All Columns in Alphabetical Order

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

READ THIS: THE SECRET OF CHANEL NO. 5 The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume By Tilar J. Mazzeo

Between writing about first The Widow Clicquot and now Chanel No. 5, Tilar J. Mazzeo has proven to us that she may be the author with the best taste ever.  You know we loved The Widow Clicquot: this study was just as exemplary, we're pleased to tell you.  

Nothing like reading a history of the most famous perfume, says Peachy Deegan who quite literally has reviewed nearly 1,400 beauty products since Whom You Know began.  Unfortunately Chanel No. 5 is not in that number, but perhaps someday Chanel will work with us.  

This unauthorized biography of a scent is something you all must read-its level of detail in conjunction with the entertaining yet scholarly level of writing dazzles.   Fashion is architecture, and Aubazine, the convent home in which Coco Chanel grew up in, was no stranger to scent and attention to detail...and this was part of the inspiration.  And also part Marie de Medici manuscripts, and who was Ernest Beaux?'ll have to read and delve into the sweet smell of the pages to find out exactly because we want you to read the book.   You'll even learn what an aldehyde is.  Did you know Chanel believed that women should smell like women, not a flower?  She meant for Chanel No. 5 to be partly artificial.

Our favorite paragraph in the book (p. 48) reads:
"The south of France that summer of 1920 epitomized the beginning of the debauched decade often known simply as les annees folles-the crazy years.  Women sunbathed on the beaches wearing ropes of pearls, and the bohemian rich staggered tipsy from extravagant party to extravagant party, from one bedroom to another.  Coco Chanel, the rich and already famous designer, single-handedly made the suntan fashionable, and as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of those times, 'It was a whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure.'"
We also love love love how Fitzgerald makes up Chanel No. 16-just brilliant.  To know what we are talking about, read the book.   We do wish he were here to jump in the Plaza fountain with, filled with Chanel No. 5 or maybe even 16.

Not only is this a book about an iconic brand, but it is a study in business also.  How many other brands launched right before the depression survived it, and even influenced the war?!  Soldiers lined up for it to bring home.  President Truman even had trouble getting a bottle for his wife.  We were pleased to see that the Estee Lauder company helped Chanel out in developing the American side of the business (p. 150).  However, Chanel herself was not aware of the American production, and was infuriated: "It is monstrous," she insisted.  "They produced it in Hoboken!"  We can hardly blame her reaction...

You'll see that Sem even drew this all up...and you remember him from Mover and Shaker Pamela Friedman.  The only thing that disappointed us in this book was that it was not scratch and sniff.  Peachy Deegan would totally love adult scratch and sniff for Chanel No. 5.  Read this and then spritz some on, or just simply bathe in it, while you're reading this book in the tub of course.  The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume is Highly Recommended by Whom You Know.


“[Mazzeo] explores interconnections between designer and perfume, teasing out the relationship with delicacy.”
— New York Times Book Review

— Wall Street Journal

“This is one case where historical fact eclipses the legend and lore of the object itself—there’s much, much more than meets the nose to discover in these pages.”
— Booklist

Now Available in Paperback!


The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume

by Tilar J. Mazzeo

Wrapped in storied legend, Chanel No. 5 is the bestselling perfume in the world. Almost ninety years after it debuted in Paris, it still sells at the unfathomable rate of one bottle every thirty seconds. Yet beyond the indisputable truth of its enduring popularity around the globe, so much else that is “known” about the history of the beloved scent is shrouded in half-truths and outright fabrications. In her alluring new book, THE SECRET OF CHANEL NO. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume (Harper Perennial; On Sale September 6, 2011; Trade paperback; $15.99), New York Times bestselling author Tilar J. Mazzeo delves into the intricate story behind the fabled perfume—from its surprising origins and its reimagining by the brilliant Coco Chanel to its unprecedented popularity and twisty path to iconic status.

“Few products around the world are more beloved than Chanel No. 5,” Mazzeo writes, “and it inspires in its millions of fans—and there are millions—the kind of passion and loyalty that executives in slick advertising offices on Madison Avenue can only dream about manufacturing. The dilemma for any curious historian, savvy entrepreneur, or fragrance aficionado is: what, precisely, is the connection? How did Chanel No. 5 become one of the most celebrated luxury products of all time? If it took decades for the marketing to catch up with the success of the world’s most famous perfume, what is the secret of its fabulous destiny? More simply still, why is Chanel No. 5 the most sensual perfume in the world, and what exactly is it that makes this scent so sexy anyhow?”

The story of the perfume is, of course, inseparable from the story of Coco Chanel, and Mazzeo returns to the legendary designer’s earliest years to ferret out surprising connections. Abandoned by her father and raised in a convent, Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel started her adult life as a cabaret performer and soon became the mistress of wealthy men. Set up in business as a milliner by one of those men, she soon changed the future of fashion. When she decided to create a new perfume—and she was only the third couturier ever to do so—Chanel, Mazzeo writes, wanted to evoke “the scent of scoured warm flesh and soap in a provincial convent, but it would be unabashedly luxurious and sensual.” The number 5, Chanel’s lifelong fetishistic number, also had connections to her convent youth.

Though the story that Chanel No. 5 was the first perfume to use newly developed aldehydes is not true, it was one of the first to effectively exploit these synthetic molecules. Coco did not start from scratch, basing her perfume on a mostly forgotten scent—Rallet No. 1—that had been created for the ill-fated Russian czarina Alexandra. Coco obtained the formula with the help of her lover, Dimitri Pavlovich, exiled cousin of the murdered czar. Once she and perfumer Ernest Beaux had “created” her mysteriously alluring scent, Coco launched it with savvy and stealth among her exclusive clientele, and at the height of the flamboyant 1920s, the perfume quickly took on a life of its own.

Only a few years after it was introduced, Coco sold the rights to No. 5 and all of her perfumes to Les Parfumeries Bourjois, keeping only a ten percent stake for herself. It was a decision that would cause her relentless regret for much of the rest of her life. The company was a giant in the marketing of perfumes internationally, and it made Chanel No. 5 the global success it would become, but the designer, despite the vast wealth and even greater fame the perfume brought her, was often unhappy with decisions that she feared would dilute the exclusivity of the product. Above all, however, it was the loss of control over this most private of fragrances that fueled her passions. During World War II, Coco tried to wrest back control from those Jewish business partners—some of whom had fled to the United States and were making the perfume in Hoboken, New Jersey—by invoking Nazi laws against Jewish ownership. Indeed, Coco, who sat out the war in the Ritz Hotel, living on her 10% share in the profits of Chanel No. 5, had a questionable relationship with the occupying Nazi regime.

World War II was nonetheless the event that transformed Chanel No. 5 into the iconic product it is today, as American G.I.’s in Europe, like the German soldiers before them, snatched up the coveted perfume to take home to their girlfriends, wives, and mothers. The perfume became a symbol of luxury and sexuality in America, where no less an advocate than Marilyn Monroe famously announced she wore nothing to bed “but a few drops of Chanel No. 5.” Its distinctive black-and-white box—though not its iconic bottle, as is commonly claimed—was featured in a special exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959. The perfume found a new generation of fans through canny advertising begun in the 1970s that has invited women to “share the fantasy.”

Ultimately, the “secret” of Chanel No. 5, Mazzeo decides, is not just its scent (while unquestionably beautiful, there have been many knock-off versions on the market over the years), or its complicated creator, or even clever marketing. The secret lies instead in the fact of all the legends that swirl around its so mysteriously. “Indeed, the secret at the heart of Chanel No. 5 and its continued success is us and our relationship to it,” Mazzeo writes. “It’s the wonderful and curious fact of our collective fascination with this singular perfume now for nearly a century and the story of how a scent has been—and remains—capable of producing in so many of us the wish to possess it. Think of that number: every thirty seconds. It is an astounding economy of desire.”



Tilar J. Mazzeo, author of the New York Times bestseller The Widow Clicquot, writes on the things she loves best: French culture, luxury goods, wine, food, and the good life. A professor of English at Colby College, she divides her time among the California wine country, coastal Maine, and New York City.


The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume

By Tilar J. Mazzeo

Harper Perennial

On Sale Date: September 6, 2011

ISBN: 9780061791031

Trade Paperback/$15.99/320 pages

Back to TOP