Wait For The Moment When… Mae West

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…manifests on screen. Her film debut (she’d been on the New York stage for 20 years) was a supporting role in Night After Night in 1932, a film remembered now only for Mae and the exchange:

“Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!”

“Goodness had nothing to do with it dearie!”

The more you think about it the funnier it is; with its lilting scansion it is also poetically simple. Maybe that’s why the line is so frequently garbled and misquoted – as with Marilyn needing 58 takes to recite “where’s that bourbon?” while simultaneously opening a drawer. Less is more. Legendary theatrical turns of a century ago were by modern standards basic, even nugatory, but nonetheless radiated a concentrated energy (Sarah Bernhardt expected nightly to die on stage). Mae undulated an idolent shimmy, yowled suggestive songs, rotated her hips and delivered startling innuendo in that curious voice, part nasal, part mashed potato, that veered between New York brashness and tom cat purr. It was an old music hall persona but brand new to the screen: Hollywood kept Miss West on ice till the talkies arrived. Despite her extraordinary appearance she was also a creature of aurality as her notoriety on the wireless testifies.

Once she appears, you can’t take your eyes off her: the only definition of a true star. Like Garbo – quite unlike, say, Davis, Crawford or Rita Hayworth – she ignores everyone else in the picture: they are laid on merely as feeds and props. Far larger and stranger than life, entirely self-obsessed, Mae loves Mae. While appearing so transparently lubricious and blatantly arousing she is in fact a complete enigma. Presenting nothing but sex, is she in fact sexy?

Entirely the wrong figure and silhouette for her era, she dresses in a parody of the styles of the 1890’s. Her sweeping spangled gowns conceal the 8″ inch heels and soles that, with pompadours and plumes, transform her from petite to Statue of Liberty dimensions. The legs are rarely glimpsed. Never a beauty, Mae was 40 before she filmed, with an odd little face which Cecil Beaton later likened to that of an ape. Was she laughing at herself or was she deadly serious? Was she really a man, as has often been suggested? Was she the experienced voluptuary she implied or a sexually neurotic woman who avoided intimacy, preferring (like Somerset Maugham) “to be touched only by prior arrangement”.

From increasingly bizarre interviews and memoirs over the decades it’s impossible to tell. I always liked the account of one interview where she generated electricity from the nylon carpet to transmit a shock on shaking hands. Why did Billy Wilder have Mae down as his first choice for Norma Desmond? Had he got her number right off?

Yet one of Mae’s most endearing features is that on film she always appears to be enjoying herself: another aspect of the star persona. This is so even in the movie mistakes of her old age, Myra Breckinridge and Sextette, despite microphones hidden in her false hair to feed her dialogue, and with technicians kneeling on the floor propelling her around the set. There is on You Tube a sweet interview with Mae talking to Dick Cavett – her vast bosom is corseted and tightly upholstered in black velvet, and she comes over as a darling and slightly raffish old lady who has spent a jolly life in saloon bars (needless to say, she was in fact strictly teetotal). She looks fun and – as was once said of Swanson – she is fun to think about, too.

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Rochas took Mae at face value when he and Edmond Roudnistka created FEMME towards the end of World War Two. Couturier Marcel Rochas had known West for years as a client: he now designed the flacon as a surreal vision of the celebrated hips. Naturally it feels wonderful to hold. The box was patterned with the black lace panels that Rochas used to create the optical illusion of a slimmer figure. So maybe the sweet and fruity (prunes, but crystallised) chypre has a touch of tongue in cheek. Today – if you can find a bottle – it is still gorgeous and fascinating despite the passage of 70 years; and so, on celluloid, is Mae.

‘Oh, Beulah…’

‘Yes, ma’am?’

‘Peel me a grape.’

MAE WEST 1893 – 1980

Nasty Smells

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Because the olfactory sense is a safety mechanism to alert us to danger, the memory of a really bad pong can last a lifetime. Twenty years ago I went off to explore the middle east, spending the first night in the beautiful port of Aqaba, as blue as a Hockney swimming pool, on the Red Sea. As we tourists were then going into Syria we were rigorously chaperoned, with a good deal of luggage checking. When I retrieved my case to get on the Damascus ‘bus I all too soon became aware that the handle was now the source of a most appallling smell: something dead and rotten was smeared on it. Exactly what or how I could never tell; but of course it was impossible to remove, or appeared to be so. Hot water, soap, salt scrubs, perfume went only so far – talk about Lady Macbeth. The horror lingered behind and below all the cleansing: out of the sweetness came forth stench. The experience to some extent poisoned the whole expedition; and when I later became very ill indeed after a dish of humous at Aleppo, the infection seemed somehow to have more to do with the now much-swabbed suitcase than the chickpeas.

Many of us conduct infant experiments with water and rose petals. Aged maybe four, I took apart a plastic bracelet of multi-coloured flowers (remember “pop-beads”?) and floated them artistically in a screw-top jam jar of water which I put on the nursery shelf, enchanted by the effect. Now, whether I added something else I do not now know, but I do recall being shocked and repelled by the nauseating stagnant smell when this piece of juvenile conceptual art was revisited some time later. And here’s an apercu I spared you in Valentine’s week:
“The soul of a man in love smells of the closed-up room of a sick man – its confined atmosphere is filled with stale breath”. ¤

Our ancestors, of course, believed that evil smells indicated demonic presence. Some of us can certainly pick up the foxy sharp smell of fear; and I think that occasional inexplicable aversions to places and people may be explained by emanations that we do not logically comprehend or even consciously smell but which are detected if not fully interpreted by our limbic systems. My mother had a superstitious – or was it? – dread of cut flowers that lasted too long in a vase. She believed that this indicated the presence of death; and said that flowers in a room where someone had died would flourish indefinitely.

When I get hyper-stressed I smell burned toast or crispy bacon, my head seems full of it. If you look on-line you’ll see this is a well-known phenomenon and the most fevered even frightening explanations are given for it. I have got used to it now after some ten years and have stopped constantly throwing open the kitchen windows. Besides, I was always told as a child that charred toast helps to develop a beautiful singing voice.

"Narzisse" by Martin Hirtreiter - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Narzisse.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Narzisse.jpg

“Narzisse” by Martin Hirtreiter

But let’s end on an upbeat note: what of the loveliest smells? The Book of Revelations reports St John’s vision of “four and twenty elders…having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints…”. I shall always remember the billows of a sublime silvery oud shimmering from two Middle Eastern ladies in the Fortnum and Mason lift – the scent of angels in black veils. On a more prosaic level, having just bought two more bunches of early daffodils in the supermarket – (now carefully positioned well away from the onions & Chinese veg: did you read that tommy-rot?) – I am minded to ask whether you can beat the greeny gassy honey gold of these bitter-sweet pollen-spilling trumpets?

¤ Jose Ortega y Gasset, died 1955 – just as Lemon Wedge arrived.

Wait For The Moment When: Jean Harlow has Clark Gable scrub her back in ‘Red Dust’ (1932)

Jean Harlow in Red Dust

Jean Harlow in Red Dust

She’s a tropical trollop with a pet parrot, shacked up on an Indo-Chinese rubber plantation with over-sexed planter Gable. Beautiful Mary Astor is about to shatter their jungle idyll with refinement and a revolver, but for now Harlow decides to take a dip in a rain butt. She’s just cleaned out the parrot’s cage – “What ya been eating? Cement?”. It’s all very pre-Hays Code and when Depression audiences saw Gable duck Jean’s gleaming white body in the barrel there were riots in cinemas across the USA. Seats were torn up and women fainted. It doesn’t happen like this any more. The last time I witnessed anything remotely similar was when a noisy and packed late house in Leicester Square gasped and squealed in unison as Travolta peeled off his shirt in Pulp Fiction. This spontaneous reaction – “thousands cheer” – was one of my more memorable cinema experiences.

A recent survey of Harlow’s brief hurricane of fan mail (she died of kidney failure at 26) revealed not the expected lecherous outpourings of middle aged men but the sweet admiration of young girls and their requests for beauty tips. Maybe this should not surprise us. On screen, despite the heavy make-up and the clingy gowns, she’s often like a child dolled up in her tarty mother’s clothes. There’s no guile about Jean – she’s frank, noisy and honest; amoral not immoral. They called her “the Baby” on the MGM soundstages so we assume that the essence of her real-life personality translated to the screen.

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Guerlain’s Mitsouko

 

And, talking of her fan base, it’s nice to know that George V and Queen Mary were avid Harlow admirers, having all her movies privately screened at Buckingham Palace – even the notorious Red Headed Woman, banned for general viewing in the UK until 1965 (can you believe it?). Despite their starchy exteriors the Royal couple were both Geminis – with all the mercurial spirit and delight in novel entertainment which that implies. Remember how Queen Mary later adored all the murders, seductions and cleavage of The Wicked Lady?

Harlow is famously said to have worn Guerlain’s Mitsouko – her second husband reputedly covered himself with his wife’s heady scent before his mysterious suicide in their bathroom. But for me the real mystery is how this gorgeous oakmoss emerald-dark chypre came to sit so well on Jean’s translucently fair skin. The trademark platinum hair was bleached but Harlow was naturally fair, almost albino, and photos of her wearing only diminuendo makeup are quite startling in their lunar luminous pallor. I always think of Mitsouko as quintessentially a brunette scent – enhancing an Ava Gardner or Liz Taylor type. I cannot imagine the impact of it as worn by tiny, vivacious, wise cracking Jean. Now, none of us shall never know; and very few are left to remember.

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Dressler and Harlow in Dinner at Eight

 

It all goes to show that with perfume there can be pride and prejudice but there’s also personal preference; and most importantly those spectacularly unpredictable idiosyncratic unions of fragrance and chemistry. I never pass a Guerlain counter without an admiring thought of the original Blonde Bombshell with her ice-cube-toned breasts, no knickers, and her snappy brisk way with a line. Marie Dressler’s celebrated put-down at the climax of Dinner At Eight works so well only because of the brilliant way Jean supplies the feed:

” I was reading a book the other day…all about civilisation or something… a NUTTY kind of a book…and the guy says that machinery is gonna take the place of EVERY profession!”

“O my dear: that’s something you need NEVER worry about…”

Curtain.

Be My Valentine?

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What’s one of the very nicest things you can buy your loved one on Valentine’s Day?

“Perfume” I hear you murmur, with quiet confidence. Quite right.

I’ll tell you why.

Perfume smells lovelier than store-boughten flowers which nowadays seem to have sacrificed scent for gorgeousness of colour and immensity of size.

It will smell even more delicious than a fine dining experience or a designer box of chocs; and fragrance carries none the concomitant risks to health and fitness.

And it lasts so much, much longer than either of the above. You always get your money’s worth with scent; besides which, you can personalise it in witty and exquisite ways.

Look, I’ll show you:

To make a successful gift of perfume you have to give a lot of yourself and that is always the best gift of all. You need to plan your purchase to fit your loved one as snugly as a pair of hand-made shoes. Get into his (or her) head – take a tour around his personality and choose a scent accordingly. Staff at Les Senteurs are always happy to help you translate ideas into actions if you need a little assistance.

Think laterally: consider, say, your partner’s favourite movie, colour or flower and pick a perfume to reflect that. If you were going down the cinematic route you might choose a fragrance notably worn or inspired by your inamorata’s favourite star ( Frederic Malle & Dominique Ropion created Carnal Flower with Candice Bergen in mind; Catherine Deneuve was Francis Kurkdjian’s inspiration for Lumiere Noire). Or you could select a perfume worn in a much-loved film. Think of Norma Desmond’s tuberoses in Sunset Boulevard or Caron’s Fleur de Rocaille in The Scent of a Woman. If you wept over Titanic, then track down a scent that was captivating the world in 1912. We have several such treasures – cast your eye and nose over the great Houses of Houbigant, Grossmith and, once again, the inevitable and unique Caron.

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Candice Bergen in Carnal Knowledge

Matching flowers is easy to do, but so romantic and adorable if you take the trouble to discover what she really loves: we have luscious rose perfumes of all types ( dark, dewy, spicy, fruity, innocent, lascivious, smoky, waxy ); but Les Senteurs also holds captive the most beautiful examples of gardenia, ylang ylang, lily of the valley, magnolia and orange blossom. A married gentlemen may like to remember what his wife carried in her bridal bouquet and match those blooms in fragrance. Ladies, you can do the same with your husband’s boutonniere or the favourite plants he cultivates for the garden show. Don’t forget: men love flowers too.

A rose that's perfect for men and women.

A rose that’s perfect for men and women.

Now I mentioned colour which may surprise some of you. I don’t mean the colour of the packaging or the bottle (though this may play its part). I’m talking about a factor that’s rather more subtle. By and large, if a person likes brilliant, strong vibrant hues then that individual will go for expressive rich perfumes too. Contrary wise, admirers of white, beige, cream and pastels will tend to prefer lighter airier fragrances. So consider the colours your beloved wears, the shades your lover paints his rooms and let your instinct guide you like a bee to the honey.

Bette Davis in 'Now, Voyager'

Bette Davis in Now, Voyager

Nothing stimulates memory like the sense of smell so another cute idea would be to conjure up thoughts of a special time you have enjoyed together and celebrate it in scent. If the earth moved for you, try Nu_Be’s explosive and elemental dawn-of-the-universe fragrances. Recreate a day at the sea; an ocean voyage; a holiday in Havana, Istanbul, London, China or Morocco; an evening at the ballet. Or, more modestly, an afternoon in the vegetable garden, a shared creamcake, a romantic breakfast – even the wicked intimacy of a shared cigarette. “O Jerry don’t let’s ask for the moon, we have the stars.”
Getting the idea? Choosing a romantic gift should and can be such a pleasure: and I think I can promise that the more you enjoy the selection, the more delight the chosen perfume will give to the recipient.

Happy Valentines from all at LES SENTEURS!

Abbey Park

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As ‘Wolf Hall’ mania now reaches fever pitch across the kingdom Thomas Wolsey is back in fashion. It’s 500 years since he was sent his cardinal’s hat from Rome, and appointed Archbishop of York and Chancellor to Henry VIII, positions of unthinkable power for the butcher’s son from Suffolk. Wolsey grew up among the stench and blood of the slaughterhouses of medieval Ipswich: in a supreme act of self-compensation he built himself a palace at Hampton Court where ambergris was burned in golden braziers, while in the gardens medicinal herbs and red & white Tudor roses perfumed the riverside parterres.
Here it used to be said that the Cardinal (who was secretly discreetly married) infected the King with syphilis by whispering in the royal ear. Though as Marisa Berenson says in “Cabaret”:

“This is not, I think, founded in fact!”

When Wolsey rode forth on his crimson-caparisoned mule from this refuge – the mansion that so fatally inflamed the jealousy of his King – the Cardinal would tuck cinnamon, box, vinegar-soaked sponge & sprigs of herbs up his nostrils to ward off the noxious emanations of his native class. As children we spent hours sticking oranges with cloves to hold at our noses in admiring emulation. You had to be very careful to stud the cloves very closely or the fruit would rot and collapse in on itself like a punctured ball, a mass of wasted corruption.

You see, the Cardinal has never been out of style with we Leicester people: he came here in 1530 to lay his bones among us, dying of a broken heart en route for London to face charges of treason. So mercifully he met his end in a clean if austere monastic bed at Leicester Abbey, instead of on a scaffold at Tyburn surrounded by his own living entrails and tortured memories of the butcher’s shop. Those bones are now modestly marked by a slab among the ruins of the Abbey that Henry VIII dissolved only a few years later; this is now Abbey Park, overlooked by the old Wolsey Works, once a knicker factory, now converted into luxury apartments. But the Cardinal’s head, the old trademark in scarlet and gold mosaic and with a preservation order on it (all the piquant ironies of this!), still gazes out from the top storey across the bus lanes, the newly demolished fly-over, the River Soar and the canal.

My mother worked in the Park in the late 1940’s with her best friend Anne. They were studying horticulture at Reading University and this was the holiday homework. Anne’s parents would occasionally treat them to lunch and – greatly daring – a glass of cider at The Grand Hotel. Then the girls would come over faint during the long hot afternoon in the Park greenhouses and, all soporific like The Flopsy Bunnies, take a nap on the duck boards among the lobelia, salvias, geraniums and French marigolds destined for the floral clock. Most days Elizabeth and Anne ate at the British Restaurant opposite the Park gates – cottage pie was sixpence and while you ate it you could have the pleasure of watching your neighbours washing their hands in the drinking water jugs.

Later, in the 1960’s, we would be shown the long shady bank by the boating lake frequented by wartime courting couples. Hard-boiled old gardeners had once prowled around here ogling girls’ Bisto-browned legs and searching for loose change that had fallen unawares from soldiers’ pockets. Small fortunes were to be made over a hot weekend in the days of half-crowns and florins. The lake was extensive, brown and very shallow: a bit whiffy in warm weather and full of muddy islands of tree roots frequented by coots, moor hens and Canada geese. Willows trailed everywhere and as you madly rowed or paddled your boat you could feed the ducks with Mother’s Pride. It was intoxicatingly exciting and the annual treat on the last afternoon of the summer holidays – in those days in late September. In my head the dingy smells of lake water and goose-droppings are all mixed up with those of dahlias, the grey flannel of the winter school uniform (laid out ready, itchy and menacing on the spare room bed), crab paste sandwiches and the peculiar aroma of tea poured from a Thermos flask.

My favourite screen Wolsey was Terry Scott in “Carry On Henry”, dressed up in Anthony Quayle’s cast-off scarlets from “Anne of a Thousand Days”. As he sips from a goblet, the Cardinal murmurs confidentially to Joan Sims as the Queen:

“I can recommend the porter.”

“Send him up to my room after dinner” she replies.

Oh, that delicious Tudor humour!

Toes Like A Monkey

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I once had a wonderful Swedish friend who worked for Oscar de la Renta. She had rippling tawny-gold hair and beautiful freckled hands with dark crimson lacquered nails. For winter parties she’d rub Body Shop vanilla oil into her skin, top it up with a veil of Chopard’s Casmir (in the lotus bottle, remember?) and pull a thick white fisherman’s sweater over the lot. The effect, I’m here to tell you, was devastating. “Ah”, she’d reply to all compliments “but I have a flaw: toes like a monkey!” She pronounced the word to rhyme with ‘donkey’, so these prehensile digits acquired for me their own esoteric glamour.

Heading the chapter on symmetry in our O level maths book at school was the Congreve quotation “I could never look long upon a monkey without very mortifying reflections”. For centuries monkeys and apes were used in art as symbols of folly, lust, greed and all the weaknesses of a creature that was seen as man degraded: parodies of humans who had fallen from grace and metamorphosed into graceless slaves of their own bestial appetites. Post-Darwin, the monkey assumed a different role in the scheme of evolution while artists such as Picasso, Rousseau, Matisse and Gaugin explored on canvas the animal urges inherent in man.

In the early 1930’s there was a craze for screen apes – King Kong and Cheetah course, but also the orangutan in The Murders in the rue Morgue and Mae West’s pet monkeys; Hans Albers and Luise Rainer dancing and singing the comic paso doble Mein Gorilla Hat ‘Ne Villa im Zoo. Especially we remember the huge gorilla shambling in chains onto the cabaret stage in Blonde Venus, then tearing off one of its own paws to reveal Dietrich’s luminously white hand garlanded in diamonds. (Was Billy Wilder maybe satirising all this singerie with the burial of Norma Desmond’s chimp in Sunset Boulevard?). Curiously but not coincidentally, this was also the era of such farouche leather scents as Knize Ten; the tanneries of all those variations on a theme of cuir de Russe; the animalic musks & pelts of Caron. And what was the best-dressed grande horizontale then wearing? Black satin, a string of pearls & monkey fur.

Have you met any monkeys, eyeball to eyeball? My grandmother knew one, next door, that spent his winters singeing his fur on the kitchen range. Her own mother had a peculiar horror of simians: the melody of the barrel organ coming down the street would prompt her to fly upstairs burying her head under the pillows until man and red-bolero’d marmoset could be bribed to take themselves off. As a child, I knew a monkey that lived in a pub and sipped stout; and I recall a beautiful blonde who nurtured two baby capuchins in her abundant golden hair – you’d see these minute hands like four spiders emerging from the roots, waving above the lady’s noble forehead.

The capuchins were immaculate, though I remember the ale-monkey whiffing a bit and of course the powerful smell of the monkey house at the zoo still lingers in the mind. Pungent animalic smells are of course by no means a turn-off for everyone: one of Louis XV’s early mistresses Pauline de Vintimille was said to reek like a monkey and the king was intoxicated by her. Perfumes that for me have hovered on the edge of the nauseous include Olivia Giacobetti’s famous Dzing! with its circus theme of civet and damp sawdust; and Weil’s peculiar but once greatly-loved Antelope which I found just too reminiscent of animal skin. It was rather like sitting in the back of a very expensive old car, beautifully hide- upholstered and a little too smooth in motion.

Just now we have taken delivery of the new Parfum d’Empire Musc Tonkin, a recreation of the traditional soiled old musk accords via floral, woody and fruity notes. Very convincing, highly disturbing. Gosh, how this scent clings, permeates and soaks in! My esteemed manager Mr Callum came into the shop the other day and caught my aura: “Aha! Wearing Musc Tonkin are we?” In fact I had merely held up the bottle to show a customer; I’d not even sprayed it. That’s musk in the old grand manner: musky monkey business.

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.

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A dear friend emailed me on Twelfth Night to say how drear and sad the Christmas cards and decorations look once taken down and dismantled. I was feeling exactly the same: all the magic and illusion of Christmas reduced to piles of tired coloured paper, moulting tinsel and the popped bulbs of entangled fairy lights that once twinkled and sparkled so enchantingly. A couple of cardboard boxes packed with fripperies and shoved under the stairs for another eleven months: who can tell what will happened before they are hauled out once again and restored to their glittering glory. Food for thought indeed, and one might preach a three minute sermon on the theme of resurrection of life and spirit even in this humdrum chore and at this most depleted of times. Liturgically we remain in the Christmas until February….but who wants to know that? Retail is already hotfooting it to Easter. I saw the hot cross buns today, and the chocolate bunnies!

There’s something very strange about New Year altogether, an oddity that lasts well into January; this feeling that we rushed to completion & exhaustion in the last frantic weeks of the old year only to be reborn, forced to begin the whole exhausting cycle once again. No wonder the ancient Mesoamericans felt that these were queer sorts of days and lurked indoors, shutting out the light, dousing their fires and refusing to eat until the sun had made up his mind to re-appear and illuminate the next calendar. They kept still, anxious to avoid the unwelcome attention of a malevolent cosmos.

A wonderful speaker – Canon Angela Tilby – spoke on Thought For The Day on January 6, the feast of the Magi. She ruminated on the ancient theory of St Ignatius that the wise men who sought out the Infant Christ were not kings nor sages, but magicians and alchemists who brought their treasures of gold and rare perfumes not as tribute but to symbolically renounce their tools of wizardry and abandon the age of superstition and darkness before venturing into an era of light.

The end of magic, then; but the innumerable kaleidoscopes of life keep whirling around, throwing out new fantasies of colour and pattern so that you might well care to celebrate the arrival of 2015 by choosing a fresh scent and thereby kindle some enchantment of your own. You can weave a new perfume into your New Year resolutions: stretch the boundaries of your existence and of your character. Keep pushing forward: our bodies and skins and senses are changing every second so our response to perfume is never still, always mutating. The true magic of fragrance lies in its quicksilver quality – always fugitive, forever different, impossible to pin down or entrap.

So be equally fluid when you select a new scent. The time of day, the weather, the air pressure, your state of health & frame of mind all play a key role in determining your sense of smell and perception of perfume. Shop alone or with someone in total empathy; play it slow and play it cool. Trust to your instinct, project into the future: choose slow and choose sure, thus transmuting from a midwinter caterpillar to a gorgeous spring butterfly!