Author Tilar Mazzeo is a connoisseur of Paris luxury who has written best sellers about two of her favorites: champagne (The Widow Clicquot) and perfume (The Secret of Chanel No. 5). Currently, she is writing a wartime history of the Ritz to be called The Ritz at War: Luxury in Occupied Paris. She confesses that all her work results from an addiction to “the business of beautiful things.”
Businesses created by remarkable women are her forte. A college professor specializing in the 19th century, Mazzeo might have confined her work to the objects themselves. “After all,” she says, “I love all the icons of Paris luxury, from the Vuitton bag to the Hermès scarf.”
But it is the female creators behind luxury who intrigue Mazzeo. “The texture of a woman’s life is so different from that of a man. I’m drawn by their griefs, their struggles and their determination. At the end of the day, these are women with problems and weaknesses we understand.”
It was Mazzeo’s “side job” as a wine writer that piqued her interest in Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin. Ponsardin became the Widow Clicquot, a pioneer and entrepreneur of luxury. Her biography by Mazzeo became a New York Times best seller and won awards that include Gourmand World Cookbook’s “Best Work of Wine Literature.”
Its success led the author to another legend: Coco Chanel, about whom she wrote The Secret of Chanel No. 5. This time, the book was prompted by a turning point in her life. Just after finishing a volume on wine in California, Mazzeo flew to the opposite coast—because she was getting divorced.
It was such a low moment friends hovered nearby to console her. “They were trying to soothe my sorrows with some very nice wine. Our host had also started collecting vintage perfumes and he was showing his toys. I can’t see nor can I dance but I can certainly smell. So it was a great distraction! As we talked about what makes a great perfume, I kept thinking how much they all resemble wines.”
The group was also reading aloud from a new guide to scent. “Its description of Chanel No. 5 was amazing! That reminded me of the very finest wine I had tasted, of how complex and how difficult to describe it was. That night, I knew I had found my next book.”
What Mazzeo never expected was all the twists in its tale. The story of Chanel’s greatest achievement began in personal tragedy. But it went on to encompass everything from courtesans and the Russian Revolution to Hollywood and Nazism.
“No. 5 turns out to be like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—something you create that ends up controlling your destiny. Of course, the book is very much about Chanel. But it’s not her biography; it’s the story of one luxury that came to mean Paris.”
Last year the iconic scent turned 90 yet, after all the years, No. 5 still rules the market. Those in the trade refer to it as “the Monster” because, every 30 seconds, someone somewhere buys a bottle.
Says Mazzeo, “It ended up defining Chanel more than anything else. Of all her tempestuous love affairs, it was the longest and the strongest.”
In Paris, where do you treat yourself to champagne?
My latest favorite is 1728, in the mansion where Lafayette once lived (one room was also used by Madame de Pompadour as her salon). They boast a fabulous cave with 246 wines and champagnes.
Is Chanel No. 5 your favorite scent?
Actually, I prefer perfumes by Guerlain like Mitsouko or Shalimar. The Maison Guerlain is an amazing Paris landmark, redesigned not long ago by Andrée Putman.
What is your top Paris luxury secret?
That would have to be the Osmothèque at Versailles. It’s an amazing kind of “perfume library.” There, you can smell rare and vintage perfumes that are no longer made. They re-create perfumes such as those worn by Marie Antoinette and they keep a sample of every scent that is sold today.
The Widow Clicquot
The Secret of Chanel No. 5
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