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”.

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Treats

Elizabeth Taylor

Apparently there is no word in French for “treat” because the concept does not exist: in France life is one long treat. For myself the heyday of the treat was my early childhood in the 1950’s. We had enough money and my parents were far from strict, they were indulgent indeed: but daily life was so circumscribed and low-key that the smallest relaxation of routine seemed hedonistic. John XXIII was then writing of the moral dangers of treats, holidays being especially suspect as Occasions of Sin. Being allowed a glass of milk (generally forbidden) was as exciting as a trip to the pantomime: the magic of “Goldilocks” (the bears lived in a huge revolving house) at Nottingham stayed with me for years. So did a bowl of cauliflower soup and being allowed to float matches down the river at Dovedale the following summer. Reckless extravagance: and I couldn’t get over the exoticism of that hotel soup, billed as creme du Barry. I have been a fan of the eponymous inspiration ever since: the cauliflower is supposed to resemble the great courtesan’s powdered hair, by the way.

Of a Sunday, my father would cut a Mars Bar (had we children been lucky enough to have been given one) into wafer slices and we would be offered one apiece after lunch. The rest was then put away for another time. I was sometimes taken to my maternal grandmother’s to watch half an hour of television; once a year we went to the local zoo or met our cousins at Warwick Castle for a picnic. Until the mid-1960’s the purchase of ice cream (as opposed to ice lollies) was unheard of: my grandmother believed that the commercial version was made and stored under the bed – so that was out.

All these treats were planned, discussed – and remembered for a lifetime. Therefore, we were overwhelmed and over-excited by the Liberty Hall atmosphere at my paternal grandfather’s. He lived with his daughter at the other end of the village: both had a great zest for life. My aunt was – still is – an intensely romantic and glamorous personality and we’d start the afternoon with a game of “Jane Eyre” in her bedroom – aunty being the mad wife roaring & raving in the bed. As she’d bagged the best part there wasn’t much for the rest of us to do except scream, and then explore the dressing table and the wardrobe.

No shortage of treats here: my aunt adored perfume and had many admirers. She is the only woman I have known who once had champagne drunk from her slipper – “messy”. Scent was then the supreme adult treat. It was said to be imported from Paris at ruinous cost, applied with great and cautious ceremony and worn on only the most significant of occasions. A bottle lasted for years: children were not supposed to touch but I remember flacons and their labels being all stained and gummy with drips and drops from what I suppose were now-outlawed ingredients. You knew something monumental was afoot when perfume was in the air, and I think even then I realised that the application of scent implied heightened emotions and consequently tension, if not ructions, in the adult world.

On that fascinating dressing table in the icy blue bedroom I first smelled Coty’s Muguet des Bois, Ma Griffe, Femme, Cabochard, Quelques Fleurs, Tweed (“The Finishing Touch”) and the Grossmith runaway bestseller White Fire which was a novelty then: it was launched 60 years ago this autumn. Dry, flowery, powerful, aldehydic
White Fire gusts through my memories wafting from car coats and accordion pleated skirts, mingling with the smell of hair spray, face powder and setting lotion. One caught a whiff of it at Sports Days, Carol Services and tennis teas. It was not only delicious, exuberant and tenacious, but an empire product, too – “made in Britain” – which to many was an added benefit. To me it is inseparable from those crinolined summer dresses (‘Horrockses Frocks’), white gloves and Aertex shirts which marked the setting forth on a great occasion in the 1950’s, everyone twitching with nerves: “I’ll smack the back of your legs!” Nowadays everyone seems to reel from one treat to another: we have become so blase and spoiled. If someone gave me a treat today I don’t think I’d quite know what to do with it. But a smell of long-ago White Fire – ah! Now, that I would love…

Les Senteurs and Grossmith Invitation

Perfume Shops Pt. One: Little Chemists

john-rogers-in-the-prescription-room-of-his-old-fashioned-pharmacyOne of my greatest pleasures on a home-grown holiday is to shuffle around unfamiliar little shops: no obligation to buy but the easy delights of a good nose around Buddha markets, second hand book stalls, antique attics, gift boutiques and Oxfam. Fusty, musty, dusty smells and all sorts of unexpected and delicious finds: a Spanish fan reeking of Maja, butterfly wing art deco jewellery, the Ladybird Book of Garden Flowers, Gainsborough Studio illustrated film scripts, old scent bottles and once even a rusty Floris soap tin advertised as “Georgian Lady’s Snuff Box: very rare. £75”.

For the open-minded and adventurous, a chemist’s shop can be fun and richly rewarding. “It’s such a mixture of nice things: herbs and scent and soap.” Celia Johnson tells us in Brief Encounter as she browses in Boots, which in those days also ran the famous lending library. Keep your eyes peeled for small old-fashioned chemists, usually deep in the provinces where forgotten treasures still lurk forgotten on the shelves, the sort of place where you can find ancient editions of Ma Griffe, Tabu, Hartnell’s My Love and Je Reviens going for under a tenner. These are the fast-disappearing stores where sea sponges, bath cubes and salts still bring in the money; plastic striped sponge bags have drawstrings and inserts of matching soap cases; vanilla-scented suppositories are still de rigueur and rubber bathcaps sprout riotous flowers like Suttons seed catalogues. You can still ask unblushingly for smokers’ tooth powder without being offered reformatory leaflets and disapproving looks.

Requests for Carnation corn plasters, elastic stockings and Snowfire Jelly are sympathetically understood without having to spell out the names – or pantomime the products’ homely function. Nivea and Yardley are brought out for Christmas on tiny rickety tables jammed in the aisles and piled with hand-painted fir cones, lewdly grinning Santas and cottonwool angels. Bars of soap (rare as hens’ teeth in London) are easily come by, and occasionally razor blades and aspirin are still sold individually like wartime cigarettes. A rainbow of face flannels, almond oil hand creams, pastel cotton wool balls and sticks of frozen lavender cologne for headache relief: impossible not to get your purse out.

And there’s always this wonderful warm ( a baby’s bath not a Moloch’s furnace) comforting fragrance in the air. Soapy, vaguely mentholated and medical: Johnsons Baby Powder blended with the divine scent of Euthymol tooth paste, Universal Embrocation, Bronnley bath oils and boxes of novelty soap shaped like lemons and smelling of verbena,citrus and their dry wooden containers. Pumice stone, face flannels, nail brushes and Wrights Coal Tar radiate reassurance and the indefinable smell of calm and security, as tranquillising to us as to other animals. The dispenser in his immaculate white cotton coat is wise as a doctor and discreet as a priest but less alarming than either: one of us and not one of them. Try 4160’s The Lion Cupboard to evoke all this discreet and irresistible pleasure. The mixture as before: mint absolu and and a ginny juniper; aniseed, lavender and patchouli. Sarah McCartney named this wonderful scent after her father’s personal treasure cupboard – it’s redolent of tooth powder, cashmeres and silk scarves put up in herbs against the moth, dark fragrant woods, leather-bound diaries, half-forgotten colognes and the safe assurance of the past. I’ll take two bottles, Mr Pharmacist, please!

Taxi!

Blonde Venus

Remember the movie Blonde Venus and the show girl who introduces herself as Dietrich as “Taxi Belle”? “Do you charge for the first mile?” replies Marlene silkily. Eighty years ago taxis were very sexy – listen to that rude French music hall song “Elle a perdu sa comme-a-dit / La pauvre cherie dans un taxi”. They could also be dangerous. Elizabeth Bowen’s short story The Demon Lover is about a woman who hails a very wrong taxi indeed, a taxi to the gates of Hell. Equally horrible is the vehicle in Hilary Mantel’s Winter Break, a tale which may put you off Mediterranean holidays for life. Years ago I got into a night taxi in Tangiers which I then imagined was my doom come upon me: we shot off the main road, charged down unlit lanes and finally bumped into dark woods. I was already imagining the cold steel at my throat when the darling driver cried,”Look!” He’d wanted to show me the best view of the bay and buy me mint tea at his brother’s cafe.
My hands were shaking too much to lift it.

Taxis are not everyone’s cup of tea: some people see them as the acme of metropolitan glamour and romance – “twice round the Park, driver!” – and dancing on the roof like Santos Casani’s Charleston down Regent St. Nostalgia for the era of little glass vases in holders above the seats, full of paper, silk or even real flowers and movie memories of Gary Cooper,Miriam Hopkins and Frederic March a trois on the back seat. Or the Great War troops being taken up to the Front in Paris cabs, in the days when Caron’s perfume N’Aimez Que Moi was the only possible parting gift to the girl left behind.
For others taxis are a dreary and expensive necessity when old, ill, heavy laden, banned from driving or otherwise come to a pretty pass. Then they become a expensive sign of dependency and are resented accordingly.

It’s the putting of yourself in someone else’s power that’s so nerve-wracking: sitting on the hall chair in your coat, suitcase and bag at the ready, compulsively checking tickets, money, keys, phone and watch. Where IS he? Has he forgotten? Should I ring again? then you do ring and the office says “he’s two minutes” away and you’re in for another quarter hour of agony before the car turns up and in the exquisite ensuing relief you and the driver immediately bond as best friends for life.

But it must be said that taxi drivers are usually the best company in the world with pungent opinions, comforting homilies and extraordinary anecdotes of eccentric behaviour and fares. “Your dirty little dog’s fouled my cab” the great Mrs Patrick Campbell, the original Eliza in Pygmalion, was told by a driver as she descended from a taxi clutching her peke. “Nonsense, it was me” said Mrs Pat, sailing into the Stage Door. Taxi drivers are always interested in smells though it worries me if they lower the window immediately after picking me up: I have bartered my fare with fragrance samples in the past and cabbies in general are highly appreciative of good scent. That intimacy of situation and proximity must refine the nose; picking up so many fares tarted up in their best for a treat, still exuding the delights of Duty Free or shopping up West. My Aunt has always smelled memorably delicious of successively Ma Griffe, Fidgi and Anais Anais; once I bought her a bottle of one of Les Senteurs’s former treasures, Cadolle No 9, now alas unavailable. She was dotty about this creamy aldehydic resinous miracle until a driver asked,”Lady are you burning sulphur back there?” Which brings us back to Ms Bowen – this is where we came in.

Image: Torontofilmsociety.org