Wait For The Moment When: Jean Harlow has Clark Gable scrub her back in ‘Red Dust’ (1932)

Jean Harlow in Red Dust

Jean Harlow in Red Dust

She’s a tropical trollop with a pet parrot, shacked up on an Indo-Chinese rubber plantation with over-sexed planter Gable. Beautiful Mary Astor is about to shatter their jungle idyll with refinement and a revolver, but for now Harlow decides to take a dip in a rain butt. She’s just cleaned out the parrot’s cage – “What ya been eating? Cement?”. It’s all very pre-Hays Code and when Depression audiences saw Gable duck Jean’s gleaming white body in the barrel there were riots in cinemas across the USA. Seats were torn up and women fainted. It doesn’t happen like this any more. The last time I witnessed anything remotely similar was when a noisy and packed late house in Leicester Square gasped and squealed in unison as Travolta peeled off his shirt in Pulp Fiction. This spontaneous reaction – “thousands cheer” – was one of my more memorable cinema experiences.

A recent survey of Harlow’s brief hurricane of fan mail (she died of kidney failure at 26) revealed not the expected lecherous outpourings of middle aged men but the sweet admiration of young girls and their requests for beauty tips. Maybe this should not surprise us. On screen, despite the heavy make-up and the clingy gowns, she’s often like a child dolled up in her tarty mother’s clothes. There’s no guile about Jean – she’s frank, noisy and honest; amoral not immoral. They called her “the Baby” on the MGM soundstages so we assume that the essence of her real-life personality translated to the screen.

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Guerlain’s Mitsouko

 

And, talking of her fan base, it’s nice to know that George V and Queen Mary were avid Harlow admirers, having all her movies privately screened at Buckingham Palace – even the notorious Red Headed Woman, banned for general viewing in the UK until 1965 (can you believe it?). Despite their starchy exteriors the Royal couple were both Geminis – with all the mercurial spirit and delight in novel entertainment which that implies. Remember how Queen Mary later adored all the murders, seductions and cleavage of The Wicked Lady?

Harlow is famously said to have worn Guerlain’s Mitsouko – her second husband reputedly covered himself with his wife’s heady scent before his mysterious suicide in their bathroom. But for me the real mystery is how this gorgeous oakmoss emerald-dark chypre came to sit so well on Jean’s translucently fair skin. The trademark platinum hair was bleached but Harlow was naturally fair, almost albino, and photos of her wearing only diminuendo makeup are quite startling in their lunar luminous pallor. I always think of Mitsouko as quintessentially a brunette scent – enhancing an Ava Gardner or Liz Taylor type. I cannot imagine the impact of it as worn by tiny, vivacious, wise cracking Jean. Now, none of us shall never know; and very few are left to remember.

Dinner-at-Eight

Dressler and Harlow in Dinner at Eight

 

It all goes to show that with perfume there can be pride and prejudice but there’s also personal preference; and most importantly those spectacularly unpredictable idiosyncratic unions of fragrance and chemistry. I never pass a Guerlain counter without an admiring thought of the original Blonde Bombshell with her ice-cube-toned breasts, no knickers, and her snappy brisk way with a line. Marie Dressler’s celebrated put-down at the climax of Dinner At Eight works so well only because of the brilliant way Jean supplies the feed:

” I was reading a book the other day…all about civilisation or something… a NUTTY kind of a book…and the guy says that machinery is gonna take the place of EVERY profession!”

“O my dear: that’s something you need NEVER worry about…”

Curtain.

Treasures: Lost and Found

Faberge is back in the news; once again there’s been a re-division of the limited spoils via the world’s salerooms and auctions. And – did you see? –  a spectacular dental plate of gold and platinum has turned up in a grave near St Petersburg? Only some 40 of the Imperial Easter Eggs survive; I found my old Catalogue of the huge 1977 London Faberge exhibition the other day and was surprised to tot up how many I have seen over the years. The Eggs were less well-known when I was young. I think it was the Nicholas and Alexandra craze of 40 years ago that first put the word about; and then when Bing Crosby died on a Spanish golf course it came out that he was a great collector. I could write my own I Spy book of Faberge (Big Chief I-Spy, Wigwam-by-the-Water, remember?). I get 40 points for seeing the old St Petersburg shop – now, needless to say, a Macdonalds; and I’ve seen the almost absurdly symbolic but chillingly uncanny Twilight Egg.

The Twilight Egg for the twilight of the gods! It makes you shiver. As Russia began her fatal participation in the Great War Carl Faberge continued to supply his Easter trophies to the Imperial ladies. In a rather mad kind of way, and with no dimunition of expense, they were adapted to the austere spirit of the time: the Birchwood Egg, the  Red Cross Egg and the sinister polished steel of the Munitions Egg – the bomb-like Easter kiss of 1916. The Twilight Egg never reached the Empress: by then the Revolution had broken out and the Imperial Family were under house arrest at Tsarskoye Selo. What curious premonitions inspired this toy of lapis lazuli, diamonds and moonstones? What thoughts of Rasputin’s last prophecy before he went under the ice, his fearful vision of the end of the Romanovs and Russia drowning in blood? The photograph of his battered murdered face was the first thing the Tsarina Alexandra saw when she awoke: it hung at the foot of her bed. The Empress was accustomed to shower the Faberge workshop with ideas and suggestions; deeply pious though obsessed with the occult, numerology and portents Alexandra’s agitations and fears are captured in this shell of midnight blue. All Faberge’s Eggs contained within a “Surprise” – an ingenious precious novelty, as in a superior cracker. The Suprise is lost from the Twilight; the Surprise was to be the slaughter house at Ekaterinburg.

For 30 years Faberge solved the gift problem for the royal families of Russia and of England. A branch of the store opened in London; Edward VII and Queen Alexandra commissioned jewel portraits of their animals and plants at Sandringham. One of the most fascinating pieces in the Royal Collection is an midnight blue enamel cigarette case inlaid with a great diamond serpent biting its own tail, the symbol of unbroken love. Edward VII’s mistress, Alice Keppel, commissioned it for her chain-smoking bronchitic royal lover; when he died Queen Alexandra offered it to Alice as a keepsake. Twenty years later, Queen Mary received it back from Mrs Keppel whose great grand daughter is now married to the Prince of Wales. Another touch of the Twilight Egg here; eerie Faberge magic.

So when I saw the white and gold snake caskets of Kilian’s Garden of Good and Evil collection I thought of all these back stories and I was captivated. The luxurious Kilian ethos has enticing echoes of Faberge; one of his motifs is the key, that uber-symbol of sex and secrecy, the locking and disclosure of the mysteries of this and other worlds. Kilian’s tiny keys to his seductively gleaming lacquer boxes (the boxes of a new Pandora) remind us of the velvet shells that protected the Tsar’s eggs; the key that Alice finds on a glass table to open Wonderland; and of the key to Marlene’s eternal enigma. The surname, Dietrich, means in German a skeleton key in German – the device against which no lock is proof.

Kilian‘s “Straight To Heaven” – where St Peter waits with the golden Keys of the Kingdom and St Zita finds those you have mislaid – is a lyrical shimmering streak of flaming rum and psychotropic nutmeg which fires you up like a rocket, reminding me of those neo-Gilray cartoons of 1997 depicting Diana and Mother Theresa whizzing like shooting stars to Paradise. Kilian loves the scent and symbolism of soft fruits – apricots (female beauty), peach and especially plum (perpetual youth) which appears – candied and crystallised and darkly oozing in Liaisons Dangereuses and In The City of Sin. The fruits of the Garden of Eden: my English teacher, when holding forth on Paradise Lost always held that Eve was more likely betrayed less by an apple than by a peach  – the key note of Kilian’s cool green celadon  “Flower of Immortality” –  the Chinese emblem of eternal life and fidelity. For in tandem with these high ideals the sweet golden flesh of the fruit, its intoxicating juices and delicious odours are deeply sensual and carnal: an irresistible invitation to voluptuous reverie and amorous intercourse, the exchange of a spiritual heaven for a more robustly physical one. “Here’s the key to my heart/ Don’t lose it/ Use it” as Alice Faye used to sing.

I haven’t been so captivated by a perfume range for a long time as I am by the smooth and silky Kilian line. Polished, vivid and easy to wear the fragrances are also mysterious and adventurous. Fewer in number than the Imperial Eggs, they are the products of a similar genius and devotion to artistic luxury, perfection for its own sake. Every one a gem and like Faberge’s treasures, they are destined to delight future generations beyond our own. But judge for yourselves: why not pop round?

A Fine Baby Boy

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I didn’t write about royal baby joy at the time as everyone was complaining of saturation coverage: I enjoyed it very much myself, something cheerful for a change. And now that Prince George has gone home, we may perhaps take a little look at him. Baby Cambridge’s appearance on July 22, day of stupendous, stupefying heat, the most intense of the year, seemed richly mystically symbolic: a Son of the Sun, grandson of Diana of the Moon. A ray of the Sun in Splendour, device of his distant Plantagenet ancestors. Astrologically Prince George is just caught within the watery Cancerian net as demonstrated by the breaking of tropical electric storms and deluges over London within hours of his birth, but he’s on the cusp of fiery Leo too, a creature of heat, passion and flame. I should think he’ll run rings round his Gemini papa and lock budding horns with his tough and charismatic Capricorn mother. A perfect amalgum for a future King: proud, loyal, economical, charming, creative, magnetic, sensitive, gentle, empathetic and responsible. And with enough of the deep crustacean shell and native caution to preserve his regal distance. Sharing the day: Mama Rose Kennedy, Terence Stamp, Oscar de la Renta, Bryan Forbes and –  supposedly – Alexander the Great.

Always excepting the unfortunate Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor, this baby is the first Heir to the British throne since the Conquest to be born under the sign of Cancer. All things being equal, he’ll be the first crowned Cancerian monarch in 1000 years. We’ve had plenty of mighty Leos and glittering mercurial Geminians, stubborn dutiful Taureans and balanced, impartial Librans – “affable, suave and dapper” – but no King Crabs. Our Cambridge infant should prove to be a revelation in kingship, though probably long after the last juice has been squeezed from Lemon Wedge and his rind consigned to the recycling. However, one must not presume or assume. Like Nostradamus I looked into my basin of dark waters on your behalf, and now wonder, after all this continuing uninformed talk of abdications, whether it will not be William who in the end springs a surprise. Will he maybe decide to take a rain-check on kingship and hand the reins, untried, over to George VII? After all, William too is on the Cancerian cusp.

Royal births used to be, almost by definition, harrowing and terrible affairs. It was not until our own Queen’s lifetime that the custom of having the Home Secretary on hand to witness the legitimacy of the baby was done away with. This precaution started after the widely believed rumour that James II’s son and heir was a changeling, smuggled within a warming pan into the bed of Mary Beatrice of Modena – incidentally, one of our few truly beautiful Queen Consorts.

Royal mothers-to-be were secluded in their apartments weeks before and after the birth; rooms closed and shuttered against perilous light and dangerous fresh air. Goats and cows were brought to the bedside so that their fresh milk would lose no time nor potency in nourishing the young mother; other animals – sheep and lambs and hares – might be slaughtered in situ after a difficult delivery so that the Queen and offspring could be cosied up in freshly flayed warm skin. Can you even begin to imagine the state of the stale foul air, further heated and corrupted with blood, sweat, wine (to wash baby), a blaze of candles and braziers of disinfecting herbs and incense? Queen Jane Seymour never recovered. We know that in 1778 Marie Antoinette nearly died in labour at Versailles for want of fresh air: the King himself smashed the windows, all sealed up for winter, and revived her with the bite of a frosty December morning. And what about the horror story of Queen Mary Tudor? She was immured in her darkened sweltering rooms for month after month after month till it finally had to be horribly admitted that there was no baby coming, that the whole pregnancy had been a fearful illusion. In her memoir, Catherine the Great paints an awful picture of her baby son Paul, his tiny face puddled in sweat, swaddled in a cradle packed with velvet and furs on the direct orders of the Tsarina Elizabeth, herself beautiful, massive and always wine-purple in the face.

The modern baby is marketed as a creature of pure and pretty scents, smelled to advantage on a plumply hydrated uncorrupted baby skin. Do baby worshippers still pay the ultimate accolade of declaring their intention of eating the new arrival? This must somehow connect with the well-known phenonemon of all new-borns looking, however briefly, like their fathers so that papa does not doubt his paternity – and like Saturn (or an animal) devour his own progeny. I like that baby smell, and without sentimental illusion: I’ve changed many nappies, and cleaned up sick in my time. Every healthy baby has an sweetly innocent odour about it, no matter how much of a mess it’s temporarily gotten itself into.

And this smell is what? Well: milky, biscuity, rusky, slightly sicky sometimes, a whiff of ammonia, skin, hair, soap. And  a lavishly powdered bottom, which is why perfumes such as the increasingly rare Narcisse Noir, Villoresi’s Teint de Neige and Kilian’s Love (…Don’t Be Shy) are so much in demand: these confections of orange flower, vanilla, marshmallow, iris and rice have a sweet and nostalgic powderiness which I guess spells nourishment, nostalgia, nursery security, Mummy’s perfume, Nanny’s solid bosom. Narcisse Noir has the slightly citric clogged dampness of Johnsons Baby Powder: a note that emerges in the heart of the scent as the orange hits the orris. Caron has now brought out My Ylang, a creamy white floral, dusted with icing sugar: meringue or derriere? Kurkdjian’s Cologne Pour le Matin is far from infantile but its wonderfully woozy evocation of daytime naps – clouds of thyme, lavender, neroli – lays you down in a doll’s bassinet like Gulliver in Brobdignag.  There is always the faintest hint of wet nappy in orange blossom and mock orange, especially when overblown; not exactly unpleasant but disconcerting and attractively disturbing – a reminder that babyhood is strictly limited; that the serpent has already entered Eden. Which is where the intrinsic corruption of Divin Enfant comes in with its bizarrie of tobacco, cassie, mocha and rose: leading by inference to George’s Christening : the next big photo opportunity.