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.

Image from Wikimedia commons

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.

Freckles

Eddie Redmayne FrecklesEveryone’s talking about Eddie Redmayne, star of My Week With Marilyn, Birdsong and the new Burberry advertising campaign. The columnists are fascinated by his voluptuous lips but I’m more interested in the freckles. He appears to be entirely covered in them.

Long considered to mar personal beauty, freckles used to be subjected to ritual scrubbings with cucumber lotions,lemon juice + sour milk in a vain attempt to bleach the skin. Yet there is something terribly attractive about them. As a child I was allowed to toddle up the road to a corner shop selling sixpenny packets of seeds,transfers, sweets, newspapers, bars of Walnut Bliss (remember?) + ices. On a good day you would find Kathleen behind the counter, very kind to infants and resplendent in a green overall which set off a magnificent head of red hair: she was completely covered with freckles, enhanced by brilliant pink lipstick and I was mesmerised by the look of her, finding it hard not to rudely stare.

Later on, I discovered all those red-headed movie stars with the same gorgeous look: Deborah Kerr, Van Johnson, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Zarah Leander and most famously perhaps Joan Crawford. There exists a wonderful photo portrait of Crawford near the start of her career, wearing dramatic lipstick + mascara and all the freckles on show: later they would be airbrushed out, covered with foundation or camouflaged by a perfect California sun tan; but in latter years journalists interviewing her were mesmerised by the dramatic pigmentation.

Incidentally why was Damian Lewis hailed as the first red headed star? Besides the above roster, there are also a fine muster of bottle reds: Rita Hayworth, Clara Bow, Lucille Ball, even Jean Harlow who had a dramatic change of look for RED HEADED WOMAN. A film,incidentally that was banned in the UK but privately screened at Buckingham Palace for George V – she was always his favourite star.

It is notorious that the skin type that often accompanies freckles + resplendent red hair can react very trickily with perfume. One of the cult classics in the fragrance hall of fame is Robert Piguet‘s Bandit which was created in 1944 by Germaine Cellier with the French actress Edwige Feulliere in mind – “the French Garbo” who was blessed with a mane of red-gold locks. Bandit is a dry leathery animalic green scent; it eschews the use of those floral notes such as jasmine, tuberose, hyacinth, gardenia that can create such havoc on a “red” skin. On a redhead it is the apogee of refined dangerous sexuality.

Therein lies the clue: avoidance of the fleshy hot-house flowers which can turn sour, catty and acidic. If you are a pale-skinned fiery redhead try to tailor your tastes to chypres, orientals, woods and fougeres which tend to harmonise with your natural skin chemistry. And we never, ever use this awful word “ginger”…

Image sourced from details.com