Marilyn may never have formally endorsed Chanel No. 5, but her witty reply to a cheeky reporter who asked what she wore to bed was worth a lifetime of ad campaigns. A 1953 photo by Bob Beerman, showing Marilyn lying nude in bed with a bottle of the iconic perfume on her nightstand, illustrates an article in this week’s Grazia magazine (UK edition – dated May 31), celebrating 100 years of the world’s most famous fragrance. (And to get a whiff of its global appeal, South Africa’s Daily Maverick has published a history of Chanel No. 5.)
“In 1921 Coco Chanel travelled to Grasse for a holiday on the Côte d’Azur. Since the 18th century the little town had been home to some of the most famous parfumeurs in the world – perfume makers, flower farmers, producers and creators of extraordinary scents.
It is there, under the Maritime pines, on the rolling hills of l’Estérel, that Coco Chanel met Ernest Beaux, a Russian-born French perfumer and a ‘nose’. Like her, Beaux (in French, the plural for ‘handsome’) was charismatic, sophisticated and a hedonist.
When she met Beaux her idea was clear: She wanted a perfume that would embody the sway of the Chanel brand, but more so, she wanted ‘a woman’s perfume with the scent of a woman’ … That scent should be like nothing else created before, and so Beaux set to work, seeking ‘inspiration inside the Arctic Circle, in the crisp chill off the northern lakes of the midnight sun’.
Beaux presented her with different elixirs, each one in a numbered glass bottle; the legend says that it was the bottle N°5 that ‘broke all the fragrance rules’ and took Coco Chanel’s heart; or maybe it was that five was her lucky number, a prime number and a symbol of balance; or that in astrology the fifth house is the house of Leo, her zodiac sign.
Sixteen years after the creation of N°5, Gabrielle Chanel would pose for Harper’s Bazaar at the Ritz, the ‘face of her own fragrance’; that same year, she would make the suite of the five-star hotel her permanent residency, living there until her death, in January 1971.
But it is Marilyn Monroe who, responding to the question of a journalist who pondered what the American actress wore to bed, said, ‘Just a few drops of N°5’, and sealed the fragrance’s iconic status, if not for eternity, for 100 years to come.”