Toes Like A Monkey

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I once had a wonderful Swedish friend who worked for Oscar de la Renta. She had rippling tawny-gold hair and beautiful freckled hands with dark crimson lacquered nails. For winter parties she’d rub Body Shop vanilla oil into her skin, top it up with a veil of Chopard’s Casmir (in the lotus bottle, remember?) and pull a thick white fisherman’s sweater over the lot. The effect, I’m here to tell you, was devastating. “Ah”, she’d reply to all compliments “but I have a flaw: toes like a monkey!” She pronounced the word to rhyme with ‘donkey’, so these prehensile digits acquired for me their own esoteric glamour.

Heading the chapter on symmetry in our O level maths book at school was the Congreve quotation “I could never look long upon a monkey without very mortifying reflections”. For centuries monkeys and apes were used in art as symbols of folly, lust, greed and all the weaknesses of a creature that was seen as man degraded: parodies of humans who had fallen from grace and metamorphosed into graceless slaves of their own bestial appetites. Post-Darwin, the monkey assumed a different role in the scheme of evolution while artists such as Picasso, Rousseau, Matisse and Gaugin explored on canvas the animal urges inherent in man.

In the early 1930’s there was a craze for screen apes – King Kong and Cheetah course, but also the orangutan in The Murders in the rue Morgue and Mae West’s pet monkeys; Hans Albers and Luise Rainer dancing and singing the comic paso doble Mein Gorilla Hat ‘Ne Villa im Zoo. Especially we remember the huge gorilla shambling in chains onto the cabaret stage in Blonde Venus, then tearing off one of its own paws to reveal Dietrich’s luminously white hand garlanded in diamonds. (Was Billy Wilder maybe satirising all this singerie with the burial of Norma Desmond’s chimp in Sunset Boulevard?). Curiously but not coincidentally, this was also the era of such farouche leather scents as Knize Ten; the tanneries of all those variations on a theme of cuir de Russe; the animalic musks & pelts of Caron. And what was the best-dressed grande horizontale then wearing? Black satin, a string of pearls & monkey fur.

Have you met any monkeys, eyeball to eyeball? My grandmother knew one, next door, that spent his winters singeing his fur on the kitchen range. Her own mother had a peculiar horror of simians: the melody of the barrel organ coming down the street would prompt her to fly upstairs burying her head under the pillows until man and red-bolero’d marmoset could be bribed to take themselves off. As a child, I knew a monkey that lived in a pub and sipped stout; and I recall a beautiful blonde who nurtured two baby capuchins in her abundant golden hair – you’d see these minute hands like four spiders emerging from the roots, waving above the lady’s noble forehead.

The capuchins were immaculate, though I remember the ale-monkey whiffing a bit and of course the powerful smell of the monkey house at the zoo still lingers in the mind. Pungent animalic smells are of course by no means a turn-off for everyone: one of Louis XV’s early mistresses Pauline de Vintimille was said to reek like a monkey and the king was intoxicated by her. Perfumes that for me have hovered on the edge of the nauseous include Olivia Giacobetti’s famous Dzing! with its circus theme of civet and damp sawdust; and Weil’s peculiar but once greatly-loved Antelope which I found just too reminiscent of animal skin. It was rather like sitting in the back of a very expensive old car, beautifully hide- upholstered and a little too smooth in motion.

Just now we have taken delivery of the new Parfum d’Empire Musc Tonkin, a recreation of the traditional soiled old musk accords via floral, woody and fruity notes. Very convincing, highly disturbing. Gosh, how this scent clings, permeates and soaks in! My esteemed manager Mr Callum came into the shop the other day and caught my aura: “Aha! Wearing Musc Tonkin are we?” In fact I had merely held up the bottle to show a customer; I’d not even sprayed it. That’s musk in the old grand manner: musky monkey business.

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Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.

wisemen

A dear friend emailed me on Twelfth Night to say how drear and sad the Christmas cards and decorations look once taken down and dismantled. I was feeling exactly the same: all the magic and illusion of Christmas reduced to piles of tired coloured paper, moulting tinsel and the popped bulbs of entangled fairy lights that once twinkled and sparkled so enchantingly. A couple of cardboard boxes packed with fripperies and shoved under the stairs for another eleven months: who can tell what will happened before they are hauled out once again and restored to their glittering glory. Food for thought indeed, and one might preach a three minute sermon on the theme of resurrection of life and spirit even in this humdrum chore and at this most depleted of times. Liturgically we remain in the Christmas until February….but who wants to know that? Retail is already hotfooting it to Easter. I saw the hot cross buns today, and the chocolate bunnies!

There’s something very strange about New Year altogether, an oddity that lasts well into January; this feeling that we rushed to completion & exhaustion in the last frantic weeks of the old year only to be reborn, forced to begin the whole exhausting cycle once again. No wonder the ancient Mesoamericans felt that these were queer sorts of days and lurked indoors, shutting out the light, dousing their fires and refusing to eat until the sun had made up his mind to re-appear and illuminate the next calendar. They kept still, anxious to avoid the unwelcome attention of a malevolent cosmos.

A wonderful speaker – Canon Angela Tilby – spoke on Thought For The Day on January 6, the feast of the Magi. She ruminated on the ancient theory of St Ignatius that the wise men who sought out the Infant Christ were not kings nor sages, but magicians and alchemists who brought their treasures of gold and rare perfumes not as tribute but to symbolically renounce their tools of wizardry and abandon the age of superstition and darkness before venturing into an era of light.

The end of magic, then; but the innumerable kaleidoscopes of life keep whirling around, throwing out new fantasies of colour and pattern so that you might well care to celebrate the arrival of 2015 by choosing a fresh scent and thereby kindle some enchantment of your own. You can weave a new perfume into your New Year resolutions: stretch the boundaries of your existence and of your character. Keep pushing forward: our bodies and skins and senses are changing every second so our response to perfume is never still, always mutating. The true magic of fragrance lies in its quicksilver quality – always fugitive, forever different, impossible to pin down or entrap.

So be equally fluid when you select a new scent. The time of day, the weather, the air pressure, your state of health & frame of mind all play a key role in determining your sense of smell and perception of perfume. Shop alone or with someone in total empathy; play it slow and play it cool. Trust to your instinct, project into the future: choose slow and choose sure, thus transmuting from a midwinter caterpillar to a gorgeous spring butterfly!

At the turn of the year Part 2: THE DIVINE LUISE

Luise Rainer

So now Luise Rainer has gone, two weeks short of her 105th birthday. She was not quite the last of the great Hollywood legends – Olivia de Havilland is happily still with us – but she was always one of the most enigmatic and intriguing. She lived for many years in Eaton Square, in the same house – though not in the same apartment – as that once occupied by Vivien Leigh. A near neighbour was Ivor Novello’s leading lady, Mary Ellis, who also lived to be 105 and who died in 2003 as a snowstorm flurried around SW1: a friend told me that Miss Ellis had given a drinks party in her bedroom only the previous day.

Luise had that same kind of spirit. We happily saw a lot of her at Les Senteurs after the shop moved to Elizabeth Street in 1999. She once cancelled a winter flight to the USA at the last moment and came into the shop in a huge and magnificent fur hat on Christmas Eve saying that she had decided to stay at home and throw an impromptu dinner for twelve instead. She would have been then around 95 and still a startlingly brisk walker (always in heels), almost impossible to keep pace with. Of an afternoon she’d walk up from Belgravia to Leicester Square and back for a little exercise, and to have her shoes re-soled. She missed her dogs, having kept troupes of dachsunds in earlier days. She told me how she’d fallen backwards down an escalator in the West End but bounced back – “tough dame, huh?”. Luise was extremely funny always, disconcertingly sharp & observant. Her lively impression of George W. Bush was a speciality.

I first met Miss Rainer at Harrods about 25 years ago – always modest, she introduced herself by her married name but I thought “I know that face..that voice.”. And it was indeed she, the woman once known at MGM as “The Viennese Teardrop”, wearing her signature jewelled skullcap and exquisite beige trouser suit. She was then, as ever, on the look out for a superior tuberose perfume: she adored Piguet’s Fracas and never found a scent to match it. Her top floor flat at Eaton Square – ” come on, have a drink!” – smelled deliciously of pale gardenias and tuberoses, fresh and airy as though in a garden. There her two Oscars from 1936 and ’37 stood unobtrusively on a bureau in her study: so startlingly solid and heavy when picked up that I almost dropped one of them, taken aback by the unexpected weight.

Luise made full use of our shop fax machine, and when I (always a technophobe) moaned about getting to grips with the computer she told me that she was taking lessons in the new social media devices: “I have No Intention of being left behind!” Maybe her practical pragmatic streak was expressed in her hands which though beautiful, expressive and perfectly kept were surprisingly large for such a tiny person. She told a wonderfully comic story against herself concerning a journalist who visited her one hot summer day: she offered him a beer from the fridge and he enjoyed it so much she proposed another. “He didn’t seem to like the second as much as the first. When we examined the label, the expiry date was 1987…”

Luise Rainer had that wonderful gift of seeming to live every second of life, good or bad, to the full: she lived in the moment, always looking forward. Blessed with tremendous energy and humour she lit up my life considerably. I always felt illuminated and revived by her, even by a word in passing. She strode down Elizabeth Street like a queen, admired by all, and until fairly recently used to shop for her groceries -” I don’t eat!” – in the Kings Road supermarkets. Here I’d sometimes run into her browsing through ‘Hello!’ magazine at the stationery kiosk:

“‘LIMELIGHT is back in town!’ – big deal…!”

Happy memories and grateful thanks, Miss Rainer.