Chanel No. 5

We’ll be talking about blondes again today. You’ve probably heard of the movie “The Seven Year Itch.” That’s the one where the famous picture of Marilyn Monroe with her white dress blowing up in the wind comes from. The name of Marilyn’s character in that movie is “The Girl.” Maybe she has a name, maybe she has a story, maybe she has something to offer, but no one really cares. All she’s allowed to be is “The Girl”, a beautiful object onto which others can project what they will. So maybe we’re not exactly talking about blondes, but more about women who play “The Girl.” It just so happens that a disproportionate number of these women happen to be blonde. “The Dumb Blonde” is just “The Girl” wearing a blonde wig.

Serena van der Woodsen from “Gossip Girl” and her many predecessors, including Elle Woods, Daisy Buchanan, and Marilyn Monroe, are examples of beautiful women of great intelligence and substance who frequently played dumb because it was what everyone wanted, because it was easy. Daisy said it best in her famous line from “The Great Gatsby”: “That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” So maybe playing “The Girl” is a betrayal of yourself. It’s not like anyone was particularly interested in the “real you” anyway. Marilyn always aspired to be a more “serious” actress, but her more dramatic roles (in movies such as “The Misfits” and “River of No Return”) were never nearly as successful as the dumb blonde characters that made her rich, famous, and miserable.

Perhaps you think that Daisy’s prophecy might be outdated in a world of Hillary Rodham Clintons and Tina Feys. (BTW, let it be known that I absolutely worship Hillary and fully intend to do a review on her favorite perfume, the ballbusting Angel by Thierry Mugler, sometime soon.) If so, please consider Daisy’s modern-day equivalent, Serena. Serena’s best friend, Blair Waldorf, is a bit of a Hillary. She’s undeniably intelligent, a bit prickly, and the top student at their prestigious high school. Blair has one, all-consuming dream: Yale University. Serena, on the other hand, is considered to be less of an intellectual and more of the lovable whore-next-door. Which one do you think gets into Yale? If you answered “Blair”, you have not been listening very closely.

Oh, Blair Bear. So close, yet so far.
Ever since Marilyn Monroe answered “Just a few drops of Chanel No. 5, of course” to the question of what she wore to bed, she has been the person most closely associated with the world’s most famous perfume. However, Marilyn’s answer has always been a complete mystery to me. Created in 1921 by Ernest Beaux, Chanel No. 5 is many things- fresh, slightly powdery, golden in personality- but it is absolutely not sexy. Why would Marilyn, whose sex symbol persona endures almost 50 years after her death, have worn a perfume that is so resolutely unseductive? Perhaps her seemingly incongruous perfume choice gives us a glimpse at the person behind the persona. Maybe No. 5 spoke to who Marilyn really was behind the makeup and the body. Of course it’s just a theory, but if it were true, then Marilyn’s inner self would have been radiant indeed.

Beaux, the perfumer behind No. 5, is said to have been inspired by the fresh smell of the lakes in the Arctic Circle (where he was stationed in World War I). The result is a perfume that evokes a bright sun shining down on these lakes, a warm, golden scent that also somehow smells pure and hopeful. No. 5 is an extremely comforting smell, and I imagine it is this cozy, reassuring aspect that endeared it to Marilyn, who had a notoriously troubled childhood and struggled with schizophrenia and an addiction to prescription drugs as as an adult. Finally we come to the dark side of playing “The Girl.” Is Marilyn alive today to enjoy her enormous fame? No. She committed suicide at the age of 36, alone in the bathroom.

I own two bottles of No. 5- a small bottle of vintage parfum from my mother and the Eau de Toilette. Although I know that the parfum is very valuable, I don’t wear it as often. It has a very strong indolic jasmine note that I don’t much care for. By the way, “indolic” is a synonym for “fecal”. You learned a new word today! Wearing No. 5 reminds me that the easy way does not always end well. That there is great danger in allowing oneself to be defined by others, and that it is critical to have a strong sense of self. Actually, I just remembered a very concrete connection between Serena and Marilyn. Last episode, when Maureen, the married congressman’s wife, was trying to convince Serena to be the congressman’s mistress, she said, “I’ll be Jackie and you’ll be Marilyn.” Serena’s refusal made me the proudest I’ve been of her all season.

Maureen, I served with Jackie Kennedy, I knew Jackie Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy was a friend of mine. Maureen, you’re no Jackie Kennedy.

Disclaimer: I own a bottle of Chanel No. 5 parfum that belongs to my mother, and a bottle of Eau de Toilette that I bought at Sephora.

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