The Scent of Silence

Jean Dujardin & Berenice Bejo in The Artist

I wonder how many of you currently enjoying the Oscar-winning movie The Artist recall that historic episode of Parkinson during which Barry Humphries remorselessly baited poor old Gloria Swanson, stamping on her every line and never allowing her a word in edgeways. Later publicly rebuked he remarked unabashed, “but I was told she was a silent star”. It was probably the first time in her life that Swanson had been upstaged. Perhaps more than any other of her contemporaries she came to personify what the silent screen was all about: but hers was a survivor’s perspective: she had a good voice, made the cross-over to talkies and retrospectively defined old-time stardom in Sunset Boulevard; this kind of became her act for the next 30-odd years – being a (ostensibly sane) survivor from Jurassic Hollywood.

A factoid cliche claims that sound killed the careers of all the great silent stars just as the meteor finished the dinosaurs: their voices were all wrong, it is said. Not so: Valentino was already prematurely dead; Chaplin continued to work without sound; Joan Crawford, Dietrich,Mary Astor, Ronald Colman, Carole Lombard, William Powell, Myrna Loy and especially Garbo thrived in the silents and became even bigger stars in the talkies. Others like Clara Bow and John Gilbert staggered on for years in the new medium. After all, there was such a profession as voice coach even then. No, it was the changing times, the Zeitgeist, that put paid to the careers of the more outre and extravagant personalites.

The breadlines,soup kitchens and dance marathons of America in the Depression had no interest in the eccentricities and extravagances of Mae Murray (twice married to European aristocracy but who fell into such poverty that she ended sleeping on a park bench); Barbara LaMarr “The Girl who is too Beautiful” who like Mabel Normand drugged herself to death; Corinne Griffith,who forgot who she was; the ethereal intellectualism of Lilian Gish or the play-pretend infantilism of Mary Pickford. The USA grew up as fast as Wall St collapsed and was looking for a new grittiness in its entertainments: and the world took its lead (as ever) from America.

And perfumes changed too. They sobered up, cleaned up, freshened up for the 1930’s. Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden put up floral bouquets in lieu of such baroque splendours as Caron‘s Narcisse Noir, Pois de Senteur de Chez Moi, Nuit de Noel and the late lamented Patou extravaganza, Chaldee. (Long before Marilyn’s experiments with Chanel, Josephine Baker danced nude except for clouds of Chaldee). Scents of the silents were intricate, perverse, bizarre: they expressed and emoted like the divas who wore them and whose acting manner, far more than their voices, dated them once the studios were miked.

Twenties perfumes needed huge colourful eccentric personalities to carry them off: they pioneered the use of leather and tobacco; they revelled in overdoses of gardenia (try the Isabey version) jasmine, tuberose and all the brilliantly scented synthetics and chemicals then inspiring the leading perfumers of the day. Their perfumes complemented the wearing of fur, feathers, metallic beaded dresses of sequins and golden mesh, thickily brilliantined cropped hair and garish makeup. Scents unfolded slowly, like the stately pace of silent movies; you can’t rush a silent, nor a silent star’s scent. It will last while you see the programme round again.

A final note on Gloria …remember those obituary headlines? “Sic transit Gloria mundi”. Narcisse Noir was always said to be her signature, and it was already a best-seller when she was still a girl in Chicago. But the immortal Narcisse Noir deserves a Wedge all to itself at a future date.

Out + About

Let me recommend a really good comical read; no longer in the shops but undoubtedly out there on Amazon: the works of Betty Macdonald, author of The Egg and I + that anecdotal account of the Great Depression “Anybody Can Do Anything”. In the latter she describes the morning commute on the Seattle street-car: a woman wearing a coat that looked “as though she’d dipped a collie in water + slung it round her neck”; and inhales the “crowded morning smells of wet raincoats, hard-boiled egg sandwiches, bad breath and perfume”.

Anybody Can Do Anything

Some of our most memorable encounters with scent are fleeting olfactory glances in the street: I remember a Nile cruise in 1992 and disembarking at a midnight Luxor to find the wharf in a blue cloud of the scent of the moment, Volupte. Yesterday’s sprint into M + S (I only wanted the loo) was enlivened by a waft of Youth Dew insinuating itself through the main doors: like running into an old childhood friend. And remember poor old Al Pacino bewitched by Caron‘s immortal Fleurs de Rocaille in the movie “Scent of a Woman”?

The moral maze: if you are bewitched by a passing scent, should you stop the wearer and say something? I mean: should you praise, or enquire? Most women ( and men too for that matter) love to be asked: whether they will give you a truthful answer is another matter. My mother was a great ambassador for Serge Lutens‘ pearly jasmine masterpiece A la Nuit, attracting attention with it wherever she went…but she could never remember the name. Others prefer to keep their own secret and will fob off the questioner with temporary memory loss or deliberate misinformation. I love the way that perfume encountered on the wing can spring a surprise and alter your whole perception of a scent. Chance encounters with two very famous but tricky scents metamorphosed for me in a magical and unexpected manner that stays with me still: a beautiful mahagony-haired girl in black fur and Samsara buying postcards at the National Gallery about 12 years ago. And even more distant but just as bewitching, a trail of Chanel No 5 wafting across the stalls at an otherwise uninspired afternoon at the ballet, traced to a pair of honey-tanned shoulders above white linen.

My favourite anecdote is of Frederic Malle‘s pre-launch testing of Musc Ravageur: famously, he sent out his P.A. sprayed with the prototype and found her pursued on the Metro like a vixen by hounds. Paris had voted on her feet: formula confirmed!

Image from Amazon.co.uk

The loveliness of Queen Alexandra

Queen Alexandra the Princess of Wales

I belong to that generation who in infancy heard a great deal about Alexandra of Denmark from people who still remembered her huge blue eyes, her bewitching smile and incomparable charm which miraculously project even today from cinema newsreels of 100 years ago. Some of us might go so far as to observe that Prince William’s looks are inherited as much from his paternal gt gt gt grandmother as from his mother. Alexandra rivals even the late Princess of Wales and Elizabeth the Queen Mother in the British royal popularity ratings on account of the conventions of her day setting her slightly apart from her subjects: there was no hugging, weeping, betting or gin and Dubonnet to encourage a woman-to-woman mateyness. Alexandra was ethereal, elusive, remote and revered; yet she projected such warmth, sympathy and grace coupled with flirtatious caprice and vibrant feminity as to make her adored though untouchable.

She dressed to please herself, pinning Orders and crown jewels on at random wherever they suited her best, regardless of protocol. Her fans and accessories were ordered from Carl Faberge; she was famously slim and diet-conscious in a very porky age. But how did the divine Alexandra smell? Alexandra Rose Day, founded in her old age commemorated her love of that flower and Floris supplied both her and her husband’s mistress, Mrs Keppel with their Red Rose. Long discontinued, this was a magnificently petally, velvety, deep soft rose which had as great an influence on rose scents in its time as Malle’s Une Rose in the 21st century. Ladies of Alexandra’s day were considered to be flower-like in their delicacy, their sensibility and fragility – they should be scented like blossoms, avoiding the coarse actressy voluptuousness of musk, civet and amber. A faint odour of flowers should emanate from their clothes, laid up in fresh lavender, rather from their bodies: colognes and toilet waters were still applied to handkerchiefs rather than to the skin or the hair, a practice still considered “fast” – a useful and telling word long since obsolete, alas.

Queen Alexandra would have been well aware of Grossmith’s best-selling perfumes, recently revived this century in their old splendour – Phul Nana, Shem El Nessim and Hasu no Hana. Her daughter-in-law (the future Queen Mary) wore Grossmith’s Bridal Bouquet to her own wedding – an occasion on which it was noted that Alexandra looked lovelier than the bride. Houbigant, Guerlain and Piver would have been familiar names to her. She lived long enough to smell Chanel No 5 and the baroque splendours of Caron even if she was too much of a Victorian to have worn them. But after the rose, the flower most traditionally associated with Alexandra is the violet – in the style of her day she pinned huge corsages of them to her clothes, carried bouquets of them in public and incorporated velvet and silk violets in her toques – the convention of royal ladies not obscuring their faces by wide brimmed head gear being already well established. Besides, as her mother-in-law Queen Victoria waspishly observed, “Darling Alix has the tiniest head I have ever seen” so that Alexandra was well aware of the flattering appearance of small, high turbans. She moved in a mist of Parma violet cologne, sheer silks and lace,the perfection of Edwardian womanhood.

Her rooms at Sandringham and Buckingham palace were crammed with roses, violets and azaleas. Faberge also recreated her favourite plants in crystal, gold and precious stones. Her favourite floral scents would have scented her gloves and rice powder for the face. I wonder whether this well-known fascination of the nation’s favourite old lady (she died at 80 in 1925) for these fragrances led to them for so long after her death to be considered old-fashioned and demode. And then quite suddenly, around ten years ago, the tide turned again and rose and violet perfumes came back, firstly via the niche perfumers and then amongst the commercial houses. One of the most opulent and most artful is Lipstick Rose, in the Malle collection – here Ralf Schwieger triumphantly updates the accord, introducing a violet-rose perfume with fruity aldehydic notes of immense vibrancy and panache, but still displaying a retro powderiness and floral poignancy that is the quintessence of Alexandra.

Image from Wikipedia