The Gathering Storm

Zeus, God of Thunder

Dedicated, with permission, to L.O. – a keener, fairer nose than mine.

Hundreds of years ago when I was young, I lived in dread of thunderstorms, a fear that was exacerbated by the horror stories then routinely fed to infants. The thunder was the Wrath of God seeking me out for telling fibs; mirrors and cutlery must be shrouded in cloths lest lightning strike and consume us all in the concomitant flames; the only way to be completely safe was to sit in the bath wearing gumboots; “your uncle Arthur was struck down mowing the lawn in a storm”. The litany was endless: I used to go to earth in the cupboard under the stairs;or seek refuge in my father’s surgery where the recklessly bright lights, reek of ether and the sense of urgent concentration as a dog was stitched up seemed to defy the elements.

Primeval fears! Remember the maiden Semele who asked her lover Zeus to appear before her in his full glory with lightning playing around his head and armed with thunderbolts? He warned her; she insisted. And was reduced to ashes on the spot. It was said at Versailles as a measure of her fearful pride, that Mme Sophie, Louis XV’s daughter was reduced to hysterical amiability only by an electric storm when her terror would drive her to hug perfect strangers, and chatter with the lowest of the low crowding the Hall of Mirrors.

Are you one of those who can detect within themselves the approach of a storm, either by scent or headache or a mounting sense of depression, oppression, high-strung tension?  The light becomes lurid, opaque; and the outlines of buildings,flowers and trees seem strangely crisp and distinct, as though emphasised by a black crayon. The landscape glows with eerie vibrancy. The senses are all on edge, colours are unnnaturally brilliant and clear; you smell the damp wash of the coming rain and the relief when the clouds burst is like the breaking down of years of inhibitions, an almost sexual release. Moody and magnificent, stressy and surreal: like the effects of a strange and cerebral perfume.

The master of scents of coruscating colour, polish and bizarre beauty, Pierre Guillaume conjures up an olfactory echo of electric turbulence in his Huitieme Art jewel Ciel d’Airain. A minimalist masterpiece of accords of pear, olive wood and amber this perfume opens with a sharp sweet keyed-up agitation of summer fruit, gradually relaxing and softening into powdery softness as the storms breaks from black and violet clouds over the Umbrian hills; the sun finally emerging to dry the steaming earth.

Caron‘s Royal Bain de Caron (alas! hard to find today) is like standing in a torrent of warm pink tropical rain; drenched in roses, wisteria and jasmine torn from their stems by the downpour. Pierre Guillaume’s Naivris is superbly sinister, a scarlet spicy African iris brooding and simmering in thick, hot, suffocating heat before the deluge opens and turns the red dust to a sea of crimson mud. If you’ve never read Louis Bromfield’s novel The Rains Came, try it while wearing this scent: a miasma of troubling sensuality. Cathartic and erotic. I leave it to you.

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Fatal Attraction

“Her fingers touched me: she smells all amber!” And once again the intoxication of perfume sets the wheels of murderous mayhem in motion; this time, 500 years ago in Middleton’s stage shocker, The Revenger’s Tragedy. Our sense of smell catches us unawares at our most basely animal; it awakens  our ancestral instincts for escape and survival, the propagation of the species and the catching of a mate.

Many of the problems that perfume wearers experience come from a misunderstanding of our most atavistic sense. Why is it that we cannot smell our signature fragrance, whereas the horror sprayed uninvited by the girl in the Well-Known West End Store seems to accelerate in its awfulness over the next 24 hours? Its the brain, you see: it knows your favourite scent is “safe”; it presents no threat.The brain, via the nose, has passed it as the censor passes a film; and as there’s no more need to worry about it, switches off. Whereas when we are ambushed by a scent in the unpromising surroundings of a crowded store, the circumstances of the encounter take our senses totally by unwelcome surprise: the brain panics, the nose is affronted and both go into overdrive, analysing that perfume for hours afterwards. And like an animal, you remember the location with dread, shying away like a bolting horse “THAT’S where the girl sprayed me with that AWFUL….”

Our sense of smell has atrophied, we don’t really need it much it any more; we use it for the pleasure of perfume and maybe in the garden and leave it at that. But it’s there alright in all its complexity: we’ve just forgotten how to intepret it. It still sets off alarms when it detects smoke, gas, bad food, infection, decay, death: my aunt, in the wilds of her Canadian orchards, is still alert for the smell of bears down by the creek. She needs to be, and so does the dog. Have you ever picked up the smell of fear? Very rancid and foxy; as forbidding and repellent as you’d expect. I smelled it just once: in a crowded lunch-time shop, a few days before Christmas.

And thus to the mysteries of sexual attraction. The person who eventually formulates the perfume that will infallibly promote lust (the fragrance that is so often asked for) will make a fortune beyond the dreams of avarice; it will come in time no doubt but there’s something a mite Satanic about the thought, the manipulation of men’s souls… Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a seductive scent, trust to instinct and pick the perfume that makes YOU feel wanton, lubricious and desirable: like goes to like.

On the movies, in plays and books we see the power, threat, symbolism of perfume as a sinister metaphor and a symbol for sexual and mortal danger.
Lady Macbeth’s blood-reeking murderous hand cannot be sweetened by all the perfumes of Arabia; Cleopatra, bringing havoc, arrives in a ship whose sails are soaked in scent; in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her team are beguiled and stupified by the field of poppies on the Yellow Brick Road. Diana Dors in Yield To the Night is working a beauty shop when she meets the homme fatal who will drive her to murder. The perfume she sells him (“5 guineas, please”) is with a pleasing cruel irony named “Christmas Rose”. Joan Crawford is the wicked shop-girl who steals Norma Shearer’s husband in “The Women” while selling him a flacon of “Summer Rain” (“When Stephen doesn’t like what I’m wearing, I take it off…”).

Billy Wilder, master of cynicism, offers us two of the most striking scented images. In Sunset Boulevard, Bill Holden’s two women are characterised by their odour. Norma Desmond, embalmed in her past, smells he tells us of tuberoses, “not my favourite perfume, not by a long shot”. And we somehow know he’s thinking of tuberoses in a funeral parlour, tuberoses faded and decaying in a close shut room. An outre, baroque, macabre scent for a vampiric woman on the brink of madness. Whereas the ingenuous Betty Schaeffer smells of “freshly laundered linen handkerchiefs or a brand new automobile” and doesn’t even know it (“must be my new shampoo”). But Wilder saves his best line for Fred MacMurray, sweatily lusting after Barbara Stanwyck in Double Idemnity and prepared to bump off her husband to have her; he’s already aroused by the perfume in her hair, now walking down the hot sidewalk he smells something else…. “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”

Image from Wikimedia commons

Wicked Waste

There was a terrible item in the news the other day, I wonder if you read it? It made me quite sick and it was to the effect that a third of all the bread sold in Britain ends up in the bin, uneaten and wasted by greedy people whose eyes are bigger than their stomachs. “Bulk buying leads to bulk eating and bulky people” my mother used to say. It leads to the dreaded Waist of Time. But my parents were also of that interwar generation who wasted nothing.
When my father died we found boxes neatly stacked with all kinds of odd things that might come in handy: feathers, scallop shells, pipe cleaners, string, slivers of Wrights Coal Tar soap.
Great smell, that soap, by the way.

As my father was a country vet we largely lived off the land: a brace or two of pheasants were usually rotting into ripeness in the coalhouse, and many clients paid their bills in kind: even to cascades of slightly whiffy prawns. What we couldn’t eat went to the dogs; what the dogs refused was polished off by the hens who also provided eggs and meat. We shopped daily as most people did then; the supermarkets did not yet hold absolute sway. None of us were fussy eaters and I remember nothing ever needing to be chucked out: we were an universally consuming household.

I often use the metaphor of equating food with perfume: both nourish and stimulate, both may be aphrodisiac, should smell good and are at their best when fresh. Both also need regular re-application. You cannot expect taste, nourishment or smell to last for ever. Therefore try to avoid keeping your perfume for that special occasion … that never comes. Or when it finally does, the beautiful scent is somewhat past its best, so that then it never gets worn at all. Think of perfume as lovely BECAUSE ephemeral and use it liberally and at its best. It is as wrong to hoard a scent unworn for years as it would be to keep a piece of luscious fruit till it wizens and rots. This breeds guilt and in the end a resentment of the thing wasted. To coin a phrase from Shakespeare’s Richard II :
“I have wasted perfume and now doth perfume waste me…”

And if you are the type (like myself) who tends to accumulate endless half-filled bottles that you’re still smelling but not wearing, then use them up creatively in 100 ways. Let me not echo Diana Vreeland’s Vogue advice to “turn that old ermine opera coat into a bath robe”, but do be imaginative. Perfume your bath water with a quick spray; freshen rooms and linen (or the dog); if you’re still writing letters, fragrance your stationery. Your cigarettes. Bed linen. The car. And the inside of suitcases, your shoes, waste paper baskets, wardrobes and cushions. With fabrics, of course, do a patch test first, but most modern perfumes should not stain. Find some way of enjoying those left-overs – and in a way that will please others, too, even if you can’t quite bring yourself to give them away.

There is still a misconception that spraying a perfume is less economical than dabbing it on – “so much must be lost in the air”. In fact the reverse is true: using an atomiser disperses the fragrance and breaks up the molecules far more efficiently, while using only a fraction of the perfume applied by hand. And a sealed atomiser keeps the perfume airtight and uncontaminated: thus avoiding more waste. Keep it clean and keep it green! Please do write in with your own favourite tips.

There are also, as I’m sure my readers know, a multitude of delicious and useful ways of recycling stale bread: from poultices to the Prince of Wales’s favourite pudding. Waste not, want not: it has never been more true.

Forever Amber

The Amber Room

“Sabrina fair,
Listen where thou art sitting
Under the glassy, cool, translucent wave,
In twisted braids of lilies knitting
The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair ..”

One of perfumery’s most ancient ingredients, amber is also one of the most mysterious and most confusing due to the semantics of its name. “An amber scent of odorous perfume” may have a variety of origins.

Firstly there is the resin exuded by certain trees to heal damage to their bark. This is the amber which catches vegetation and insects in its path and thousands of years later may end up, fossilised, as jewellery or used in interior decoration. Think of the vanished Amber Room in the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo: a golden chamber entirely plated with sheets of amber, vanished since 1945.

“Pretty! In amber to observe the forms
Of hairs, or straws, or dirt, or grubs, or worms!
The things we know are neither rich nor rare,
But wonder how the devil they got there.”

Gathered from incense trees and bushes this aromatic resin is deliciously complex in scent – warm, woody, spicy, sweet, smoky, creamy – and has been used for millenia to perfume the body and sweeten the air. At the desert mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Luxor you can see the terraces of incense bushes laid out 3,500 years ago, having been brought by ship up the Red Sea from Arabia.

The Egyptians originated that concept of the amber perfume that is still widely used in perfumery today, the word being loosely used to cover a wide spread of even vaguely oriental fragrances.

Then we have ambergris, or “grey amber” – that dingy waste matter of sperm whales, embalmed by sea salt and found occasionally floating on the surface of the oceans, or washed up by the tide anywhere between China and Wales. Named because its unique and pungent scent (when heavily diluted) is reminiscent of tree amber, ambergris was a wonder and a mystery to the ancients. They seem to have instinctively known it to have been of animal origin (the visceral smell) but classified it as dragon’s eggs, the sweat of the Titans or the tears of nymphs changed into birds:

“Around thee shall glisten the loveliest amber
That ever the sorrowing sea-bird hath wept.”

Its arousing and disturbing scent led to its being prized as an aphrodisiac to be taken internally as well as applied. Elizabeth Tudor’s favourite Robert Dudley is said to have swallowed ambergris with powdered pearls to increase his ardour. Two centuries later, Mme de Pompadour relied on it blended with celery and vanilla.

Ambergris is today the only animal ingredient legally used in Western perfumery as it is gathered with no risk or harm to the whale who has deposited his leavings and long sailed on.

“…the hollow seas that roar
Proclaim the ambergris on shore..”

But of course, due to the rarity of these whales, ambergris is today magnificently and prohibitively expensive. Its use in perfumery as a fixative gives wonderful tenacity – “her fingers touched me, she smells all amber” –  as well as acting as a catalyst, bringing out the fullest potential of its fellow oils in a rich animalic sensual glow. A drop is all that is required, and may be amplified and backed up by other amber oils, both natural and synthetic.

Ambroxan is a synthetic molecule – “a strange, invisible perfume” – isolated in 1955 and (now branded as Cetalox) much used in the base notes of amber scents. What brought it to recent popular fame was Romano Ricci’s Not a Perfume which audaciously uses Ambroxan as its sole ingredient. A bold conception and highly effective.

Lastly, don’t get confused by the prescence of ambrette in a scent: this is an oil extracted from hibiscus seeds, used as a natural plant substitute for musk and because of its bitter-sweet, earthy animal odour has also been tarred with the amber brush.

No wonder that  the 1940’s Kathleen Winsor named her bawdy Restoration heroine Amber – the word is redolent of luxurious sensual indulgence. I have to repeat in this context Joan Hickson’s discovery of a cat in the contemporary movie ’24 Hours To Noon’: “ah! there’s Amber: she’s forever in the beds….” .

The ancient Greeks called amber “elektron” from which we derive our word “electricity”, on account of the resin’s magnetic properties:

“Bright amber shines on his electric throne”.

Magnetic and electric it certainly is when stirring and warming the base of a sumptuous perfume.

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“Consider the lilies…”

Lily of the Valley has inspired mankind for centuries

Lily of the valley defies perfumers to extract oil from the plant: it has to be synthesised from other floral oils in combination or reproduced chemically

“… Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Always productive and fascinating to smell perfume oils and then return to the original source – the flower which inspired them. The fascination for me lies in discovering how the flower actually smells in the raw, often remarkably different from what we imagined or remembered.

The radiance of the lily of the valley has inspired mankind for centuries. Modern sources sometimes claim it originated in Asia, though Nicolson’s exhaustive 1886 Gardening Dictionary describes it as native to Britain and at that period still to be seen growing profusely (imagine!) in English woods. Medicinal and spiritual qualities (the warding off of evil spirits) are attributed to it, and an extensive folk lore is not the least of its charms. The flower is said to represent Our Lady’s Tears at the Crucifixion; and sometimes named Jacob’s Ladder or Ladders to Heaven – from the Patriarch’s dream of angels, ascending and descending the Divine staircase.

I have a plant before me now: exquisite in form and colour, both the flowers and foliage. With its vivid green silky spear-shaped leaves and pure white bell-like flowers (one of its French names is Clochettes d’Amour) it was a definitive corsage for Edwardian ladies, fashionably pinned to furs or lapels with a diamond clip. As the sun or the heat of the body warm the blossoms, the sweet,fragile yet pungent fragrance arouses almost unbearable nostalgia.

Inhaling it now, the scent is unexpectedly musky, very expensively soapy, verging on the powdery; with delicate hints of jasmine, orange blossom, even rose. Remarkably sophisticated, with a subtle suggestion of spice rather in the style of an old-fashioned clove carnation; complex and bewitching, unmistakable yet paradoxical.

For lily of the valley defies perfumers to extract oil from the plant: it has to be synthesised from other floral oils in combination or reproduced chemically. A conjuring trick of the highest order but you can see from the other flowers that it references, even from a pot on my kitchen table, how it can be pulled off, if very rarely. Dior’s Diorissimo is one such example: it was the designer’s favourite flower. His funeral took place in a bower, a cascade of lilies. Caron‘s Muguet de Bonheur catches the waxy muskiness of the flower: a salute to the Parisian chic of Claudette Colbert who wore it; and a souvenir of the French custom of offering lilies of the valley as a token of love on May Day. If you are after for the green, airy, spring-like quality try Frederic Malle‘s Lys Mediterranee – a gorgeously fresh garden of white flowers with lily of the valley nestling discreetly but sweetly at the heart.

‘They toil not, neither do they spin’… lilies of the valley earn their place in creation just by being.

Image from Wikimedia commons

Mothers Day

American Mother

Do you remember that Nancy Mitford novel in which a daring lady attends a costume ball in a fig leaf, dressed exiguously as Eve The Mother of Us All? It is a banal old truism to say that mothers come in every age, shape, style and size but you might be amazed at the number of people who ask for a suitable gift scent and when asked what sort of lady it is for, reply, “oh you know – just a mum!” How depressing is this? You often hear the same remark about grandmothers: “It’s only for gran…” But do try to refine the search: is granny a glamorous 36 year old with a new baby of her own or a thrice widowed World War veteran of 101? Is she an Adele fan or still stuck on Gracie Fields? Is she a practising brain surgeon, a housewife, a ballet dancer or a street sweeper, like those little old ladies who used to sweep Red Square with dustpan and brush? I remember working in Harrods one Christmas Eve and trying to help a girl who came by with her boyfriend to find something to offer up to granny the following day. We narrowed the search to a toss-up between rose or gardenia. The conscientious granddaughter appealed to her young man who shrugged eloquently in obviously terminal throes of boredom, at which point the rich Eastern European tones of an amused onlooker boomed out, “Ho! ho! ho! He don’t care what the old grandmother wear!”

But we have to care, and here come a few suggestions to help.

First of all, define in your own head the kind of personality your mother is; after all you may well be the person who knows her best. Is she the sort of adventurous woman who likes a surprise, a novelty? Or would she be happier with a bottle of her favourite signature scent. Might in fact a Gift Voucher be best, so that she can decide for herself, uninhibited by the ideas of others? Again, do consider whether she is the sort of mum who may be perturbed, even distressed by the idea of your spending what she considers to be too much money on her. In which case, perhaps choose a delicious soap, a room scent for her bedside table, a scented body cream; or even a deliciously perfumed candle with all its ritual associations – “To Mum: shining out like a good deed in a naughty world”. Those gorgeous new Laduree candles for instance come packed in delicate biscuit china cups in a wide array of colours, redolent of all sorts of wonderful odours from rice face powder to wild strawberries and orange blossom. The boxes are so exquisitely designed that you don’t even have to wrap.

Then to go a stage further: say you have decided to give her a surprise and to pick out something new and different – a little adventure. We’ll assist you as much as we can, but please do a little preparation in advance. Think over what scents the lady has worn in the past (and perhaps even more important what she has hated – so we know what oils and ingredients to avoid). It helps a lot to know what her favourite colours are, how she dresses and also WHY she wears scent at all.( I might say at this point: be sure in your own mind that she DOES wear scent. Though even if not, this could prove to be a turning-point in her life: a REAL adventure!). But the last point is important: mothers of families especially tend to wear scent for their husbands and for their children. They often have the lovely idea of sticking to one particular perfume so that their offspring will remember them by this in later life. The late Rita Hayworth’s daughter even a bespoke candle made up of her mother’s personal scent so that she could feel her presence about the place. Less romantically, mothers are often bullied into wearing a perfume for which they don’t much care, but of which their whole family approves. And children’s acute but unsophisticated noses are not the best judges of a good fragrance. Allow your mother some self-expression: try to find the one that best evokes her tastes, personality and dreams. Every man and woman (mums included and especially) should have at least one fragrance that they wear for themselves alone – to boost their morale, use as a comfort blanket, an aphrodisiac or whatever the occasion demands. Please don’t ever say – “She’d love this. I hate it. She’s not having it.”

But mothers are so incredibly emotionally generous to their children that you can be sure that on Mothering Sunday it really IS the thought that counts; and if you still find yourself completely stumped (for we can sometimes find it most difficult to analyse our nearest and dearest) consider buying her something of symbolism, like that candle I mentioned above. Select a perfume whose ingredients say a little something – a rose scent for instance; rose representing pure love and the pearl of womanhood. The violet is for unselfishness love; peppermint (there is a wonderful James Heeley scent which uses this) for warm feelings; juniper (recently fashionable in perfume) denotes protection; the lily, purity; and jasmine for elegance and grace. With a little ingenuity you can make up a ciphered olfactory bouquet that goes straight to the heart as well as the nose. This is the day of all the year when a mother wants to FEEL a mother: use that nurturing instinct that she has always lavished on you to buy something instinctive and special.

Image of Norman Rockwell’s Mothers Day painting sourced by Lemon Wedge

Stars With No Papas

Bette Davis Deception

If you make a list of some of the greatest female stars of Hollywood’s golden age it is remarkable to see that so many grew up without the prescence of a father in their lives, either because he died or had absconded in their infancy. Garbo, Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Mary Astor, Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Foantaine and her sister Olivia de Havilland, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mary Pickford all fall into this category. Consequently, the gifted and luminous child became not only her mother’s fiercely cherished daughter but to some extent, a subsitute for the vanished husband. As an adult, the successful daughter operated psychologically, as the film historian Foster Hirsch so fascinatingly points out in his dvd commentary to the Davis vehicle “Deception”, on a level both male and female; an ambiguity that extended to so many of these women’s notoriously complicated sex-lives.

Abnormally preoccupied with her looks, like anyone whose face is a greater part of her fortune, the fatherless star was also depended upon by her mother and siblings for the family earnings. No wonder that Olivia de Havilland developed the life-long feud with her younger sister which has now run to six decades of “non-speakers” – professionally jealous but also maybe competing for their mother’s affection as not only daughters but surrogate partners and breadwinners. In other cases, the successful sister allowed (within limits) a sibling to trade on her own success: like Mae West’s sister Beverley who made a living imitating her sister on the stage in Mae’s cast-offs. Claudette Colbert employed her brother as her agent. Ginger Rogers’ mother wrote some of her daughter’s material. We also note cases when the original broken marriage which had fired up successful ambition in one child, caused others in the family to fall by the wayside to be ruthlessly dealt with – put in asylums, paid to keep away; and the bizarre case of Merle Oberon’s parent, turned into her own daughter’s maid, pushing in the tea-trolley incognito when gossip columnists were being entertained at the star’s home. The mothers often lived to a great age, fighting for their daughters but simultaneously feeding off them; while, as in a Greek tragedy, they witnessed their child’s rise, apogee, decline and retirement. As Bette Davis had inscribed on her mother’s tombstone: “Ruthie: you will always be in the front row.”

The male side of the star’s character was forced even more to the fore by the incessant unrelenting struggle to survive at the top of the Hollywood tree in an industry dominated by mostly misogynistic male monsters and the decisive role of the casting couch. “She thinks like a man and she drinks like a man,” was the highest accolade the industry could pay while simultaneously covertly mocking this “unnatural” behaviour. Mae West was so strong and powerful an operator that she was stigmatised by the accusation of being a man in drag: a woman could not BE that tough, have such control. Despite the most expert cameramen’s work you can see on film the ocular proof of how quickly the unrelenting fight of keeping at one’s professional and personal peak took its rapid toll on a star’s looks. And of course, she harder she worked and the more she worried, the quicker the lovely face aged. It was said that Garbo was not really concealing her face when she hid from photographers; she was attempting just to hide her beautiful mouth which revealed all too clearly the strain, bitterness and disappointments of her life.

Of course on any terms there is no decent perfume that is JUST for men, ONLY for women. A perfume is a collection of gender non-biased notes, and the user should select a scent that appeals to him emotionally, instinctively and which works perfectly with his skin. A perfume which appears to be more overtly feminine (say, Lys Mediterranee, with its predominantly floral character) can still work well on a man’s skin because his skin chemistry and hormones will tend to subdue the flowery elements of the fragrance and accentuate the greeness, the leafy woodiness at the base. Again, a dark leathery fougere (Knize Ten, say, or Royal Oud) will often soften on a woman’s arm, revealing those rose and jasmine underpinnings which form the spine or core of most scents, but which usually lurk unrevealed. It is often remarked that a man with a more pronounced feminine side will try as it were to “balance” his character with an obviously manly scent – and vice versa. Hard to quantify in Hollywood terms. Often it appears that female stars were trying to enhance their authoritative power aura rather than their orthodox femininity with scents which are heavy, heady and ambiguous: Jean Harlow and Mitsouko, Dietrich with Tabac Blond, Shalimar, Youth Dew and anything with a deep tuberose note; Swanson in Narcisse Noir; all of which incidentally can work superbly for a man, too, if he has the nerve. Crawford tells us in her memoirs how she, like Garbo, preferred contemporary men’s colognes, especially variations on geranium. Zarah Leander, massive, tall, stately with that basso-profundo singing voice made Bandit her signature.

It is harder to know for sure what the male contemporaries of these girls wore: cologne for men was not exactly tabu by then: Caron‘s Pour Un Homme had got the male fragrance industry going in 1934, but it was still not the sort of information that a press agent of a Great Lover would flash around. Memories of Valentino and the “Pink Powder Puff Scandal” were still a tender subject. Knize Ten was a favourite of Maurice Chevalier and Charles Boyer: Gary Cooper (and I believe Charlie Chaplin) wore the interestingly ambiguous Jicky. But if female stars lacked papas, a corresponding pathological syndrome demonstrates that so many of Hollywood’s legendary men seemed unable to procreate male children of their own bodies, despite serial marriages; and if they did, the sons often suicided or died young and tragically. It is as though Cooper, Tyrone Power, Valentino,Cary Grant, Robert Taylor, Hope and Crosby, John Gilbert and the rest needed to muster every scrap of virility and masculinity for themselves: there was nothing left over for their heirs. A  depressing and tragic reflection: how fortunate that we can always lighten the mood (as ever) with a memory and scent of their perfume.

Nosmo King

Catherine Deneuve Smoking

“When I was a girl,” my dear grandmother used to say, lighting a cigarette and plying her lipstick, “no decent woman could be seen to do this”. She was a late Victorian though hated to admit it, and so already in her twenties and a nurse when the universal smoking vogue swept the West. It was the First World War that gave the cigarette trade such an impetus: civilians felt an empathetic bonding with the men at the Front by adopting an essentially military habit. This cheap palliative for the nerves now leapt the class barriers; widely recommended by doctors as a nerve tonic and bracer, it opened the lungs and gave the shy something to do with their hands. An aspirin and a cigarette: the green tea and Yakult of their day.

George V and Queen Mary and all their children were enthusiastic smokers; the hero-padre Woodbine Willie handed out fags to the troops; one of the most widely reproduced portraits of the then Prince of Wales shows him with a gasper glued to his grinning lower lip. Strange now to imagine Prince William thus. The entertainments in the music halls and cinemas were seen through a thick blue haze of cigarette smoke; it was said to deter the moth, discourage germs and the ash good for the carpet.
Superstitions were invented and fostered by the match and cigarette industry to boost sales: if you lit a cigarette from a candle, a sailor would drown; the 3rd person to light a cigarette from the same match would die. Warner Bros even made a talkie about that one – Three On A Match.

For on the films smoking was presented as the acme of sophistication: in the days before cork tips, many an actress made a very sexy trick of picking loose threads of tobacco from her tongue as she vamped the hero: Garbo in Mata Hari does it with blush-making eroticism. The idea of Bette Davis, Bogart or Dietrich “sans cigarette” is almost impossible; Gloria Swanson’s bizarre holder is woven into the script of Sunset Boulevard, a motif of sexual entrapment, and the addiction of fame. A husky smoky voice – Dietrich, Bacall, Bankhead – could also be yours if you kept puffing. What girl could resist? Or what man fail to pick up on the virile and phallic connotations exhaled by Gable, Flynn and Gary Cooper, smoking their heads off as they took the world and women by storm?

So it was only a matter of time before smoking hit the perfume industry – and how – starting with Caron’s revolutionary Tabac Blond in 1919, an ambisexual dark golden “sit up and see me” scent based the fragrance on raw tobacco, and never off the market since. A considerable part of its appeal is the artfulness with which (if you are a smoker, or keeping company with one) it transmutes the smell of smoke into a perfume of its own, adding a third fragrant odour to your aura. Then in 1924 Molinard came up with Habanita, a blend of sweaty vetiver, fleshy white jasmine …and the scent of the hot dusty cigar factories of Havana. Black as the tropical night, almost embarrassingly seductive. Tabu played with the tobacco note; so did Knize Ten incorporating it with leather, thereby pioneering another perfume family, besides iconographing images of contemporary militarism and celebrating the new social and political emancipation of women. But how apt that true to the illusions of perfumery and the movies, tobacco itself is not actually used in these scents: they depend on an accord of patchouli, hay, honey, beeswax, amber and woods

And the trend continues today; but with the difference that smoking is now officially perceived as something low-down, unhealthy, wicked and dangerously anti-social. A wittily subversive perfume like Jasmin + Cigarettes references this with tongue in cheek brio. A saucy combination of smoke and jasmine, that most ambiguous of floral oils with a built-in grubby sexuality; a suggestion of (horrors) smoking in bed…and not alone, at that; the hay note comes through, complemented by an unexpected odour of apricots – connotations of warm, nude skin. So a kaleidoscope of images, including once more the cinematic, is rounded off by a suggestion of that most delicious ciggie of all: on a hot beach, enhanced by salt sea air.

As a veteran said on film, remembering Woodbine Willie: “I wish he were here now!”

Image from

The Best Smell of All

Tsarina Alexandra Aroma Folio Les Senteurs Blog

“Delicious cool air” wrote the poor Tsarina Alexandra in her diary during her final imprisonment at Ekaterinburg. Over and over again she and the Tsar write about the smells dominating the last months of their lives in the hot Russian spring + summer of 1918.

Cooped up on the first floor of the Ipatiev House with their five children, residual staff of servants and a battery of Bolshevik guards Nicholas and Alexandra were oppressed by claustrophobia as a double palisade was erected to shield the “House of Special Purpose” from the outside world. The final horror was the whitewashing and then sealing of all the windows, to be opened only as a special privilege after much bargaining, pleading and resolutions of the local Soviet.

All the Imperial Family felt the heat dreadfully and the Tsarina was most afflicted by the constant miasma of cooking and food prepared on oil stoves. The Tsar chain- smoked which exacerbated halitosis caused by chronically bad teeth, neglected for twenty years due a phobia of the dentist’s chair, despite the Russian Imperial dental service being  the finest  in the world. The guards reeked of alcohol, sweat,unwashed hair and clothes, stale tobacco; there was an insufficiency of lavatories;a couple of Imperial dogs romped around; while a group of dusty stuffed bears moulted and shed on the staircase. The days when the window sashes were dropped a few inches were recorded in ecstasy in the prisoners’ diaries

The Tsar writes lyrically of a June thunderstorm which cleared the air, the rain bringing the scent of all the gardens of Ekaterinburg into the rooms. Outside in the garden bloomed lilac and honeysuckle which the Romanovs were allowed to pick during their brief periods of exercise. The Grand Duchesses still had the last of their favourite Coty perfumes, each of the four girls her own flower scent; the Tsarina used her personal white rose perfume. Lights burned in front of the ikons: had Alexandra managed to bring the attar of roses which always scented the holy images at Tsarskoye Selo?

That image of the rain-soaked gardens is so powerful; the desire for this kind of perfume experience is so popular,so instinctive. Matin d’Orage recreates a thicket of gardenia flowers and foliage scenting the air after a storm; the sublime Lys Mediterranee evokes a springtime garden on the Riviera, on a morning spangled with dew and the breath of the sea. Find your own freedom and refreshment – and escape – in scent.

Image from Wikimedia commons

“Chuck him without a qualm, Violet!”

Dans Tes Bras Frederic Malle Editions de Parfums

The first violets of the year are opening on the grass verge by my bus stop. Very early this year. Strange that such beautiful and iconic flowers should spring from the litter of crisp packets, flattened Coke tins and ciggie butts; akin to Swift’s “gaudy tulips sprung from dung” and not a whit diminished by their sordid fertiliser. The leaves are large, heart-shaped and a brilliant lettuce-green; and while the flowers are not as large or fragrant as Parma’s the scent is a knock-out.

And not quite as you imagine: every year I am pleasantly and slightly shocked by it. It’s definitely a carnal, indolic smell. Sweet of course, and musky, but sometimes almost like the faintest whiff of fresh meat: not at all like the traditional Devon Violets bath salts or those cheap mauve cachous “traditionally eaten by maids to sweeten the breath”. Violets in the raw have a sexy, sensual, fleshy smell, albeit extremely subtle: hence their use in modern “skin scents” (not a very attractive term: and is not every perfume intended for the skin?). Malle‘s Dans Tes Bras is a classic of the genre: violet blended with iris, suede and cashmeran, just lightly brushing the wearer’s skin,alighting on it like a butterfly.

And yet the violet was beloved by the late Victorians as a symbol of innocence, shyness, and modest womanhood. There was a rage for them in the garden, the conservatory, as a perfume, as a crystallized delicacy, a wine and as a dress accessory – posies of the real thing, and made of silk or velvet to pin on hats and gowns. Violet became excessively popular as a colour and as one of the newly fashionable flower names for girls: Violet Trefusis, Violet, Duchess of Rutland, Violet Bonham Carter; Sherlock Holmes’s client Violet Hunter; Violet Carson,and on the new cinematograph, Violet Hopkins. Old catalogues list wonderfully named plant varieties for cultivation  – Marie Louise, Neapolitan, Victoria Regina, White Czar and Comte Brazza.

Both sexes doused themselves in violet fragrances: even our dear staid George V loved Trumper’s Violettes d’Ajaccio, maybe influenced by his mother Queen Alexandra, who lived in a haze of violet and rose. So ubiquitous was the use of violet perfume that it fell quite undeservedly out of fashion in the mid-20th century, hopelessly stigmatised by that other awful phrase – “old ladies’ scent”. (As we hear on the news today that the expression “old dears” is to be banned, wouldn’t it be nice to see the back of that silly phrase, too?)  For years violet scent was very scarce in the shops, and then around the late 1990’s perfumers once more returned to its magic, re-invented for a new generation.

Now we have the quintessentially 21st century extravaganza Lipstick Rose which wittily subverts all the traditional presentation and shows up a dazzling shocking pink bouquet of raspberry, rose, violet, grapefruit and aldehydes. The Unicorn Spell also turns the old ideas inside out and sparkles like an icy green forest where violets brave the frosts to exude their odour. For those who desire to swathe themselves in an aura of purple and flame velvet, try Caron‘s Aimez Moi: a baroque fantasy of Parma violets, apricots and vanilla. Gourmand to a degree, smell me…eat me.

But there is another aspect to violets – what we might call the “Political Perfume”- and to this I shall return another time.