“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“Anyone who’s ever dawdled in front of a perfume counter will love Tilar Mazzeo’s fascinating history of the perfume known simply as No. 5; her rich and witty account is as compelling as the fragrance itself. ”
Mazzeo's (The Widow Cliquot) cloying and repetitive history of Chanel No. 5 finds the perfume's phenomenal success to have occurred in spite of its creator's efforts. Mazzeo reveals that the now instantly recognizable scent of heavy jasmine, rose, and musk combined with a good dose of "unblemished whiteness" produced by synthetic aldehydes was not actually invented by Coco Chanel in 1920, at the height of her fashion fame. In fact, she and her lover at the time, dispossessed Russian aristocrat Dmitri Pavlovich, recreated the scent from a perfume that had originally been fashioned for a Romanov dynasty celebration in 1914, le Bouquet de Catherine. According to Mazzeo, the newly fashioned Chanel No. 5 (Coco's lucky number) embodied the saintly mysteries of her childhood orphanage at Aubazine, the heady sensuality of her early career as a demimondaine, and the bracing clean lines of her modern design. A woman "should smell like a woman and not like a flower," she famously declared. In this fascinating story, Mazzeo depicts painstakingly how signing away her rights to the industrialist Wertheimer brothers in 1924 prompted perfume sales to soar worldwide, especially when the brothers were able to remove production to New Jersey during WWII. (Nov.)
Mazzeo's (English, Colby Coll.; The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It) "unauthorized biography of a scent" unearths the roots of the creation and fame of Coco Chanel's famous perfume, which still polls as the "most seductive scent" almost 90 years after it went on the market. Although Coco Chanel serves as a lens for the book, readers get a look at the explosion of the French perfume industry after World War I, the importance of American consumerism in skyrocketing perfume sales, and Chanel No. 5's place in 20th-century history. Mazzeo's lush prose covers relevant aspects of Coco Chanel's life, from the stark beauty of the orphanage where she was raised to the glamour and luxury of her adulthood, to the scents that wove through her life and shaped the development of her signature perfume. However, the book never bogs down in the details—despite the extensive research showcased in the bibliography—and a smooth pacing keeps it moving along at a fast clip. VERDICT This work is definitely recommended to lovers of 20th-century cultural history, Coco Chanel, and, of course, the world's best-selling perfume.—Crystal Goldman, San Jose St. Univ. Lib., CA
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.