At the turn of the year Part 2: THE DIVINE LUISE

Luise Rainer

So now Luise Rainer has gone, two weeks short of her 105th birthday. She was not quite the last of the great Hollywood legends – Olivia de Havilland is happily still with us – but she was always one of the most enigmatic and intriguing. She lived for many years in Eaton Square, in the same house – though not in the same apartment – as that once occupied by Vivien Leigh. A near neighbour was Ivor Novello’s leading lady, Mary Ellis, who also lived to be 105 and who died in 2003 as a snowstorm flurried around SW1: a friend told me that Miss Ellis had given a drinks party in her bedroom only the previous day.

Luise had that same kind of spirit. We happily saw a lot of her at Les Senteurs after the shop moved to Elizabeth Street in 1999. She once cancelled a winter flight to the USA at the last moment and came into the shop in a huge and magnificent fur hat on Christmas Eve saying that she had decided to stay at home and throw an impromptu dinner for twelve instead. She would have been then around 95 and still a startlingly brisk walker (always in heels), almost impossible to keep pace with. Of an afternoon she’d walk up from Belgravia to Leicester Square and back for a little exercise, and to have her shoes re-soled. She missed her dogs, having kept troupes of dachsunds in earlier days. She told me how she’d fallen backwards down an escalator in the West End but bounced back – “tough dame, huh?”. Luise was extremely funny always, disconcertingly sharp & observant. Her lively impression of George W. Bush was a speciality.

I first met Miss Rainer at Harrods about 25 years ago – always modest, she introduced herself by her married name but I thought “I know that face..that voice.”. And it was indeed she, the woman once known at MGM as “The Viennese Teardrop”, wearing her signature jewelled skullcap and exquisite beige trouser suit. She was then, as ever, on the look out for a superior tuberose perfume: she adored Piguet’s Fracas and never found a scent to match it. Her top floor flat at Eaton Square – ” come on, have a drink!” – smelled deliciously of pale gardenias and tuberoses, fresh and airy as though in a garden. There her two Oscars from 1936 and ’37 stood unobtrusively on a bureau in her study: so startlingly solid and heavy when picked up that I almost dropped one of them, taken aback by the unexpected weight.

Luise made full use of our shop fax machine, and when I (always a technophobe) moaned about getting to grips with the computer she told me that she was taking lessons in the new social media devices: “I have No Intention of being left behind!” Maybe her practical pragmatic streak was expressed in her hands which though beautiful, expressive and perfectly kept were surprisingly large for such a tiny person. She told a wonderfully comic story against herself concerning a journalist who visited her one hot summer day: she offered him a beer from the fridge and he enjoyed it so much she proposed another. “He didn’t seem to like the second as much as the first. When we examined the label, the expiry date was 1987…”

Luise Rainer had that wonderful gift of seeming to live every second of life, good or bad, to the full: she lived in the moment, always looking forward. Blessed with tremendous energy and humour she lit up my life considerably. I always felt illuminated and revived by her, even by a word in passing. She strode down Elizabeth Street like a queen, admired by all, and until fairly recently used to shop for her groceries -” I don’t eat!” – in the Kings Road supermarkets. Here I’d sometimes run into her browsing through ‘Hello!’ magazine at the stationery kiosk:

“‘LIMELIGHT is back in town!’ – big deal…!”

Happy memories and grateful thanks, Miss Rainer.

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Knize Ten

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The end of the Great War saw a frenzied creative activity in the creation of scent: without Caron’s Tabac Blond there would have been no Knize Ten; without Knize Ten there might have been no Habanita. We have all three pillars of perfumery holding up the roof of Les Senteurs: the most remarkable and oddest of the trio is Knize Ten. Extraordinarily difficult to find, its reputation is enormous but in no way belied by its reality, once found. It is surrounded by an almost sinister aura.

When I was young and warnings came via whispers rather than the internet, certain things were held to be arcane and dangerous, to infallibly bring bad luck: such as possession of tarot cards, writing cheques on a Sunday, sticking a postage stamp upside down and reading The Golden Bough. Knize Ten is a bit like this: it has such an accumulation of myth about it and such a powerful presence that the challenge of wearing with it without being overpowered by its legend is too much for some.

Knize Ten is one of the final legacies of old Imperial Europe – the Kaiserzeit in full decadence with all the glamour, gloom and grotesquerie that children of that era – Von Stroheim, Pabst, Von Sternberg, Zweig, Mann – brought to their films and books. The tailoring firm of Knize was founded in 1858 by the Czech Josef Knize but had been bought out by the Wolff family long before the Emperor Franz Josef gave the House its Royal and Imperial Warrant in 1888, the year Queen Victoria’s daughter became Empress of Prussia for just 99 days. In its heyday there were Knize showrooms in Prague, Berlin, Paris, Karlsbad and even New York dressing not only royalty but the German military; gentlemen of both sexes; Maurice Chevalier and Marlene Dietrich. Today Knize Ten, always a star since 1921 (though the exact date is debated) is a murky canary diamond gleaming in the shadows of its own past.

Knize’s Teutonic darkness closes in oppressively and hotly after a brilliant hesperidic burst of rosemary, lemon and orange like sun burning through Berlin fogs over the swamps of the Spree. Knize draws across heavy baize-lined velvet curtains, shutting you in with a padded heart of rose, jasmine and clove carnation whose animalic notes come panting after, echoed in accords of castoreum, civet, amber, cedar and patchouli. The full expression is immense, bursting out of its confines – heady, heavy, swollen; and faintly sweaty, like fine wool heated by vigorous exercise – the feverish walkers of “The Magic Mountain”, or Luis Trenker in one of those unhinged mountaineering Silent pictures of the late 20’s. A wholesome unwholesomeness – or maybe vice versa.

One is confronted with a huge physicality and a sense of a faint (or rather more?) soiling. Speaking for myself, Knize Ten’s attraction never fails, but one application leaves me feeling coated, sealed, painted like that girl in Goldfinger. There’s hardly room left to breathe: Knize Ten is a total experience, it possesses you wholly, crushes you in its fatal ursine embrace. The final kicker is that oily black work-out of Prussian leather and what some people swear is the odour of rubber. And of course for many this is the money-shot, the clincher that makes the fragrance irresistible. It doesn’t play- pretend fetishism like some modern scents: it is itself a fetish, in same way as Narcisse Noir or Bandit. We keep it in a cage.

BANDIT: by Robert Piguet out of Germaine Cellier

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Back in the 1970’s, the roguish matinee idol charmer Stewart Granger talked on afternoon television about what attracted him to a woman. She should be immaculately dressed,gloved, maquillee, shod and coiffured – “because I want to look at her and think, ‘I’m going to DESTROY all that!'” Coughs and lowered eyes all round…but I bet a whiff of Bandit would have driven the old boy right off his head. Bandit is a leather chypre, the total urban scent. Colossally sophisticated, even formidable, it is the ultimate parfum-de- film-noir; a scent of night clubs, car showrooms, private seances, art galleries, penthouses, theatres, and the sort of restaurant where children are unwelcome. It wears well with green suede gloves, elaborate lingerie,sable fur, cocktail napkins, pink Sobranies, crisp eye veils, Ferragamo shoes and vintage Schiaparelli. Wallis Windsor’s painted lobster dress is a perfect Bandit accessory. So is a lapis Faberge cigarette case, casually chucked about. This perfume always takes centre stage: everything else is an add-on.

Wear Bandit if you wish to seduce and intimidate and where you intend to dominate the proceedings by force of character, devastating chic and effortless charm. Seldom has a perfume been so demanding of the wearer. Possibly a scent to catch a very specialised husband, it is almost impossible to imagine being worn by a bride unless to create the most extraordinary impression. Anti-floral, stylised, artificial and magnificently rich in synthetics (Cellier was fond of tenacious chemical bases) Bandit has no vulnerability about it and few women would wish to be perceived as incisive, and imperious at the altar.But it has sex all right, and to a remarkable degree.

Bandit was created by Germaine Cellier, the first great female nose of the 20th century, a woman as elegant, magnetic and glamorous as any of her clients. Fracas, Jolie Madame and Vent Vert are all daughters of her genius. Beautifully dressed, an acquaintance of Jean Cocteau and Piaf, and moving in Parisian artistic and intellectual circles, Cellier made the acquaintance of the couturier Robert Piguet, former protege of Poiret and patron of Givenchy, Dior and Balmain.A suite of legendary perfumes spilled out from their laboratory and atelier, the first and greatest being Bandit in 1944.

All sorts of stories are told of the perfume. An old gentleman told me years ago that Piguet had asked Germaine to create a scent for his lover, a wild young man known as “Le Bandit”, very soon after killed in a car crash (” I knew the boyfriend!”). Bandit is also said to have been made as a gift for the gorgeous actress Edwige Feuillere, darling of the film intelligentsia and blessed with glorious red-gold hair and a ravishing husky voice. It certainly sits uncommonly well on the sort of pale, thin translucent sometimes freckled skin that often accompanies this tint of hair; the type of complexion that so often turns white waxy flowers like jasmine and tuberose. A product of the War years it exudes such a perversity, ambiguity and sheer weirdness that it is often wrongly assumed to have been a favourite in the pan-sexual Berlin and Paris of twenty years earlier. Certainly it has echoes of Tabac Blond and it could have been worn perfectly (maybe it was) by the likes of Dietrich, Louise Brooks, Margo Lion and Jo Carstairs. Men may sport it with elan and confidence; providing they be as poised as the girls.

When I smell Bandit I feel the hand on my shoulder of Zarah Leander, the great revue star, singer and actress who captivated Sweden, Germany and most of Europe in the 1930’s. Too tall and too massive for Hollywood, a natural red-head with a huge appetite for money, food, alcohol and cigarettes Zarah overwhelmed her audiences and employers: fans were said to have fainted at the sight of her,overwhelmed by her aura; an Italian journalist described her as a beautiful creature from another planet. On set she drank whisky or vodka through a straw from what purported to be Coke bottles or glasses of milk. Her voice recorded as a deep bass and her mystery was intensified by a lifetime of large impenetrable dark glasses. Nordic and practical, she liked to be photographed scratching her pigs on her Swedish farm; when she fled from Germany in 1943 with her film career in ruins, she turned to running her own fish cannery. Swathed in furs, her towering height increased by stilettoes, her skin a mass of freckles, her hair according to her own account “an interesting blend of beetroot and carrot” Zarah used Bandit to make a dream team for 40 years. Where does one end and the other begin? Cigarette papers and tobacco; then the dry fragrance of face powder, the silk lining of a coat, the tang of red hair, the exquisite soft leather of shoes, gloves, bag, all warm from flesh-contact. A hint of whisky, of body heat and feral animal oils, even fresh perspiration; the sharpness of a green corsage or stage-door bouquet. In a copse once, I saw a red dog-fox leap from a bed of violets: here is the fox but no trace of violets except a waft of their musky fleshy crushed hearts.

Image: filmmuseum-potsam.de

“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.