Vignettes of Old Marylebone 4: “King to Abdicate” – December 1936

Duchess of Windsor in Sleeveless Dress on Lawn

Two minutes walk to the north of Les Senteurs is the imposing but discreet bulk of Bryanston Court, such a solid but withal modest dowager that it has taken me nearly two years to find. From here – Flat 5B 1st floor – Wallis Warfield Simpson sallied forth to win the heart of a king; here, she and her second husband Ernest entertained; here, the Ladies Colefax, Cunard and Cooper knocked back Sidecars and Martinis to oil their repartee; and to this flat Cecil Beaton bustled round with proofs of his latest flattering snaps. ” Quite a Wallis Collection”, quipped Mrs Simpson and the King Edward fell about with that curious yelping bark of a laugh.

Even before she became France’s hostess with the mostest, Wallis was getting her hand in with natty little dinners at Bryanston Court. Stick-thin and coruscating with Cartier she’d maybe sport Schiaparelli’s Surrealist lobster gown (brought over from Paris in the diplomatic bag) to serve her Aunt Bessie’s recipe for chicken Maryland (a big ‘hit’), salad leaves graded to identical size and never, ever soup: “you can’t build a meal on a lake”. Every afternoon Mrs Simpson would be off down to the German embassy at Carlton Terrace for tea with the Ribbentrops and it was said that whatever was discussed in Cabinet in the morning would thus be the talk of Berlin by the cocktail hour. It was this curious friendship which some 70 years later led to the blocking of a Blue Plaque on Bryanston Court, it being argued that the “traitress” deserved no such memorial. A short-sighted decision, for surely one of the most influential women of the last century deserves to have her presence marked as well as felt. In a piquant contrast, the original lavatory pedestal at Flat 5B was recently reported to be still in place.

If you are curious to know how Mrs Simpson smelled – Beaton disloyally recorded a trace of halitosis, no doubt due to the rigid dieting – come round to Les Senteurs and inspect Caron’s 1930’s best-seller “French Can Can”. This fragrance first appeared in the year of the Abdication and was created originally for export sales only, expressly designed to suit Anglo-Saxon women especially those of the Simpson type; slim, brunette, burnished and ultra-chic. A rich floral chypre it is less outre than many of the Caron classics and is quite at home in the modern West End: brittle, sparkling, emerald-green and teaming perfectly with fine tweeds, furs, patent leather and loads of chutzpah. A strange thought that Mrs Simpson may well have known our little shop in Seymour Place, though not as a perfumery: 30 years after her death it still carries her sillage.

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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