Christmas Reading

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One of the first references to perfume I came across in print was in “What Katy Did”. Enthused by the very young Susan Hampshire in the TV series I read my first copy to rags, and my current surviving edition is an Armada paperback from 1967 with crumbling pages now the colour of gravy. In this text the adorable Clover Carr’s stated preference for “eau de cologne” is rendered as “scent”. She’s playing grown-ups and planning on having a large pool full of cologne in the back yard into which she can dip the hankies of passing schoolchildren. As an infant I was foxed by this term, pronouncing it to myself as “eau de kol-JEAN”. Which may have been a common problem, thus leading to Armada’s editorial alteration.

When I grew up and went to work at Harrods I met Lana, the glorious Houbigant Girl, who came from the Balkans and looked exactly like a larger than lifesize Victorian wax doll with huge blue eyes like coat buttons and ringlets nearly to her waist. She was there to sell Quelques Fleurs & did it with unique panache because she had exactly the same fantasy as Clover Carr. O! she had the gift all right, and after listening to Lana’s silvery-voiced fantasies of cathedral aisles running with conduits of Quelques Fleurs and guests holding up blue silk parasols against scent pouring from the skies, every customer was begging for the 100ml size.

Every December when the parcels start to come, I think of the Christmas Eve in “What Katy Did At School”. Snowbound in New England, Clover + Katy receive two wonderful elaborately assembled crates of gifts and food parcels from their family back home in Burnet, Ohio. The smaller box is filled with flowers, wadded in cotton wool against the freeze – roses, geraniums, heliotrope and carnations. Beneath, exquisitely packed, are two quilted satin glove cases “delicately scented”, one mauve, one lilac. It’s a marvellous image; the flowers being carefully removed and revived from their long chilled journey, placed in glasses of water and distributed around the school with pears, apples, prunes and crunchy jumbles. What is a jumble?

Though I’m also exceedingly fond of the company of the March girls, the Katy books are freer, easier, funnier and less moralising. More modern, shorter, crisper. Even the saintly and somewhat enigmatic Cousin Helen doesn’t grate, being sufficiently self-indulgent as to wear bracelets, and to travel with her own flower vase – luxuries at which Marmee, I think, would have had a fit. As does Mrs Hall next door – “Ma said she fears your cousin is a worldly person”. “Katy” has something for everyone and every situation. Anyone who has suffered the discomfort of an overly protracted summer should read the first chapter of “What Katy Did At School” and spend the night with Elsie and Johnny in their terrible feather bed at Mrs Worrett’s baking, fly-blown, pumpkin-coloured farmhouse. “Mrs Worrett never mounted in hot weather”. Completely unrelated to the rest of the book, this short section is worthy of Elizabeth Bowen at her most comically sinister. It’s one of my favourite passages of the entire canon.

Noel Coward slept on into eternity after a quiet Jamaican evening in bed with eggs on a tray and an E Nesbit. Maybe Susan Coolidge’s books will provide the same rite of passage for me. And I’d prefer the eggs scrambled.

FOOTNOTE: the Cosmic Scrambled Egg.

Scrambled eggs are immortalised on film by being messed around by a lovelorn Joan Fontaine in the first reel of REBECCA.

An Harrods recipe of my time, much circulated in Perfumery, called for a dollop of mayonnaise to be dropped into the eggs at the moment of serving. Very rich – but excellent after a late evening on counter.

A Very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to You All!

Yours, most Warmly & Gratefully,
LW

My Happiness: a special Christmas blog for Les Senteurs by guest writer Mrs Lemon Wedge

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O! The soft sweet golden glow of DRIES VAN NOTEN: all the tenderness of Christmas morning. Or the ferocious night-time sensuality of COLOGNE POUR LE SOIR, richly animalic like the rosy satin lining of a sable coat. The flowery dew of NOCTURNES, a rope of luminous pearls still warm from the wearer’s body. The dark sacred odour of the Christmas night stars in MYRRHIAD.
How privileged and fortunate am I to be Mrs LW, with all the treasures of the fragrance world at my husband’s generous disposal!

Why is perfume such a great gift? It is altogether timeless, both ancient and modern in its facility to become an integral part of you and your dreams. Imagine sitting up in bed on the Great Day in the darkness before dawn, with that curious magical feeling of uniqueness, and all of Christmas in the air, that still wonderful atmosphere that begins in early childhood and hopefully never quite dies away. It’s still there, if only for a minute or two: the world of carols, snow and Santa; of stuffed stockings, Margaret Tarrant Nativity picture books and infinite good will.

So there I shall be on the Day of Days, propped up in bed with a cup of hot sweet tea under my Princess Margaret apple green satin eiderdown wondering “Now, HOW shall we set about all this?” I agree with Elizabeth David and would prefer a light lunch of smoked salmon and champagne but Mr LW always says, “my dear, I shall give you The Works!” Indeed he is already below decks in the kitchen, manipulating the festive bird with deft hands and spatulas. Or apparently so, for suddenly he appears the foot of our bed, setting this intriguing package before me, exquisitely wrapped and ribboned. It feels wonderfully heavy and solid. For one awful moment I fear it might after all be a book or a set of table mats. But, no, its too square for that and too small. And there’s a faint juddering when i shake the parcel indicating the presence of a bottle. My lovely Mr LW has done it again, for sure. “Careful, now..”, he says. He adjusts my pillows a trifle and sits beside me to watch my face.

Shall I daintily pick off the wrappings like a finicking archaeologist and put them aside for use again? Or open my present in one glorious wasteful rip, yanking off all the tussore, grosgrain and glitter like James Mason pawing at Margaret Lockwood’s stomacher? I tear the coverings asunder, loving the explosion of cracklings, rustlings and rendings. And there it is. Surely nothing beats the thrill of a luxuriously crafted box in black, red or white; then easing off the perfectly fitting lid to discover a jewel-like flacon filled with … with?…well, with every possibility and infinite variety under the sun.

You can choose perfume every Christmas for a lifetime and the fulfilment and excitement never palls. The joy of a new bottle of scent – whether it’s a signature, an old favourite or a suprise novelty – never dates, never stales. It promises infinite riches, experience and adventure. It’s like being born all over again, especially when you’re lying in bed spraying lavishly from a big now bottle, immersed in your own dream world.

But where is LW? Eager, I hope, to be thanked in a suitable manner. Not at all: gone below and making with the goose fat and roast spuds. My treasure!”

PS

Entre nous, this year I’m giving her the sweet and sultry broken blossoms of Kilian’s GOOD GIRL GONE BAD. Our little private joke.
But say nothing!

Merry Christmas!
LW

Image: morethings.com

Palais Glide

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Our recent post concerning the Duchess of Windsor and French Can Can aroused such kind interest that LW thought he’d elaborate a little further on these two fascinating phenomena…

I gave up wearing black stockings when I stopped dancing the can-can” quipped the Duchess of Windsor in her nervy febrile manner, and as ever there were guests at her table, picking at the hand-matched lettuce leaves and patting the Dior-sprayed pugs, quick to take umbrage at the corncrake witticisms of this impossible woman. Certainly it is a startling image: the spidery legs of this most sexless and angular of femmes fatales whirling and gyrating in the stylised orgasm of this notorious exhibition dance.

Dance evolved with Man, a spontaneous or ritualised expression of religious emotion – the frenzied Maenads and Bacchantes; Miriam leading the women of Israel from the Red Sea with timbrels after their deliverance from Pharoah. Dance as an act of adoration or re-enactment of the rhythms and rotations of the natural world: the tides, the seasons, the sun dancing at noon. But then, like perfume itself, it came to share the sacred sphere with the profane and as Western paganism was subsumed by Christendom dancing fell under the greatest suspicion: an occasion for uncontrolled emotion, too close and informal a contact between the sexes, an immodest display of limbs and suggestive posturing.

Naturally dancing makes frequent appearances in folk and fairy tales, its sexual symbolism often spliced in with that of the shoe: Cinderella; the Twelve Princesses who mysteriously wear out their footwear nightly in a subterranean ballroom; and the often bowdlerised denouement of Snow White. The wicked stepmother, bidden to Snow White’s wedding, finds iron slippers already set to heat in a brazier. This is a nice and delicately hideous touch: her young and beautiful hosts patiently awaiting her arrival in order to assist her with the tongs (one thinks of Wills and Kate and that photographer ). She is forced to dance until dead, fried alive by her sexual jealousy. The pointing of a moral continued to find ample material in the dance: Lottie Collins, exuberant music-hall performer of the 1890’s, was another victim of Terpsichore, dying of a seizure brought on by the high-kicks of Ta Ra Ra Boom De Ay. Even in the most genteel society dance could be fatal. The Victorian memoirist Augustus Hare mentions his forebear Sarah who “…in the zenith of her youth and loveliness … died very suddenly from eating ices when overheated at a ball”.

It has often been noted that dancing mania manifests in periods of great social disturbance and change: plague, the Reformation, the aftermath of the French Revolution, the two World Wars and right now in the midst of 21st century economic and political devastation. Dance is such a universal and inclusive phenonemon that one expects more perfumes to celebrate it. Carnet du Bal, Samba and Rumba have all taken their last bow, the steps they celebrated now perhaps seeming impossibly dated. Balenciaga’s Rumba was especially luscious: a rich glowing summer pudding of a scent, laced with cinnamon and thick yellow cream which rolled over the skin like scented velvet. Too good to last, it came and went within twenty years. Fans of its partner, the exquisitely sophisticated powdery Quadrille, seek it in vain. Yet French Can Can triumphantly survives in specialist perfumeries, an exuberant froth of lilac, violet, rose and jasmine scented petticoats interlined with patchouli and musk. Originally designed in 1936 as a de luxe souvenir of naughtee Paree with bottles adorned with the tricolour and skirts of paper lace, it was tailored to appeal primarily to the Anglo Saxon market. Leafier, sharper, greener than the rest of the Caron line, a classic floral chypre, it wears well with chic suits and handmade shoes, superbly elegant, discreetly sexy but very decent: no hint of grapefruit oil here to give it a tang of sweat. An elegantly framed Toulouse Lautrec print rather than a cat-fight on the absinthe-soaked floors of the Moulin Rouge, but still a gaily provocative and atmospheric collector’s item.

Hello, Dolly!

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Some of our younger visitors & staff say they couldn’t possibly walk from Les Senteurs to Selfridge’s. Take heart! it only takes 5 minutes. This fabulous store was once the out-of-hours playground of the glittering and quasi-mythical Dolly Sisters, daughters of a Hungarian tailor and one of the great cabaret acts of the Roaring Twenties. Were they identical twins, Rosie being the slightly more ample and amorous of the two? Or, as used to be rumoured, was there a decade between them, relying on artful maquillage to close the gap? Their success spawned a slew of sister acts including the two Norwegian boys who became the toast of Paris parodying the Dolly act as “The Rocky Twins”.

The eponymous Gordon Selfridge (sharing the accolade with Dorothy Lamour of being the Marshall Field department store’s greatest U.S. export) fell for the Dollies hook line and sinker and transferred them from a flat in St Martins Lane to the huge mansion off Berkeley Square which is now the Landsdowne Club. Disastrously he laid on continuous late night store openings exclusively for the girls – who naturally helped themselves to whatever took their eye. And that was more likely to be sables, platinum and pearls than bread rolls or stationery.

But as we know from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

“He’s your guy
When stocks are high
But beware when they start to descend..”

The stars of this curious fun-loving menage burned out in the 1930’s with the collapse of the world economy: ill health, bankruptcy and lost looks put an end to all three of them. But Selfridges itself still dances on, as gay and glittering as ever; though the bright young people no longer demonstrate the Charleston on the roofs of passing London cabs and the treasure hunts through the vast departments have long ended. And the exotic perfumes that once enfolded Rosie and Jenny Dolly – Molinard, Caron, Coudray, Isabey, Grossmith, Knize, Houbigant – stream like a scented shimmering ribbon back to the blue door of Les Senteurs, just five minutes up the road.

Image: verhext.com

Knize Ten

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The end of the Great War saw a frenzied creative activity in the creation of scent: without Caron’s Tabac Blond there would have been no Knize Ten; without Knize Ten there might have been no Habanita. We have all three pillars of perfumery holding up the roof of Les Senteurs: the most remarkable and oddest of the trio is Knize Ten. Extraordinarily difficult to find, its reputation is enormous but in no way belied by its reality, once found. It is surrounded by an almost sinister aura.

When I was young and warnings came via whispers rather than the internet, certain things were held to be arcane and dangerous, to infallibly bring bad luck: such as possession of tarot cards, writing cheques on a Sunday, sticking a postage stamp upside down and reading The Golden Bough. Knize Ten is a bit like this: it has such an accumulation of myth about it and such a powerful presence that the challenge of wearing with it without being overpowered by its legend is too much for some.

Knize Ten is one of the final legacies of old Imperial Europe – the Kaiserzeit in full decadence with all the glamour, gloom and grotesquerie that children of that era – Von Stroheim, Pabst, Von Sternberg, Zweig, Mann – brought to their films and books. The tailoring firm of Knize was founded in 1858 by the Czech Josef Knize but had been bought out by the Wolff family long before the Emperor Franz Josef gave the House its Royal and Imperial Warrant in 1888, the year Queen Victoria’s daughter became Empress of Prussia for just 99 days. In its heyday there were Knize showrooms in Prague, Berlin, Paris, Karlsbad and even New York dressing not only royalty but the German military; gentlemen of both sexes; Maurice Chevalier and Marlene Dietrich. Today Knize Ten, always a star since 1921 (though the exact date is debated) is a murky canary diamond gleaming in the shadows of its own past.

Knize’s Teutonic darkness closes in oppressively and hotly after a brilliant hesperidic burst of rosemary, lemon and orange like sun burning through Berlin fogs over the swamps of the Spree. Knize draws across heavy baize-lined velvet curtains, shutting you in with a padded heart of rose, jasmine and clove carnation whose animalic notes come panting after, echoed in accords of castoreum, civet, amber, cedar and patchouli. The full expression is immense, bursting out of its confines – heady, heavy, swollen; and faintly sweaty, like fine wool heated by vigorous exercise – the feverish walkers of “The Magic Mountain”, or Luis Trenker in one of those unhinged mountaineering Silent pictures of the late 20’s. A wholesome unwholesomeness – or maybe vice versa.

One is confronted with a huge physicality and a sense of a faint (or rather more?) soiling. Speaking for myself, Knize Ten’s attraction never fails, but one application leaves me feeling coated, sealed, painted like that girl in Goldfinger. There’s hardly room left to breathe: Knize Ten is a total experience, it possesses you wholly, crushes you in its fatal ursine embrace. The final kicker is that oily black work-out of Prussian leather and what some people swear is the odour of rubber. And of course for many this is the money-shot, the clincher that makes the fragrance irresistible. It doesn’t play- pretend fetishism like some modern scents: it is itself a fetish, in same way as Narcisse Noir or Bandit. We keep it in a cage.