No. 5: Just A Few Drops

In 1952, LIFE Magazine asked then-26-year-old Marilyn Monroe, “What do you wear to bed?” Her famous answer: “Just a few drops of No. 5.”

In a Chanel marketing film recently released, you can hear Marilyn in an interview laughing and saying she wanted to tell the truth but couldn't use the word “nude.” I think her phrasing choice was actually a risqué and clever improvement over a straightforward answer, and I love her for it.

In my novel The Heart of Henry Quantum, the plot is centered around hero Henry’s plight(s) as he desperately journeys through the streets of San Francisco with a mission of purchasing his wife a bottle of the iconic Chanel No. 5 for Christmas.

Why is Henry searching for Chanel No. 5? Why not, say, White Diamonds by Elizabeth Taylor? Eternity by Calvin Klein? Well, first off, you can buy White Diamonds at WalMart, no offense to Walmart shoppers. And Eternity only has 241 “likes” on Facebook, while Chanel No. 5 has 77,115 last time I looked (OK, just about 5 minutes ago).

How would you describe the intoxicating, earthy pull of Chanel No. 5? My friends who claim it as their scent are die-hards, in for the long haul. If you wear Chanel No. 5, you wear Chanel No. 5. That’s it. No testing around, no checking out the latest Dolce & Gabbana sample. They just absolutely have fully internalized a deep love of the scent itself. And maybe have fallen a little head over heels for decades and decades of ingenious marketing.

For me, the allure is all in the bottle. Literally, the bottle design itself intrigues me. So solid, square-ish, clear glass, no fluff. I once read that Mademoiselle Chanel designed it to look like her lover’s whiskey flask. That idea appeals to me; it does look like you could easily keep it the inside pocket of your evening jacket. Although you’d only want to consume its contents by “drinking in” the musk of a woman enveloped in your arms. Or a man, I suppose … anyone is capable of picking up the little glass container filled with history, mystery and cultural weight and pressing down on the atomizer.

The history beguiles me, as well. I mean, how many perfumes were created to fight for women’s rights? Maybe a slight exaggeration … maybe not.  According to the Wikpedia entry on Chanel No. 5, “Traditionally, fragrance worn by women had adhered to two basic categories: respectable women favored the pure essence of a single garden flower, and sexually provocative perfumes heavy with animal musk or jasmine were associated with women of the demi-mondeprostitutes or courtesans. Chanel felt the time was right for the debut of a scent that would epitomize the flapper and would speak to the liberated spirit of the 1920s.”

Besides Miss Marilyn and the mesmerizing Coco Chanel herself, this iconic perfume has romanced celebrities and the wealthy for a long time. Ann Woodward’s favorite scent was Chanel No. 5.

If you’ve never heard of this socialite – accused of murdering her husband in 1955 by one of my favorite authors Truman Capote in his story Answered Prayers – then I suggest you Google her name for a nice, creepy tale of upward mobility and murder. And a nice, iconic whiff of Chanel No. 5.