Couch scrolling in Seattle the summer of 2018, I stopped at a post from Hey Alma, a Jewish and feminist online magazine, in which a woman in her cluttered living room wore layers of yellow and green and held out a bright necklace of oversized beads. The text read: “Coco Chanel said to take off one accessory before you leave the house. That bitch was a Nazi, [so] please join me in adding one extra accessory today and every day.”
Chanel’s advice to remove one thing sometimes came to me while getting dressed, echoing down a dusty feminist zeitgeist, and I’d remove a necklace or a ring or a scarf. One object lighter, I’d feel elegant, refined, clean.
I reread the caption. Wouldn’t I have heard this before?, I thought. I worked as a writer, stayed current-enough on Twitter, and surrounded myself with Pacific Northwest progressives: my dearest friends were Jewish social workers, professors, activists, and artists. I struggled to believe that I’d missed this.
A few internet searches revealed that Chanel not only identified as a Nazi but traveled as a spy with an agent number—Abwehr Agent F-7124—recruiting for the Third Reich. In the 1930s, she lived with her boyfriend, and Heinrich Himmler’s SS, at the Ritz in Paris alongside members of the party’s elite. These lurid details struck me not only because I hadn’t known, but because they reminded me of the shock I’d felt a few years earlier when I found U.S. immigration records that showed my Jewish family had escaped Catherine the Great’s Cossack army and the shtetls of the Pale of Settlement, but not the forced Catholicism of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Before finding these records, I hadn’t known I was Jewish, and had been looking only to fill the large gaps in my ancestral knowledge. Naively, I hadn’t expected to learn I was someone very different than who I’d thought.
In 1964, my father, at age eighteen, legally changed his name from Eisenberg to Ellison, adopting his mother’s maiden name, so as not to be perceived as Jewish.
A few years later in 1971, Chanel died in her Nazi Ritz apartment.
When I was born in 1984, my father took two years to chase down a priest willing to baptize me, a child born to a lapsed and previously divorced Catholic and a Jew in hiding. In the winter of 1996, when I asked, he told me outright that we were not Jewish. I believed my father’s lore as I had recently believed Chanel was a feminist hero. The shock in my discovery about Chanel echoed the shock about my father, my family, and about myself.
At my laptop, I read about Chanel’s father abandoning her at a Catholic orphanage when she was eleven, about the age I first asked my father about our Jewishness. I read from Justine Picardie’s biography of Chanel in which she is quoted as saying, “I don't know anything more terrifying than family,” and remembered the moment in New York City in 1996 when I broached our history and identity.
On Christmas Eve, twelve and scratching at my holiday best—a DKNY iridescent maroon mini dress found at Ross Dress for Less—I asked my father from the backseat of my grandmother’s tiny teal sedan, his strong hands on the wheel and Manhattan’s warm twinkle out the window, why grammy bristled at our leaving for Midnight Mass. The car went silent and at the next red light, my father spun in his own finery—dark suit and subtle green tie—and faced me to say low and cold like a threat, “We’re not Jewish.” Confused and terrified by his hottest, quietest anger yet, I turned to my window, needing to cool myself from this brush with the limits of his love. I strained to follow his unspoken direction, forget the whole thing, but the tension in the car came to me in visions of our smooth tires on black ice, spinning into piles of snow on street corners, or some failure of the car’s innards: the many potentials for a crash. After years of family Christmas visits to New York, I had no idea that my grandmother might be keeping our roots a secret, and certainly not on my father’s behalf or for fear of him. Decades later, a DNA test showed his claim was a lie or delusion, something too complex and personal to tease out, which I’d effectively adopted for myself, afraid of what the truth would do to my tenuous but treasured relationship with my father.
I grew up in Los Angeles in the ’90s, the city of angels, actors, and dreams broken by the Northridge earthquake and the fires, the police and their violence caught on tape, and kids my age who slept on Hollywood Boulevard’s stars. Given a small 14-carat gold cross to wear by my father, I followed him into Ann Taylor and Brooks Brothers where he pointed at white linen and navy with gold buttons, preparing me for a summer internship at the Beverly Hills financial behemoth where he worked. Away from him, I wore jean shorts and big t-shirts to vintage shops on LaBrea, checking price tags for the best deal, picking out baby blue corduroy and brown polyester. I escaped his displeasure by wearing these clothes on weekdays, when he left the house early for the New York Stock Exchange opening bell.
At the office, he spoke German to his Austrian assistant, then blasted Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Brain” or John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son” in his black Ford Bronco to blow off steam on late returns to our rented townhouse two long L.A. blocks from the Peterson Automotive Museum where the Notorious B.I.G. was murdered. On weekends, my father drove me to riding and golf lessons, grooming me in a mostly-secular, blue-blood, upper-middle-class existence. In these and so many other ways, I learned to wear power—not to know it, but to act it out. Once, my father bought me a suit at a Versace outlet in Palm Springs when I was seventeen, and once at Emporio Armani on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, he bought me a small wardrobe before I moved to New York for my first job after college. In those dressing rooms, I swallowed myself quietly, ignored that I didn’t recognize myself, that this was a performance I didn’t understand. I didn’t dare ask if we could afford these elaborate gifts for fear of my father’s pride, despite the first bankruptcy or the second. I pushed away the stories, the versions of reality I’d have to endure and subscribe to as payment for this spoiling. Just as he’d dressed me to fit in at his office in yuppie costume, he dressed me to shine in expensive elegance for the sake of a dream, and I loved to dream. I believe his thinking went something like this: We were American before we were anything else, and I, his first daughter, robed in Italian silk, would be denied nothing by no one. Perhaps he thought he’d shield me from generations of hate via a broad-shouldered, modern silhouette and brass buttons. He effectively protected me from that hate through ignorance, but not from an internal nagging desire to know us, to love us better, more deeply, to crash us, if that’s what it took.
Coming out of the dressing rooms, the dark Italian lines transformed me into an ideal, and his gaze adopted a wistful admiration each time I emerged, reborn in his eyes. In those clothes, perhaps he saw a future, the one he hoped for me, and I believed it must be the best one. I believed I was wrong in feeling we didn’t belong there, but also knew the clothes would not make up for the fights in our home, the hidden histories scratching to be known at every holiday gathering. I tried on stilettos in front of wall-sized mirrors, and stood so still as to be proportional and striking, privately fearing I might expose more imperfections, that I might fall, exacerbating my shame and revealing the ways I did not belong. I gave a small smile. I learned from my father’s adoration of his choices for me, and his frightful looks down and away at my hanky-print polyester button-ups, that my desires were unfavorable, uninteresting, wrong. I wore what he liked in order to know his favor. I wanted to make him proud. I needed, desperately, for him to love me.
When I took a DNA test in 2015, the results showed I am Jewish. My father had denied the veracity of family historical documents I’d dug up years before the test, arguing they could be falsified, and I believed that, too, sort of. Still, I searched for the origin of his defensive fury, hoping that if I found an explanation for it, I’d also find some peace for myself and my family, proof that we were what he’d always said we were, and the anger was just more personality, more particularity among very sensitive, creative people. While I researched, unsatisfied to accept the story I’d been handed, I published an essay about my relationship with my father, and he stopped speaking to me. Not entirely unexpected, but utterly against what I’d hoped, this rejection set me free to take the test: the damage to our tentative bond, however precious to me, was done.
In that distance, I received the DNA test results, and went searching for my crash: I booked a flight from Seattle to my ancestral homeland in Ukraine.
In summer of 2016, I called him to tell him I was going to Ukraine.
“Good luck finding whatever you’re looking for,” he said, and hung up. It had been years now that I’d tried to have this discussion with him, years in which my desire for his protection via story or fantasy became threadbare, and I was going miles away to another country no longer ours, and in a quiet war. I would not beg him for an honest conversation, but I did keep trying to start one.
Weeks later, I traveled to the towns of my ancestors, all in present-day Ukraine, but regions formerly part of the Austrian-Hungarian and Russian Empires. Early in the trip, I stood by an unmarked mass grave protected by caution tape in a small World War II cemetery, and though I’d been to the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum before age ten via a school field trip, and read and watched Jewish tragedies in books and movies, nothing prepared me to be held up by the bones of distant cousins, ancestors’ neighbors, or perfect strangers whose remains fed the trees that shaded us.
Anticipating this gravity, I’d planned an escapist gulp in Kiev, an international and modern city in which I’d take a few hours of refuge. At a roundabout downtown, I spun into a retail haze on a sunny day, looked up at a bright white rectangle glowing behind bold black Roman letters that read: C H A N E L. My body eased. I melted in the direction of that luscious, glossy set of rectangles.
Though bald display of desire had been trained out of me growing up in Los Angeles, where one should never seem too interested in anything, I stared into the pristine display of Chanel in Kiev. A few days paging through faded German script and rotating scratched microfiche in sparsely staffed archival offices had me hungry for just the brand of escape my father had always afforded me. I’d thrown myself deep into a reality of which I’d never known the likes, and without his support. Even my closest friends, Jewis window h and not, asked before the trip, “What is with your dad?” I felt on my own and yearned for comfort, to be lied to again, the best version of love I’d been offered up to that point. Chanel’s store presented a familiar, fantastic exit from reality, and my body moved to it, a cool relief in the summer sun.
Gleaming patent leather on mannequin feet pointed toward me at eye level. I darted my head around street reflections in the glass to see them. Beyond the white fiberglass legs, in the back of the store racks stood in the dark like a movie set before start time, my tired face and travel-worn shirt and jean shorts superimposed over the immaculate costumes inside.
I didn’t enter and wouldn’t have even if they’d been open; the trip and the work that led up to it had damaged my ability to lose myself in blind, obscene surreality, though I didn't yet understand why.
I took a long, vacant stare into the store window, my hearing and peripheral vision faded from the thumping want in me, and reached for a moment’s fantasy as the prescribed customer for whom doors are built to open. Ignorant of Chanel’s impoverished upbringing or her short career as a courtesan when pleasing wealthy men afforded her survival, I battled a bone-deep impulse, carved into my brain and DNA through generations of Jewish survival, to slip inside that shop and hide myself in Chanel’s firm textures and boyish shapes. I knew, though I’d never been explicitly taught, that if I could blend in, appear powerful, I could stay alive and safe. Chanel was the most perfect clothing to separate myself from the Jewish history I longed to forget again, just for a short time.
My desperation pulled from deep in me. Alone on the street, I remembered shopping with my father as a girl. Despite myself, the guard of his suspicious eye and the warmth of his affection, at whatever cost it came, was what I felt staring into that window. More than anything, I needed Kiev to remind me that we’d made it, that we were still alive, and my closest remaining family came to me in cap toe heels I’d never own.
The Chanel suit that forever defined modern women’s style originates from the Nazi uniform: the tailoring, the bold buttons and chains, the thick fabric. Chanel’s color palette—black, gold, red, white, cream—echoes the German flag. Her linked C’s, which may have been inspired by the iron work of her favorite church in the south of France, by a socialite friend’s palace decor, or by the Catholic orphanage where she grew up—now call to mind the linked Z’s of a swastika.
Chanel’s reds have morphed into contemporary pinks, the military style into angular, post-modern, softer shapes with a new female creative director, Virginie Viard, a former costume designer frequently inspired by cinema. In the Fall 2020 collection, the models, mostly white and skinny, wore tweed. Those linked C’s, the round brass buttons and broad shoulders, the high-waisted belts and balloon arms of Nazi inspiration remain. Viard said this collection embodied “the desire for the Absolute,” which is to say, freedom from imperfection. How to define that freedom and that perfection are looming questions. Viard’s collection of black, white, pale pink, and mint reference the original pastel Chanel skirt suits and prepare for Christmas’s bold reds and greens, shades of commercialized Christianity. From long necks hung fat crosses of bulky, luscious gemstones in pronged settings as gold and bright as Fifth Avenue in December or the church domes in Ukraine, which I saw in every tiny town surrounded by wood shacks and blocks from dilapidated synagogues. I sought family history and found concrete with bullet holes, unpolished silver, rusted iron, a beauty and tragedy not sold on Chanel’s runway. Chanel’s models walked in sequins, lace and leather, and, one, in a riding hat not unlike the one I wore as a girl. In seasons since, Viard has been “thinking about eccentric princesses.” Online, we watch mavericks like Billie Eilish, Cardi B., Maggie Rogers, and Pharrell Williams proudly wear those linked C’s. In the more recent Spring/Summer 2021 line, Viard outfitted another slender, white “family” of models for an imaginary and elaborate pandemic wedding with a handful of high-profile guests seated at safe distances from each other, while many of us still hid from the plague where we could. More significant than this fake wedding, even the brand itself, or the net worth of its present-day Jewish owners, more painful to separate from Chanel’s hateful theologies and “more terrifying than family:” her power fantasy still sometimes stirs a small desire in me.
The last time I saw my father was years after the trip for a two-hour lunch in Beverly Hills. I’d flown back to Los Angeles to look after a friend’s dog and visit my great grandfather’s grave—the man who was my father’s namesake and my own, the man buried minutes from where I grew up. I’d never known he was there, driving by every school day until I left for college.
After a tear-filled visit to that Jewish institution of a cemetery, I got into my friend’s SUV and met my father in a new pair of Levi’s and a vintage blouse, old jean jacket, and Chuck Taylors. I paid for two hours parking, those long L.A. blocks stretching wide and pale as I walked to the restaurant on Rodeo Drive.
When I saw my father for the first time in five years, he also wore Levi’s, polished black boots and belt with silver buckles, and a white Oxford so crisp it seemed cut from cardboard. The shirt contrasted with the new wrinkles around his neck from how thin he’d gotten. He hid his eyes behind Ray Ban aviators, always, and his hair still grew thick but white as his shirt.
“Hi, Dad,” I said.
“Hey, Kate, how you doin’,” he said.
While we walked to the restaurant, he barely looked at me; I was starved for his attention. I hated that old desperation, and I could barely hide it, but he didn’t seem to notice. We got a table quickly in the middle of the small white room, and the waiter brought water soon after. My father folded his thick fingers in front of me, and I saw his gold wedding band missing and his other ring finger eaten up by a huge silver skull.
He asked for an egg white to be added to his salad; the waiter said they couldn’t.
“You can’t,” my father said. I stiffened, silent, surprised how quickly I found myself wanting to leave, but not wanting to compound this fight. “You don’t have an egg back there?” he said, his face tightening into a squint. I wanted to help this man bringing us food, who remained at the table barely containing his anger at my father, and I didn't know how to protect him and myself at once. Feeling as if I were in the backseat of the car on Christmas Eve again, I didn't think to use the power I had.
My father didn’t get his egg white and he never took off his sunglasses. He didn’t ask about Ukraine, I didn’t tell him I’d just visited his grandfather’s grave, and I stopped waiting for him to ask questions about twenty minutes in. We didn’t discuss the missing wedding ring or my mother, though he did say that his fingers had been too swollen to wear it and that she’d gotten very difficult, which I already knew from my rare communication with her.
He did tell me, without prompting and without a logical connection I could make, of his Sicilian “mob” friends in Yonkers when he was a kid, prostitutes “his friends brought around” in his twenties, and why he was right to lose his last job, bankruptcy and law suit or no, financial or emotional support for his family or no.
“I’m not so different from my father, you know,” he said, as if this would gain points with me, a reference to where we came from. “He was stubborn and lost his business, too.”
I felt I was in an argument, but I’d hardly said a word. I burned for him to notice how uncomfortable I was, and I couldn’t see a way into his rambling monologue. I found myself looking around the room when not right at him, trying to remember if he’d always been this way or if he’d gotten worse since I’d been away. I hoped this was a performance, that he was nervous or angry, punishing me, and that it would wear off. I hoped he’d tell me how well I looked, treat me as his daughter, of whom he was proud, whom he respected, rather than a distant friend he saw occasionally and to whom he bragged about his sordid youth. I was hoping, as I’d long been without a glimmer of a sign, for a change.
While he talked and talked, my insides twisted. Before, I’d struggled to believe him, needing him, but now that I’d lived without him or his version of love, I became aware that his stories rolled through time and character, and I wondered if this was an intentional storytelling tactic, designed so that I couldn’t follow the timeline or logic, get confused, then lulled into his perspective out of sympathy and exhaustion.
Walking back to our cars on that same block, I found a little of that power I’d forgotten.
“You know, I don't want to hear about the time you spent with women before mom,” I said.
“Oh, right, another thing we won't talk about,” he said. “I thought we could have an adult conversation, but I get it, you can't handle it. Fine.”
Effectively shamed and more so that I was so easily, I said, incredulous, “I just don’t want to hear about your sex life. Ever.”
“Oh, wow,” he said. “Alright. I didn’t know you were so uptight, but I get it, you can’t handle it,” he repeated.
Aside from a hope I’d never shake, a love for him that was almost entirely painful now, I was done trying.
In that last stretch of road, on which I was stuck because we’d parked on the same block, I noticed that he had a bad limp. At first, it’d seemed an affect, a stylistic choice, but now I saw he bent at the hip where his shiny black leather belt met his slimmer gut.
“I had back surgery a few days ago,” he said.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Always my question. I didn’t know what else to say.
“I’m fine,” he said, pleased at the attention, pleased to play the martyr, and then I remembered the orange bottles by his bedside for years. Remembered the irritability of my mother when she took Vicodin for years long before that, the rage ready as soon as the pain crept back in. He’d been high and babbling unconsciously during our lunch, hostile toward the waiter in a drugged fury.
The lies were too many. I hugged him goodbye. Despite myself, a rush of warmth toward him filled my shoulders and chest, which had been tight just a moment before. Against him, his familiar, thick body, his muscles like mine, his barrel chest and dense arms a source of my own physical strength, I couldn’t help but remember the safety he’d once provided me. As I leaned away, he smiled behind his sunglasses, as if I’d always come back for more, as if he sensed I couldn’t help how important he was to me. I turned away, toward shelter, feeling used.
“He is not a good man,” I said later on the phone to a friend and was surprised to hear myself say it. I’d tried often and for too long to meet him where he was. Those two lunch hours after five years of not seeing him spent the last bit of energy I had. I’d twisted myself into his version of reality, calling those fantasies love, and made a liar of myself. I needed, more than anything, not to do that anymore.
I haven't seen him since.
On a sunny, cold November day a year into the pandemic, I walked to meet a friend, fresh out of a breakup and my first revelatory love affair with a woman. It had been another piece of myself concealed in all that family training, while the beloved queer queen Kristen Stewart proudly stomped around as a Chanel ambassador. At the crest of a nearby hill, bright clothes hung on free-standing aluminum racks placed on a grassy street corner. One piece caught the sunlight: a white fur coat. No glass to keep me out, I swiped through rayon robes and cotton pinched-waist slacks for comfort or a new feeling.
Two women seemingly in charge chatted nearby: a brunette in pale faux fur to her calves sat in a pink armchair on the grass, and a blonde stood in an oversized white, blue, and black plaid print.
I loaded an arm with six pieces, including the white faux fur, soft in my hands. Finding a mirror and pulling the coat over my shoulders, the short collar sat at an angle around my neck, the fabric sewn in a wide herringbone pattern.
As the electronic payment went through, twenty-five dollars for the pile, I recognized the brunette. I’d gone to a poet’s reiki workshop after returning from Ukraine, and this woman, a recognized reiki master, had introduced herself as a Jewish Latinx from Queens with Ukrainian-Russian ancestors. She’d put one hand on my head years ago and sent peace to my great grandmother Clare Ellison, born in the Russian Empire and buried in a Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles.
“Do you remember me?” I asked without a shred of finesse. She looked up from her phone, from behind sunglasses.
“Yeeeessss,” she whined in a Rosie Perez voice, and though I wasn't convinced, she endeared me helplessly with her silliness and sophistication, her gorgeous, trashy taste and magnetic eccentricity. I smiled.
“How has everything been?” she asked, meaning, truly, everything, I thought.
“Good,” I said, unsure. I remembered the rose carved in my great grandmother Clare’s headstone, which I’d also visited only once.
“Peaceful,” I said, surprising myself, and we smiled at each other.
I walked away in the white coat and a bag of used clothing, their missing buttons and torn inseams revealing stories lost. Wearing imperfect clothes granted freedom from Viard’s Absolute—not that I could ever afford it—and the delusional perfection in which my father wanted to live. I wore our unrecorded history as the tagless white coat; what I loved most was broken, torn, lost. Perhaps Hey Alma’s woman in the kitschy yellow and green felt the same. The faux fur left too long in a closet opened fantasies about who I could be and who I was now, a queer, Jewish writer, to my pleasure and surprise. Just like my father and utterly unlike him, I became the self I desired inside the fabulous discount coat, a desire incomparable to the pangs of empty desperation Chanel silks and lipsticks sometimes create, advertised to me more since I began writing this essay and lopsiding my search algorithms.
In the coat, I embodied a time when perhaps my family wasn’t tattered beyond memory or repair. I imagined us whole, not “terrifying” as Chanel had said, and by way of this coat of unknown origins, as I had once been, and by way of a need for connection and for love, I understood that family could be anyone.
I warmed in the winter sun on my walk, said a quiet prayer to the past, and invited strangers’ ghosts to walk with me.
Katie Lee Ellison is a 2016-2017 Hugo House Fellow, a 2018 fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, and a 2020 Tin House Summer Workshop attendee. She is working on a memoir tentatively titled Everything We Wanted, pieces of which are published in Shenandoah, Moss, Crab Creek Review, Arcadia, and elsewhere. She holds a BA in English Lit from Wellesley College and an MFA from the University of Idaho.