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Book reviews: Hal Vaughan's Sleeping With The Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War 

Sleeping With The Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War by Hal Vaughan (Knopf, 279 pages, $27.95).

Awful people can create great art or do great deeds. Think of Roman Polanski, John McEnroe, or Jerry Lee Lewis — jerks one and all, but also inspired artists in their chosen field. Fans tend to forgive and, if not forget, at least separate their faves' talents from their foibles. For decades, that's also been the case for the late Coco Chanel. The iconic fashion designer brought style into the modern world, liberated women from the tyranny of confining clothes, invented the "little black dress," created Chanel No. 5, and on and on. She was also a pretty vile human being: a relentless social-climber with a serious hatred of Jews; a rural rube turned vicious snob queen; a conniving backstabber; and a "horizontal collaborator" during World War II — that is, a Nazi officer's mistress. Her fans, perhaps the ultimate dedicated followers of fashion, forgave her long ago; their forgiveness could be tested, however, if they read Sleeping With The Enemy.

Others have said, or implied, that Chanel worked for the Germans in World War II. Hal Vaughan, though, reveals newly released information that shows how Chanel went from taking a Nazi intelligence officer as a lover to becoming a secret agent for the Germans. She gathered information in various European capitals for them, and exploited Nazi policies for her own purposes, such as when she used the Germans' "Aryanization of property" edicts to regain control of her huge perfume enterprise from a Jewish company that, she always believed, had connived to ruin her. In 1943, she traveled to London to get a message to Churchill, telling him of an SS plot against Hitler.

It's all interesting, valuable information that is well (maybe too well) documented. But there's a key problem with Vaughan's book: He's a dull writer, except for the times when he's both dull and confusing. The biography, as enlightening as it can be in places, contains way too many diplomatic papers that could have been quickly described rather than flaunted. Vaughan, too, seems willing to believe nearly anything negative about Chanel, although some of the firsthand witnesses he quotes are obviously unreliable.

British fashion columnist Justine Picardie's 2010 book about Chanel, Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life renewed the public's interest in the brilliant designer and, from all accounts, was splendidly written. Vaughan's book adds valuable context and new information to the story, but with no more flair than a page of stock listings. In an ideal world, the two books could be combined for a more thoroughly in-depth portrait of Chanel. But we're not in an ideal world; otherwise, someone as contradictory as Coco Chanel wouldn't have come along.

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