Reverently known among industry insiders as “le monstre”—the monster—it is arguably the most coveted consumer luxury product of the 20th and 21st centuries. Yet how did this pioneering celebrity fragrance, introduced in the late 1920s, eventually take on a life of its own, becoming a “cultural monument” celebrated by millions of devoted consumers?
The Secret of Chanel No.5 is Tilar J. Mazzeo’s far-ranging and fascinating search to uncover the full story of No.5’s creation, iconic status, and extraordinary success. And she reveals how some of the things we think we know about this celebrated fragrance are the stuff of legend. Mazzeo goes back through time and deep into the life of Coco Chanel, its brilliant and deeply flawed creator. She takes readers to the rose plantations and celebrated jasmine fields where the perfume begins, and on to the laboratories and boardrooms where scent and sex are forever intertwined. And she takes us to the heart of the Chanel empire: 31 Rue Cambon, Coco Chanel’s flagship boutique, where six decades ago American G.I.s stormed the counters to possess the magical elixir that captured the luxury and romance of Paris for their girls back home.
A blend of evocative history and thoughtful research, here is a glittering account of the place where art and sensuality meet dazzling entrepreneurship and desire: Chanel No.5.
From the reviews:
The bestselling author of The Widow Clicquot (2008) turns her attention to the world’s most iconic perfume and the fascinating woman behind it.
Much has already been written about Coco Chanel, and with good reason—not only because of her undeniable legacy, but also because of a life story usually viewed through the lens of 19th-century bildungsroman novels. Abandoned by her parents to a convent, she was a dancer at the Moulin Rouge, a mistress to the French aristocracy and an acquaintance of ruined Russian royalty—all while building the greatest fashion empire in the world. Chanel No. 5, her signature fragrance, was only a tiny part of this remarkable life. However, in the skilled hands of cultural historian Mazzeo (English/Colby Coll.), it becomes a magnificent window through which to understand her and her milieu. The author argues that the scent was the crown of Chanel’s career and that it weaves together many of the obscure pieces of her life in an intriguing way—from the passion for cleanliness that she inherited from the nuns that raised her to the seductive musks she picked up in the dressing rooms as a burlesque dancer to the almost forgotten Moscow perfumer that she learned about from a lover exiled on the Riviera. Chanel No. 5, “the scent of beautiful extravagance,” is also a perfect example of Chanel’s remarkable business sense. In explaining how decisions like using a simple apothecary bottle in place of a more ornate design or giving out samples to friends at a pre-launch party paved the road for the perfume’s market dominance, Mazzeo illuminates the greater success of the Chanel line as a whole.
Impeccable research and crafting make a seemingly narrow topic feel infinitely important.
Mazzeo has written an account of the rarest of things—an international olfactory icon—that fairly rushes off the pages. Here is the life of one of the 20th century’s most interesting and deeply complicated women, a fascinating cultural history, and the story of an extraordinary perfume.
—Chandler Burr, author of The Emperor of Scent and The Perfect Scent
The true brilliance of The Secret of Chanel No. 5 is Tilar Mazzeo’s ability to take a subject one would never have thought possible to think very deeply about and then cover it so captivatingly. Who knew that such a tiny bottle housed so many secrets?
—Michael Tonello, author of Bringing Home the Birkin
Mazzeo calls her book an “unauthorized biography of a scent,” but in fact it is a biography of Coco Chanel as seen through the prism of her famous square flacon. Mazzeo’s 2008 book “The Widow Clicquot” concentrated on another French luxury liquid, Veuve Clicquot, and its maker. Here she explores interconnections between designer and perfume, teasing out the relationship with delicacy.