“Anything in the fridge?”… What Alice Found There


Cellophane boxes of mauve cattleya orchids, maybe – or fragile gardenias keeping cool and creamy before their last and only outing, pinned to a satin shoulder strap or a jacket lapel. Very Dolly Sisters. So, are you looking at the new (and the final) series of MR SELFRIDGE? It gets increasingly perfume-y; claustrophobically and wonderfully scented. The great Elizabeth Arden – remember Blue Grass? – has now put in an appearance, magnificent in elaborate draperies of rose pink. And those Sisters! I don’t know why they are portrayed as tousled wiggy blondes – the twins invariably wore signature sleek black bobs with bangs – but the characterisations give some idea of Rosie and Jenny’s extravagant and tragic erotic hysteria. Last week we were treated to the spectacle of Rosie between the sheets with the Chicago-born store magnate. She was sporting nothing but a dazzling parure of diamonds, including improbable and rather risky chandelier earrings. I guess this is how Gladys George, in pre-Hays Code days, might have been presented in THE ROARING TWENTIES. Like the Marquise de Pompadour and other successful courtesans the Dollies were compulsive collectors of exquisite fragrances: tools of their craft. You can try some of their favourites by Isabey, Molinard and Caron at Les Senteurs today.

But back to the fridge and its exotic cargo. Nowadays, in even the most modest dwellings, fridges tend to be great big things, the size of locomotives: the kind of chillers in which Eva Peron kept her blue minks during the summer months. Or the flower cold store in which LW was once briefly locked. (“It was just for a laugh…”). Cold always diminishes the projection of odours but this is no reason not to keep a refrigerator in good order. I have smelled some beautiful things in there – sherry-soaked ratafia trifle, bowls of stewed plums, summer raspberries half-crystallised in sugar – but also some of the worst.

We always kept a clean fridge at home but my father did bring in strange things which were kept chilled in bowls: ink caps or unidentified fungi, skinned hares, whole ox tongues, ribbed whorls of spongy tripe, dusky-feathery rook pie. Such dishes could give you a bit of a turn when you opened the fridge door unawares in the deep dark larder. They often had an uneasy queasy natural redolence, but at least they were fresh. I think one of the vilest and intensely nauseating smells I have ever encountered came from a tupperware box of decomposing kidneys found at the back of an icebox in a professional kitchen, victims of slack stock rotation.

Communal fridges are always tricky: those installed in staff rooms, offices and shared living accomodation. They get cluttered up – no one likes to be seen to be interfering with other people’s provisions by doing a bit of ordering so of course food becomes dried up, contaminated, neglected and forgotten as junky Pelion is piled upon wholefood Ossa. Quinoa versus Chicken MacNuggets. But, have you noticed? Nowadays, nothing seems to actually go bad. Or, at least, decay takes such a long time to set in that you are almost bound to notice, and have made your own pre-emptive strike before the sliced bread and cheese grows its own blue furry coat and runs off. Modern food is so pickled in salt and sugar that it is more or less mummified¤.


A certain staleness is usually the worst thing that you now smell in fridges. I’m always having rehabilitated young offenders at the door – these poor folk who are sent out by our masters to sell ludicrously priced domestic items to householders:  three dusters for a tenner or individual J-cloths at £5. I feel very indignant on these callers’ behalf but who can afford much of that sort of thing? Anyway, ages ago – rather in despair – I bought three little devices rather like perforated golf balls and they kept my fridge as sweet as a nut for years. A good wipe out with a solution of bicarbonate of soda or vinegar is nature’s own disinfectant, as is a large open bowl of cold water, replaced every hour or so. Add a cut lemon for added effect and a splash of colour. You can’t beat vinegar. Years ago I went to Paris on shop business with our manager. We put up in a picturesque old hotel by the Gare du Nord. The garden walls were lined with shards of looking glass; and every morning the entire establishment smelled like a pickle factory as a sub-concierge went right through the whole of the ground floor with vinegar and scalding hot water.¤¤

Coming full circle, I’ll remind you that if you keep your fridge nice and clean you can also store your scent in it! Light and heat are the enemy of fragrance. As Frederic Malle demonstrates, perfume does excellently in a wine cooler, or in a refrigerator at medium temperature. To me, a chilly-minded cologne – Atelier Cologne’s Cedrat Enivrant is an especial favourite – is especially delicious on a sticky summer day when served direct from the fridge. “Cheers!”

¤ Mind you, when I was at boarding school we kept butter (if we could occasionally get hold of a piece) in inky study cupboards. It got to taste very musty, and acquired a curious texture, as did the bread it sat upon. And I remember a boy regularly being sent a large carton of pork pies by his grandparents and having them lying in and around his desk and locker for weeks. Another child kept fruit cake down his bed: for safety’s sake.

¤¤ these are my preferred methods, but I have just seen on the web a “tip” for disinfecting the fridge by inserting a tray of cat litter. Fresh and unused, of course: but this idea still makes me feel rather sick.

The Mystery of Joan – Wait for the Moment When…


…Ethel Whitehead (Joan Crawford) gets a lesson in how to wear perfume from gangland boss George Castleman (David Brian) in THE DAMNED DON’T CRY (1950). Ethel – “plenty of oil in her backyard” – comes undulating into his office sporting a hat very similar to that in which Eva Peron greeted Rome in 1947. Castelman rudely throws the window wide. Director Vincent Sherman admitted he stole this shtik from a scene in his earlier movie MR SKEFFINGTON in which Bette Davis over-emphasises her already formidable presence with penetrating scent.

HE (raising the sash): “Excuse me…what kind of perfume are you using?”

SHE (patting the roses on her hat):  ” ‘Temptation’ “……

HE: ” Yes, I suppose it is…in certain quarters..”

SHE: “….You and ya sensitive nose!”


I have yet to finish this film, isn’t that terrible? I find it so deeply deeply depressing. It’s a pacey enough little melodrama and Mr Sherman usually knows what he’s doing but there’s something about Joan begging for life and love at age 45 (or thereabouts) that is too upsetting and disturbing for words. She writhes in abasement before her horrible men and before the audience. When she made WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE with Davis thirteen years later, critics commented on the inevitable fusion of cinema’s greatest female masochist and sadist respectively. But Joan had been a needy screen figure for decades: from the arrival of the Talkies, and the evolution of her persona from the dancing jazz baby of vivacious MGM Silents into the archetypal girl in the factory, chorus line or typing pool who kicks over the traces in the big city.  In the freshness of this re-invention¤ she is magnificent in POSSESSED (1931) and almost steals GRAND HOTEL (1932) from Garbo – certainly from the Barrymores. But was the disaster of RAIN (1932) partially due to an uncomfortable audience perception that Crawford herself, beneath Sadie’s tarty bling, was as vulnerable and damaged as poor betrayed Miss Thompson? Whereas playing a hard-boiled one-dimensional character in THE WOMEN (1939), Joan is expertly comical as the perfume-selling vulture & home-wrecker Crystal Allen, capable of up-staging even Rosalind Russell in full flight:

“Oh I’m so sorry. Mrs.. Fowler.”

Then comes the stately gloom of the 1940’s: disfigured in A WOMAN’S FACE; the suicidal walk into the waves in HUMOURESQUE; the Oscar-winning martyred mother of MILDRED PIERCE. As with Lana Turner a little later, producers and directors were expert at vivisecting Joan’s private circumstances and neuroses, forcing her – and surely not unconsciously – to enact them, glamourised up to a point, on screen. Maybe, too, she was a metaphor for her times. Joan incarnated female empowerment, but also the guilt and opprobrium attached to the newly enfranchised working girl, and to the next generation of women who took on the work of absent men during World War II.

Back in THE DAMNED DON’T CRY¤¤ the grandeur of the early vehicles has faded. Crawford has some magnificent close-ups, but overall she looks tiny¤¤¤, wiry and tortured with that huge oblong sculptured face covered in Vaseline in the early scenes for her by now familiar ground-down, no make-up look. She is photographed to emphasise what has obviously been a highly successful pre-shooting diet and exercise regime, but this emphasises the stress of her face, which by this time was evolving from its early beauty into bizarre geometric monumentalism. As Larry Carr observes in Four Fabulous Faces she had one of the most perfect noses ever photographed. With her vast burning eyes and “bow tie mouth”, once praised by Vogue magazine, she looks like some medieval icon, a saint in a circle of fire, martyred by male bullying and lewdness. And with all those majestically mad lines to say:

“He’s promised me the world, Marty, and I’ve got to have it”

“Reading spoils my appetite, George”

“You and your Etruscan flower pots!”.

“Don’t talk to me about self-respect.  What kind of self-respect is there in living on aspirin tablets and chicken salad sandwiches?”

Well, you tell me.

Joan in life as on film desperately wanted to be loved. On tv chat shows and in her memoirs she begged for that life-sustaining affection from fans and audiences. Love at second hand was as vital to Crawford as smoking live hearts to a Pre-Columbian idol: her appetite was voracious but the offerings were never enough. Sexually omnivorous, she even made a pass at Marilyn Monroe. Over and over she told the tale (true?) of fishing fan mail dumped by another star – “I won’t name her” – out of the trash can and sitting down to answer it herself. Like the late Princess of Wales, she took to writing her thank you notes before she even left for the party.  Her directors humoured her whims (the 100% proof vodka in her knitting bag; ice-cold air conditioning in case she was seen to perspire; obligatory ankle-strap shoes to balance her) because on-set she was generally so professional (weasel word) and so co-operative. She was one of those stars like Dietrich, Colbert and Shearer who could fine-tune her lighting simply by the feel of the heat on her face. She knew all the crew, she remembered their own and their families’ birthdays with inappropriately lavish gifts; she drank, swore, smoked, gambled and slept with them. At one point in the 1950’s she even took up residence on the set of a picture, sleeping in her dressing room at night – like Norma Desmond, totally enfolded in the movie dream and the comforting agony of working herself to the bone for the sake of artifice.

The problem was that Crawford could not function rightly outside of a studio. (Her MGM contemporary Robert Taylor admitted that he was another such). “You manufacture toys, you don’t manufacture stars!” Joan would say; but she was essentially a creature of her own invention who kept at the job until the exhaustion of it – and the drink to cope with that dreadful fatigue – killed her. When her astonishing looks finally collapsed and the celluloid muse (sic) failed to materialise, Joan Crawford shut herself up for good in her New York apartment and waited alone for the end. Dietrich is said to have secluded herself to keep the legend intact for posterity. Garbo on her endless walks hid the mouth that betrayed her bitterness with life. Crawford was unable to bear the sight of herself in the last ghastly press pictures: “If that’s how I look, then no one’s going to see me…”.  Unlike many of her peers she was not mercifully protected by her own fantasies, or by an inbuilt charm or genuine magic that survived when beauty faded. Like Scarlett O’Hara, Joan wanted desperately to become a great lady but her obsession with her own past as the Texas infant-slavey never ceased to haunt her.¤¤¤¤ And how much of that Black Myth is true, that extraordinary accumulation of grotesquerie accreted by Crawford herself and by Hollywood rumour? The abused childhood, the blackmailing mother, the brother she had committed to an asylum, the various Professor Higgins figures who lifted her out of the gutter? Her teenage appearances in pornographic flickers, her experiments with savagely primitive cosmetic surgery, her celebrated and disastrous attempts at surrogate motherhood? The abrupt and disconcerting appearances stark naked in “inappropriate circumstances”? The terror of germs and the concomitant obsessive hygiene? Impossible and redundant now to sift fact from fiction: maybe more than any other of the great stars the truth of the individual is now totally subsumed in the legend.

However, we do know rather more about Joan and scent – or at least what she desired us to know – because she wrote about it in “Portrait of Joan” and in her subsequent style guide “My Way Of Life”. In the early 1930’s she made those quintessentially Art Deco gardenias her trademark, but told everyone that the intense heat generated by her own body¤¤¤¤¤ made them impossible to wear. The chaste white blooms browned, withered and died whether tucked in her hair or pinned to Adrian gowns. So instead, she dunked herself in Tuvache’s notoriously heady Jungle Gardenia perfume. Like many people, however, Crawford as she matured toned down her olfactory act while still believing that “a whiff of the right cologne – the right one for a woman’s particular personality – should be served right up with the bacon and eggs”. ¤¤¤¤¤ She continues on the fragrance theme: “there are just three that I would never want to live without: Estee Lauder’s ‘Youth Dew’…Lanvin’s ‘Spanish Geranium’, and ‘Royall Lyme’, a man’ cologne.”

So, fans: get your search engines powered up!

And, by the by, I did get to finish off THE DAMNED DON’T CRY. Like Marlene, “I do it for you. For nobody else.” Ethel ends up horribly and repeatedly beaten up; then shot. Down but (it is implied) not out, she crawls back to the dung hill from which she sprang – a curious re-enactment of the fairy tale of the Flounder and the Fisherman’s Wife. Old movies are nothing if not moral.

¤ contrary to popular belief she could be a highly effective actress. Maybe not inventive or inspired but compelling: and always passing that test of stardom – you can’t take your eyes off her.

¤¤ ‘ “Call me Cheap?” –  Nothing’s cheap when you pay the price she’s paying!’

¤¤¤ 5′ 2″ or thereabouts.

¤¤¤¤ Joan Crawford’s first mother-in-law was Mary Pickford – “The World’s Sweetheart” – who played brave little girls well into her 30’s. Joan’s childhood memories read like a storyline from a vintage Pickford vehicle: remember SUDS? Or SPARROWS and the baby-farm lost in the alligator swamps?

¤¤¤¤¤ the Love Goddess aflame! One remembers Mae West ruffling up static from the carpet in order to give visitors to her apartment an electric jolt. Relevant, too, that Crawford was a natural redhead with a skin covered in freckles from top to toe: always a tricky skin type for scent.

¤¤¤¤¤¤ “My Way Of Life” – UK edition, 1972. I assume ‘ham’ became ‘bacon’ for British readers.

JOAN CRAWFORD c 1904 – 1977

Wait For The Moment When: Mae West


…manifests on screen. Her film debut (she’d been on the New York stage for 20 years) was a supporting role in Night After Night in 1932, a film remembered now only for Mae and the exchange:

“Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!”

“Goodness had nothing to do with it dearie!”

The more you think about it the funnier it is; with its lilting scansion it is also poetically simple. Maybe that’s why the line is so frequently garbled and misquoted – as with Marilyn needing 58 takes to recite “where’s that bourbon?” while simultaneously opening a drawer. Less is more. Legendary theatrical turns of a century ago were by modern standards basic, even nugatory, but nonetheless radiated a concentrated energy (Sarah Bernhardt expected nightly to die on stage). Mae undulated an indolent shimmy, yowled suggestive songs, rotated her hips and delivered startling innuendo in that curious voice, part nasal, part mashed potato, that veered between New York brashness and tom cat purr. It was an old music hall persona but brand new to the screen: Hollywood kept Miss West on ice till the talkies arrived. Despite her extraordinary appearance she was also a creature of aurality as her notoriety on the wireless testifies.

Once she appears, you can’t take your eyes off her: the only definition of a true star. Like Garbo – quite unlike, say, Davis, Crawford or Rita Hayworth – she ignores everyone else in the picture: they are laid on merely as feeds and props. Far larger and stranger than life, entirely self-obsessed, Mae loves Mae. While appearing so transparently lubricious and blatantly arousing she is in fact a complete enigma. Presenting nothing but sex, is she in fact sexy?

Entirely the wrong figure and silhouette for her era, she dresses in a parody of the styles of the 1890’s. Her sweeping spangled gowns conceal the 8″ inch heels and soles that, with pompadours and plumes, transform her from petite to Statue of Liberty dimensions. The legs are rarely glimpsed. Never a beauty, Mae was 40 before she filmed, with an odd little face which Cecil Beaton later likened to that of an ape. Was she laughing at herself or was she deadly serious? Was she really a man, as has often been suggested? Was she the experienced voluptuary she implied or a sexually neurotic woman who avoided intimacy, preferring (like Somerset Maugham) “to be touched only by prior arrangement”.

From increasingly bizarre interviews and memoirs over the decades it’s impossible to tell. I always liked the account of one interview where she generated electricity from the nylon carpet to transmit a shock on shaking hands. Why did Billy Wilder have Mae down as his first choice for Norma Desmond? Had he got her number right off?

Yet one of Mae’s most endearing features is that on film she always appears to be enjoying herself: another aspect of the star persona. This is so even in the movie mistakes of her old age, Myra Breckinridge and Sextette, despite microphones hidden in her false hair to feed her dialogue, and with technicians kneeling on the floor propelling her around the set. There is on You Tube a sweet interview with Mae talking to Dick Cavett – her vast bosom is corseted and tightly upholstered in black velvet, and she comes over as a darling and slightly raffish old lady who has spent a jolly life in saloon bars (needless to say, she was in fact strictly teetotal). She looks fun and – as was once said of Swanson – she is fun to think about, too.


Rochas took Mae at face value when he and Edmond Roudnistka created FEMME towards the end of World War Two. Couturier Marcel Rochas had known West for years as a client: he now designed the flacon as a surreal vision of the celebrated hips. Naturally it feels wonderful to hold. The box was patterned with the black lace panels that Rochas used to create the optical illusion of a slimmer figure. So maybe the sweet and fruity (prunes, but crystallised) chypre has a touch of tongue in cheek. Today – if you can find a bottle – it is still gorgeous and fascinating despite the passage of 70 years; and so, on celluloid, is Mae.

‘Oh, Beulah…’

‘Yes, ma’am?’

‘Peel me a grape.’

MAE WEST 1893 – 1980

Caron Cocktail

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I don’t know about you, but the recent hot weather has left me craving a scent that’s exuberantly floral. Something cool and white and petally to spray liberally of an evening, after a tepid bath or a cold shower & before the first sundowner. A perfume to calm the fever of heat and complement one’s loosest linen slops, bleached out and soft by constant launderings. This is really the only time of year when it’s permissible to spray fragrance on your easy-wash clothes, knowing they’ll be back in the Bendix and up on the line again in a couple of hours.

Tiare, gardenia and magnolia are all perfect on a langourous summer evening but I’ve been really knocked for six – and not for the first time – by Caron’s 1933 stunner FLEURS DE ROCAILLE. Isn’t it interesting how perfume crushes go in cycles? I’ve been in and out of this one for the past thirty years at least. Maybe not one of the cult Carons, FLEURS is one of the easier to wear. In its day it was as influential and significant as Tabac Blond or Narcisse Noir, letting in light, sunshine and air to a perfume public stifled and oppressed by world recession and Depression. FLEURS DE ROCAILLE was the olfactory equivalent of Jean Harlow’s blindingly monochrome cut-on-the-bias satin; Crawford’s dazzlingly crisp ruffles and the ubiquitous Syrie Maugham cream decor of everyone’s new drawing room. And it’s not just stylish, its witty & fun – in the style of Beatrice Lillie’s surrealist telephone connection via two lilies.

A dazzling whoosh of aldehydes makes the initial hit smell like a foam of iced champagne cascading from a celebratory Nebuchadnezzar. Roses, violets, ylang ylang, lilac and muguet de bois pop pop pop in the pale gold bubbles like wedding confetti while underneath lies a damp green darkness of oakmoss and woods. Maybe the heady signature musk helps to brings out the alcoholic accord, too: Caron had been expert at creating the illusion since their gorgeous 1923 bath essence Royal Bain de Champagne. And here’s a thing: a couple of years ago I blew £1.00 on a bottle of Musk and had been fooling around with it when a visitor called and complained of the smell of flat stale champagne in the apartment. What can I say?

And there’s the hint of another scent in FLEURS DE ROCAILLE, too: a lovely Swedish girl once put her finger on it – “pigs!” she said. “Nice clean pigs!”: the sort of animals, all bathed and scrubbed, that Marie Antoinette might have herded on blue ribbons at the Trianon. It is this audacious whiff of the animalic that gives FLEURS its unique and unforgettable fascination: delicate fairytale flowers in a well-manured, very urban, rockery.

ATT15710Meanwhile I’ve had the rare chance to smell the flower that inspired Frederic Malle’s EAU DE MAGNOLIA: a huge grandifloria bloom the size of a Sevres soup bowl has opened in a neighbour’s garden and overhangs the pavement like Goblin Market fruit. I keep going to have another inhalation: very strange and fascinating, like green lemons rubbed on a metal grater but with an additional curious backnote which is as disconcerting as those pigs but less attractive. It’s as though the citrus is cupped in old dry plastic, a cracked basin from the back of the cupboard – or one of those plastic water beakers we gnawed at school. Truth is stranger than fiction: Editions de Parfums have retained and developed the lovely hesperidics – but wisely left the plastic accord for Mother Nature’s personal use.

Fatal Attraction

“Her fingers touched me: she smells all amber!” And once again the intoxication of perfume sets the wheels of murderous mayhem in motion; this time, 500 years ago in Middleton’s stage shocker, The Revenger’s Tragedy. Our sense of smell catches us unawares at our most basely animal; it awakens  our ancestral instincts for escape and survival, the propagation of the species and the catching of a mate.

Many of the problems that perfume wearers experience come from a misunderstanding of our most atavistic sense. Why is it that we cannot smell our signature fragrance, whereas the horror sprayed uninvited by the girl in the Well-Known West End Store seems to accelerate in its awfulness over the next 24 hours? Its the brain, you see: it knows your favourite scent is “safe”; it presents no threat.The brain, via the nose, has passed it as the censor passes a film; and as there’s no more need to worry about it, switches off. Whereas when we are ambushed by a scent in the unpromising surroundings of a crowded store, the circumstances of the encounter take our senses totally by unwelcome surprise: the brain panics, the nose is affronted and both go into overdrive, analysing that perfume for hours afterwards. And like an animal, you remember the location with dread, shying away like a bolting horse “THAT’S where the girl sprayed me with that AWFUL….”

Our sense of smell has atrophied, we don’t really need it much it any more; we use it for the pleasure of perfume and maybe in the garden and leave it at that. But it’s there alright in all its complexity: we’ve just forgotten how to intepret it. It still sets off alarms when it detects smoke, gas, bad food, infection, decay, death: my aunt, in the wilds of her Canadian orchards, is still alert for the smell of bears down by the creek. She needs to be, and so does the dog. Have you ever picked up the smell of fear? Very rancid and foxy; as forbidding and repellent as you’d expect. I smelled it just once: in a crowded lunch-time shop, a few days before Christmas.

And thus to the mysteries of sexual attraction. The person who eventually formulates the perfume that will infallibly promote lust (the fragrance that is so often asked for) will make a fortune beyond the dreams of avarice; it will come in time no doubt but there’s something a mite Satanic about the thought, the manipulation of men’s souls… Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a seductive scent, trust to instinct and pick the perfume that makes YOU feel wanton, lubricious and desirable: like goes to like.

On the movies, in plays and books we see the power, threat, symbolism of perfume as a sinister metaphor and a symbol for sexual and mortal danger.
Lady Macbeth’s blood-reeking murderous hand cannot be sweetened by all the perfumes of Arabia; Cleopatra, bringing havoc, arrives in a ship whose sails are soaked in scent; in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her team are beguiled and stupified by the field of poppies on the Yellow Brick Road. Diana Dors in Yield To the Night is working a beauty shop when she meets the homme fatal who will drive her to murder. The perfume she sells him (“5 guineas, please”) is with a pleasing cruel irony named “Christmas Rose”. Joan Crawford is the wicked shop-girl who steals Norma Shearer’s husband in “The Women” while selling him a flacon of “Summer Rain” (“When Stephen doesn’t like what I’m wearing, I take it off…”).

Billy Wilder, master of cynicism, offers us two of the most striking scented images. In Sunset Boulevard, Bill Holden’s two women are characterised by their odour. Norma Desmond, embalmed in her past, smells he tells us of tuberoses, “not my favourite perfume, not by a long shot”. And we somehow know he’s thinking of tuberoses in a funeral parlour, tuberoses faded and decaying in a close shut room. An outre, baroque, macabre scent for a vampiric woman on the brink of madness. Whereas the ingenuous Betty Schaeffer smells of “freshly laundered linen handkerchiefs or a brand new automobile” and doesn’t even know it (“must be my new shampoo”). But Wilder saves his best line for Fred MacMurray, sweatily lusting after Barbara Stanwyck in Double Idemnity and prepared to bump off her husband to have her; he’s already aroused by the perfume in her hair, now walking down the hot sidewalk he smells something else…. “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”

Image from Wikimedia commons