Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born in 1883 to an unmarried mother, Eugénie Jeanne Devolle—known as Jeanne—a laundrywoman, in the charity hospital run by the Sisters of Providence (a poorhouse) in Saumur, Maine-et-Loire, France. She was Jeanne's second child with Albert Chanel; the first, Julia, was born less than a year earlier.
When Gabrielle was 12, her mother died of bronchitis at the age of 32. Her father sent his two sons out to work as farm laborers and sent his three daughters to the Corrèze, in central France, to the convent of Aubazine, which ran an orphanage. Its religious order, the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary. It was a stark, frugal life, demanding strict discipline.
Later in her life, Chanel would retell the story of her childhood somewhat differently; she would often include more glamorous accounts, which were generally untrue. She said that when her mother died, her father sailed for America to seek his fortune, and she was sent to live with two aunts.
In 1906, Chanel was working in the spa resort town of Vichy. Vichy boasted a profusion of concert halls, theatres and cafes where she hoped to achieve success as a performer. Obliged to find employment, she took work at the "Grande Grille", where as a donneuse d'eau she was one of the females whose job was to dispense glasses of the purportedly curative mineral for Vichy.
World War II, specifically the Nazi seizure of all Jewish-owned property and business enterprises, provided Chanel with the opportunity to gain the full monetary fortune generated by Parfums Chanel and its most profitable product, Chanel No. 5. The directors of Parfums, the Wertheimers, were Jewish. Chanel petitioned German officials to legalize her claim to sole ownership.
In 1945, Chanel moved to Switzerland, where she lived for several years, part of the time with Dincklage. In 1953 she sold her villa La Pausa on the French Riviera to the publisher and translator Emery Reves. Five rooms from La Pausa have been replicated at the Dallas Museum of Art, to house the Reves' art collection as well as pieces of furniture belonging to Chanel.
As 1971 began, Chanel was 87 years old, tired, and ailing. She carried out her usual routine of preparing the spring catalogue. She had gone for a long drive the afternoon of Saturday, 9 January. Soon after, feeling ill, she went to bed early. She died on Sunday, 10 January 1971, at the Hotel Ritz, where she had resided for more than 30 years.