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December 11, 2010



Hi, it was a fun read wasn't it? But in the end I felt disappointed. The book concludes on a note of pure ecstasy for Chanel No 5, the author's critical faculties having long been left behind. The early chapters are the best. After the Second World War the story gets thinner and duller. And not surprisingly, Chanel No 5 occupies centre stage for the entire book. Other great fragrances and fragrance houses get mentioned generally only in passing, and less and less often towards the end. And really, I'm not sure that the author really answers her own question - what is the 'secret' of No 5 that has made it such a dazzling success? - all that well. Mazzeo seems to conclude that the secret of No 5 is that 'so many of us wish to possess it'. It is 'our story'. Unless I'm missing something, that sounds to me like saying that the perfume is popular because it is popular.

I would have loved a comparison with some of the great rivals to No 5 - Joy, Arpege (especially that one), L'Interdit even. Why did L'Interdit fade off the scene and not No 5? They were similar in style, quality and target market, after all. And I wanted a greater analysis of the new players in the field in the last decades of the c. 20 - Dior, Givenchy and YSL. That fact that No 5 is still a best seller when the market is now so atomised (1,000 new launches each year) is the story I wanted to hear, but it is at this point that the author loses her energy.

Nor is there much mention of the different concentrations of No 5. Mazzeo remarks that the scent has hardly changed over the decades, but in a sense it has changed a lot. Was it the parfum that the GIs were buying in the Second World War, or the cologne (surely the latter)? When was the EDT introduced and the EDC phased out, and why? What was it about fragrance fashion in the 80s that led to the creation of the EDP, and in the noughties to Eau Premiere? The author must think these are mere technical questions for perfume geeks only, but surely they show how adeptly the makers of No 5 have been at re-inventing it.

I did really like the Aubazine chapter, especially the bits you quote. It is very speculative, as you say, but it does bring to light a set of aesthetic influences that I had not heard of. I was fascinated by story the early development of No 5, and later, by the story that American soldiers in Chanel's boutique in Paris needed no French to buy what they wanted, just to hold up five fingers! Wonderful!


Perhaps my critical faculties left me, too, Anne, so swept up was I in Mazzeo's part academic/part detective novelist rhetorical persona. I guess you like and/or aren't disappointed in Mazzeo's book depending on what you were looking for. I didn't really go into it knowing what to expect, and found myself absorbed in the cultural, socio-economic, feminist and even psychoanalytic analysis of Chanel No. 5. (I also learned some interesting facts, so that was a bonus for me.)

I thought she did a good job explaining the perfume's success without reducing it to one thing: the secret was in fact SECRETS — its bottle, its formula, the almost occult number 5, the savvy business decisions Chanel's business partners made during the war, Ernest Beaux's fascinating blend of clean/dirty notes, but most of all for me, the parallel of Chanel's sad and aspirational back story with the perfume's availability to a similar aspirational consumer. I like that the secret of Chanel No. 5 in some ways remains a mystery. It's a fantasy object with enough blank spaces to project onto. And of course, it smells expensive and wonderful.


I've never been particularly interested in reading about Coco Chanel until this book. I then came across another recently published book called Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life. It's FULL to overflowing with illustrations, and it really augments and elaborates on things only touched on by Mazzeo. I loved the No.5 book. Reading this one, I'm fascinated by what Mazzeo might have added but left out. Chanel was, apparently, a massive dissembler. Keeping track of her various stories is a task, but its own form of detection. What I appreciate about The Legend and the Life is that, while it focuses to some degree on Chanel's stubborn self-sabotage at times, it also shows in detail how incredibly savvy and intelligent she was--not least in her observations and recollections about people. And it makes some of the connections between Chanel No. 5 and Coco's childhood, but more persuasively. I liked both books and think they make good companion pieces. Thanks for the review.


Hi Brian,

I will have to check that other Chanel book out. Thanks for letting me know about it. The primary complaint I hear from people who've read the Mazzeo book is that so much was left out. It was a quick read, it's true, and very impressionistic.Chanel was quite a character; now I'm going to have to see the movie starring Audrey Tatou as well!


Hi again, sorry I was rather harsh with my comments above. I think it was my disappointment - that the book started out so promisingly, but fizzed. Still, it is absolutely worth a read for Chanel lovers. Thanks for reviewing the book.

Justine Picardie's 'Legend and the Life' has been on my must read list for some time and I hope to get to it early next year. It sounds from Brian's comments that it will have much more substance.

I hope you enjoy the Tatou movie. It deals at length with a brief period of CC's life - her career as a show girl and her affair with Etienne Balsan - so do read up on that before you see it, or you might be puzzled. I saw it before I read Mazzeo on the significance of CC's impressions of Balsan's other mistress Emilienne - she of the warm skin and freshly washed hair. I'm wondering now if Emilienne is in the movie. Can't remember.


People had strong reactions one way or the other to the book, Anne. No need to apologize! (I like strong opinions!) I actually can see how maddening some of it could be. Octavian on 1000Fragrances went so far as to call it a straight-up novel.


To Anne, as far as I can tell (as a big fan and researcher of No. 5), the EDT was launched around 1964, replacing the cologne concentration of the time.

Perfumaniac, in your review you mention being intrigued by the renegade, red label Chanel perfumes that she launched. I have a pic of one saved on my computer. If you want to see it, here it is:


Great review, btw. I actually have this book waiting for me to pick it up at my local library. I'm fairly excited to read it, but from what I am hearing, it's more of a linear narrative, rather than a reference guide to No. 5, which is sad. I too was hoping for more of a reference guide for Chanel fragrance lovers & collectors.


Hi again, Robin! Thanks so much for that pic of the red label Chanel perfume. I'm posting it if that's OK with you. So beautiful and illicit looking; they look like bottles of poison!  The Secret of Chanel is definitely not a reference guide, but it does capture something facts can't, I think. But facts are important, too...:)


I love this. Coco Chanel made full use of social mobility, so I'm sure she would too.


Hi Joan. I agree! I think Chanel No. 5 retained, in some strange way, Coco Chanel's ability to move through society — upwards or "down market."

Some readers of Mazzeo wondered after reading her book, so what exactly WAS the secret of Chanel No. 5's success? One primary reason she offers, in this incredibly typo-ridden interview on a WSJ blog http://tinyurl.com/29ohthl but also in the book, is that because Chanel's investors were Jewish and had to flee to the US, its US distribution was key to its success: "That’s the thing about Chanel No. 5 being produced in Hoboken, New Jersey during the war, which Chanel thought was just completely outrageous; her comment was 'it’s monstrous.' It's because they were here that they make the decision to sell and distribute the fragrance through the commissaries in the United States Army. I think that is
really, more then anything, what turns Chanel No. 5 into an icon."


Well, I finished reading the book. It was wonderful, it was a book that was so interesting and impossible to put down that I was sad to finish the last page. It was fascinating to read of how single-mindedly Coco Chanel waged war against the Wertheimers. I guess I am of two minds, I see how she felt she felt like she was getting the short end of the stick, but on the other hand a contract is a contract and she willingly entered into the contract, so her subsequent behavior can seem a bit immature and...maniacal? lol

And it was so interesting to hear of No. 5's complex relationship to Rallet No. 1, Coty's L'Aimant, Chanel No. 22, etc. Really interesting...

For those who, like me, are interested in the dates of different concentrations and dates of the changes to the bottle, this information is actually present in the book. In the back of the book in the notes section, Note 106 (on p. 241) has a lengthy section on the various concentrations and when they were introduced. Unfortunately, some of the information in this section is verifiably false, which is disappointing. She states that according to Chanel's archives, the EDT & EDC were both released in 1924-25 and coexisted alongside each other, which I believe is untrue, for as far as I can tell, there was no EDT before 1965 and it effectively replaced the EDC concentration that had been on the market for decades before that; so I believe her assertion that the EDC continued until the 1990s is also untrue. She also writes that the EDP was released in the 1950s, which is most definitely wrong, it is well known that it was created by Polge in 1986, and she mentions this accurate date herself further on in the section, thereby contradicting herself. I know that all the various concentrations can be confusing info to juggle though, so...

And the Chanel bottle information is on pages 104-108.

But yeah, great book, I loved it despite a few factual errors. :-)


Glad you liked it, Robin, but it sounds like you echo what many people who are interested in the nitty-gritty concentrations/dates said: some of the facts are off, or at least, disputable. Thanks for giving us your mini-review. Your perspective is appreciated!


@Anne There is a picture online or used on a Chanel video from the inside of the store and you can tell they are buying the parfum actually.

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