Cocktails for Two

I see perfume as a cocktail and a cocktail as a perfume. Both are an artful, skilled and witty blend of exotic ingredients put together to create a certain mood, illusion or portrait. The packaging of both is vital – the catchy seductive name, the classic bottle, the correct glass, the elegant flacon. And on the subject of names there is much dispute as to the derivation of the word “cocktail”. My favourites are the theory that it reflects the colours and flamboyance of a rooster’s tale; and an unlikely but picturesque Aztec legend which claims the drinks origin as a love potion brewed by the princess Xochitl (the Lady of the Flowers) – hence ‘choc- til’ to Western ears.

Now to the application. There is a knack to choosing and applying perfume and an ideal way to drink a cocktail: both are appreciated to their best advantage in a serene, leisured environment. They should be taken as part of a leisured, sensuous and hedonistic ritual in which every aspect of both fragrance and drink is savoured, analysed by the brain via tongue and nose. Relaxation and patience lead to pleasure and gratification. Haste and over-indulgence can be diasastrous.

Consider also the connection between the senses of smell and taste, how closely they run together. When you sip a Cupid, Orange Blossom, Dry Martini or a Blue Lagoon, you should derive almost as much delight from the scent of it as from the taste: the stimulant effect must definitely run third. We are not talking about Bargain Booze or Buy One, Get Two Free here: one drinks a cocktail as a luxury, to heighten a mood, to inspire an atmosphere, to appreciate an exquisite artistic blending, not to get blotto asap. The legendary non-alcoholic cocktail, the Shirley Temple has been a barman’s staple for nearly 80 years To continue the perfume parallel: fragrance may be an aphrodisiac but its aim is hopefully far subtler and broader than simply to bag one’s amorous prey for a night.

Ponder the texture, too. Like a perfume, a cocktail can take so many forms. Look at the liquid in the scent bottle: its colour, viscosity, clarity are all part of its charm. The same with the gorgeous colours of a cocktail, layered, shaken or stirred – the whole spectrum in a glass: the green of Creme de Menthe, crimson Grenadine, violet Cassis, sea-blue Curacao, velvety chocolate brown Tia Maria and Creme de Cacao. The hues of fruits, herbs and natural syrups.The colour and the taste segue into the texture of the whole: sparkling, sharp, creamy, acid, silky, smooth, salty, bitter and sweet.

The cocktail has been around since the mid-19th century, growing steadily in popularity, and reaching its apogee in the 1920’s and 30’s, supposedly because mixing bathtub gin with cream, cordials and other accessories helped to disguise the taste of low quality illicit hooch in years of Prohibition. The golden age of the cocktail thus coincided with that of the cinema and what is often regarded as the great classic age of perfumery – the years of Tabac Blond, Habanita, Chanel No 5, Joy, Fleurs de Rocaille, Bellodgia, Shalimar, a veritable corsage of Gardenias and Shocking. And how shocking were all these trends to the middle-aged and elderly of the time. The youthful Evelyn Waugh’s 1930 satire Vile Bodies has much to say on all these phenonema; though, of course, these serpents in Eden were none of them newborn 20th century blues at all, but late Victorian innovations brought to full bloom.

This was an era of strong scents, tastes and emotions inspired by and enhancing larger than life personalities: legendary celebrities defined by their elegant way with a cocktail, a cigarette and a dry line in repartee. Noel and Gertie, Ivor Novello, Cecil Beaton, Hutch, Somerset and Syrie Maugham, Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson (Red Box Papers returned to No 10 marked with rings from cocktail glasses), and of course Tallulah. As the headmaster of Eton cautioned her as to her visits to the Sixth Form, “Cocktails and cigarettes I may tolerate, Miss Bankhead: but I do draw the line at cocaine.”

There was a song that seduced the world, “Cocktails For Two”; a perfume modelled on a cocktail (“Gin Fizz”); and those marvellous concoctions named for stars of the day which encapsulated their style or image, just as perfumes such as Fracas and Bandit sketched the allure of Rita Hayworth and Edwige Feuillere in the 1940’s. Drink a toast to the “Marlene Dietrich”, the “Mary Pickford”, the “Mae West” – and the old “Bosom Caresser” himself, “Charlie Chaplin”.

Cheers! Though as Lady Diana Cooper, THE wit and Society Beauty of the 1920’s, advised the script writers of ITV’s “Edward and Mrs Simpson” decades later:
“Royalty don’t say cheers. They just drink and everyone else goes glug, glug, glug!”

Image from Wikimedia Commons

It isn’t raining rain, you know – It’s reigning violets!

A little while back I wrote to you about violets and promised a second look to examine their political and historic significance. Now that they have withered from the hedgerows let’s examine their eternal symbolism.

There are numerous perfumes on the market today which are associated with Napoleon Bonaparte and his family. Although I was much enthralled by the Emperor when doing my History A levels, I’ve since found the gilt has fallen off the gingerbread: I got extra marks once from a no doubt very bored teacher for remarking in an essay that Bonaparte cheated at cards and kept diamonds sewn in the lining of his coach in case of the need for hasty flight.
“Pourvu que ca dure”, Letizia Buonaparte, “Mme Mere”, kept kibbitzing and krechtzing in her Ajaccio market accent, and no doubt it got her son down and unnerved him. Now my attitude is something between the opinions of his two wives. Josephine’s “Bonaparte est bon a rien” and bouncy Marie Louise’s ingenuous remark on their first meeting, “you’re better looking than your portraits!”

Napoleon took the violet as one of his symbols along with the Imperial Bees and Eagles; but a coded emblem this time, a ciphered encouragement to Bonapartists during his first exile on Elba. The Little Corporal was dubbed “Caporal Violette”, his supporter wore sprigs of the flower and whispered round the double password, “Aimez vous la violette?” “Elle revient le printemps..” And of course he did come back with the violets in the spring of 1815, riddled with the haemorrhoids which lost him Waterloo. When they brought the news to the Empress Marie Louise, the messengers found her more interested in a new pair of shoes than the massacre in Belgium which kept the denture market supplied with the teeth of the fallen for decades to come.

But why the violet? Maybe because a drawing of a stylised flower bears a resemblance to an Imperial Bee, which in turn some said was an inverted Royalist fleurs de lys. Was there an irony to it? The tiny apparently modest violet, clad in imperial purple, who turns out to be the universal conqueror . You can’t help wondering if somewhere there is not a tenuous cross-Channel link with the colloquialism “coming up smelling of violets”. Bonaparte women found the symbolism handy for personal adornment. The botanising Josephine loved violets; after the fall of the Empire Marie Louise propagated them in her Duchy of Parma. Winterhalter’s group portrait of Eugenie, Empress of Napoleon 3rd ( Bonaparte’s nephew and keeper of the flame) shows her in a crinoline in the colours of white and purple violets with a posy of the flowers in her hand, the central focus of the painting.

Maybe Bonaparte was saluting the glory of Ancient Greece in his choice. Violets sprang from the blood of the warrior Ajax; the sweat of Alexander was said to be sweet-smelling as violets; and Athens, the Queen of Greece, was the Violet – Crowned City, thanks to a word-play on the name of her legendary king Ion (“a violet”).

Whether violet-scented or not, Napoleon was a prodigious user of cologne, splashing it around in lieu of a good wash I’m inclined to think, since he certainly preferred his women on the grubby side. (Here Josephine failed him, changing her linen four times a day.) Both 4711 and Roger + Gallet claim a connection; at Les Senteurs we have modern niche perfumer Marc-Antoine Corticchiato’s Eau de Gloire an evocation of the Emperor’s native Corsica. Its pendant portrait is Eau Suave, a souvenir of Josephine’s childhood tropical gardens on Martinique, and the Malmaison Redoute roses of her maturity. Creed of course owed a great debt to the patronage of the Empress Eugenie in the 1850’s and 60’s, though their stupendous oriental violet fragrance Love in Black, had to wait until the 21st century to be born.

Though the most poignant story of all concerning the Bonapartes and flowers is told of not a violet but a tulip. In extreme old age, just after the Great War, the widowed Eugenie revisited Paris and walked in the gardens of her former home, the Tuileries: the palace was long gone, burned fifty years before, but she reached over a railing to pick a tulip only to be checked by an officious park-keeper who failed to recognise his former Empress. “Mme, it is forbidden to pick the flowers”.

“Interesting Without Being Vulgar”: The Wily Tuberose

Tuberoses are dangerous demonic flowers. Their oil is one of the great classic natural ingredients of perfume, easy to extract but hard to handle with skill. Tuberoses are said to deflower virgins and heat the blood; they camouflage the scent of death and the dying. Louis XIV planted them out in the gardens of Versailles in Sevres jardinieres; Marie Antoinette’s perfumer relied on them; in her ineffable “A.B.C” Marlene Dietrich told us they not only smell good, they taste delicious. Part of the mystery of the tuberose is that relatively few British people still know precisely what it is. It was unknown in Europe until the seventeenth century when it was introduced from South America and Asia by the British and Spanish colonial fleets. The name which sounds so exotic confuses the unwary and I fell into this trap myself when I first read Gone With The Wind at school and imagined the tuberoses in the girls’ hair at the Atlanta Ball to be tiny tightly coiled rosebuds – or “tubular roses” as you sometimes hear the muddled say. The name is simply French for “tuberous” – a flower grows from a tuber. A disappointingly mundane title for this exotic member of the lily family; but in fact its implications links the flower to the orchid, the avocado, the onion, mandrake, potato and many other plants which because of their growth pattern have graphically sexual connotations.

Orchids and avocados are named because of their supposed resemblance to human testicles; asparagus is explicitly phallic; lettuces and onions bolt in a mad spurt of upward growth, the lettuce exuding a milky juice in the process. Every flower and plant known to our ancestors was imbued with magic, not merely because of its scent and healing or destructive properties but because it symbolised eternal life and reproduction. It died and came again with the seasons; its unstoppable budding, flowering, stalk, leaves, roots and fruit were all illustrative of the human cycle of fertility and reproduction. If it exuded a rich perfume in addition to a suggestive shape it was used as the most powerful of aphrodisiacs. Maybe too the popularity of tuberose in modern perfumery is partially explained by its being such a relatively new scent to Europeans: like Australia and America it is raw, new and still developing, still having the corners knocked off it. We are still coming to terms with it, like vanilla and patchouli; equally ubiquitous oils. Rose, jasmine and iris have had thousands of years for us to get our noses and brains around: tuberose is still to be fathomed. It is a metaphor for the choosing of a perfume in a shop: we keep nipping in day after day for another sniff, still not convinced that we like it but hooked on something in the formula; like moths attracted not to the light but to the deep softness darkness behind the light.

Far too extravagant and showy for all but the most recherche tastes, tuberose was used sparingly by the great perfumers of the early twentieth century: Guerlain and Caron came to it very late in the day. Germaine Cellier first put it on the map with Fracas in 1946, a Robert Piguet scent whose legend continues to glow and evolve. Fracas was said to be an olfactory incarnation of Rita Hayworth – the screen image, not the tragic private personality (“They go to bed with Gilda but they wake up with me…”). Fracas is a dazzling pink champagne burst of fruit blossom, jasmine and tuberose sweetened with vanilla, tonka and musk. Like Rita it is lithe, sinuous, unpredictable and intensely glamorous; unlike her, it has a frilly, girlish side maybe on account of its intense sweetness which set the trend for tuberose perfumes for decades to come. As I write I am wearing the spectacular new Madonna Truth or Dare which releases cerise clouds of thickest tuberose so sweet it seems to be working from a base of Lyons Golden Syrup. There are also fruity hints which seem, as so often with this school of scents, to suggest strawberry tarts or summer jam just beginning to roll to the boil. If you smell pure white tuberose flowers in a hothouse or sheltered garden they are deliciously intense and, like gardenias and tiare, faintly reminiscent of coconut milk, but the ersatz perfumery sweetness is absent. And I rather miss that. I find it brings out the escapist and slightly insane quality of the flower, the bloom from another dimension. Maybe I am simply buying into its magical heritage of tuberose folk lore legend: and I fancy that Fracas and its many successors have done the same. The Gantier offering – Tubereuse – adds another element: a sleek sable animal quality, a damp pelt covered in just-melting snow which suits it to winter wear and the Christmas party spirit: a dance on a volcano spurting black and rosy lava.

Carnal Flower is tuberose re-invented for the 21st century: uber-green tuberose, leaf and loam and all. This is tuberose stripped bare, reconstructed, throwing Fracas and her syrupy sisters out of the pram. Carnal Flower shakes off the more sinister aspects of the fragrance while preserving the erotic: this is a cool morning tuberose full of fresh air, warm rain and dew. There is nothing of the funeral parlour or the exhibitionist actress about it, those aspects which Billy Wilder exploits so brilliantly when he has Norma Desmond boiling with claustrophobic tuberose in Sunset Boulevard. Carnal Flower is the plant dissected with the botanist’s scalpel and reassembled as geometric perfume. On the skin it slowly grows and glows, like the opening of a wild orchid in a marshy field; its movements are delicate and unexpected, sometimes hard to follow: a sensory revolution. Maybe this presentation of an open air wholesome glowing tuberose is the secret of its success: while it continues to mesmerise and enthral it lacks the beaded curtain and Tiffany lamp oppressiveness of its predecessors. Tuberose pruned back and growing fresh from the root: a walk in a morning garden rather than crawling into bed between old-rose velvet draperies. It could almost be bridal, a first for this type of fragrance. Nonetheless, the essential spice of danger still lurks in the title: making you think of those obscene scarlet veined gamboge pitcher plants waiting in boggy meadows for unwary insects. Tuberose is a flower which must always be handled with discretion.

Image from Wikimedia commons

Down in the Depths…

Mermaid, by John Reinhard Weguelin

Mermaids have always rather given me the horrors. How would you imagine one: Marina from Stingray? A pretty little cartoon in a cockleshell bra? Glynis Johns waving a prosthetic tail in the bath? A manatee in a dim light? Or are you seeing and smelling something unnatural, sinister and highly disturbing. I’m thinking about the ship-wrecking Lorelei, Scylla and Charybdis; and the terrifying heart-breaking selkies, beautiful women who come from the sea and marry mortal men but who are really seals. They keep their seal skins about the house – sometimes having asked their mate to lock it away for everyone’s peace of mind – but one dark night no matter what precautions her poor husbands take, the selkie’s longing for the sea becomes too great. She steals back her fur pelt and is away to the ocean forever. A terrifying story for child or adult – the ultimate parable of total abandonment, worse than death. A concept of eternal separation that links up ancient Celtic myth to “The End of the Affair”.

Old Breton folk tales tell of maidens snatched from the shores by lustful tritons and Matthew Arnold’s poem the Forsaken Merman develops this, having a mortal woman marrying the Sea King and raising children by him; yet that favourite Victorian theme, the awakening conscience, supervenes and the wife returns to the upper air and the Church which shuts out her sea family for ever –
“Come, dear children,let us away;
Down and away below…”

And what of Hans Andersen’s dreadful tale? The sea witch suckling serpents, the splitting of the mermaid tail into legs, the agonising pain as though walking on knives, the blood, severed tongue, proposed murder (“that instrument of death…”) and dissolution into sea foam. Lord knows what it reveals of Andersen’s inner tortured psyche and sexual hysteria. You also think a bit about the motives and mentality of those who keep stealing the statue from Copenhagen harbour: an object of fixation like the Mona Lisa. But the story is completely in keeping with the ancient beliefs that what lurks in the sea is monstrous and alien, incompatible and obscene.

Funny that, seeing that like perfume and cucumbers our principal human component is water. Water and dust, we are. Life crawled from the primeval oceans (probably more than once) and so much of our modern escapist fantasy, therapy and relaxation is centred on sea and water – from swimming and hydrotherapy to birthing pools and boating. Most of us still see holidays in terms of sea, sand and sun – the environment in which our ancestors spawned. We feel an close affinity with water, it soothes and stimulates us, and yet we project onto it our deepest subconscious fears: that another form of life may come creeping out of it to challenge and subsume us.

That other life is always thrithing and gliding and thrashing around down there in the depths – a mass of uncontrolled impulses and desires that have been sanitised and reined in by the land people, but given personified and incarnated in the realm of water. Grimms tales warn us that these horrors even invade country ponds and pools – nixies who make off with unwary children, witches who live at the bottom of wells. To the Tudor mind mermaids were soulless seducers, prostitutes, wreckers of ships and men: Marie Stuart, after the murder of her husband, was tormented with banners depicting her as a bare breasted mermaid with loose hair and crown. Men who offend Heaven may be seized abruptly by beasts from the sea: the serpents who asphyxiate Laocoon and his sons; the monster sent by Poseidon that brings about Hippolytus’s dreadful off-stage death in Phedre. This is by no means a concept that has left us with the glory that was Greece: “Jaws” and all its spin-offs, “Extreme Shark Attacks” and the like show how powerful, eternal (and popular) a metaphor this is. Only this week prime time television news bulletins (and You Tube, naturally) went crazy over the story of a man wrestling with an alligator stranded in an American ditch, presented as comic horror, like Punch and Judy. “Sharks very rarely venture inland” Dame Edna used to say. But secretly we most of us fear that they might. Our only weapon is a laugh.

Mermaid scent then must be a weird erotic disturbing perfume, complementing the barnacled jewellery of the drowned, a corpse-like pallor and as Hans Andersen tells us, bivalves affixed to the tail as a badge of rank. “This is like eating a mermaid” says Don Draper as he wolfs down the oysters; but eschewing salty, marine scents, I smell Caron’s Tubereuse – sweet and waxen and the perfect coronet for a head of streaming green hair above nether regions glistening with opalescent sequin-scales. Tuberoses (“dangerous pleasures”) are such strange wicked hypnotic flowers, not quite of this world; the Spanish won’t wear them, associating them with death. I fancy their creamy sultry on-the-edge-of-decay fragrance would even exude here, against nature, at the bottom of the sea, mixed maybe with floating ambergris and exotic fruits and vanilla orchid, wrecked cargo of some Spanish treasure fleet. “A ceiling of amber, a pavement of pearl”. Golden scent in oily rays in the dark waters, mermaids sinuously laving themselves like eels.

And what of the scent of the shipwrecks mermaids would cause? The inimitable Pierre Guillaume has crafted that for us in Bois Naufrage: a scent of salt, figs, coconut, beaches and wood so dry it would turn to powder beneath your feet.

For your chance to win a bottle of Bois Naufrage, please comment below with how you imagine mermaids to smell. By commenting, you are giving us permission to contact you via your email address should you be successful.

Entries are now closed. Lemon Wedge will be judging winners next week.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Madeleine Smith: a vignette

I have mentioned before the case of Madeleine Smith and the excellent film based thereon made by David Lean in 1950 starring his then wife, Ann Todd (variously described by contemporary PR as “the British Garbo” or “the Pocket Garbo”). I never met Miss Todd though I saw her once in rural Suffolk of all places (adjoining holiday houses) and heard her announced over the tannoy backstage at Stratford Upon Avon – “Miss Tutin and Miss Todd for Dame Peggy!” Though I have always imagined her brunette, Madeleine Smith is perfectly incarnated by the glacial almost albino blonde Todd, wearing probably the most authentic crinolines ever seen on screen. The facts of the case presented are also reliable and accurate, if necessarily telescoped.

The eldest daughter of a prosperous Glasgow family, Smith was tried in 1857 for the murder of her former lover, a Frenchman named L’Angelier by whom she had been seduced and to whom she had written indiscreet letters with which he attempted to blackmail her. L’Angelier died in agonies of arsenic poisoning: Madeleine Smith was said to have administered this in a cup of cocoa. The defence claimed she had purchased the poison only to whiten her skin. The uniquely Scottish verdict of the court was Not Proven; David Lean’s presentation of characters and case is so detached and remote that the viewer is inclined to concur, foxed by Smith/Todd’s elegant inscrutability. The costume design complements the enigmatic character of Madeleine remarkably. I have discussed her shoes in an earlier piece but we should also note her headgear, a succession of plumed and furred hats and toques: is she a trapped animal, enmeshed by the predatory L’Angelier? Or is Madeleine herself the bird of prey? A wild animal turning in ferocious panic on her persecutor? Even when finally trapped in the dock,her severe if chic bonnet is trimmed with a feather. Only in her introductory scene, before we know anything of her intrigues, do we see a young girl crowned with flowers.

Those who relish the ciphers and codes and short-hand of old cinema, so adroitly used by directors to circumvent the censor, will find a great deal to appreciate here. Note the frequent close-ups of L’Angelier’s cane with which he makes much swagger. Look out for the scene where after an evening in the drawing-room with her parents and prospective fiancee, Madeleine surreptitiously puts on scent before slipping out into the sodden basement area to meet her lover.

“Madeleine…you are wearing perfume..” he says throatily; the rain comes down in stair rods in a sudden storm, and it is immediately clear in those four words that he sees her (and maybe she is) as a completely abandoned woman – and treats her as such. Wearing perfume in middle class Victorian Glasgow is akin to wearing the scarlet letter

Lean and his team were of a generation almost within touching distance of the case: Madeleine Smith had only been dead for some 20 years (she went to the USA after the trial and is said to have invented the table mat). They knew how significant it was for a respectable girl then to put on perfume. Remember the chapter in Little Women in which Meg goes to a dance at a wealthy friend’s and is induced to “polish..her neck and arms with some fragrant powder” to Laurie’s intense disapproval and her own subsequent deep shame. Even as late as 1922/23, as her inspired biographer Rene Weis notes, during the uproar surrounding the trial and execution of Edith Thompson lurid tabloid pieces made much of her prodigious use of perfume and scented baths: a sure sign of supposed depravity. L’Angelier’s line in the movie is a masterstroke of compression and allusion: audiences in 1950 probably read it more clearly than those today. Like Deborah Kerr’s clipping on of an earring in The End of the Affair; and Fred MacMurray kicking the rug straight in Double Indemnity it speaks volumes of passionate and ultimately tragic illicit sex.

So what perfume is Madeleine wearing for her lover? Who can say? She buys rosewater for her younger sister in a later scene; has money in her pocket and access to her father’s account at the chemist-apothecary. Her own taste in dress is shown to be impeccable; she is elegant, fastidious and in the fashion. I think the scent would be chosen to please the lover rather than herself. Miss Smith might have shared her sister’s rose or perhaps lavender water: she takes a bottle of the latter to court with her. Madeleine (L’Angelier’s passionate “Mimi”) probably chooses musk, civet or ambergris, the legendary aphrodisiacs of antiquity. I do not think a perfume that would have been available in 1857 now exists in its original form: animal rights and health and safety legislation have outlawed so many of the old ingredients, and our tastes in fragrance have radically changed. But let’s compose a theoretical formula for Madeleine. Something of the creamy soft muskiness of Musc Ravageur; the pungent civet of the original Jicky and Mouchoir; the animal leatheriness of Knize Ten; the density and richness of Phul Nana; the hot powdery voluptuousness of Ambre Precieux. And finally the narcotic intensity of the Bulgarian roses of Creed’s Fleurs de Bulgarie: a perfume that in its prototype form originated in the 1840’s. Cruel, peppery, lascivious roses not baby-pink buds. Just as posterity and Lean’s film leaves us in suspense as to Madeleine Smith’s guilt or innocence, so must her fragrance: but, as my grandmother always used to say, “they can’t hang you for thinking”.

Image from Wikimedia Commons