Rhonda Garelick never intended to write Coco Chanel’s biography. The original idea was more specific: a book about Chanel’s work as a stage costumer.

But once Garelick started exploring her initial topic, she realized that, “yes, Chanel’s a costumer, but she’s a costumer of the globe. The project grew from a book about Chanel’s stage work to Chanel making her world a stage.”

The result is the newly released “Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History,” a 600-page book about the life and influence of Chanel. Garelick, a professor of performing arts and English at University Nebraska-Lincoln, has written two books before for university presses. But “Mademoiselle’s” topic and its publisher (Random House) are affording her work a much higher profile than Garelick is used to. “A commercial book,” she said, “is another species.”

The book has received a great critical response from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Wall Street Journal and The New York Review of Books.

The Review noted that “Chanel had a long, varied life that cannot be easily sorted into distinct chapters, particularly because her work, her love affairs, her artistic and political passions, and her commercial instincts are invariably intertwined. This makes the assured confidence with which Garelick tells her story all the more remarkable.”

Garelick is commonly asked, why write another bio of Chanel when there are already so many?

“The reason is,” she said, “I don’t think anyone has ever really understood her for the large-world historical force she actually was. Her celebrity and her iconic status have blinded us to her influence, which was artistic, political, historical. I really believe she is the single most influential aesthetic force of the 20th century, certainly for women.”

Garelick chronicles Chanel’s rise from an impoverished childhood to the ruler of a commercial empire. She provides countless details about the hopelessly tangled aspects of Chanel’s life. Digging through archives, Garelick attempted to suss out the facts from the fiction of her subject’s story. Chanel was an inveterate fabulist and rarely told the same story twice. Garelick had to crack through the iconic persona Chanel had created and previous biographies had crystallized.

But Garelick is as concerned with the why of Chanel’s life as she is the what. Not only why she was the way she was but why this person, this orphaned child turned cafe singer, became the most influential designer in the world.

Just saying Chanel was a talented designer is insufficient, Garelick said. There were many talented designers at the time, some more talented than Chanel.

“But she touched something, psychologically, historically, that took fire. Somehow, that character she created — the young, modern, sleek girl, alluring but self-possessed — speaks to women. No matter how old they are and no matter where they are.”

Contact the writermicah.mertes@owh.com


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