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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