Hello, Dolly!

verhextdotcom

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

Advertisements

Knize Ten

cinemamuseumdotorgdotuk

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.

It Couldn’t Please Me More

Luscious, golden, exotically armour-plated pineapples seem in many ways a more suitable nomination than the humble apple for the fruit that lured Adam and Eve from Paradise. First of all there is that wonderful contrast between the thorny exterior and the succulent inside: as piquant as cracking open a crab or scarlet lobster. The sunshine yellow flesh so aromatic and sticky-sweet is yet refreshing, thirst-quenching and if caught at exactly the right moment (you must smell the fruit in the shops as does the French housewife to catch it at the moment of perfection) just slightly crunchy without being fibrous. The rind is an aesthetic pleasure to watch as it ripens from jade to topaz and there is money to be made from the blue green leaves: in the days when pineapples were generally brought whole to table bets were laid on the number of spiny leaves (like baby aloes) sprouting from the head. There are always far more than you think.

Instead of a token of temptation – and how would our Mother Eve have peeled it? – the pineapple became on account of its rarity a symbol of hospitality during its first 500 years in the West, introduced from the Americas at vast cost of money and human misery. The first fruit to be grown here in the 1670’s by the enterprising and appropriately named gardener Mr Rose was personally presented to Charles 2nd and a picture painted to record the great event. Europeans spent fortunes trying to emulate Mr Rose’s efforts and cultivating a dainty dish to set before kings and honoured guests. Growing pineapples over here was a laborious, expensive and heart-breaking business: you needed pineapple pits, hot water pipes, constant turning, cosseting and applications of warm manure. Pineapples demanded 24 hour attendance; garden boys became their personal nursemaids as they were found to be even more difficult to rear than babies in the perilous eighteenth century. How ironic nowadays to find them priced down to a pound in the Co-Op when the raw fruit is often cheaper than a can of chunks.

Then, they became the ultimate luxury, the ne plus ultra gift: the equivalent of a Damien Hurst diamond skull, or a mink T shirt. (I said to this lady wearing the latter, “how do you clean it?” She said, “I buy a new one”). If you look at the stately homes of England you’ll see stone pineapples on roofs and gateposts; gilded ones on curtain finials and glass ones in the form of ice buckets and menu holders. Shining pineapples reflect the sun aloft on St Pauls; and sit atop the domes of the National Gallery if you look up from the yearning huddled masses of Trafalgar Square, every fruit promising a superabundant generous welcome.

Later, pineapples become iconic of Weimar Berlin, even having a song – “It Couldn’t Please Me More” – dedicated to them in the stage version of Cabaret. Those of you who are fans of The Blue Angel will remember Marlene being courted in her dressing-room by the boorish sea captain with a bottle of sekt and a pineapple from the Indies. Not that it gets him anything but the bum’s rush. It was around this time (1929) that pineapple started making the occasional foray into commercial scent. Perfumers noticed, like those canny housewives, what a glorious fragrance was to be had from the fruit and wove it into their own fantasies: it could be extracted (once again, at great cost) from the whole fruit via the juice, or produced synthetically. Volatile and appetising, pineapple made a voluptuous alternative to lemon, orange or bergamot in the top notes of a fragrance and added an aura of luxurious indulgence to the whole.

The late lamented Colonie by Patou was one of the cult glories of the 1930’s: a smell of the tropical possessions of the French empire, full of swampy vetiver and pineapple evoking steaming soaked mangrove forests and sweaty jungles – interesting to compare with Pierre Guillaume’s Indochine which takes the same inspiration but creates a totally different vision of incense + temples, the spirit rather than the flesh. Molinard de Molinard is an exquisite cool green veil of roses, muguet and mosses with a delicate nip of pineapple and raspberry: treat your bottle with great respect, cloaked in the darkness of your deepest drawer, as it fades rapidly with sunlight, but nurtured like fine fruit this is one of the most delicious and little known of perfumes.

L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Ananas Fizz (now defunct) with its tang of added coconut milk was great holiday fun. Belle Epoque by Knize includes pineapple among its multi-coloured Knickerbocker Glory of ingredients, but probably the ultimate triumph of the pine has come with Creed’s Aventus, the house’s best-seller of all time, even rivalling the legendary Green Irish Tweed. A dark aromatic woodsy scent full of jasmine, birch and juniper, oakmoss and vanilla, Aventus is a precious setting for the gleam and glitter of pineapple in the effervescent top notes grabbing the attention and seducing the senses.
A great introduction to an olfactory experience of this most welcoming and sociable of aromas.

Stars With No Papas

Bette Davis Deception

If you make a list of some of the greatest female stars of Hollywood’s golden age it is remarkable to see that so many grew up without the prescence of a father in their lives, either because he died or had absconded in their infancy. Garbo, Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Mary Astor, Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Foantaine and her sister Olivia de Havilland, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mary Pickford all fall into this category. Consequently, the gifted and luminous child became not only her mother’s fiercely cherished daughter but to some extent, a subsitute for the vanished husband. As an adult, the successful daughter operated psychologically, as the film historian Foster Hirsch so fascinatingly points out in his dvd commentary to the Davis vehicle “Deception”, on a level both male and female; an ambiguity that extended to so many of these women’s notoriously complicated sex-lives.

Abnormally preoccupied with her looks, like anyone whose face is a greater part of her fortune, the fatherless star was also depended upon by her mother and siblings for the family earnings. No wonder that Olivia de Havilland developed the life-long feud with her younger sister which has now run to six decades of “non-speakers” – professionally jealous but also maybe competing for their mother’s affection as not only daughters but surrogate partners and breadwinners. In other cases, the successful sister allowed (within limits) a sibling to trade on her own success: like Mae West’s sister Beverley who made a living imitating her sister on the stage in Mae’s cast-offs. Claudette Colbert employed her brother as her agent. Ginger Rogers’ mother wrote some of her daughter’s material. We also note cases when the original broken marriage which had fired up successful ambition in one child, caused others in the family to fall by the wayside to be ruthlessly dealt with – put in asylums, paid to keep away; and the bizarre case of Merle Oberon’s parent, turned into her own daughter’s maid, pushing in the tea-trolley incognito when gossip columnists were being entertained at the star’s home. The mothers often lived to a great age, fighting for their daughters but simultaneously feeding off them; while, as in a Greek tragedy, they witnessed their child’s rise, apogee, decline and retirement. As Bette Davis had inscribed on her mother’s tombstone: “Ruthie: you will always be in the front row.”

The male side of the star’s character was forced even more to the fore by the incessant unrelenting struggle to survive at the top of the Hollywood tree in an industry dominated by mostly misogynistic male monsters and the decisive role of the casting couch. “She thinks like a man and she drinks like a man,” was the highest accolade the industry could pay while simultaneously covertly mocking this “unnatural” behaviour. Mae West was so strong and powerful an operator that she was stigmatised by the accusation of being a man in drag: a woman could not BE that tough, have such control. Despite the most expert cameramen’s work you can see on film the ocular proof of how quickly the unrelenting fight of keeping at one’s professional and personal peak took its rapid toll on a star’s looks. And of course, she harder she worked and the more she worried, the quicker the lovely face aged. It was said that Garbo was not really concealing her face when she hid from photographers; she was attempting just to hide her beautiful mouth which revealed all too clearly the strain, bitterness and disappointments of her life.

Of course on any terms there is no decent perfume that is JUST for men, ONLY for women. A perfume is a collection of gender non-biased notes, and the user should select a scent that appeals to him emotionally, instinctively and which works perfectly with his skin. A perfume which appears to be more overtly feminine (say, Lys Mediterranee, with its predominantly floral character) can still work well on a man’s skin because his skin chemistry and hormones will tend to subdue the flowery elements of the fragrance and accentuate the greeness, the leafy woodiness at the base. Again, a dark leathery fougere (Knize Ten, say, or Royal Oud) will often soften on a woman’s arm, revealing those rose and jasmine underpinnings which form the spine or core of most scents, but which usually lurk unrevealed. It is often remarked that a man with a more pronounced feminine side will try as it were to “balance” his character with an obviously manly scent – and vice versa. Hard to quantify in Hollywood terms. Often it appears that female stars were trying to enhance their authoritative power aura rather than their orthodox femininity with scents which are heavy, heady and ambiguous: Jean Harlow and Mitsouko, Dietrich with Tabac Blond, Shalimar, Youth Dew and anything with a deep tuberose note; Swanson in Narcisse Noir; all of which incidentally can work superbly for a man, too, if he has the nerve. Crawford tells us in her memoirs how she, like Garbo, preferred contemporary men’s colognes, especially variations on geranium. Zarah Leander, massive, tall, stately with that basso-profundo singing voice made Bandit her signature.

It is harder to know for sure what the male contemporaries of these girls wore: cologne for men was not exactly tabu by then: Caron‘s Pour Un Homme had got the male fragrance industry going in 1934, but it was still not the sort of information that a press agent of a Great Lover would flash around. Memories of Valentino and the “Pink Powder Puff Scandal” were still a tender subject. Knize Ten was a favourite of Maurice Chevalier and Charles Boyer: Gary Cooper (and I believe Charlie Chaplin) wore the interestingly ambiguous Jicky. But if female stars lacked papas, a corresponding pathological syndrome demonstrates that so many of Hollywood’s legendary men seemed unable to procreate male children of their own bodies, despite serial marriages; and if they did, the sons often suicided or died young and tragically. It is as though Cooper, Tyrone Power, Valentino,Cary Grant, Robert Taylor, Hope and Crosby, John Gilbert and the rest needed to muster every scrap of virility and masculinity for themselves: there was nothing left over for their heirs. A  depressing and tragic reflection: how fortunate that we can always lighten the mood (as ever) with a memory and scent of their perfume.

Nosmo King

Catherine Deneuve Smoking

“When I was a girl,” my dear grandmother used to say, lighting a cigarette and plying her lipstick, “no decent woman could be seen to do this”. She was a late Victorian though hated to admit it, and so already in her twenties and a nurse when the universal smoking vogue swept the West. It was the First World War that gave the cigarette trade such an impetus: civilians felt an empathetic bonding with the men at the Front by adopting an essentially military habit. This cheap palliative for the nerves now leapt the class barriers; widely recommended by doctors as a nerve tonic and bracer, it opened the lungs and gave the shy something to do with their hands. An aspirin and a cigarette: the green tea and Yakult of their day.

George V and Queen Mary and all their children were enthusiastic smokers; the hero-padre Woodbine Willie handed out fags to the troops; one of the most widely reproduced portraits of the then Prince of Wales shows him with a gasper glued to his grinning lower lip. Strange now to imagine Prince William thus. The entertainments in the music halls and cinemas were seen through a thick blue haze of cigarette smoke; it was said to deter the moth, discourage germs and the ash good for the carpet.
Superstitions were invented and fostered by the match and cigarette industry to boost sales: if you lit a cigarette from a candle, a sailor would drown; the 3rd person to light a cigarette from the same match would die. Warner Bros even made a talkie about that one – Three On A Match.

For on the films smoking was presented as the acme of sophistication: in the days before cork tips, many an actress made a very sexy trick of picking loose threads of tobacco from her tongue as she vamped the hero: Garbo in Mata Hari does it with blush-making eroticism. The idea of Bette Davis, Bogart or Dietrich “sans cigarette” is almost impossible; Gloria Swanson’s bizarre holder is woven into the script of Sunset Boulevard, a motif of sexual entrapment, and the addiction of fame. A husky smoky voice – Dietrich, Bacall, Bankhead – could also be yours if you kept puffing. What girl could resist? Or what man fail to pick up on the virile and phallic connotations exhaled by Gable, Flynn and Gary Cooper, smoking their heads off as they took the world and women by storm?

So it was only a matter of time before smoking hit the perfume industry – and how – starting with Caron’s revolutionary Tabac Blond in 1919, an ambisexual dark golden “sit up and see me” scent based the fragrance on raw tobacco, and never off the market since. A considerable part of its appeal is the artfulness with which (if you are a smoker, or keeping company with one) it transmutes the smell of smoke into a perfume of its own, adding a third fragrant odour to your aura. Then in 1924 Molinard came up with Habanita, a blend of sweaty vetiver, fleshy white jasmine …and the scent of the hot dusty cigar factories of Havana. Black as the tropical night, almost embarrassingly seductive. Tabu played with the tobacco note; so did Knize Ten incorporating it with leather, thereby pioneering another perfume family, besides iconographing images of contemporary militarism and celebrating the new social and political emancipation of women. But how apt that true to the illusions of perfumery and the movies, tobacco itself is not actually used in these scents: they depend on an accord of patchouli, hay, honey, beeswax, amber and woods

And the trend continues today; but with the difference that smoking is now officially perceived as something low-down, unhealthy, wicked and dangerously anti-social. A wittily subversive perfume like Jasmin + Cigarettes references this with tongue in cheek brio. A saucy combination of smoke and jasmine, that most ambiguous of floral oils with a built-in grubby sexuality; a suggestion of (horrors) smoking in bed…and not alone, at that; the hay note comes through, complemented by an unexpected odour of apricots – connotations of warm, nude skin. So a kaleidoscope of images, including once more the cinematic, is rounded off by a suggestion of that most delicious ciggie of all: on a hot beach, enhanced by salt sea air.

As a veteran said on film, remembering Woodbine Willie: “I wish he were here now!”

Image from cfrankdavis.wordpress.com