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

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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

Christmas Reading

whatkatydid

One of the first references to perfume I came across in print was in “What Katy Did”. Enthused by the very young Susan Hampshire in the TV series I read my first copy to rags, and my current surviving edition is an Armada paperback from 1967 with crumbling pages now the colour of gravy. In this text the adorable Clover Carr’s stated preference for “eau de cologne” is rendered as “scent”. She’s playing grown-ups and planning on having a large pool full of cologne in the back yard into which she can dip the hankies of passing schoolchildren. As an infant I was foxed by this term, pronouncing it to myself as “eau de kol-JEAN”. Which may have been a common problem, thus leading to Armada’s editorial alteration.

When I grew up and went to work at Harrods I met Lana, the glorious Houbigant Girl, who came from the Balkans and looked exactly like a larger than lifesize Victorian wax doll with huge blue eyes like coat buttons and ringlets nearly to her waist. She was there to sell Quelques Fleurs & did it with unique panache because she had exactly the same fantasy as Clover Carr. O! she had the gift all right, and after listening to Lana’s silvery-voiced fantasies of cathedral aisles running with conduits of Quelques Fleurs and guests holding up blue silk parasols against scent pouring from the skies, every customer was begging for the 100ml size.

Every December when the parcels start to come, I think of the Christmas Eve in “What Katy Did At School”. Snowbound in New England, Clover + Katy receive two wonderful elaborately assembled crates of gifts and food parcels from their family back home in Burnet, Ohio. The smaller box is filled with flowers, wadded in cotton wool against the freeze – roses, geraniums, heliotrope and carnations. Beneath, exquisitely packed, are two quilted satin glove cases “delicately scented”, one mauve, one lilac. It’s a marvellous image; the flowers being carefully removed and revived from their long chilled journey, placed in glasses of water and distributed around the school with pears, apples, prunes and crunchy jumbles. What is a jumble?

Though I’m also exceedingly fond of the company of the March girls, the Katy books are freer, easier, funnier and less moralising. More modern, shorter, crisper. Even the saintly and somewhat enigmatic Cousin Helen doesn’t grate, being sufficiently self-indulgent as to wear bracelets, and to travel with her own flower vase – luxuries at which Marmee, I think, would have had a fit. As does Mrs Hall next door – “Ma said she fears your cousin is a worldly person”. “Katy” has something for everyone and every situation. Anyone who has suffered the discomfort of an overly protracted summer should read the first chapter of “What Katy Did At School” and spend the night with Elsie and Johnny in their terrible feather bed at Mrs Worrett’s baking, fly-blown, pumpkin-coloured farmhouse. “Mrs Worrett never mounted in hot weather”. Completely unrelated to the rest of the book, this short section is worthy of Elizabeth Bowen at her most comically sinister. It’s one of my favourite passages of the entire canon.

Noel Coward slept on into eternity after a quiet Jamaican evening in bed with eggs on a tray and an E Nesbit. Maybe Susan Coolidge’s books will provide the same rite of passage for me. And I’d prefer the eggs scrambled.

FOOTNOTE: the Cosmic Scrambled Egg.

Scrambled eggs are immortalised on film by being messed around by a lovelorn Joan Fontaine in the first reel of REBECCA.

An Harrods recipe of my time, much circulated in Perfumery, called for a dollop of mayonnaise to be dropped into the eggs at the moment of serving. Very rich – but excellent after a late evening on counter.

A Very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to You All!

Yours, most Warmly & Gratefully,
LW

Quelques Fleurs: The Fountain of Youth

Do you remember that chapter in What Katy Did in which the Carr children spend the afternoon with a picnic in their secret retreat of “Paradise”, each explaining her ambitions for the future? Clover says she will have a pond of eau de cologne (changed to “scent’ in modern editions)in her backyard into which passers by may dip their handkerchiefs. The most enthusiastic proponent of Houbigant’s Quelques Fleurs that I ever knew was rather like this: she was tall, lovely and stately like a child’s best wax doll, with enormous blue eyes and cascades of ringleted hair. She had this alluring fantasy about her wedding: dressed in white and mauve (the colours of the packaging) in a cathedral filled with fountains of Quelques Fleurs, the aisle running with conduits of the perfume; all the guests to be sprayed with it on arrival and given bottles as wedding favours. Her child-size bouquet would be a plantation of every flower represented in the scent. Customers listened entranced and she shifted a lot of stock.

Houbigant had been in business for nearly two centuries before hitting the jackpot with this scent that has become their signature and trademark. They began trading in Paris in 1774, the year of the accession of Louis XVI and the nineteen year old Marie Antoinette who marked the start of her reign with an orgy of compulsive shopping and decoration of her person. Naturally, tradespeople generally came out to Versailles rather than the Queen go to the shops; but Marie Antoinette caused great offence to her courtiers by receiving her modistes, jewellers and perfumers in her private apartments, those dark and gilded little cupboards that can still be seen today, hidden behind the cavernous State Rooms, and to which even the greatest nobles  in France were not admitted.

In a way one might see this as an important milestone in the development of retail: the tradesman for the first time (and in this case with the ringing endorsement of royal patronage) not only seeing himself as a creative artist but also being treated as one. Marie Antoinette’s couturiere Rose Bertin bossed the Queen as she did all her clients, and the royal hairdresser,Leonard, was indulged in all his caprices. Indeed it was Marie Antoinette’s fatal trust in him that was to be one of the many factors which contributed to the failure of the royal family to escape France during the Revolution. This new reverence for the  creators of style (to be enhanced by the attitudes of Marie Antoinette’s Imperial successors, Josephine and Eugenie) was perhaps as important as the 19th century’s innovations of the department store and the decent public lavatory. The latter enabled elaborately and impractically dressed ladies to stay away from home all day if the fancy took them: a breakthrough in the art of shopping.

Quelques Fleurs first hit the shops in 1912, within a few months of another two legends, L’Heure Bleue and Narcisse Noir. After 198 years in the business, this creation by Robert Bienaime was Houbigant’s greatest coup, never since surpassed, and hailed by some authorities as the first multi-floral fragrance bouquet – the “Grand Hotel” of scent. A mixture of flowers, rather than a single floral note with or without woody and animalic accords. It coasted along over the years as long-lived perfumes do, undergoing various formulaic adjustment, attributes and price points: regarded in the 1940’s as the only respectable scent for débutantes, it had fallen to the lower end of the chemist’s range by the mid-70’s before making a triumphant come-back in the early 90’s – cleaned, varnished,restored and re-framed like a French old master.

How closely today’s version resembles that of the original it is hard to say but it certainly has the indefinable but authentic feel of Edwardiana: essentially BIG, like those padded pompadour hairstyles and vast hats which now look so poignant and incongruous in blurred photographs of the Titanic’s traumatised survivors. All the original notes are intact. Quelques Fleurs has a green appley freshness lacking in its contemporaries but it displays the same thick, dense quality of musky slightly dusty richness and gravitas: despite its inspired name it is not a playful scent – “this is not a toy”! Notes of lilac, lily of the valley, rose and jasmine pile up as on the shelves of a gorgeous conservatory topped with violets and orchid. A fascinating and magnificent centenary scent for 2012.

Image scanned from an advert supplied by Houbigant.

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