Episode 2 of 2: Uncovering French luxury brands’ secrets
You can read Episode 1 of this interview here
How did you start writing The Secret of Number 5 and The Ritz?
It’s funny how one thing leads to another as a writer. So I had just written The Widow Clicquot and two guide books; one on the back lane wineries of California, one on Napa. I was thinking about what my next project would be. For the Napa book, I spent three months wine tasting everyday, and your nose is something that gets trained with such regular use. At the end of that period, I happened to be at a friend’s house who was an amateur collector of vintage perfumes. He started pulling out really interesting, older, rare perfumes and I could name everything in them. I thought, ‘I know what makes a great wine, I wonder what makes a great perfume? In technical terms; is this a good perfume or not, and how do we know? And why don’t I know?’
That was how I became interested in perfume. Then I thought, ‘Chanel Number 5, it’s [considered] the greatest perfume in the world. But is it really a great perfume? Why has it been the world’s greatest selling perfume for almost 90 years? What’s the secret behind it?’
And it turns out [that] it is technically an absolutely brilliant perfume. But that’s only part of it. I was able to go briefly to International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF) in New York and work with the perfume professor there. I met with perfumers and friends and go to the May rose harvest in Grasse in the south of France. I got a fabulous education on what makes a perfume and how do we appreciate it. It was a lot of fun.
Is your interest in France only about luxury and the good life?
No, I don’t think so. A lot of the Chanel book focuses on the history of the Second World War and the Ritz book (which really evolved from writing the Chanel book) is going to be on the Ritz Hotel during the Occupation. It is about the good life, but it’s also about luxury products that sometimes tell very complicated and profound stories about culture and desire.
For example, I go into Coco Chanel’s time at the Ritz*, which a lot of other books and the recent movies gloss over. But there is archival information about that available, a lot of which has never been published.
What’s really interesting to me about the Ritz is that it was owned by a Swiss family and Hemingway called it Switzerland during the Second World War. Half of it was occupied by the Nazi and Vichy administration, but the other half remained a hotel. This meant that there were people like Coco Chanel, other prominent celebrities, some American pro-fascist industrialists, spies and La Résistance network in the Ritz. I found really interesting, recently de-classified information on that period.
Working on the Second World War in Paris has been really interesting because I’ve come to feel that Paris is a city of ghosts. There is a shadow that hangs over Paris, like in Marais, which is where the Gestapo’s torture centre was.
How has your academic background helped you with this kind of research?
These are stories you couldn’t do unless you had been trained on how to get around a library, I don’t think. They are intensely archival. Archival research is really challenging, it can mean finding things that sometimes people don’t want you to find, especially during the Second World War. Some people would really rather you let sleeping dogs lie.
How do you balance this research and promoting your books with your other job?
I’ve been on leave most of the last four years. I’m very lucky, I’m a tenured professor in a wonderful liberal arts college in New England, called Colby College. They’ve been fabulous and very generous about letting me take leaves of absences to order to do this writing.
I have agreed that in the Fall, I will go back and be a Chair of the department for two years. The nomadism needs to tone down a bit here!
Who has influenced you, both in term of your academic and writing careers?
Lots of different writers have [influenced me]. When you are engaged with writing a story, the longer you are writing, the more you realise writing is really about craft. The more you realise it is about craft, the more you realise there are moments when you’re writing that you really get stuck. Even if you’re a great writer and you’ve got a good story, there are moments when you get trapped in technical dead ends. Those are the moments when I have found the work of other writers incredibly important.
In The Widow Clicquot, I remember one moment near the end when I got stuck because you go along and you’ve got a great story, but in the last 30 years of her life information starts disappearing. How do you keep it an engaging story? At that moment, I remember going back and looking at Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir, who wrote about growing up Chinese-American. She deals with the same technical problem of how you tell a great story when your information has a gap in it.
There were a number of moments when I turned to other writers who had wonderful ways of solving story-telling problems.
Thank you very much Tilar, I really enjoyed meeting you and chatting about these luxury french brands and your interesting life!
*During the German Occupation, Coco Chanel lived at the Hotel Ritz, which was also the preferred residence for highly ranked German officers. She was criticised for having an affair with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German officer and spy.
Chanel also took advantage of the Nazi’s seizure of all Jewish owned property and businesses. She used her position as an ‘Aryan’ to petition German officials to legalise her right to sole ownership of Parfums Chanel, whose directors had been Jewish. (source)