Dog Days

Toby the Pug 1986-1999 Image from the author's collection!

Toby the Pug 1986-1999 Image from the author’s collection!

 

There has been a strange and rather lovely odour all around the house this week. Perhaps it’s me? But all I have worn in this warm close weather is Atelier Cologne’s Cedrat Enivrant. Now that’s a glorious greeny-gold glittering citrus; and what I can smell here is a deep woody floral; soft and pervasive and lulling. It seems to be everywhere, despite the open doors and windows. It was only intensified by my darling sister-in-law’s visit. She came over for lunch bearing two large bags of magazines dated 1952 and ’53: pristine souvenir numbers of The Sphere, The Illustrated London News and Picture Post commemorating variously the death of George VI and the Coronation of Elizabeth II. Amongst all the paperwork was a bar of amber and sandalwood soap: I wrapped it up in my clean underwear, like Betty Macdonald’s tubercular friend in The Plague and I¤. There were also two very old bottles of Floris room scent – Ormonde – the colour of old amber, slightly crusted, and smelling delicious. Rich, voluptuous and assured: the scent of country mansions, polished up with beeswax and filled with vases of stocks and sweet peas.

Barbara Cartland used to say that she knew from a strong fragrance of clove carnations manifesting in the house that her deceased brother Ronald was about the place. You wonder, don’t you? This morning, out and about at the shops, on the street and in the garden, all I can smell is a creamy sweet coconut, rather like gorse. But there is no gorse, and there were no coconuts. When I went down the aisle of Laundry Requisites at the supermarket – a well-known household name – the detergents assailed me like wasps. My face prickled all over as though from heat rash; a myriad invisible chemicals stimulating my skin, though apparently safely contained in their cardboard and plastic wrappers. Over-sensitive at the moment: very strange!

I have just finished a rather nasty but very gripping book of long short stories by Daphne du Maurier¤¤. She is good on scent and its implications. A bored Marquise plays with a scent stopper as she plays with people’s lives. A seductively brittle cinema usherette may be a phantom and is certainly a murderess. Contrary to usual fictional convention this ominous figure exudes the most delicious perfume to beglamour her garage mechanic suitor:

” I’m not a great one for liking scent. It’s too often cheap and nasty, but this was different. There was nothing stale about it, or stuffy, or strong; it was like the flowers they sell up in the West End…three bob a bloom sort of touch…and it was so darn good, the smell of it … that it nearly drove me mad”.

The title story is done with great subtlety – the death of a wife is swiftly followed by her haunting of her widower in the form of a deformed apple tree in the garden. The tale is told by the husband. We slowly realise that it is he – and not, as he would have us believe, the late wife – who is a monster of self-indulgence and misery. The barren tree flowers in a cascade of over-ripe, decaying blooms which repel rather than attract. “Instead of blossoming to life, to beauty, it had somehow, deep in nature, gone awry and turned a freak”.  Or so the widower perceives the flowers¤¤¤.  When a fallen branch of apple wood is sawn to feed the fire, the smell is not fresh and aromatic but “sweet, sickly…greenish…turning his stomach”.

We all know how sensitive animals can be to the Unseen. A lady told me the other day that whenever she sprays Etat Libre D’Orange’s Putain des Palaces her tom cat goes absolutely beserk. It’s like cat mint to him. He becomes skittish, roguish, even disconcertingly amorous. I know many horse owners who avoid wearing perfume when they visit their stables. Apparently our most august fancier of horseflesh, the Queen herself, is amongst them. Fragrance is said to unsettle, even arouse, the equine. Both Fracas and Chanel No 5 have been said to have had disturbing effects on stallions.  Now, we at Les Senteurs are always happy to welcome a canine visitor, on the arm of his owner. But I always marvel at how calm dogs remain in our palace of 1,000 scents. When you think of the bombardment of smells on those little supersensitive snouts you’d think the animals would run half mad. I guess what it is, is this: in the interests of his own sanity, the dog remains involuntarily onosmic to odours that have no possible relevance to his needs. He picks up only what is needed for his comfort, feeding, preservation and – if in his natural state – his reproductive interest. Am I somewhere near the truth? Vets, please write in. Makes you wonder about Putain des Palaces though.

¤ “..’he brought me a whole roasted chicken and twelve chocolate eclairs and that’s all I’m gonna eat until next Thursday’. I asked how she managed to keep food in her stand as it was absolutely forbidden.  She said, ‘Oh, I wrap it all up in my clean pyjamas.'”

¤¤ “The Apple Tree” first published by Victor Gollancz, 1952.

¤¤¤ We are reminded of the abundant and beautiful but sinister white roses which fill frame after frame of The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s 1961 film adaptation of The Turn of the Screw.

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Fish Pie Makes You Cry/ Custard Drives You Mad

Odilon Redon - The Egg, 1885

Odilon Redon – The Egg, 1885

 

The 10th Earl of St Germans died on July 15th. His long and idiosyncratic obituary in The Times (July 19th) observed:

‘He led a full life and would present all his female companions with bottles of Fracas perfume.”

It’s nice to know, isn’t it? As Kay Walsh used to say.
And, aside from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the heat? It nearly did for me. As usual, I turned for empathetic comfort to that first chapter of ‘What Katy Did At School’, in which the highly-strung Elsie Carr goes nearly off her head during an especially hot and prolonged Ohio Indian summer. It’s a baking, dried-up October and Elsie begs to be sent out of town to stay with a family friend – Mrs Worrett – in the country. Alas! The experience turns out to be a nightmare, and there’s the moral: be careful what you wish for. Be wary of what you set your heart on: even if it’s a bottle of Fracas.

“Sometimes the truest kindness is in giving people their own unwise way.”

It all begins well with the journey out – “part of the road ran through woods…the dense shade kept off the sun, and there was a spicy smell of evergreens and sweet fern.” But as we all know, it is better to travel than to arrive, and Mrs Worrett’s stark pumpkin-coloured house is a dreary disappointment. “The spare chamber was just under the roof. It was very hot, and smelled as if the windows had never been opened since the house was built.” The food is worse. Susan Coolidge does not exactly describe its smell but she brings it right under our noses:

“..the room felt stiflingly warm, and the butter was so nearly melted that Mrs Worrett had to help it with a teaspoon. Buzzing flies hovered above the table, and gathered thick on the plate of cake….they sat in the dusk; Mr Worrett smoking his pipe and slapping mosquitoes outside the door…”.

Elsie is weepy and “her head ached violently”. By next morning she is in a state of prostration – we hear all about the horrors of a feather bed in a heat wave –  and is advised to “lie on the lounge in the best room, and amuse herself with a book”.

Can the sense of smell drive one mad I wonder? I think it might. If all the other senses can affect the mind adversely, then why not scent? Elsie’s experiences always remind me of a “true life” criminal case which took place in Fall River, Massachusetts, just twenty years  after ‘Katy’ was written.

I first heard about Lizzie Borden in an episode of The Munsters on TV when I was a tot. Grandpa Munster produced an axe from a trunk and muttered something about the Bordens, whereat my Victorian grandmother laughed uproariously. Lizzie was a large and rather attractive New England girl: a pillar of the community who lived with her sister, father and stepmother in a clapboard house in New England. One terrible and boiling hot August morning in 1892, while Lizzie claimed to be occupied with chores in the barn, her parents were horribly hacked to death in the house. Miss Borden was subsequently arrested, tried for their murder but acquitted.

What aroused much comment at the time – and continues to do so – was the curious life style of the Bordens. Despite it being an exceptionally hot week, the family – and the maid – had dined on the same boiling of mutton soup every day for a week. The house was full of flies and in the back kitchen were found soaking pails and tubs of “ladies’ unmentionables”. Everyone in the house – unsurprisingly – seemed to be suffering from gastric and other “upsets” at the time of the crime. At least one writer has wondered as to whether the appalling concomitant smell in the family home – especially of that mutton broth, perpetually on the simmer in sweltering temperatures – may have altered the balance of Lizzie’s mind, to the point of turning her homicidal.

We shall never know now; but the scent of certain plants has been said, at different times and in various cultures, to drive you crazy. Oleanders, daturas, cypresses and tuberoses all have their various effects. And think of Sherlock Holmes and that terrifying root-derived Devil’s Foot powder. I write this in a garden full of the evening perfumes of mint, tomato plants, lavender, marjoram – and, especially, lilies smelling of sweet lemon vanilla cream. All is perfection. But from time to time I get a particular scent on the brain, to an oppressive and infuriating extent. The key point is, that this is normally and nominally a pleasing fragrance: an odour I love. But something then short-circuits and renders it so grating, invasive and throbbingly insistent that I feel exactly like Sir John Gielgud at that famous Mozart operatic rehearsal: “O DO stop that TERRIBLE music!” Like an animal, I have to plunge into water to be rid of the smell, as a fox is said to escape his fleas.

The fox’s fleas sail off downstream on a hank of hair: likewise, by this time, the smell has become its own entity. I have written before in this column of once going after work to the swimming baths; doing a length; and then disconcertingly meeting a cloud of my own fragrance brooding above the waters as I made the return. “Meeting Myself Coming Back”.

There’s nowt so queer as folk – thank Heaven! Nor so strange and unpredictable as scent.’

Flowers Of The Bone

Diego Rivera Xochiquetzal

Xochiquetzal, the Aztec goddess of love and fertility, wearing a headress of lillies in this mural by Diego Rivera. Her name comes from ‘xochiti’ meaning flower, and ‘quetzalli’, meaning precious feather.

 

‘Then as she once walked up and down in the White Friars’ church at Lynn, she felt a wonderfully sweet and heavenly savour, so that she thought she might have lived by it, if it would have continued. And in that moment, our Lord said to her, ‘Daughter, by this sweet smell you may know that there shall in a short time be a new Prior in Lynn…” ¤
At this uncertain time I’ve been reading this most marvellous Book of Margery Kempe, said to be the first autobiography in the English language. Mrs Kempe was the mother of fourteen, a mystic and sometime brewer of Kings Lynn: she was born around 1373. She travelled all over England and Europe, glorifying God; she even reached Jerusalem. Her book deals extensively with the Divine ravishment of the human senses, including that of smell. Margery, like all her contemporaries, equated sweet smells with the treasures and revelations of Heaven.

Hasn’t it been a peculiar week, though? Perhaps the strangest yet in this oddest of years. I have been glued to the wireless and the BBC News on the hour. I’ve been like that Imperial nursemaid, obsessed with l’affaire Dreyfuss, who came close to letting the Tsarevich drown in the bath: away in a world of my own. I have noted such curious portents in the natural world, too: a heart-shaped ring of toadstools sprouting in the night on the public highway; a lone buzzard circling overhead; a frost in Scotland; unnatural levels of rain and clouds of flies. Despite all the eccentric and dismaying weather, the weather office now announces that this June has been much warmer than the average. The earth seems to have shifted on its axis: we used to sit out in the back yard on midsummer evenings, bathed in sunshine till supper time. No longer: even if the rains stop in time the bench under the kitchen window is now deep in chilly shadow by 6.30pm. Curiouser and curiouser!

I wonder what’s going on. Some things are as ever. The Constance Spry roses, though battered, have flowered according to their meticulously allotted span: three and a half weeks. All finished and put away by 4th July: regular as clockwork. The privet hedges are now in flower; all too often overlooked or taken for granted, but smelling as exotic and penetrating as Spanish orange blossom.  The garden is intensely luxuriant, even jungly; and my sense of smell is slightly skewed, as always in times of crisis.

After the Book of Margery Kempe I went on to Jill Dawson’s engrossing and ingenious new novel – ‘The Crime Writer’: an episode in the life of Patricia Highsmith. (Ms Dawson is always adroit as to matters olfactory: she has poor Mrs Thompson smelling of Chanel No 5 in her study of a notorious 1922 murder case, ‘Fred & Edie’). A leitmotif of the narrative is the insistent, invasive and slightly sinister fragrance of Coty’s L’Aimant; and the ‘atrocious’ smell of Pat’s pet snails, kept in pockets and handbags. I’d never thought of snails as having a smell – naïve of me: for everything does if you concentrate upon it.

Now you remember those tuberose bulbs – ‘The Pearl’ – I told you back in February? They duly arrived by post and I potted them up and put them in my bedroom window, one of the sunniest places in the house. Very fascinating to watch. First of all graceful arcs of slender lily leaves sprouted. And then – and my! are they thirsty plants, soaking up water like insatiable sponges – the leaves became wilder; more luxuriant and untidy. I moved the pot to the garden and “The Pearl” is now living mostly outside, coming indoors only on a few unusually chilly nights or when the rain reaches monsoon proportions. The flower buds are emerging – fat messy bundles on sturdy stems, almost like miniature corn on the cob. I shall let you know what happens next: Meanwhile I spin wild fantasies of the garden filled with a scent so strong I am driven indoors.

All thoughts of tuberoses lead one back to Fracas, still ineffably stylish and poised on the Les Senteurs shelves. The Collins Robert French-English dictionary defines ‘fracas’ thus:

“..crash…roar…din..,’annoncer une nouvelle a grand fracas’: to create a sensation with a piece of news..”

What an inspired name for a pretty wild scent, unique and outrageous in its time; a 1948 revival of the rococo tuberose oils that had once delighted Marie Antoinette and the Du Barry. A loud blaring scent to some; to others as frivolous, frilly and frothy as a wired Dior crinoline petticoat. I see it as most intensely pink perfume, of an almost ersatz shade: potentially more shocking than Shocking, but, withal, of a pearly petalled delicacy like the flowers that die so that their fragrance might live. It hangs over every subsequent tuberose perfume created, like the shadow of Rebecca de Winter – or Mrs Rochester, overhead in the attic: an exotic myth-bound memory; a threat to all newcomers in the field.

I have never met anyone who had the means or the daring to wear Fracas in its early days. It is not a provincial scent. Until I came to London I had never met this eminently metropolitan belle. She has had her up and downs over the past 70 years, la Fracas. Elderly fans tell me that like other legends – Ma Griffe, Je Reviens, Tabu – Fracas has known lean times. And then, in the late ’80’s, maybe in the wake of the new and increasingly audacious power perfumes, Fracas was reborn, with elegant new packaging and a price to match. I remember a Japanese gentleman, a quarter of a century ago, coming to the Harrods counter to buy eight bottles of the parfum concentration. He had a charming interpreter with him: when she relayed the total bill, the customer squealed and actually leapt into the air.

“Don’t worry,” said the interpreter. “He pay!”

And he did.

¤ The Book of Margery Kemp. Translated by B.A.Windeatt. Penguin edition 2004

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.

BANDIT: by Robert Piguet out of Germaine Cellier

filmmuseumdashpotsamdotde

Back in the 1970’s, the roguish matinee idol charmer Stewart Granger talked on afternoon television about what attracted him to a woman. She should be immaculately dressed,gloved, maquillee, shod and coiffured – “because I want to look at her and think, ‘I’m going to DESTROY all that!'” Coughs and lowered eyes all round…but I bet a whiff of Bandit would have driven the old boy right off his head. Bandit is a leather chypre, the total urban scent. Colossally sophisticated, even formidable, it is the ultimate parfum-de- film-noir; a scent of night clubs, car showrooms, private seances, art galleries, penthouses, theatres, and the sort of restaurant where children are unwelcome. It wears well with green suede gloves, elaborate lingerie,sable fur, cocktail napkins, pink Sobranies, crisp eye veils, Ferragamo shoes and vintage Schiaparelli. Wallis Windsor’s painted lobster dress is a perfect Bandit accessory. So is a lapis Faberge cigarette case, casually chucked about. This perfume always takes centre stage: everything else is an add-on.

Wear Bandit if you wish to seduce and intimidate and where you intend to dominate the proceedings by force of character, devastating chic and effortless charm. Seldom has a perfume been so demanding of the wearer. Possibly a scent to catch a very specialised husband, it is almost impossible to imagine being worn by a bride unless to create the most extraordinary impression. Anti-floral, stylised, artificial and magnificently rich in synthetics (Cellier was fond of tenacious chemical bases) Bandit has no vulnerability about it and few women would wish to be perceived as incisive, and imperious at the altar.But it has sex all right, and to a remarkable degree.

Bandit was created by Germaine Cellier, the first great female nose of the 20th century, a woman as elegant, magnetic and glamorous as any of her clients. Fracas, Jolie Madame and Vent Vert are all daughters of her genius. Beautifully dressed, an acquaintance of Jean Cocteau and Piaf, and moving in Parisian artistic and intellectual circles, Cellier made the acquaintance of the couturier Robert Piguet, former protege of Poiret and patron of Givenchy, Dior and Balmain.A suite of legendary perfumes spilled out from their laboratory and atelier, the first and greatest being Bandit in 1944.

All sorts of stories are told of the perfume. An old gentleman told me years ago that Piguet had asked Germaine to create a scent for his lover, a wild young man known as “Le Bandit”, very soon after killed in a car crash (” I knew the boyfriend!”). Bandit is also said to have been made as a gift for the gorgeous actress Edwige Feuillere, darling of the film intelligentsia and blessed with glorious red-gold hair and a ravishing husky voice. It certainly sits uncommonly well on the sort of pale, thin translucent sometimes freckled skin that often accompanies this tint of hair; the type of complexion that so often turns white waxy flowers like jasmine and tuberose. A product of the War years it exudes such a perversity, ambiguity and sheer weirdness that it is often wrongly assumed to have been a favourite in the pan-sexual Berlin and Paris of twenty years earlier. Certainly it has echoes of Tabac Blond and it could have been worn perfectly (maybe it was) by the likes of Dietrich, Louise Brooks, Margo Lion and Jo Carstairs. Men may sport it with elan and confidence; providing they be as poised as the girls.

When I smell Bandit I feel the hand on my shoulder of Zarah Leander, the great revue star, singer and actress who captivated Sweden, Germany and most of Europe in the 1930’s. Too tall and too massive for Hollywood, a natural red-head with a huge appetite for money, food, alcohol and cigarettes Zarah overwhelmed her audiences and employers: fans were said to have fainted at the sight of her,overwhelmed by her aura; an Italian journalist described her as a beautiful creature from another planet. On set she drank whisky or vodka through a straw from what purported to be Coke bottles or glasses of milk. Her voice recorded as a deep bass and her mystery was intensified by a lifetime of large impenetrable dark glasses. Nordic and practical, she liked to be photographed scratching her pigs on her Swedish farm; when she fled from Germany in 1943 with her film career in ruins, she turned to running her own fish cannery. Swathed in furs, her towering height increased by stilettoes, her skin a mass of freckles, her hair according to her own account “an interesting blend of beetroot and carrot” Zarah used Bandit to make a dream team for 40 years. Where does one end and the other begin? Cigarette papers and tobacco; then the dry fragrance of face powder, the silk lining of a coat, the tang of red hair, the exquisite soft leather of shoes, gloves, bag, all warm from flesh-contact. A hint of whisky, of body heat and feral animal oils, even fresh perspiration; the sharpness of a green corsage or stage-door bouquet. In a copse once, I saw a red dog-fox leap from a bed of violets: here is the fox but no trace of violets except a waft of their musky fleshy crushed hearts.

Image: filmmuseum-potsam.de

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

“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.

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