Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry/Happy, everybody!

(no, this isn't my house)

Let's hope the coming year will be filled with light.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Off Topic: Beatlemania

I don’t know if you saw Martin Scorcese’s two-part documentary about George Harrison that was on HBO recently, but I did, and have rarely seen anything so affecting. The next day I was poking around the web looking for another photo and I came across this one. 

He’s about twenty here, I think. Twenty.  A twenty-year-old man, er, boy. Now imagine the train car’s corridor — the viewer’s POV — filled with shoving, hustling photographers; blinding flashbulbs, buzzes and clicks. And then his face: the taking-it-all-in-stride studied nonchalance betrayed by his own clenched jaw. He was just a kid, when this was taken, one who grew up without indoor plumbing.

I wonder about the girl, too. What she’s doing now. Probably someone’s grandmother. Does she know this photo exists? 

I was too young to understand the armies of screaming girls surrounding the Beatles. Not hormonal yet, or something. I do remember Harrison’s face, the intense, nearly black, eyes, the sense he always seemed to have of being present, in those moments of insanity, but not really there. And then, what came later, the mysticism, the Maharishi, Layla, the landed eccentricity, his sad early death. 

What does this photo say to you?

I have searched in vain for a photo credit here. This looks like a photo from Life, but an hour or so spent viewing their Beatles photos has come up nil. If anyone out there knows, please tell me! I’d love to offer proper credit.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Book Review: "Coco Chanel -- An Intimate Life"

“Coco Chanel An Intimate Life” is a good book. 

I have not read any of the other books, around 60 of them, that have been written about her, although I did see the film “Coco Before Chanel,” in which she was played quite sympathetically by Audrey Tatou. Truth be told, I’ve  never been all that interested in her, so I really can’t compare this book to any of the others. I’m much more interested in her now.

 Fans of Madame Chanel will be familiar with the trajectory of her life, the orphanage, the leapfrogging over different well-placed men, the WWII years spent living at the Ritz in Paris and so on. Here’s what I kept thinking about, over and over: this woman was raised like an animal. Deserted, left in a shelter, then ejected to scratch out a lowly place in the world as a seamstress. What was it about her? Was it her times? Or was it something else?

Nowadays, in the U.S., children are viewed as hothouse flowers; delicate little creatures whose precious self-esteem is everything. I remember the comedian Bill Maher recounting an encounter he had with a boy around eighteen, who swaggered up to him in the street, saying “Dude. I’m gonna be on your show one day!” Astounded at this, he says, “Why? Why should you be on my show, dude? What can you do?” The kid has no answer. Finally he says “I just will, dude!” Lots of self-esteem, there. Based on nothing.

In the earliest available photo of Gabrielle Chanel, taken about 1904, she stares out at the world, as fierce as a badger. Beautiful enough as a young woman to draw many men; wily enough to pick the rich ones. Made mistress to one of them, Etienne Balsan, she could have just been that, as others like her had; been a grisette — a sort of early version of an arts groupie who dabbles. She chose otherwise. She opened her own hat shop, not realizing that her lover Arthur Capel was making bank deposits on her behalf, to keep his little Gabrielle in business so she’d be occupied in the afternoons. When he confesses that, it is her reaction that tells us what she’ll become. When he announces his intent to marry an Englishwoman of his own class, her determination only hardens.

Cheny traces her trajectory, from upper-class resort Deauville (fish where the fish are!) to atelier in Paris, friendships and projects with the likes of Cocteau and Diaghilev, and affairs with many men, Picasso, Stravinsky, and Bend D’Or, a.k.a. the Second Duke of Westminster, among them. During this time, she rises to success with her simple couture clothing, designed for corset-less ease. Chemise lines. Black and white. Flat shoes. Costume jewelry. All classics, today. “A dress is artificial, fabricated” she says, and, in a pronouncement predating “The Devil Wears Prada’s” Miranda by, oh, some seventy years or so, “No one is powerful enough to be more powerful than fashion.”

More myths drift around the creation of Chanel No. 5. Apparently, Chanel had an obsession with cleanliness, not at all surprising given her childhood. Speaking of the society women she encountered early in her rise, she said “They were dirty.” Unwashed. Given to powerful floral perfumes to disguise it. She had in mind a clean perfume, one designed to scent a clean body, one that, like her designs, would be modern; unabashedly fabricated. It was her acquaintance with Ernest Beaux, one of the first perfumers familiar with aldehydes, that led to it, and, ultimately, to Chanel’s status as a household name.

Tarnishing her reputation forever is Chanel’s war years “horizontal collaboration” with Baron von Dincklage, an officer of the Third Reich. It is true that Chanel spent much of the war living at the Ritz in Paris; it appears that she did what she felt she had to do, although she apparently continued the relationship after the war ended. Chaney asks us to consider her instinct for survival, and it fits her character, certainly, although it doesn’t redeem her. 

“Coco Chanel - An Intimate Life” seems to me to be a factual look at one of the first modern women. Who knows where her doggedness came from? I’ve known many people with wretched upbringings that have made them weak, not strong. We are oriented toward psychology in this age, and many excuses get made. So, what was it about her?

I still don’t know.

I do know, after reading this book, that Coco Chanel was not Nice. Had she been "nice" -- compliant, knowing her place -- chances are we would never have heard of her. She would lived as a grisette, or courtesan, until the inevitable aging took her allure, and then, in the best-case scenario, perhaps eked out an allowance from a sentimental ex-lover. But this is just speculation. The fact is that she seems to have been born with the fierceness, talent and — some would say — lack of scruples that put her on top of her world and have kept her name alive in ours.

“Coco Chanel An Intimate Life” is available in all the usual places. The ISBN is 978-0-670-02309-7.

Full disclosure time: This book was sent to me by its publisher, Viking, for review.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Delving Into Chanel No. 5

I’ve been reading the new book “Coco Chanel An Intimate Life” by Lisa Chaney — review next week — so have become more interested in Chanel No. 5 than before. (This is probably an admission of heresy for a perfume blogger, I know.) Having the requisite ¼ ounce bottle of the parfum and a little bit left in a 1 oz. coffret bottle of the Eau de Toilette I bought years ago, I didn’t think I needed to explore the subject further. I thought: really, what’s there to say about No. 5 that hasn’t already been said, and said better?

Then I went to an estate sale last Friday. I spotted a nearly full 2-oz. bottle of Chanel No. 5 Eau de Cologne, and bought it for ten bucks. It looked old, but one can never be sure with No. 5 — I’ve avoided buying it on Our Favorite Auction Site, as it’s the most likely of all perfumes to be fake. It smelled very different from either of my early 90’s versions, and I wondered if I'd been burned. I’ve been doing research on it all morning, have found that it is real, and could actually be significantly old, since the Eau de Cologne formula was discontinued some time in the 90’s. (The bottles are pictured to the left.)

The label has a very different typeface than the modern ones, finer sans serif lettering in a different arrangement than is used now on Chanel bottles — the “Eau De Cologne” is above the No5, and the name “Chanel” is at the bottom. The circled double C logo on the top is etched into the material — probably plastic, maybe bakelite, it’s hard to tell — whereas, on the new bottles, it looks and feels painted on. The back of the bottle reads “Chanel, Inc. New York Distributor,” painted on. The bottom has the word "Chanel" embossed, and, below it, the number 8.

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Generally, I don’t give a rat’s about bottles. This one intrigued me, though, because its contents don’t smell like any other formulation of No. 5 I’ve tried. I get old aldehydes at first, of course, but then there is a slightly soapy, dark, nearly masculine quality. Aspects of it remind me of an old 60’s bottle of “Woodhue” cologne I have, which, I’ve been told, is chock-full of nitro musks, and I think maybe this is, too. I don’t really know, though, because I’ve only been able to date it as being sometime between 1951 and the 90’s. I read that the “New York Distributor” phrase on the back was used between the late 40’s through the 50’s. I found a print ad from 1969 showing the same label as my bottle, but without anything on the back — although that doesn’t mean much; it might have been airbrushed out for aesthetic reasons. 

A couple of months ago, a neighbor saw me outside, and rushed over with an empty Chanel ¼ oz. perfume bottle that had been his mother-in-law’s. He was sure it was a rare and valuable treasure. It was probably from the 80’s, as best as I could guess, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that there were approximately a million of them just like it out there. This is what bottle buyers go through, I suppose. I referred him to a Chanel perfume bottle dating site

Anyway, what I find to be interesting about all this is the different formulas for No. 5. My 90’s EDT smells of jasmine, a synthetic one, as I’ve read that only the parfum uses real jasmine or rose any more (and who knows if they still do.) The perfume is very different from that, sweeter, with a mellowness that says “naturals” to my nose — and there probably were at least some in the early 90’s. The old EDC screams aldehydes, almost like My Sin or Lanvin’s Rumeur. It could be that the midnotes are just degraded, though; eventually, it sweetens a little and becomes recognizable.

I’ve read that there have been around 60 books written about Coco Chanel, at least two films, and more books coming out. She was this; she was that, no she wasn’t, yes she was! She seems to me to have been a fierce sort of chameleon, someone who could, and did, adapt. All these versions of this perfume, her most enduring product — the formulae, the bottles, labels, fakes, controversy, quibbling over detail — could turn out to be her most recognizable legacy.

Any Chanel bottle experts out there? Fill me in!

Full review of “Coco Chanel An Intimate Life” will appear here next week.