The sense of smell is powerful. It evokes memories and inspires imagination. There have been several pivotal women in my life. Many of them wore the legendary scent, Chanel No. 5. That scent has been provocative and is important to me.
Marilyn Monroe is the best known wearer of Chanel No. 5. She offered in an interview “What do I wear in bed? Why, Chanel No. 5, of course.”
That statement was provocative to be sure. Monroe was a sex symbol at the time and that quote did exactly what it was supposed to do: raise eyebrows and interest in her.
Marilyn continues to be an icon nearly 60 years after her death. In 2011, Dior brought here “back to life” (using digital technology) in an advertising campaign. Chanel felt compelled to note that Marilyn preferred their perfume and responded. I would too!
Celebrity and fame comes at a very high price. Too high. Her life ended tragically much, much too soon.
A brief history of No. 5
This iconic fragrance was launched by Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in 1921. She developed the scent with French-Russian perfumer Ernest Beaux. Chanel’s challenge to Beaux was for him to create a scent that would make the wearer “smell like a woman, and not like a rose.”
The development of this scent is the stuff of legend. Like all legends, where truth ends and story telling begins is questionable. There are many accounts of that story. Here is one such undertaking.
One thing is certain: a scent whose origin inspires such discussion is a scent of significance. It has been in my life. It’s been worn by some of the most important women in my life.
Benita de la Torre
My mother, Benita de la Torre, was an immigrant from Mexico who lived the American Dream.
She was born in the state of Durango, Mexico, but finished growing up in the city of Monterrey in Northeast Mexico. Benita was only able to complete a couple of years of formal education before she had to join the workforce.
She joined her family in the United States while in her 20s and was taking English language classes when she met my father and many other life-long friends.
Eventually, we ended up at the lumber camp I mention above. My mother cooked meals for the handful of Mexican laborers working at the lumber camp. This was a way to earn extra income. I never knew my mother to not be at work. I, too, am a Work-A-Holic. So I suspect I get that from her.
Benita passed away in 1987. I was only 25 and getting started on my own life. I never got the opportunity to know her in an adult-to-adult relationship. I was too busy living the life her hard work allowed me to enjoy. When Benita died, my wife, Leslie, was pregnant with our first child. Benita missed seeing her first grandchild by two months. Life can be very unfair.
Benita rarely wore makeup. She didn’t need to. Her beautiful Latina features were all that was needed to make her the most beautiful woman in the world. On occasion, she’d apply lipstick and we’d know that we were going to a fiesta or a baile.
On those special days, she did wear Chanel No. 5.
I attended elementary school in Point Arena, California. Point Arena is a coastal town in Mendocino County. Mendocino county is home to the Pomo nation. There was one high school and one elementary school in Point Arena in the late 1960s / early 1970s. It was a typical small American town.
My father worked for the Hollow Tree Lumber company located in the middle of the forest. The company had carved out space for a small trailer park and several families lived there, including mine. Eventually, the company provided a small bus to take the children to school in Point Arena, a 1-hour drive over bare dirt roads.
At one point, I was placed in a combined 3rd/4th grade class. There, I was joined by several Pomo kids (several of them cousins) and my brother. I now realize that it was a class designed to segregate the native and Mexican kids who attended that school. Part of growing up Latino in California in the 1960s/ 1970s.
Mrs. Atkins (forgive me, I can not remember, nor find her name) was our teacher in that class. She taught us everything. The core curiculum and other topics. She taught us how to square dance, sing songs and to play the Recorder. She was a coach on the playground, and a counselor in the classroom. She was supportive and encouraging at all times. What she did for me and my classmates was important work. She was a true teacher.
She wore Chanel No. 5.
My wife, Leslie Hartman, has a birthday coming up. Like the women above, she is a strong, determined woman who is diligent in accomplishing whatever she sets her sights on. She’s given life to our three beautiful children, and she brings forth life in our garden every year.
She’s not a fan of fancy, trivial things. She focuses on things that matter and things that have a purpose. On previous birthdays, I have given her things for her garden (tools and even bags of manure!) because those is something that she wants and asks for. I have provided her with baubles and bangles over the years and they’ve been appreciated. But, baubles and bangles are not something she’s likely to ask for.
She does not wear Chanel No. 5. She likes that perfume. But when we were first married, I asked her to wear another scent as I associated Chanel No. 5 with the older women in my life. She uses Coco.
This year, I will give Leslie Chanel No. 5 for her birthday. I hope that she accepts it and wears it.
Benita, Mrs. Atkins and Leslie have all shaped the person I am. Their spirit, attitudes, and willingness to help others can’t help but inspire.
It’s interesting that Chanel No. 5 is a common thread among them. I can’t help but wonder if that scent has somehow helped shape me in some form or another. Because our sense of smell is indeed very powerful.
Well done, Chanel. Well done.