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.

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5 thoughts on “Stars With No Papas

  1. I really enjoyed this article, Lemon Wedge. I love the idea of smelling how the Hollywood Golden Age stars smelled. And knowing their preferences.

    The parts about gender and fragrance choices was fun.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. I think old Hollywood and classic vintage perfumes entwine so well: the psychologies of these unique, complex and often damaged star personalities seem to be mirrored so uncannily in the scents of the period. Shall be writing more on this theme shortly and trying to explore the metaphor of perfume on-screen.

    • LW loves to hear of your own experiences with the use of perfume, for we all perceive every fragrance quite differently: this is part of the joy and fascination of scent. I think men ARE becoming more adventurous and instinctive with their choice of scents but the Peacock’s encouragement is invaluable!

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