Spray a rose scent and you think of roses. A jasmine scent, and you think of jasmine blossom. The representations may be better or worse – you may smell a rose perfume and think: this smells nothing like real roses – but they are imitations even so, however pale. The genius of Chanel No. 5, invented by Coco Chanel in collaboration with Ernest Beaux in 1920-21, is that – in keeping with Chanel’s friendships with Diaghilev and Stravinsky – it was the first abstract perfume: it smelled like nothing else. Chanel No. 5 was not the first compound perfume. Jicky by Guerlain – with notes of lavender, civet, vanilla and herbs – has been in continuous production since 1889. But Chanel No. 5 – first known as Eau Chanel – was the first to move beyond perfume which smelled of something to perfume which smelled of pure fashion. In Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, which reviews perfumes as if they were works of art (which they are), Luca Turin compares No. 5 to a Brancusi sculpture:
Alone among fragrances known to me, it gives the irresistible impression of a smooth, continuously curved, gold-coloured volume that stretches deliciously, like a sleepy panther, from top note to drydown. Yes, it contains rose, jasmine and aldehydes in the same way that a perfect body contains legs and arms. But I defy all who smell this to keep enough wits about them to worry about the parts.
Before Coco Chanel, as Edmonde Charles-Roux writes in her 1975 biography, women (and men) who wore perfume were generally forced to choose between various floral concoctions – heliotrope, gardenia, violets – none of which lasted well. ‘Therefore you had to be overperfumed at the beginning of the evening if you wanted to be scented at all a few hours later.’ Charles-Roux thinks this explains the ‘outrageously perfumed men and women’ who crop up in Edwardian memoirs. You might arrive at a party reeking of lily of the valley and leave it reeking of sweat. Chanel suspected that overscented women had ‘bad smells to hide’, and in her world there was no worse sin. No. 5, with its 80 indistinguishable ingredients mixed in a stable formula using benzyl acetate, a coal tar derivative, made it possible to smell mildly, elegantly, indefinably perfumed all day long.
Chanel told Ernest Beaux, the perfumer who laboured with his test tubes on seven or eight samples before she was happy, that she wanted no ‘hints of roses’. She wanted, she declared, ‘a perfume that is composed. It’s a paradox. On a woman, a natural flower scent smells artificial. Perhaps a natural perfume must be created artificially.’ The pharmaceutical rectangular bottle – in stark contrast to the baroque, cupid-plastered flasks then fashionable – continued the abstract quality. ‘It was no longer the container that aroused desire,’ Charles-Roux writes, ‘but its contents.’
Never one to downplay her own achievements, Chanel called No. 5 ‘a perfume unlike any other ever made. A woman’s perfume, redolent, evocative of woman.’ Really, though, it allowed women to replace their real scent with something less offensive. Chanel had a horror of other people’s smells. If someone presented her with flowers, she swore she could smell the hands of the person who had picked them. The highest compliment she could pay to women – ‘women never amuse me’ – was to say that they smelled ‘clean’. When she was in her eighties, and living in the Paris Ritz, several empty tables had to separate her table from those of other diners: ‘To eat with the smell of other people’s food, what a horror!’
Chanel’s personality may have been better reflected in another abstract perfume, Chanel No. 19, invented for her by Henri Robert in December 1970, the month before she died. It was named for her birthday, 19 August. Tania Sanchez describes it as ‘a striking and admirably dissonant portrait’ of the 87-year-old Chanel, ‘from the silvery hiss of its nail-polish-remover beginnings to its poisonously beautiful green-floral heart’. It smelled so delicious, Chanel told a press conference, that a man had stopped her in the street outside the Ritz – ‘not bad at my age’. She never stopped expecting everyone else to smell like her and look like her. ‘I imposed black,’ she told her friend Paul Morand in the collection of reminiscences he published after her death as The Allure of Chanel, ‘it’s still going strong today, for black wipes out everything else around.’ Chanel No. 5 – still the bestselling perfume in the world– also wipes out everything else around. Instead of making you smell like a rose, it makes you smell like another woman, a less disgusting one, or so we imagine; like Nicole Kidman in black velvet, or like Audrey Tautou, the latest face of Chanel No. 5, who also plays the young Coco Chanel in Anne Fontaine’s Coco before Chanel.
So far as one can tell, Chanel was never fully contented (she boasted that she did not require ‘that daily dose of poison, recently invented, that we call happiness’ and her restless scissors were always revising, improving, correcting), but it is hard to imagine a film of her life which could have pleased her more than this one. Fontaine’s film – made with the blessing of the House of Chanel – depicts her in the 1910s, torn between her relationship with Etienne Balsan, a wealthy French playboy and horse breeder, and Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, a wealthy English polo player and tycoon. This is exactly the period of her life Chanel liked to dwell on. Boy Capel, she later said, this ‘magnificent’ figure of a man, was the ‘great stroke of luck in my life; I had met a human being who did not demoralise me.’ Capel financed her first Paris shop in the rue Cambon and it was his polo shirts that inspired her obsession with jersey and with sportswear in general. And then he broke her heart, first by getting married and then by dying in a car crash in 1919. Amazingly, given his infidelity and her propensity for badmouthing people, she was always generous about him (‘Boy was a rare spirit’), perhaps because to look back on the time when Boy was alive was to remember how brilliant and adorable she had been. ‘I was highly intelligent, far more intelligent than I am now. I was unlike anyone else, either physically or mentally.’
When Chanel was 79, in 1962, she was approached by a Broadway producer who wanted to buy the rights to her life story. At first, he recalled, Chanel was suspicious, but she brightened up when told that the lead role would be played by Hepburn. Audrey Hepburn, then 33 and fresh from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, seemed an ideal choice. The play, Chanel presumed, would depict her love affair with Boy Capel. ‘Not Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn,’ the producer said, at which Chanel protested: ‘She’s too old to play me. Why, she must be close to 60!’
Audrey Tautou may not quite be Audrey Hepburn but she is 33, dark and beautiful, and she plays Chanel as romantic heroine. On Tautou’s face, Chanel’s foul temper becomes a chic pout. She and Alessandro Nivola as Boy Capel make a handsome couple, strolling the beach at Deauville. ‘You are elegant,’ he tells the boyish young Chanel. Anne Fontaine, who both wrote and directed the film, uses this early phase of Chanel’s life to depict two kinds of female liberation. First, there is Chanel’s own gradual emancipation from her peasant roots, as she leaves behind the orphanage where her father abandoned her and becomes a prim little seamstress in a grey dress; her time as a vaudeville singer (famous for singing ‘Ko Ko Ri Ko’, hence ‘Coco’ – her real name was Gabrielle); her time as Balsan’s kept woman; as Capel’s lover; and finally as an independent businesswoman, chic in one of her own tweed suits, directing models to walk down a spiral staircase.
The second kind of emancipation hinted at by the film is the liberation from frou-frou and corsetry of the entire female sex. Chanel makes fun of the absurd meringues worn on their heads by posh women at the races, and wants to replace them with her own chaste and dignified boaters. As she said in the course of her fascinating conversations with Morand, ‘over-embellishment had stifled the body’s architecture.’ Again and again, Fontaine shows us the discomfort of corsetry giving way to the pleasure of breathing again. We see women straining and panting and half-fainting for their hourglass figures and we see lovely Coco liberating them and herself with one decisive snip of her scissors. So far from making her less attractive to men, her boyfriends are shown as adoring her corsetless body. ‘It’s so easy to undress you,’ Boy Capel drawls.
Chanel’s will to power was certainly extraordinary, but like all the great ‘revolutionaries’ of fashion, she simply created a new template for women to conform to. Mary Quant’s miniskirt freed women to show their legs, but this was good news and bad, bad in any case for women with bad legs. (Chanel disapproved of miniskirts, particularly as worn by Jackie Kennedy, who had ‘horrible taste’ in her view.) Chanel freed women from their corsets, which was wonderful for those who shared her boyish figure, less good for the bosomy. In its way, Coco’s aesthetic was more tyrannical than the one that preceded it, as she turned her attention from underwear to the body underneath. All too often, she didn’t like what she saw, as the film suggests in a rare moment. ‘I can feel my fat jiggling,’ says the curvy dancer and courtesan Emilienne d’Alençon when Coco first puts her in one of her plain new outfits. ‘You prefer not to breathe?’ Audrey as Coco asks sharply. The real Coco was just as likely to have said: ‘Why are you so fat?’
In the 1930s, Coco was designing clothes for Hollywood. In 1931, she did the frocks for Tonight or Never, starring Gloria Swanson. According to Axel Madsen’s biography of Chanel, which drew on Swanson’s recollections, she was appalled by Swanson’s figure. When Swanson came to Chanel’s premises in the rue Cambon for her first fitting, Coco remarked that she was on the chubby side and asked her to drop a few pounds before the final fitting six weeks later, so that she could fit into a long black bias-cut gown. Instead, to Coco’s fury, Swanson came back a few pounds heavier. Swanson said she would try the dress with a girdle, but Coco wasn’t satisfied. ‘Take off the girdle and lose five pounds,’ she was told. ‘You have no right to fluctuate in the middle of fittings.’ The next day, Swanson returned with samples of some elastic, asking Chanel to make her a rubberised undergarment to help her fit into the dress, but Chanel would have none of it. ‘Lose five pounds,’ she insisted. ‘Maybe I can’t,’ Swanson replied, to which Chanel retorted: ‘Why not?’
Perhaps Swanson was exaggerating, but the anecdote fits with what Chanel told Morand, harking back to her invention of the ‘sports dress’ in 1914: ‘I created a new shape; in order to conform to it all my customers, with the help of the war, became slim, “slim like Coco”. Women came to me to buy their slim figure. “With Coco, you’re young, do as she does,” they would say to their suppliers.’ Chanel also said that ‘the art of couture is knowing how to enhance: raising the waist in front to make the woman appear taller; lowering the back to avoid sagging bottoms,’ but she made it plain that such enhancements would only work for a narrow spectrum of figures. For real fatness, there was no cure. Of Colette (one of only two women writers she tolerated, the other being Madame de Noailles) she wrote, point blank, that ‘she is wrong to allow herself to get fat.’
Needless to say, Chanel’s tyrannical side doesn’t make it into the movie. The credits announce that it is ‘librement adapté’ from Edmonde Charles-Roux’s 1976 biography, reissued to capitalise on Chanel fever. ‘Librement’ is the word. Charles-Roux often writes in a flowery and allusive style (‘In the south of France there lies a never conquered land,’ she begins), and the book suffers from an excess of one-line paragraphs. For straightforward narrative, Madsen’s 1990 biography is probably more useful, but Charles-Roux’s is more imaginative and makes more sense of Chanel’s dramas. The film is essentially based on a single chapter, ‘The Keepers and the Kept, 1906-14’, about her complicated relationships with Balsan and Boy Capel. It isn’t the most interesting.
Other episodes would have given us a very different Coco – one more easily played by Katharine than Audrey. You could for example show her, in her later years, through the eyes of the much put upon maid who tended her every need in her rooms at the Ritz. This woman had to deal not only with the octogenarian Chanel’s moods but with her terrible bouts of sleepwalking. She was several times found naked in her room, holding a pair of scissors, having reduced her pyjamas to a ‘heap of scraps’. The maid locked her in her room at night to keep her safe. She was there too on Sunday, 10 January 1971, the day Chanel died calling out: ‘Ah … they’re killing me … They’ll have killed me.’ (Who was killing her she didn’t say.) The maid’s name was Céline but Chanel insisted on calling her Jeanne, because, Charles-Roux writes, ‘she was one of those absolute masters who change their servants’ names if their real names don’t please them.’
For a time Chanel believed she could bring an end to the Second World War. Occupation and war were a nuisance: she lost her chauffeur to the draft and in 1940 was forced to move into smaller quarters at the Ritz after the Germans moved in. Friends advised her to move out but no other hotel was as conveniently situated; and as Charles-Roux writes, there were plenty of new uniformed customers, wanting to bring the smell of Paris back to Germany: ‘Whenever stocks of Chanel No. 5 ran out, these strange tourists simply picked up the display bottles marked with the intertwined double C. It was something, anyway … something to take back home. A souvenir of the Occupation.’
War brought another compensation in the form of Hans Gunther von Dinklage, a handsome German 13 years her junior. Challenged about the relationship much later, she said (according to Cecil Beaton): ‘Really, sir, a woman of my age cannot be expected to look at his passport if she has a chance of a lover.’ Charles-Roux claimed that von Dinklage was a Nazi spy working for Goebbels, though another biographer, Marcel Haedrich, argued that he was simply a textile buyer, who happened to be an attaché at the German Embassy. Whatever the truth, Chanel seems to have shown little shame and some pride at having snagged this tall, slender, frivolous German, who – whatever his true role in Occupied Paris – always dressed in civilian clothes.
She’d known Churchill in the 1920s, when she was the mistress of the duke of Westminster, and counted herself his friend. (A splendid photo of her with Winston and Randolph Churchill from 1928, all of them wearing long black wool coats, black leather gloves and jockey hats, makes you see that the much vaunted Chanel style is really just a matter of taking an English gentleman’s clothes and making them fit a tiny Frenchwoman.) Churchill had been a visitor at her five-acre villa, La Pausa, on the Riviera and she’d played rounds of piquet with him there, making sure to let Winston win, to keep him in a good mood. Surely she could play on these happy memories now to make him see the folly of war?
Amazingly, Walter Schellenberg, the acting SS chief of foreign intelligence, liked the idea. It was even given an official title: Operation Modellhut (Operation Hat). The plan was that Chanel would try to make discreet contact with Churchill during a visit to Madrid. To sway him into granting her an audience, she decided to travel with Vera Bate, an English friend from her Riviera days, who was much closer to Churchill than she was. The two women checked into the Ritz Madrid for their farcical mission, but were told by the British Embassy that Churchill had a bad cold and could see no one (in fact he had pneumonia and was staying at Eisenhower’s headquarters in Tunisia). Chanel left for Paris, before being debriefed by Schellenberg in Berlin. Vera Bate remained in Spain. Several months later, she received a vicious letter from Chanel accusing her of ‘betrayals’ and insisting that ‘my English friends cannot blame me, at any rate, or find the least wrong in what I have done.’
For all that, Chanel got off lightly after the Liberation. She was arrested at the Ritz one morning by the Clean-Up Committee two weeks after de Gaulle took power. The committee was represented, in Charles-Roux’s words, by ‘two youths wearing sports shirts and the most hideous sandals imaginable’, who released her after a couple of hours. How did she get away with it? Foreign Office files declassified in 1972 showed that Churchill intervened to get Chanel released, not because of the card games they’d played on the Riviera, but because she knew too much. Had she been put on trial, she could have revealed that numerous British aristocrats, including the duke and duchess of Windsor, were Nazi sympathisers.
And so she went free, and Chanel No. 5 became the scent of Liberation. Malcolm Muggeridge, then in MI6, recalled that
by one of those majestically simple strokes that made Napoleon so successful a general, she just put an announcement in the window of her emporium that scent was free for GIs, who thereupon queued up to get the bottles of Chanel No. 5 and would have been outraged if the French police had touched a hair of her head. Having thus gained a breathing space, she proceeded to look for help à gauche et à droite, and not in vain thereby managed to avoid making even a token appearance among the gilded company – Maurice Chevalier, Jean Cocteau, Sacha Guitry and other worthies – on a collaborationist charge.
As her perfume once more flew off the shelves, Chanel moved discreetly to Switzerland for a time. She wasn’t even required to sever her relationship with von Dinklage, who accompanied her, wearing a rakish felt hat, to Lausanne and the smart winter resorts of St Moritz, Klosters and Davos.
The story of Coco and her brothers is another rich narrative you can’t quite imagine Audrey Tautou putting her name to. In Chanel’s personal mythology her father, ‘in deep mourning’ after her mother’s death, entrusted her to some aunts – some ‘odious aunts’ – while her sisters went to a convent. The truth was that, after her mother died aged 33, worn out by a faithless peasant husband and endless pregnancies, 12-year-old Gabrielle and her two sisters were all placed in an orphanage. This was a place Chanel never mentioned because of the shame, just as she never mentioned that she was illegitimate.
Alphonse and Lucien Chanel were ten and six when their mother died. ‘Since absolutely no one in their family was either able or willing to take charge of them,’ Charles-Roux notes, ‘they were “placed” with a peasant family.’ What this meant in practice was that the little boys were put to sleep on a bed of chestnut leaves in the stable, like animals, and made to do hard farm labour. A country priest taught them to write, but they had no other education. When they were 13, they were removed from the farm and given apprenticeships with market traders, so that they could become small-time hawkers just like their unreliable father. Alphonse, a womaniser (again like his father), worked on the road selling newspaper subscriptions. Lucien was more stable, setting himself up as a market trader, like his father and grandfather, in their hometown of Clermont-Ferrand. He sold shoes and was reasonably happy doing so. His stall was in a prominent position behind the cathedral and he seems to have built up a good clientele.
As she rocketed into glory and money, Chanel kept up with her brothers, by post if not in person. To Alphonse, the pushier of the two, she paid a monthly stipend, a postal order sent without fail for 3000 francs. It was a good way of keeping him quiet. He had no occupation now, being entirely dependent on his sister. Lucien, by contrast, never asked for anything. Then suddenly, in 1928, when Chanel was hoping that the duke of Westminster might propose to her – in the event, he didn’t – she started to worry that her peasant brothers might get in the way of a fine wedding. She wrote to Lucien urgently telling him to stop working. She advised him to look for a large house with a garden – she would pay! – and suggested she might come back and live there one day. ‘Touched by her concern for him,’ Charles-Roux writes, ‘overcome by the thought that this prodigious sister of his was thinking of coming to live with him, Lucien complied.’
She never visited. Having secured what she wanted, which was to get him out of the public gaze where he could embarrass her, she forgot about him again. From now on, the relationship was purely financial. She wrote to Lucien with one additional request: would he please stop seeing Alphonse? Her motive, Charles-Roux suggests, was to prevent the brothers comparing their allowances and asking for anything more. In any case, Lucien stopped seeing his brother.
In 1939, the money stopped. The year war began, she wrote to Lucien cutting off his allowance, explaining that she couldn’t afford it now that her fashion house had closed (she didn’t mention that she still had her boutique). Lucien was very upset. He had given up work on her say so, and now he had nothing. But still, his sister’s plea of poverty touched him (she hadn’t mentioned that her ‘poverty’ was the kind that can still afford to live at the Ritz). He wrote to her offering her all his life savings, modest though they were. It is not clear how she replied.
Just as telling was Chanel’s relationship with Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, the Jewish businessmen who marketed her perfume. This was the defining relationship of her business life. It was the perfume business that gave those interlocking Chanel Cs their global fame, and the Wertheimers were largely responsible for this. They also took the lion’s share of the profits. Under the terms of the deal they signed in 1924, the Wertheimers took 70 per cent of the profit from Chanel perfumes, their friend Théophile Bader, the owner of Galeries Lafayette (whose only role had been to introduce Chanel to the Wertheimers), 20 per cent and Chanel herself a mere 10 per cent. This rather undermined Chanel’s view of herself as a brilliant businesswoman. Once she realised what a bad deal she had made, she was forever complaining about Pierre Wertheimer as a ‘bandit’ and a thief. ‘By 1928,’ according to Axel Madsen, ‘the Wertheimers had an in-house lawyer who dealt exclusively with the lawsuits instigated by that “bloody woman”, as Pierre called her.’
In 1928, the Wertheimers were racehorse enthusiasts who had made their money through the Parfumeries Bourjois. Bourjois had started as a theatrical company, supplying dry rouge for the stage. By the 1920s, however, Bourjois had become the biggest cosmetics and fragrance company in France. With their vast factory and distribution network, as well as their capital, the Wertheimers – chiefly Pierre – offered Chanel the chance for Chanel No. 5 to become the most recognisable perfume in France. In return, she ceded all her rights to Les Parfums Chanel, the Wertheimers’ new company.
Chanel tried many tricks to get back control over her name. During the Occupation, the Wertheimers temporarily emigrated to the United States. The Vichy regime stated that any company whose management had been forced to leave the country was liable to have a new management imposed. Chanel seized the chance and tried to have the Wertheimers evicted from their company. But they outmanoeuvred her, as always, making her look naive as well as underhand. As soon as they got wind of her plan, they installed a German industrialist as manager of the company and shuffled some documents to prove that it no longer belonged to them. By the time Chanel was ready to denounce the Wertheimers to the Commission in Jewish Affairs, there was nothing left to denounce.
The House of Chanel is still owned by the Wertheimers, having passed from Pierre (who died in 1965) to his son Jacques, to his sons Alain and Gerard, who took over in 1974. All of them have been racehorse enthusiasts and all of them have obscured their own role in the business in order to promote the image of a purified Coco Chanel, with all the elegance and none of the unpleasantness. If Coco before Chanel was the film of her life Chanel would have most liked to see, it is even more the version of Chanel the Wertheimers want us to see. Each year, the House of Chanel version of her seems to get a little further away from the real person. In 1984, the Wertheimers launched the perfume Coco, which Turin and Sanchez categorise as ‘elegant spicy’, using the ‘exotic dried-fruit odours’ of the newly invented damascenones, synthetic chemicals which lend complex duskiness. To my untrained nose, it smells overwhelmingly sweet and ingratiating, which given Chanel’s personality is a good joke. In 2001, her character was softened even further in Coco Mademoiselle, ‘loud, impressive and undemanding’ in Turin’s description, a sickly thing advertised with Keira Knightley grinning in the streets of Paris as a young Coco.
And there is still always No. 5, one bottle sold worldwide every 30 seconds, each one burnishing the mystique of Chanel. The House of Chanel ‘made the wise decision years ago to buy its own jasmine and rose fields’ to maintain quality and it therefore remains ‘a masterpiece of modernist sculpture from 1921’, as ‘solid as marble’. It’s just as well that it is an abstract scent, because the real Chanel wasn’t someone you’d want to smell like.