fashion. Grosvenor not only provided Coco with an incredible love-nest, but he also inspired her fashion.
The iconic tweed suits that became an emblem of Chanel were influenced by the Duke's fishing and hunting clothes. The late designer's love for Grosvenor, for fishing, and for Scotland, also inspired fair isle sweaters that appeared in the brand's 2019 collection. Many of Coco's designs have proved to be timeless.
The Little Black Dress
Chanel's passions and hobbies continued impacting the multi-million dollar brand long after her death. Arguably more impressive, some of the designer's pieces completely revolutionized aspects of fashion and still do today. Such is the case with the "little black dress" (LBD).
The "little black dress" was coined by Vogue in 1926 when they printed a Chanel dress and called it "the frock that all the world will wear." At the time, it was a revolutionary design as black was considered a color for mourning, not for stylish women. That's not the only modern-day closet must-have we can thank Coco for.
The 2.55 Chanel Shoulder Bag
When Coco made her comeback after the Second World War, she was met with much criticism. But the fashionista proved her spark wasn't gone with a unique design. In the 1950s, a proper woman carried her purse in their hands and Chanel decided to change that.
In February 1955, Coco released the 2.55 Chanel Shoulder Bag. The purse had a quilted leather and a signature gold chain for the strap. The design made it alluring and acceptable for women to wear a bag on their shoulder. But how did the brand continue growing even after the founder's passing?
A Legacy Left To Lagerfeld
After the legendary designer passed away on January 10, 1971, the house of Chanel suffered as Coco's assistants tried to continue her work. Almost 12 years after the founder's death, Karl Lagerfeld became Chanel's creative director and brought stability to the brand.
Lagerfeld planned elaborate fashion shows that involved things like huge carousels and even the launching of a spaceship. But some things did not change, such as the brand's unique aesthetic of muted colors, gold chains, and quilt-stitched leather. Karl was accompanied by some surprising faces in his effort to continue the designer's legacy.
The Return of the Wertheimer Family
While under the direction of Lagerfeld and until today, Chanel has been owned by the Wertheimer family. After the war, the brothers that Coco had tried to run out of business regained full ownership of their investment in Chanel. They even helped in Coco's return to fashion in the 1950s.
The designer's big rivals were a huge part of her post-war success, and continue to be part of the fashion brand's current success. The company is now owned by Pierre Wertheimer's grandchildren, Alain and Gerard. Butt Chanel's legacy lives on beyond the glamorous stores and wild catwalks.
Her Influence Went Beyond Fashion
Coco Chanel revolutionized fashion with her one-of-a-kind aesthetic. Yet the iconic woman who carried herself with grace even when she worked as a spy has left a mark on more than the world of fashion. Her glamourous life and various foreign lovers have mesmerized many.
Since Chanel's death, multiple movies were made about her life. Films like Coco Before Chanel (2008) and Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009) gave peaks into how she created an empire and her personal life as well. But few movies can rival the real-life romances and contentious missions the fashion designer experienced.