My Mother and Chanel No. 5 Turn 100
Emily Rubin toasts her century-old mother, and her mother's favorite fragrance of the same age.
This essay is one of four sponsored by Revel as part of a collaboration with Oldster Magazine for Women’s History Month. The theme is “The Women Who Came Before Us” and the four authors—Abigail Thomas, Naz Riahi, Emily Rubin, and Blaise Allysen Kearsley—will all participate in a virtual reading to be held on the Revel site on Tuesday, March 8th at 7pm EST.
Perfume "is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion. . . . that heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure," Coco Chanel
My mother, Carol Rubin, turned 100 on Nov. 8, 2021. The year also marked the 100th year of the introduction to the world of her favorite perfume, Chanel No. 5. Two classy centenarians, heralds of longevity.
Coco Chanel insisted on a delicate and heady confidence for the scent. The scientists and parfumiers presented ten different samples. She chose sample number five. The formula for a bottle of No. 5 contains no less than 80 ingredients. The top notes feature doses of ylang-ylang and neroli with an undercurrent of jasmine. Each 30ml bottle contains 1,000 jasmine flowers (from Grasse) and May 12 roses. Adding to that are sandalwood, bourbon, vetiver, and vanilla. The singular scent reminded Coco of fresh laundry. The daughter of a laundress, she was smitten. The winning formula represented the beauty, mystery, boldness, and constancy of reinvention of the feminine. The perfume and my mother came into the world during the Jazz Age with independent flappers in smoky dance halls. The scent was a bridge to chic with a nod to the risqué.
The perfume and my mother came into the world during the Jazz Age with independent flappers in smoky dance halls. The scent was a bridge to chic with a nod to the risqué.
My mother lives on her own in a house filled with art, books, overflowing clothes and linen closets, and an ever-present bottle of Chanel No. 5. Upon discovering the bottle, I asked if she had memories attached to the perfume. She reminisced about the first bottle she received in 1944 as a gift from my father, Morton, when they were married at the height of World War II.
She met my father, a City College grad, on his way to the service in 1943 at an uptown college dance. Their first date was on the Staten Island Ferry. Mom remembered the blue polka dot shirtwaist dress with matching hat and clutch purse she wore. My father, a man with a roguish sense of humor and a great admirer of women, recalled imagining the dress falling away. He was 25, she was 22. They were married in 1944—my father in his blue Navy uniform. My mother also wore blue. "I thought it improper to wear white during wartime," she said when we found the dress stored in a box in a crawl space.
During World War II, Coco Chanel and her team stopped all advertising from 1942 to 1943 and made the perfume available to the military tax-free along with other essential items. The fragrance was a gift of gratitude to the women holding their own on the home front or in service during the war, representing survival, love, and sacrifice.
In November 1921, my grandmother, Rose Begun, had a difficult birth at the Lying-In Hospital on East 18th Street. My mother’s head was pushing into Rose’s ribcage, and the specialist’s manipulations successfully birthed the baby. I still cringe hearing the story at family functions. Mother and baby survived. As Rose recovered, my grandfather, Solomon, relieved and thrilled, returned uptown to the Grand Concourse to receive the delivery of a baby grand piano. This was his gift to Rose on the occasion of their firstborn. The piano dominated the front sitting room of every subsequent Bronx apartment. My grandmother played Beethoven, Puccini, Mozart, Jewish folk songs, and theater tunes, humming while she played, often breaking into full-throated off-key revery.
I asked if she had memories attached to the perfume. She reminisced about the first bottle she received in 1944 as a gift from my father, Morton, when they were married at the height of World War II.
During World War II, my father was stationed at a base on Narraganset Bay, RI. My parents began married life living in a Quonset hut on the base. My father heard from friends in the European theater about soldiers lining up to purchase Chanel No. 5 to bring home to wives, sisters, and girlfriends. My father bought a bottle in the commissary, one of several my mother would receive from him during their sixty-plus years together.
The popularity of the perfume soared when the playfully seductive Marilyn Monroe ignited passion across gender lines by she announcing she daubed it here and there before bed, "anywhere you want to be touched".
When I was growing up, during our hectic mornings getting ready for school and work, I was forever curious about my mother's morning rituals and ablutions. The girdle she pulled on appeared ridiculously restrictive; the feat of engineering called a garter belt, and the rolling of stockings upward to hook in the belt’s clasps, a true test of balance. Getting ready for her job as an elementary school teacher, my mother smoothed her hair and clothes in the mirror as if styling a mannequin. As she dabbed No. 5 behind each ear, her neck lengthened, just like Alice after drinking the potion. The perfume was nectar that nurtured confidence.
My father heard from friends in the European theater about soldiers lining up to purchase Chanel No. 5 to bring home to wives, sisters, and girlfriends. My father bought a bottle in the commissary, one of several my mother would receive from him during their sixty-plus years together.
When I lift the rectangular diamond-cut stopper of Chanel No. 5, the ghosts of early memories arise. In our modest Cape Cod home, I remember my parents arriving home after a night out with friends in my early single-digit days. With my bedroom door ajar, a wafting of Chanel No. 5 mixed with the heat from gin and flirting took shape in the muted hallway light silhouetting my mother’s hourglass figure. I was awakened by the muffled clatter of their arrival, thanking the babysitter, Ruthie, and getting a report of the night.
"There's a bit of a mess from finger painting. We made popcorn, watched Creature Features, and read some Alice in Wonderland. She threw up a little after the monster was electrocuted. She wants to be tough, but scary mixed with buttered popcorn maybe wasn't a good idea."
I listened, lifting my head from the pillow to hear my mother's slurred whisper, but could only decipher laughs and the shuffling of my father pulling out his wallet against the worsted fabric of his back pocket, fingering dollars in his veiny hands.
My mother would tiptoe into my room, and through tight, slitted eyes, pretending to be asleep, I would catch a glimpse of tee-strap high heels dangling in her hand. She relaxed and exhaled after peering over the granny-square quilt, assured I was safely tucked in. Maybe she noticed my mischievous fake sleep-smile? While straightening her dress, she would slink out backward, gently closing the door. I would fall off to sleep knowing she was safe at home. In the morning she would return to wiggle me awake with a puffy face and smudged mascara under shrouded eyes with vapors of Chanel No. 5 lingering, along with her satisfied exhaustion from an evening of fun and the beginning of a new day.
For my mother and me, memories of the past slide into the present and prevail in stories still to be revealed like the scent of our individual and shared chemistries.
With Chanel No.5, the makers brought our everyday dreams into the realm of romance and elegance. For my mother and me, memories of the past slide into the present and prevail in stories still to be revealed like the scent of our individual and shared chemistries. Breathe in, be present, breathe out, imagine the future, and prepare for the hint and possibility of new memories, here, there, and everywhere. Happy 100th birthday to you both.
My mother was also a war bride. She wore the required girdle and bra with pointy cups. My father at some point bought her Channel number 5. She wore a less expensive scent on most days. Channel was for special nights out. It went with the fire engine red nail polish she wore on these occasions. I remember her scents so well. I have a handkerchief of hers that still smells of Channel. I don’t know what will happen when the scent fades enough that I can no longer detect it.
My Jewish mother was also born in 1921 lived in New York City (where I was born and raised) married in 1943, and was a lover of Chanel No 5 so your essay really spoke to me. My mom never left the house without a girdle, makeup, hair and nails done, and a dab of the 5 - even if she was just to walk a block to the bank. I'm so glad the Chanel has survived, but that girdle did not!