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The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume Hardcover – November 9, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.) (c)
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From Booklist

In this “biography of a scent,” Mazzeo (The Widow Clicquot, 2008), painstakingly follows the scattered breadcrumb trail left by the illustrious Chanel No. 5 (somewhere in the world, a bottle is sold every 30 seconds). So doing, she takes readers all over France, to the U.S,, Germany, and Imperial Russia, to explain the far-flung origins and unprecedented success of the perfume the author calls a “cultural monument.” In something akin to revealing the man behind the curtain in Oz, Mazzeo carefully uncovers the revered designer Coco Chanel’s complicated relationship with her creation, at once very personal yet belonging to women the world over, and exposes the tenuous (and, during WW II, downright scandalous) business partnership she maintained with her colleagues at Les Parfums Chanel. Readers may find themselves wishing the volume came accompanied by the endlessly described fragrance in its enigmatic art-deco bottle, but 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. --Annie Bostrom

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; Stated 1st Edition edition (November 9, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061791016
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061791017
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #317,768 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Tilar J. Mazzeo is the author of Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma (The Little Bookroom),The New York Times best-selling 'oenobiography 'The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It (Harper), and the forthcoming Back Lane Wineries of Napa (The Little Bookroom, Spring 2010). The Widow Clicquot has been recognized by Gourmand as the Best Work of Wine Literature in the United States for 2008. A member of the International Food, Wine, and Travel Writers Association, her work has appeared in Food and Wine magazine. She divides her time between the California wine country and the East Coast, where she is a professor of English at Colby College.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Sarah Lachance on March 23, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I really wanted to love this book. I did learn about the stories behind Chanel No. 5 (and I say stories because much of this book remains speculative), my main issue with 'The Secret of Chanel No. 5' is with the writing style.

Mazzeo has a tendency to repeat phrases. For example, between pages 12 and 15, she makes reference to the idea that Coco Chanel had "not yet thought of" becoming a fashion or fragrance designer no less than seven times over the course of three pages. While I get the reason for emphasizing these ideas, the technique is clumsy.

This repetition of phrases extends to repetition of whole ideas, paragraphs, sections of chapters. Each and every chapter was written as if the reader hadn't read any of the previous chapters. So much of this already-slight book was spent summarizing, re-summarizing and re-re-summarizing. It's the literary equivalent of the air in your bag of chips. I'm all for ensuring that a reader is oriented to the material, however, Mazzeo could have done it more sparingly.

Continuing on a theme, the author is unable to resist this tendency to re-summarize even after the book-proper ends. The tacked on afterword re-summarizes the entire book and offers no new insights. I wish she'd just let the writing stand (and end) as it was.

All in all, while the subject matter was interesting, the story might have been better suited (in depth and edited-length) to a Vanity Fair-style feature.
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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful By K. Sawyer on April 11, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition
I haven't read any other work by Mazzeo, so maybe I didn't know what I was getting into, but I simply didn't find this book as enthralling as other reviewers. For all Mazzeo's effort, the history of Chanel No. 5 is a small story, and no amount of fluffing keeps the book from feeling repetitious. The story also suffers from the lack of historical evidence--while I do not doubt the amount of research done by Mazzeo, it feels like a lot of evidence is missing, or there is no personal accounts, and much of what happens seems to happen 'one way or another.' The story is heavily weighted during Coco Chanel's life, and the history of the modern-day section feels rushed, as though the audience is assumed to know the current history. Perhaps in the modern era there is less intrigue and drama, but within a matter of years, this era might not be so easily recalled.

For Kindle-specific comments, I would note that the story ended 62% of the way through the page count. On the one hand, thank goodness, because I didn't what else there was left to say, but on the other hand, it wasn't accurate. Also, as someone who works in marketing and copy writing, the incorrect use of the short "n-dash" throughout the book was irritating. These are obviously not major complaints, but overall left it feeling poorly constructed.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Jeremie Fant on November 23, 2010
Format: Kindle Edition
I must say that I found this book very entertaining, which somewhat took me by surprise. Naively I felt I had heard all the interesting stories behind No5, particularly those associated with its infamous creator, and more importantly did not think that it was that exciting. Ms Mazzeo proved me wrong. The secret of Chanel No5 is much more intriguing than I could have imagined and kept me entertained to the end. The book weaves you from from the familiar, to the unfamiliar and back and the narrative sits comfortably between story-telling and informative. A great read.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Karen Burke on January 23, 2011
Format: Hardcover
An ancient Medici manuscript, the Knights Templar, a fortune teller and the coveted jasmine of Grasse - Tilar Mazzeo's fascinating biography of a western cultural monument weaves the threads together in the tableau behind The Secret of Chanel Number Five. And it is an incredible story. The careful balance of two fragrances - jasmine and aldehydes - inside bottles shaped like whisky flasks has endured its creator's anti-semiticism, seen American Second World War soldiers queuing up for sales in the snow along the icy rue Cambon and survived a series of dangerous gambles by the Wertheimer brothers who owned 70 per cent of Les Parfums Chanel in 1940 and who fled to New York just in time.

There's movie material here. When Chanel was arrested in her hotel room at The Ritz after the war as a suspected collabo, it was Churchill (so one rumour goes) who negotiated her freedom: "A decade later, people in Paris also speculated that Churchill - Coco Chanel's next-door neighbour during summers on the Riviera - had sent a chauffeured limousine to police headquarters personally to fetch her, and the driver headed straight for the Swiss border." It's also believed that Chanel's fascist lover, Hans Guenther von Dincklage, was in that car with her.

How Chanel Number Five came into being is just as intriguing. Even if Coco's purchase of Marie de Medici's "cologne" manuscript did not directly lead to the perfume's creation, it was a crucial preliminary stage. The history of perfume-making in France began during the reign of Catherine de Medici in the sixteenth century. Reading this, I wondered how much of an influence Henri II's mistress, Diane de Poitiers, might have had on Chanel's fashion designs given that Henri II's older lover was famous for her black and white simplicity.

Read this book for the lively style, for the facts you haven't yet seen in the Coco movies and for an insight into why Chanel Number Five has seduced so many women for so many years.
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