“She’s got a fabulous figure she no longer puts to any use and skin like a gardenia that’s been one day too long in the ice-box”. Here’s the inimitable Sue Kaufman describing one of her party guests in Diary Of A Mad Houswife, a book I loved so much I literally read my copy to pieces. The horrible guest is “a minor movie queen from the 1940’s” and if ever a flower symbolised the great years of Hollywood it is the gorgeous gardenia: exotic, unreal, like flowers cut from ivory velvet or white satin. They gleam and glow in their waxen creamy purity like Von Sternberg’s mad beautiful sets for The Devil Is A Woman: painted white and sprayed, like the costumes, with aluminium paint. Gardenias are like artificial flowers come to life, with their impossibly shiny dark emerald leaves that rustle like Garbo’s paper camellias in Camille: and then that glorious unearthly scent. I’m quite happy to kneel in the muck on any London street to inhale gardenias outside a florists.
“These Foolish Things” … remember how the line “Gardenia perfume lingering on a pillow” once got this song banned on radio? The young Bette Davis was seduced on a bed of gardenias by Howard Hughes; Jean Harlow was buried under a carpet of them; Orson Welles’s muse, the Mexican beauty Dolores del Rio, ate salads of gardenia and rose petals to intensify the velvety pallor of her skin. Joan Crawford went through her famous “gardenia phase” when the fan magazines featured her swimming through drifts of them in her pool. She wore them in movies and publicity shots, and pinned them to furs and shoulder straps for premieres: but as she tells us, they so quickly turned brown, “just too much body heat”. Joan had perforce to substitute Tuvache’s heady “Jungle Gardenia” for the real thing.
Gardenias are real Art Deco blooms: their geometric Rene Mackintosh look, their snowy whiteness, perfect for a Syrie Maugham interior and an era when white and platinum was de rigueur. This was also the era when Chanel made sun bathing fashionable: nothing looked sexier and more stylish than a gardenia against a honey-gold tan. Mlle liked it so well she brought out her own gardenia scent in 1925. Men loved them too,as boutonnieres on dinner jackets and black cashmere evening coats. But these iconic flowers of the late 1920’s and early 30’s were first categorised in the 18th century: and their wonderful name is merely an eponym, deriving from the botanist Alexander Garden of Charleston, Carolina. For me that’s the only faintly disappointing thing about them: it equates with tuberose meaning “propagated by a tuber”, when you long for both names to have some fantastic and extravagant Latin derivation to complete their fantasy.
The first gardenia perfume I fell under the spell of was by Goya. It was only the talcum powder, hidden in a bathroom cabinet, but it came in a wonderful white and green can with a gardenia worthy of Redoute on the label; the smell was sweet and dry and powdery/spicy. Really nothing like a living gardenia but entirely bewitching: a highly stylised interpretation of the fragrance, like the versions by Crabtree & Evelyn, Floris and Penhaligon’s in years to come. Annick Goutal created Gardenia Passion – closer to the real thing, even to the faint hint of brown bruising. Ma Griffe worked a miracle with an entirely chemical rendition. The thing is, the oil can be extracted from the plant but the yield is infintesimal, thus making it very very pricey. Most perfumers prefer to synthesise, using natural oils such as neroli and tuberose to create a wholly convincing ersatz gardenia. Kind of suitable for such a fabulousy unreal bloom.
Isabey have recreated another great 1920’s perfume: their Gardenia claims to use precious vital extract from the plant and appropriately comes in a glamorous flacon like a cube of gold. It’s heavenly: soft, whispery smooth – like cream silk velvet – with sandalwood and iris to add even more depth. Goutal’s recent Matin d’Orage blossoms in a Japanese Zen garden; gardenias drenched with summer rains opening under a stormy sky of purple and violet. And I love the diaphanous transparency of Pierre Guillaume’s Gardenia Grand Soir, a delicate breath of a corsage from a beautiful woman’s shoulder.
Heartbreaking fragile beauty; powerful emotional perfume. No wonder Billie Holliday made gardenias her trademark.
Image from guide-to-houseplants.com