Glad Rags and Tatters

marilyn-with-dog

 

Ever been told by a stay-at-home how your dog knows that you’re on your way back, even though you’re still in transit half an hour away? Maybe he goes to sit by the garden gate or peers, all expectant, from a window. One of our pugs used to squawk like a macaw in the car when we were homeward-bound, albeit miles off. I once escorted a pining peke from Leicester to Cambridge to be reunited with her mistress. I swear, that peke picked up from the moment we boarded the train. Of course, it’s all due to the acute power and versatility of the canine sense of smell. The dog realises that his perception of the owner’s smell is growing fainter: so apparently he reasons that it must be time for an imminent reunion. To put it in crude human metaphor, it works like an olfactory clock; a variation of the ones that Carl Linnaeus and Eugene Rimmel planned with plants and perfume and which never worked properly. But animal senses have perfect timing. They just proved it with “tests”, though I think we all suspected as much.

Smells cross the hours and the years as well as the miles. That dress Marilyn wore to sing ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ has been auctioned off once again. Last time the occasion was all written up at length in a magazine; Vanity Fair, I think it was. The dress was then in a poor state of repair, for MM had been sewn into it for the live performance and cut out of it after. The Jean Louis nude souffle chiffon¤ was so wringing wet with sweat, they had to dry it with a squad of hair-dryers before Marilyn was hastily sewn back into it to go off to a Kennedy dinner. She was rushed and fussed and she fidgeted a lot, so the re-robing caused minor tears and spilled bugle beads. She had insisted on putting it on again -“since when I have worn no other” – and it was well sprayed with No 5, I suppose, to “refresh and sweeten”.

Never cleaned – you couldn’t clean garments like that in 1962 – the dress subsequently decayed badly. I recall a certain Luxury Specialist Cleaners making a disastrous attempt to launder a similar dress even some thirty years later – the thing simply dissolved. Only the trimmings survived. When they opened the drum, there were all the rhinestones and sequins rattling about, but no trace of a golden gown. You wonder, therefore, if there’s much left of the original: I’m imagining extensive expert restoration. Dietrich, as is well-known, used to do running repairs on her Jean Louis stage costumes with hairs pulled from her own head, saying thread or cotton was too coarse.

Expected to fetch $1.5 million this time around, the Monroe gown was finally knocked down at $4.8 million. Amazing. An observant correspondent writes in: “….the thing is, no new icons are being created so the old ones are priceless, like Vermeers…”

I wonder if you can still smell the Chanel.

I thought of that terrible story told¤¤ of Garland during one of her final concert seasons. She was in such a bad way by then that toxic odours gushed from the poor girl’s pores – “stage hands recoiled visibly” – and she had to drench herself in Ma Griffe before, during and after every performance.

Legends of old Hollywood often smelled a bit funny. We’ve all heard about Gable’s teeth and Grable’s nervous incontinence. Crawford had her movie sets kept icy cold, reputedly to control her sweats. Garbo chewed garlic cloves to put a damper on amorous leading men. Returning to Marilyn, do you remember that story of her munching greasy cold cutlets in bed and wiping her hands and lips on the sheets? Gloria Swanson made a point in her memoirs of mentioning Lionel Barrymore’s terrible smell, a reek which offended her super-sensitive (and very beautiful) ski-jump nose. During the filming of ‘Sadie Thompson’, therefore, she had Lionel’s clothes confiscated and destroyed during his lunchtime nap¤¤¤. Apparently thereafter he was a changed man. Maybe as Gloria writes “he’d taken a notion to bathe”.

A tiny tot once shouted out in a crowded department store : “Mummy! There’s the man who smells!” She wasn’t referring to me, thank Heaven, but to a game octogenarian who was always soaked in L’Heure Bleue, even at 8 in the morning. Inevitably, there were terribly hurt feelings. You have to be so careful. Smells – like yawns – are contagious.

Let’s talk some more about this another time.

¤ “a very rude dress” writes a correpondent. She’s right.

¤¤ by biographer Anne Edwards.

¤¤¤ beauty sleep. I remember “going round” after a matinee of ‘Aren’t We All?’ at Birmingham in 1984 to be told firmly: “Miss Colbert and Mr Harrison are asleep”.

Kiss me, my fool.

ThedaBarawikimedia

To celebrate the centenary of its release I sat down and watched ‘A Fool There Was’ on the You Tube: the great sex shocker of 1914 which propelled Theda Bara upon the world, the first screen femme fatale: The Vamp. Hard to believe that an almost mythic movie has played for 100 years. Bara (nee Goodman) died, not old, the year I was born. Refused a certificate in Great Britain, the movie still retains the power to shock, not by its prurience but in the final shots of a man reduced to human wreckage and total physical & psychological degradation. I squeaked aloud in my chair. ‘Some of him lived / but the most of him died’ reads the title card. It’s a theme that von Sternberg and Dietrich returned to with even greater effect some 15 years later: a pillar of society reduced by sex to a baying, dying beast.

Theda Bara has less to do in the film than I had imagined: she is taller, too, and rather more attractive. She was probably the cinema’s first brunette leading lady, the original wicked dark-haired temptress, a creature of the Night destroying the daughters of Light and their lawful wedded husbands. Her wide mouth is covered in lip rouge which photographs as black, and her huge inky eyes are liberally smeared with Vaseline and candle smoke. She is heaped with clothes in the especially hideous styles of the day; in one sequence her feet become entangled in her fish tail train. I can’t decide whether this is a cute device to give the viewer an eyeful of her ankles or whether the director either didn’t notice or couldn’t be bothered to cut.

Roses, cruelly used, are her leit motif. We first see the Vamp smelling two flowers, then tearing them to pieces: the destruction of her prey, the denial of her own femininity, the end of innocence. In one sequence of startling phaliic symbolism she disarms a rejected admirer who draws a gun on her by stroking the the revolver – now detumescent and redundant – with the rose she carries. Whereat the wretched man shoots himself.

The Vamp and her confreres play cards, loll around half-dressed, let down their back hair and indulge in a lot of what my mother used to call ‘posturing’. But interestingly perfume is not part of the picture. Scent does not appear though the viewer rather anticipates shots of atomisers and drenching showers of musky fragrance as an additional sign of shameless sin. After all this film was made in a Golden Age of perfume: L’Heure Bleue, Jicky, Quelques Fleurs, Narcisse Noir, Phul Nana, Shem-El-Nessim and the early Coty repertoire were all by then on the dressing tables of the rich & fashionable.

Maybe Theda Bara’s director – Frank Powell – felt that his Vamp should exude her own seductive and noxious aroma, like a night-blooming flesh-eating flower; that she should lure men to their doom by an involuntarily secreted deadly & delectable unnatural odour. Writings and novels of this period describe scent as being emitted by hair, clothing, furs, fabrics and furnishings rather than by the skin …” a faint delicious fragrance hung about her..”. But perfume actually poured onto the skin? Or oozing from it? A subject then ‘too difficult even to talk about’ as the adverts used to say. Too animal, too raw, too downright carnal: ideal for Theda Bara.

Now all you have to do is run the movie!

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Cake or Pastry?

From ilovemuffins.es

“If the people have no bread then let them eat cake”. How that apocryphal royal recommendation dominated my childhood. My grandmother thought that Marie Antoinette had come out with it completely straight-faced, dumb blonde style: a Rococo Marilyn Monroe trying to be helpful. The diminutive droll, Charlie Drake (big on ’60’s tv), took it up as his catchphrase, even making a little song of it, as perhaps my older readers may remember. How mad was that? We know the Queen never actually said it, yet – strange but true – Marie Antoinette’s nutty advice now has a new resonance: if you look at the supermarket shelves you’ll see that cake is often the cheaper these days. Slabs of Battenberg, railway fruit loaf, angel cake and boxes of garish fondants come in at well under the price of a large sliced loaf.

Now why? Cake has undergone a cultural metamorphosis. It once used to be rather common, a dish to treat servants and the lower middle classes, eschewed by ladies and served stale to children when some of the richness was thought to have burned off (as calories are said to fall out of broken biscuits). Regency slang for “daft”, it later became the Mitford nickname for the late Queen Mother, apparently on account of that great lady’s enthusiasm for wedding cake. Rasputin’s assassins tried to poison him with tiny cream cakes, playing on greed like that of a mad dog. Today cake is the order of the day: cook books, tv shows, coffee shops all breast the recession with the cult of cooking – and more importantly, eating – Cake.

Cake is comforting and it satisfies with fats and sucrose; I have a sweet tooth myself but the modern store-boughten gateau is often quite overpoweringly inedibly sweet. Is this an act of infantilised defiance in an austerity society where health and health-foods are constantly preached? Baking is  a miniature act of creation and much emphasis is placed on the “look”; often there seems more emphasis on the filling, icing, colour and decoration than on the cake itself.  All the goods in the shop-window, as it were. One might theoretically get just as much of a kick (and more nutrition) from bread-making, but this is a less showy art. One cook I spoke to thinks we’re seeing a deeply guilty pleasure dressed up and disguised as an art form: animal greed masked by deft decoration. A sociologist might regard the phenonemon as ritualised obsessive self-loathing; compulsive baking, prettifying and eating of something which does the body no good and which can only lead to the most despised and dreaded affliction of the neurotic Western world: weight gain. Hence the obsession with “soggy bottoms” I guess.

It’s hardly coincidental that gourmand perfumes are booming again: ice creams, fruits, citrus coupes and above all patisserie. This is a trend in scent that goes right back to that black cherry and almond mood at the back of L’Heure Bleue a century ago, and the Guerlains’ love of vanilla. Sometimes the foodie note appears almost accidentally, not evident to every nose: I’m thinking for instance of the smell of lemon drizzle cake in Songes, Goutal’s cornucopia of tropical flowers. Or the ginger biscuits at the heart of Love in Black, the powdered icing sugar of Teint de Neige, the candied pineapple in Une Crime Exotique. Cakey perfumes which appear comforting and innocent are by definition deeply sexy in intention: the wearer is proposing herself as a dainty dish to devour, despoiled and wolfed down with the fragile raspberry meringue of Brulure de Rose or the dripping melted butter (so sticky and tactile) of Jeux de Peau. And gourmand scents are increasingly accessible to men; the feral tiger’s tea in Fougere Bengale, the sacrasol and Flemish pastries of the latest Malle, Dries Van Noten, and the smoky toffee bonfire of Aomassai. All reminiscent of that ultimate compliment paid to a bonny baby,”I could eat him!”

Talk about having your cake and eating it…No danger of piling on the pounds with these, just the teasing of the senses and the flirting with naughty urges promoted by that close relationship between memory, nose and tongue.  Some gourmand fanciers even claim that these fragrances satisfy forbidden appetites; others find they stimulate the desire for sugar melting on the lips, and not only vicariously on the skin. Maybe the scents are more fully satisfying than the cakes: they certainly last longer and leave nothing on the hips. All in the mind: and this where we came in – a fantasy world of cakie-baking, as at Marie Antoinette’s toy hamlet at Trianon. Playing at shepherdess and poultrymaid in couture gauze; patting out cheeses and butter in a Sevres china dairy. All the beguiling accoutrements and a great appearance of productive activity but finally just a delicious illusion.”

Picture from: ilovemuffins.es

The Blue Afternoon

One can admire and revere a perfume without having a desire to wear it and the last of the great Edwardian scents, L’Heure Bleue, is not to everyone’s taste. The great modern perfumer Francis Kurkdjian hates it, thinks it smells of burning rubber. Others, including myself, find the core of the scent more reminiscent of food – almond pastries, glutinous black cherry conserve and the clove of orange pomanders or pink Italian carnations. The heavy cloying food which piled all that creamy flesh onto the picture postcard beauties of the day: how they stride out these girls,charged up with calories, still lively on ancient newsreels of Ascot, the Gaiety Theatre, Longchamps and the Bois de Boulogne. A thoroughly emancipated walk heralding a new era, though still hampered by hobble skirts,
stays and no vote. L’Heure Bleue likewise falls between two worlds – more majestic and assertive than the swoon-away mauve boudoir ambience of Apres L’Ondee, Shem el Nessim and L’Origan; less mad than than the frenzied exaggerations and bizarrie of Narcisse Noir, Tabac Blond and the noisy novelty scents of Ragtime and the Jazz Age.

For a scent which ostensibly celebrates the hour of love, the twilit time of assignation when Paris as Nancy Mitford wrote looks as though “made of opaque blue glass”, L’Heure Bleue is a strangely robust perfume. It reminds me of Lillie Langtry whose exquisite face is from certain angles disconcertingly strong and powerful; her jaw square and bold; her body curiously muscular and masculine in that famous photograph of her marching down Sloane Street from the palace built for her by the Prince of Wales behind the Cadogan Hotel. Maybe this aspect of the perfume is what attracted the late Queen-Empress Elizabeth whose signature scent it is said to have been. It seems an odd choice for the ever smiling chiffony-powdery-petally Queen Mum, but more suitable for George V1’s steely consort and mentor, the Enriye of David and Wallis, the bombed-out consort who could look the East End (and no doubt Hitler, had needs be) in the face.

For at the heart of L’Heure Bleue’s grandeur is an intense melancholy and sense of tragedy which appealed so much to the neurotic literary genius Jean Rhys; and the lyrical perfumer Mona di Orio who confessed to being reduced to tears by the scent. I don’t know if Lady Duff Gordon and Mrs Astor took bottles aboard Titanic but the ship and the perfume both made their debut in 1912, and all too soon the best selling L’Heure Bleue became associated in the mind of its generation with the horror of the Great War, the collapse of old Europe, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919-20. It had caught the Zeitgeist to perfection and in a way, it transmuted into one of those superstitions that grew organically from the War: like “three on a match” and the ill-omened mixing of red and white hospital flowers.

Perfumes absorb the spirit of an age as well as reflect them: Chanel No 5 (1921) is a world reborn, glossy and adventurous and full of confident sexuality. L’Heure Bleue is death and decay, fading and lost love, a product of imperial luxury and complacence and the decadence inherent in that last flowering in the years before 1914 when the fruits were rotting from inside out. Within 5 years of the Romanov Tercentary Celebrations of 1913 the bodies of the Imperial family were ground into mud and ashes in a Siberian forest; the Prussian and Austro-Hungarian emperors gone into exile.
L’Heure Bleue rolled on, marked by its experiences and the wounds of its wearers: the only Guerlain scent that is indelibly dated; an unmistakable child of a century ago.

No wonder so many find it sad, even depressing: it is often smelled at funerals as it lulls mourners into a stupor of black poppies, spices, jasmin and those almost oppressively lush Bulgarian roses redolent of pepper and musk. It wraps you not in a veil, but a cloak of midnight blue velvet and musquash and sable. It stifles thought, it brings on the comforting warm darkness,it tempers the blues with the blue in almost homepathic principle. Hardly erotic, it is romantic, introverted,narcotic and sentimental. Reassuring and calming like the camouflage of mourning weeds, it muffles feeling and numbs thought like intravenous diazepam.

If you wear it, go easy or it will overcome you and your surroundings with an almost anaesthetic redolence with hints of camphor and menthol before the stained glass floral notes boil over like rose petal syrup – “…such sweet jams as God’s own Prophet eats in Paradise.” And to read as you wear it, William Boyd’s “The Blue Afternoon”, another masterpiece of doomed love.

Black Narcissus

Narcisse Noir

The lure of Caron‘s Narcisse Noir is all about obvious though artful artifice, appreciated by those who enjoy suspending disbelief and immersing themselves in the flamboyance and exuberance of a unique perfumer’s imagination. Narcisse Noir is not for those looking for an organically well-bred, neat and tidy scent: it is farouche, mysterious, disturbing and ever so slightly off its head, like some of its past admirers. My old Harrods chum David (mildy crazy himself) who claimed to know the back-story of every perfume in the repertoire, used to say it was a perfume for broken down ballerinas – his inimitable gloss on Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.

From the beginning, its conception was bizarre: Caron’s founder, owner and nose Ernest Daltroff claimed to be the first to base a perfume on a myth, a lie; rather than translate the scent of living material (flowers, leather, woods) he would first characterise an imaginary flower and then spin a web from its supposed scent. With his other half, Felicie Vanpouille – and I think she was truly his other half in every way – mistress, publicist, artist, maybe nose – they came up with the perversely brilliant idea of taking the narcissus, so purely virginally spotlessly white and, as it were, dyeing it black. Why the narcissus and not, say, the lily? I think they had the old classic myth in mind – the beautiful, heartless Narcissus, madly in love with his own reflection; dying of desire for himself. And the name ultimately derives from the Greek “narce”: to benumb or the state of being numb, referring to the flower’s narcotic properties. So, “nicht genugens pervers?” as 20’s nude dancer and coke-fiend Anita Berger used to shout at her audiences.

All this, mind you, in 1911, before L’Heure Bleue, Quelques Fleurs, Tabac Blond, Habanita, Shalimar and Knize Ten had shocked and rocked the perfume world. Narcisse Noir became a cult scent, a password to a world of black, gold,orange and crimson Bakst decadence. Noel Coward references it repeatedly in his druggie play The Vortex which outraged the nation and packed the theatres in 1924  – his ambisexual characters wear it, smell it and before lighting up, dip their cigarettes in it. Gloria Swanson (“Arriving with the Marquis, Friday. Please arrange ovation!”) introduced it to Hollywood. And then, first with Rumer Godden’s novel in the 30’s, then with the Powell-Pressburger film version (1947), the perfume took on a whole new dimension as the star of “Black Narcissus”.

As Deborah Kerr takes her tiny community of nuns up onto the Roof of the World they find the rarified air of the high Himalayas  distracting, ennervating and psychotropic; then comes the beautiful Young General (Sabu) wearing a satin coat the colour of ripe corn, and dripping with amethysts and Black Narcissus – “don’t you think it rather common, Sister, to smell of ourselves?” The scent of sex dormant in the painted walls of the convent (once a palace for seraglio women) is animated once more by the drifts of perfume from Sabu’s silk handkerchief; he elopes with the disreputable Kanshi, whom we have seen inhaling his body with sensual bliss. Much worse, both Sisters Clodagh and Ruth fall under the spell of the saturnine British agent down in the lushly jungly valley. Sister Ruth, at first so neurotically mistrustful of the fumes of Black Narcissus (a close-up shows her nose twitching like that of a wary fox), is ultimately tipped over into into paranoid nymphomaniacal murderous mania.
Not bad for post-war Austerity.

And like Narcisse Noir, the film is an exotic illusion – shot in the most beautiful colour you will ever see on screen, it is entirely studio-bound; the Himalayas and sunrises and verdant valleys all painted on glass and card.There is also a wonderful perfume metaphor in the misfortunes of poor Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), the gardening Sister; told off to plant onions, potatoes and beans on terraces stretching out to the sky, she sets instead sweet peas, hollyhocks, lupins and delphiniums. The needs of the senses, unleashed by the esoteric air and an atmosphere where practicalities have no relevance, have once again prevailed. You will find your own needs amply and admirably catered for by Narcisse Noir which takes a modest white flower as its germination and mutates madly and wilfully into a mysterious, hypnotic even carnivorous bloom.

HMS Titanic

The Titanic

My eye caught this week by a 1st Class Sunday Luncheon Menu from the Titanic, up for auction shortly and expected to fetch in excess of £100,000. The last lunch before the sinking, and a most extraordinary menu it looks to the fine diner of today: mutton chops, corned beef, beetroot and lettuce, brawn, cockaleekie soup, dumplings,jacket potatoes and custard puddings; lager at 6d a tankard. One might say at best, plain and hearty. I thought of the great Edwardian beauty Diana Cooper and her comment in extreme old age,”no wonder we were all so fat – even the ballerinas.”

So this is what the Astors, the Guggenheims and the Strausses (who owned Macy’s) tucked into. And the exquisite Lady Duff Gordon (sister of best-selling novelist and inventor of the “It” girl, Elinor Glyn). Under the nom de guerre of “Lucile” she was then London’s leading couturiere: later that night as she sat in a lifeboat in a icy sea surrounded by drowning souls, her only comment was to remark to her lady-secretary,”there is your beautiful nightgown gone!”

I discovered the Titanic one Christmas afternoon in the 1960’s when A Night To Remember popped up on tv: it was strong stuff for those days and made my parents (not generally squeamish)feel rather sick. But the disaster and all its attendant myths, legends and factoids cast its heady spell over us as it has done across the world for a century.
So many anecdotes, factoids and theories now encrust the wreck like barnacles: the cursed mummy of an Egyptian princess in the hold, bound for a New York museum; a priceless jewelled copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; the prototype of Creed‘s Erolfa found in a stateroom; the anti-Catholic propaganda encoded on the hull; “Nearer My God To Thee” as the liner finally roared to the bottom of the ocean; and was she in fact after all deliberately scuppered as part of an insurance scam?

I’ve also wondered (as the two tragic anniversaries coincide this spring), whether the news of Scott’s expedition and death in Antarctica was already known to Titanic passengers as they sailed. Did these two sagas of British bravery and (sometimes) heroism burst on the public almost simultaneously? And on a more frivolous note, had those hearty eaters in 1st Class flacons of Quelques Fleurs, L’Heure Bleue and Narcisse Noir tucked in their muffs and Dorothy bags? Not to mention Jicky for the bold, and Apres L’Ondee for the demure. Did they radiate sillage of Phul Nana, Hasu No Hana and other Grossmith perfume spectaculars as they walked off their meals on B deck; or unwound their fur boas and hobble skirts for a massage or Turkish bath?  No doubt Piver’s spicy masculine leather scents and Houbigant‘s innovative Fougere Royale were well known to the valets of Ben Guggenheim and J J Astor: “We are dressed in our best and prepared to go down like gentlemen”.

Technically all the above should have been available, tho I cannot yet trace the month in 1912 when L’Heure Bleue and Quelques Fleurs were launched. Perfume archives tend to be rather meagre; but, regular readers, please write in if you can shed more light. Your views on this and any topic always invaluable. Probably you’ve read about Night Star, the fragrance inspired by perfume phials found in the wreck. Maybe some of you are booked for the centenary memorial cruise out of Belfast in April and have already chosen an appropriate scent.

There is something magical and deeply moving to know that you will be smelling a perfume that was in the air on that fatal night of 14/15 April. People often neglect their sense of smell but think! To smell, say, Fougere Royale is the sensory equivalent of hearing Hartley’s band playing ragtime; tasting the corned beef hash or the salt air of the northern Atlantic; seeing the iceberg looming out of the dark….Brings it home to you, doesn’t it? Gives you goose bumps. As it should.

For C. – because it happened on her birthday.

Image from titanicuniverse.com