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.

Nosmo King

Catherine Deneuve Smoking

“When I was a girl,” my dear grandmother used to say, lighting a cigarette and plying her lipstick, “no decent woman could be seen to do this”. She was a late Victorian though hated to admit it, and so already in her twenties and a nurse when the universal smoking vogue swept the West. It was the First World War that gave the cigarette trade such an impetus: civilians felt an empathetic bonding with the men at the Front by adopting an essentially military habit. This cheap palliative for the nerves now leapt the class barriers; widely recommended by doctors as a nerve tonic and bracer, it opened the lungs and gave the shy something to do with their hands. An aspirin and a cigarette: the green tea and Yakult of their day.

George V and Queen Mary and all their children were enthusiastic smokers; the hero-padre Woodbine Willie handed out fags to the troops; one of the most widely reproduced portraits of the then Prince of Wales shows him with a gasper glued to his grinning lower lip. Strange now to imagine Prince William thus. The entertainments in the music halls and cinemas were seen through a thick blue haze of cigarette smoke; it was said to deter the moth, discourage germs and the ash good for the carpet.
Superstitions were invented and fostered by the match and cigarette industry to boost sales: if you lit a cigarette from a candle, a sailor would drown; the 3rd person to light a cigarette from the same match would die. Warner Bros even made a talkie about that one – Three On A Match.

For on the films smoking was presented as the acme of sophistication: in the days before cork tips, many an actress made a very sexy trick of picking loose threads of tobacco from her tongue as she vamped the hero: Garbo in Mata Hari does it with blush-making eroticism. The idea of Bette Davis, Bogart or Dietrich “sans cigarette” is almost impossible; Gloria Swanson’s bizarre holder is woven into the script of Sunset Boulevard, a motif of sexual entrapment, and the addiction of fame. A husky smoky voice – Dietrich, Bacall, Bankhead – could also be yours if you kept puffing. What girl could resist? Or what man fail to pick up on the virile and phallic connotations exhaled by Gable, Flynn and Gary Cooper, smoking their heads off as they took the world and women by storm?

So it was only a matter of time before smoking hit the perfume industry – and how – starting with Caron’s revolutionary Tabac Blond in 1919, an ambisexual dark golden “sit up and see me” scent based the fragrance on raw tobacco, and never off the market since. A considerable part of its appeal is the artfulness with which (if you are a smoker, or keeping company with one) it transmutes the smell of smoke into a perfume of its own, adding a third fragrant odour to your aura. Then in 1924 Molinard came up with Habanita, a blend of sweaty vetiver, fleshy white jasmine …and the scent of the hot dusty cigar factories of Havana. Black as the tropical night, almost embarrassingly seductive. Tabu played with the tobacco note; so did Knize Ten incorporating it with leather, thereby pioneering another perfume family, besides iconographing images of contemporary militarism and celebrating the new social and political emancipation of women. But how apt that true to the illusions of perfumery and the movies, tobacco itself is not actually used in these scents: they depend on an accord of patchouli, hay, honey, beeswax, amber and woods

And the trend continues today; but with the difference that smoking is now officially perceived as something low-down, unhealthy, wicked and dangerously anti-social. A wittily subversive perfume like Jasmin + Cigarettes references this with tongue in cheek brio. A saucy combination of smoke and jasmine, that most ambiguous of floral oils with a built-in grubby sexuality; a suggestion of (horrors) smoking in bed…and not alone, at that; the hay note comes through, complemented by an unexpected odour of apricots – connotations of warm, nude skin. So a kaleidoscope of images, including once more the cinematic, is rounded off by a suggestion of that most delicious ciggie of all: on a hot beach, enhanced by salt sea air.

As a veteran said on film, remembering Woodbine Willie: “I wish he were here now!”

Image from cfrankdavis.wordpress.com