Partly a biography of Gabrielle Chanel (nicknamed Coco) and partly a biography of the famous perfume she co-authored, Chanel No. 5, Tilar Mazeo's book is one I knew about right when it was being authored, because I had been approached to assist with a couple of fragrance history questions. That might be why I was so inexplicably late in actually reviewing it, hesitant to deconstuct that beautiful narrative into info and personal opinions on style. Yet, because it is a book that is a real page-turner and which deserves a place in the library of perfume enthusiasts, I find myself thinking about it very often since its release and needing to relay my thoughts in black & white; much like the aesthetics of this iconic bottle dictate.
Cultural historian Tilar Mazzeo, after her best-selling The Widow Cliquot, has written a new book about Coco Chanel's legendary scent, The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume. In it, she skillfully interweaves facts about Chanel's life based on accredited biographers, such as Edmonde Charles Roux's biography Chanel and Her World, and musings recorded by memoir note-keeper perfumer Constantine Wériguine who kept a record of Ernest Beaux's souvenirs (Beaux being No.5' s illustrious perfumer). The inextricable struggle for survival of Coco, who went from orphanage in Aubazine to the cabaret and then on to the fashion atelier, aided by powerful men (Arthur "Boy" Capel, prince Dimitri and von Dincknlage among others) who loved her and aided her, and of her most famous creation, Chanel No.5 is fascinating to unravel.
I can guarantee you that you will be reaching for your bottle of Chanel No.5 every few chapters, in a desire to refresh your memory of what makes this fragrance truly an icon. If you're truly obsessive like myself, you will be putting all your vintages and concentrations imaginable from Eau de Cologne to Eau de Toilette, via Eau de Parfum, all the way to Extrait de Parfum in various dates on the desk and inhaling furtively to catch the secret of a commercial mega-success as recognisable today as Coca-Cola and Nike.
Among the merits of Tilar Mazzeo's book is its fast-paced rhythm which makes it a real page-turner; its wealth of documentation, amply showcased in the Notes section, where yours truly appears twice, no less; in the careful style of language that is engaging and joyful to read; and in the small astonishing facts that appear throughout. Several facts will make perfume enthustiasts perk up their ears and take note, like the notion that Beaux didn't create the first draft for No.5 on command of his patron, nor did he just employ his former recipe for Rallet No.1 which was a Russian Court favourite, before the Bolshevik Revolution which cost Ernest Beaux his stay in the mother land. Beaux was actually questioning prisoners in a location in the remote Archangel port of northest Russia when he noticed the scent of icebergs, wishing to capture this elusive, fleeting odour into a fragrance that could be worn on skin. It will be also interesting to see how Chanel herself was No.5's worst enemy, as she had signed away most of the rights to her fragrance early on to the Wertheimer brothers, and how she spent over 50 years fighting to get it back or destroy it. Indeed if one thing becomes apparent to the knowledgable reader who knew some of these secrets is how the meticulous care and consistent savvy business decisions of the Wertheimers, like smuggling jasmine concrete from Grasse fields to New Jersey laboratories during Nazi-occupied France in WWII, and putting the perfume for sale in Army sale points, have resulted in making Chanel No.5 the legend that it is to this day: the world's best known perfume!
If there is a "flaw" in The Secret of No.5 it is that the author intent on merging the designer with her famous masterpiece narrates the story as if every past deed in Coco's life bears a significance in the creation of the perfume by perfumer Ernest Beaux. It did not, as Beaux was certainly busy composing several first and second and upteenth drafts of his sperm idea years before he met Coco Chanel. But in retrospect everything falls into place and it is this which probably make the author choose this type of narrative style. The composition resonated with Chanel because it embodied everything she and her past stood for: a true classic yet perenially modern; the smell of "Boy" Capel who stood for cleanliness and safety, of fresh laundry & scrubbed skin reminiscent of the Cistercian orpahanage in Aubazine and the fervor of the demi-mondaines, young cabaret performers & societal fringe-living, less-respected women who wore heavy, sweet jasmine and musk scents; a bridge between the risqué and the lady-like, all in an emballage that spoke of Spartan deco restraint and mucho class. So much class and desirability in fact, that GIs were standing in line to get the goods back home during WWII and even Marilyn Monroe publicly proclaimed she loved it without being paid one dime to say she did.
In that regard it reminds me a bit of the cultural approach led by Jennifer Craik in The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion, another recommended read.
Bottom line: The Secret of Chanel No.5, despite its relative lack of pictures (there are a handful but not many), is a perfume book that will not tire or confuse less seasoned/less knowledgable perfume enthusiasts and, at the same time, it will not disappoint those who are more immersed in the aficion. Can I say it is recommended without appearing prejudiced?
The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume
By Tilar Mazzeo
Hardcover, 304 pages
List Price: $25.99
Disclosure: I bought the book with my own money, even though I was offered an advanced copy at the time of writing.