Saturday, February 26, 2011

Book Discussion: The Secret of Chanel No. 5

So here we are, me without my hoped for comment threading widget, and no way -- YET -- to cluster our subtopics.  Because when it comes to this book, subtopics, I've got a few.

Despite the lack of fancy gadgetry, I'm going to plunge forward.  If you like, when you comment, you could use a Twitter convention, and #hashtag certain discussion points, so that you can refer to them.  You know, things like #CocoSexLife or #CleverMetaphors, or #AtHomeRecipes.  

Unfortunately, the book's contents lead to only one of those three hashtags being applicable.  I look forward to any you identify.

I propose that you first write a comment that either represents your "review" of the book, or a Major Point you wish to make about it.  Then, we'll start responding to each other, and track the traffic via hashtags or simply by referencing to the idea we are responding to.

YOU ARE NOT EXPECTED TO LIKE OR DISLIKE THE BOOK.  You are not required to agree with me or anyone who registers an opinion.  I trust you all know how to be polite without squashing your or someone else's Good Thought.  

:), the emoticon said.

We'll start with my thoughts:

I came to The Secret of Chanel No. 5 with no expectations, other than possibilities raised by the title itself.  (Will this deal with formulas? With marketing strategies? With the powerful personality responsible for its success? The little known fact that Allied sympathizers found a way to hide messages inside the iconic simple square flacon?) I have not seen either of the Coco biopics, and while I've read the usual suspects when it comes to perfume history and primers and such, I far from consider myself "schooled" on the subject.

So, The Secret of Chanel No. 5 could have chosen to be a historical fiction, an industry analysis, or a written documentary of how one fragrance influenced boudoirs across geography and time.  (The subtitle is "The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume," after all.)

Unfortunately, I'm not sure what to call it.

Read the preface, and the author will tell you "this is the history of the world's most seductive scent."  Indeed, you'll get a hit of Chanel's orphan story, a hit on her collaboration with Ernst Beaux, a review of the flacon history, mention of the who's who of society at the given period under discussion.  There is, in fact, a bag full of good data here, and this is worth reading if you are a fan of perfume or fashion.

I am just torn about how to describe how *good* a read it is.

There is an odd combination of attention to detail that veers toward pedantic and a tone that reads, a tone, rather than a voice I want to follow through the wilderness.  I got the distinct impression that the book was developed in chunks, and a through line was never fully developed or followed--relying on a time line to pull us from beginning to end, rather than say a single or evolving mystery that slowly unravels.  (Just one of a few choices.)  

Somebody commented on my Facebook page with encouragement to keep going--it gets more interesting, they said, as you get further into it.  True.  But not in the sense that sometimes happens with a narrative when you suddenly realize that you've become concerned with the characters involved, and must keep going to see what happens next.  More in the sense that you've already spent this much time and energy in the relationship, you might as well play out the whole hand.

I don't regret having this book. But I am rather frustrated with how hard I had to work beyond the narrative to pull things together.  What in the start of the book is a "signature scent" (for the House of Chanel, not for a wearer, an important distinction to point out to perfumistas what with their understanding of the word) and on the book jacket is "the smell of seduction" is at the start of Chapter 17 "an elite cultural icon and an object of mass market-appeal."  Mind you, No. 5 may well be all of those things.

I just think that it was the author's job to more clearly (and entertainingly) connect the dots to show me how.  By all means, go find a copy if you want various historical bits gathered in one location. Do not expect a "good read."

I have not reconciled myself to a positive review.

I will say this:  As for the scent itself, if Mazzeo's theory is right, and Chanel wished to basically put into one bottle the Cisterian values of soapy cleanliness and the lush rose and jasmine content of a "O-De-Kolon" favored by the Russian aristocracy...well...let's say that in my nose, the soapy clerics totally wiped the floor in a victory over the czary flowers.  

What Does Reconciliation Mean?
An accounting process used to compare two sets of records to ensure the figures are in agreement and are accurate. Reconciliation is the key process used to determine whether the money leaving an 
account matches the amount spent, ensuring that the two values are balanced at the end of the recording period.


Anonymous said...

Well, here goes. Let's hope my comment doesn't burn a hole in the internet.

I disliked this book for more reasons than I can count. I was taking notes, but stopped after a time because it just seemed cruel.

I understand that the writer is a professor of cultural history. In venturing into the popular realm, though, there is really no reason to assume that your readers comprehend on the 4th grade level. We don't need the breathless tone, the constant foreshadowing, the endless repetition (in case we forgot what you said just two pages ago?. We readers can appreciate footnotes that substantiate your claims, rather than having to flip to the back each time to match the note with the proper "fact."

Those "facts" presented to us in the book are often rather problematical. There is really no way we can know to what extent Coco Chanel was influenced by her orphanage experience. It is all speculation and should have been clearly labeled as such.
The speculation went well beyond the orphanage experience, however, and ventured too far into that realm than is fitting for a proper "biography" (of a scent) or a cultural history.

All that speculation left little room for information that *should* have been there. WWI was glossed over, yet that war and its aftermath literally shook apart old assumptions about art, fashion, womens' role in the world. I don't understand why she didn't paint us a picture of the world into which Chanel No. 5 was born and the modernism into which its aesthetic meshed.

I'm afraid this comment is going to be too long, so I'm going to end it here and post another.

Anonymous said...

Like Shelley, I felt that the author threw in material simply for the sake of including it. It resulted in some rather strange reading. For example, in the story of how the bottle came to be designed, the author went on for a few pages speculating in great detail about whether the bottle was inspired by x, y, or z. Her conclusion, however, was that the bottle was inspired by Boy's whiskey bottles, yet says absolutely nothing about said bottles.

There was a similar disconnect in the epilogue, telling us that the "secret" of Chanel No. 5 was it's mass appeal, a thesis which wasn't at all central to the 200 pages the reader had just finished.

I do want to say a positive word about the sections on the legal challenges to the perfume's ownership during WWII. I felt that section of the book was well-researched and compelling. It would have made a great magazine article.

Furriner said...

I didn't like the book much, either.

I thought she overemphasized the orphanage stuff, as if she had to have some big secret about why No. 5 was so Coco... Also, other (great!) Chanel scents went barely mentioned. True, the book wasn't about them, but to barely say anything about, for example, Cuir de Russie or Bois des Iles, was kind of weird. And really next to nothing about Ernest Beaux.

She was a bit dismissive about Chanel's Nazi collaboration and her flight with the Wertheimers. Granted, Chanel does come off as some kind of golddigger protecting her own interests, but I wanted a bit more.

Most of the book could have been had from the various Wikipedia articles about Chanel, No. 5, etc.

Last remark for now: I think Anita mentioned something about proper editing in her post here when we were setting up this discussion. The book makes a brief mention of pantyhose sold at army PXes after or during the war, I forget which.... when pantyhose were not invented until the '50s. Anyway, this one detail kind of bugged me for the rest of the book. If Mazzeo was too lazy to look this up or have a fact-checker look it up... how much of the rest of the book was similarly researched?

Anonymous said...

Furriner, it was that legal fight with the Wertheimers that I thought was the most compelling part of the book. I thought a bit more historical context would have been useful, though. Chanel wasn't the only person using the Nazi "race" laws to appropriate "abandoned" property. It was a bonanza for opportunists of all sorts.

olenska said...

Hoo boy. What can I say that hasn't been truthfully detailed above by other correspondents, except this: for all the mystique with which Mazzeo surrounds Chanel's "invention" of this seminal perfume out of her own history, the perfume itself existed under the names "Buket Yekaterina" and "Rallet No. 1" long before Chanel met perfumer Ernest Beaux. To put it simply, it's not her perfume. It wasn't created by her, or even for her. That fact dismantles all the dramatic foreshadowing and other devices which Mazzeo uses to tell this story-- and it all becomes an exercise in wasted effort.

ScentScelf said...


I kenned onto the professor occupation, too, which unfortunately led me down a path thinking that various chapters were more and less complete conference papers, and put together in book form without, among other things, bothering to make coherent as a whole. (Once you've told me the first time a cartoonist's name and then the nickname he was better known by, you don't need to go through the whole spiel again the next time he comes up, for example.)

Maybe nobody offered a good editor? I was just having a conversation with someone a couple of days ago about the true value of the oft-reviled editor. A good one makes you better, while keeping you "you." Of course, here, simple fact-checking would have been a good idea, too.

ScentScelf said...

And it is fact-checking that brings me to your thoughts, Furriner. There WERE silk stockings, of course, but the pantyhose issue... Plus, a few people were stymied in their willingness to go along with the author's train when she referred to the "famous" 21 Rue Cambon address. Which is where Chanel first set up as a milliner...but NOT the famous address. An address ironically stamped into our memory by another (modern) Chanel offering, 31 Rue Cambon.

Olesenka, yes, that is a good point. The Rallet No. 1 -- a.k.a. O-De-Kolon--was there. Also interesting that maybe, just maybe, Le Numero Cinq was simultaneously released...but that situation is different from the one you describe, wherein the "novelty" of Chanel's No. 5 is made moot.

So far, we've got a common thread in the non-fiction equivalent of "willing suspension of disbelief": for reasons described, readers had trouble pushing through.

Curious to thoughts from others...

Musette said...

You know how I feel about sloppy copyediting. The Rue Cambon gaffe ...well, that got the antennae quivering.
This book reminded me of John Anderson's presidential bid - remember how he used to say he was going to tell us some unpleasant things that we needed to hear (I am paraphrasing) - but he never actually got around to Those Things. Eventually the country got bored with the whole waiting around for it all....I felt much the same with this book.

I'll discuss Mlle Chanel's portrayal in another comment

Furriner said...


I guess I just wanted more of the Wertheimer story than there was. I think her Nazi connection was more than was presented in the book, though.

But then, this wasn't supposed to be a biography of Chanel, but rather of No. 5... which brings me back to Ernest Beaux and, as olenska mentions, the earlier existing perfumes.

ScentScelf said...


Yes. Yes, yes. Not only is good editing important, sloppy editing is, well...worse than none at all?

I hear you on the Anderson analogy. Looking forward to your next comment.

Musette said...


Furriner, Nancy and Olenska have covered the gist of it - this book was all over the place. I know it's difficult to separate No5 from Mme Chanel. Nearly impossible, in fact. But I agree with Furriner that Ernest Beaux gets short shrift in this book - without M. Beaux there would be no No5.

Y'all will be on here for awhile, right? I have to hie out to Kansas City to visit a plant - will try to get back here asap.


Ines said...

Unfortunately, I cannot discuss the book as I haven't read it but I love the discussion. :) And now it seems I won't be reading it.

But what worries me a bit after reading the comments is the fact that the book will be read my many people who won't realize some parts of books (if I got it correctly) mis-represented some facts and will spread them further on as fact. Possibly.

ScentScelf said...

Ines, I think I know where you could get a copy...if you change your mind about giving it a go.

That's a good concern, I think. There's something about a book, especially a non-vanity/non-self-published book, that lends itself an air of authority. Especially when it contains lengthy bibliography and endnote sections. Of course, this is the stuff scholarly mysteries are made of--where did this idea get started???

But unless I am a journalist or a PhD candidate, I really don't want to be on High Alert for such stuff when reading.

Somebody said to me it would have been a really good long form magazine piece, like something the New Yorker might publish. I think that's brilliant; trim and tighten, AND get the notorious fact checking staff to comb through it.

Send word if you'd like to borrow...

olenska said...

"...various chapters were more and less complete conference papers, and put together in book form without, among other things, bothering to make coherent as a whole..."


Rose said...

very sorry to be late to the party here. I have had this book on my wishlist for quite a while which is weird for me as I normally buckle and buy perfume books right away. something has been holding me back- perhaps the fact that I don't really like Chanel No 5 (ducks for fear of a million perfume fans throwing boxes at me).

I will read it though because I love all perfume books. Thanks for this post, it was really interesting as someone who hasn't read it yet (I tend to seem to read reviews when I have read things)

ScentScelf said...


And I am sorry to be late to tip my hat at you and say hello!

First of all, no worries about your non-No. 5-fandom. I'm with you there; didn't bring that up in my Mitsouko post above. The more time that passes and the more people I meet, the more I learn that there are plenty of respectable sniffers that aren't fans of any given icon. Which would in the end only be logical, right? I mean, vive le difference and all?

It's worth reading anyway, for a perfume fan especially, for certain historical chunks. The book is I think going to be one of those you should know about and know about certain parts of especially; it is not, however, a Good Read. I should say was not for me--I know that there are plenty of people out there who are expressing their happiness with it.

Again, vive le difference.
(Especially when we can say why it's not for me, and all still enjoy our tea together.)

Lucy said...

Late late late, but anyway. I will read the book eventually, but from the comments I see that most of the information has already been published repeatedly elsewhere.
Because of a beautiful passage of writing on one of the sites (BdeJ) I decided to get myself a sample of the parfum strength, and I must say, it is a revelation. So much more floral, than what I am used to thinking is No. 5. And we know the floral part is actually the real thing, made from the jasmine and roses grown on the few farms left in the Grasse area. It is a different experience entirely and a true magical beauty. Looks to be well worth every penny, even in the modern version. I have about half a sample vial left. When I feel more flush it will be one that I spring for FB, parfum strength.

Too bad the book is not better. Unfortunately de-glamorizing the perfume itself may follow from reading of the unsavory aspects of Chanel's life so I am selfishly reluctant to dwell too much on that part of it all. It's like knowing what a bastard Picasso was to his wives can make it hard to look at his paintings now. But the subjects and materials and technique are not the problem. Better to dislike Picasso himself than to distrust his paintings. It's a thorny issue, the absolute monsters that many great artists and designers have been and are.

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