August 1981: miles high in the sky on a night flight from Ottawa to London. Some turbulence so a certain amount of noisy nausea along the aisles, possibly exacerbated by complimentary glasses of Kahlua being handed out: delicious if risky compensation for inconvenience caused by minor industrial action. And of course we were still smoking in planes, then. A faintly sordid atmosphere. They finally dimmed the lights (which always makes me feel much hotter, for some nutty reason) and, like small children, urged us to sleep. I can never sleep on a plane and on this occasion simply became rigid with tension and discomfort and the apprehension that comes with exhaustion.
Came the dawn and the Duty Free trolley and the gleam of gold…an exquisite package of Bal a Versailles, a 3.5 ml parfum with that ravishing pink and blue Fragonard-inspired label. “I’m having that” I thought on a whim and bought it, opened it and o! the scent..up in the brightening sky and it really was like smelling the rustle of angels’ wings. Sweet, incense-smoky, oriental, faintly animalic, intensely aromatic…over 300 oils involved in its composition, from roses and orange blossom to civet, patchouli and amber. This wonderful rich other-worldly scent wafting from a tiny bottle no larger than a watch face: absolutely magical. I recall nothing of the descent into Gatwick; sat there in a happy haze, hypnotised.
If you visualise perfumes as having a colour and texture, Bal a Versailles is liquid old gold with highlights of topaz and gleaming copper. It’s both luxuriously creamy and gauzily ethereal. When it came out in 1962 it was famously said to have won great favour with Elizabeth Taylor, then making the notorious “Cleopatra”, and it certainly matched her persona perfectly – that blend of the exotic, the seductive, the naïve, the earthily impulsive and voluptuous. It was great for her peachy skin, too, the violet eyes and night-black hair. If you remember seeing Cleopatra in the Odeons, marvelling as we did at Liz’s liquid-jewelled eye make-up, her palpitating cleavage and the golden-winged Isis costume you can almost smell billows of Bal a Versailles coming off the screen, mixed with clouds of kyphi burned by Pamela Brown in the hallucinatory assassination of Caesar sequence. It really sends you, this perfume, as we said back then. No doubt it sent Richard Burton, too.
Bal a Versailles is 50 years old this year. It has grown only more glamorous with age. It reveals secrets of a more sophisticated world; it’s mesmeric, psychtropic. Try it.