Sunday, October 26, 2008

Flight of Fancy

Most perfume lovers know the short history of Guerlain’s classic scent, Vol de Nuit. Released in 1933, concocted by Jacques Guerlain, it paid tribute to the aviators of the era. One of them, Antoine de Saint Exupery, wrote the 1931 novel "Vol de Nuit," based loosely on his experiences as a pilot for the French air service. In the novel, an aviator is lost over water, as his wife in the control tower searches frantically for signs that he’s alive. This love story was Jacques Guerlain’s inspiration.

The sole connection Vol de Nuit has with the raving aviatrix Beryl Markham is this: Saint Exupery was one of her many lovers.

Beryl Markham's life is mythic. If Hemingway’s heroine from “The Sun Also Rises,” Lady Brett Ashley, had been raised by servants in East Africa, hunted big game and guided safaris, trained thoroughbred horses, worked as a bush rescue pilot and, incidentally, become the first person (as opposed to first woman) to fly the Atlantic the “hard way” – east to west – she might have begun to approach Markham territory. Hemingway knew Beryl Markham. She was one of his safari guides. He called her “a high-grade bitch….who can write rings around all of us.”

It appears that Markham lived for herself and none other. Baroness Karen Blixen, who most of us remember from “Out of Africa,” was a friend, although Markham appears to have had little regard for other women. Blixen called her “pantherine.” Blixen’s husband and her lover, Denys Finch-Hatton (so memorably played by Robert Redford in the film) were Markham’s lovers as well. There is speculation that Markham was inspired to fly by Finch-Hatton, and that may be true. She had other teachers, though. And many other love affairs -- England’s Prince Henry, the Duke of Gloucester was one; Markham was paid a princely sum by the royal family to go away, which she did (and drew on that fund for the rest of her life). There were other rumors about Edward, Prince of Wales, who later married Wallis Simpson. What is clear is that she lived beyond convention.

In early September, 1936, Markham made the transatlantic flight that entered her name into history. She fought headwinds the whole way. Her navigation documents blew away the first hour. She battled icy fuel lines and, at one point, realized she’d been flying upside down. She didn’t make it to New York, as she’d planned – she was forced to crash-land in a peat bog in Nova Scotia – but she made it. She wrote about this and other experiences in her autobiography “West With the Night.” (There is some speculation about who actually wrote it. A disgruntled ex-husband -- she had three -- attempted to claim authorship. Critics have wondered if Saint-Exupery did some embellishing or editing – all that is clear is that his prose inspired hers.) The point, though, is that this is a life that the world's best storytellers could hardly imagine.

These early aviators captured public fervor much like the later astronauts would. Beryl Markham might have been more famous than Amelia Earhart, had she perished as mysteriously as Earhart did. But she lived on, until 1986, training horses and barnstorming around Africa, and so did not have the rock-star glamour death that would have ensured her notoriety forever.

What does Markham have to do with Vol de Nuit perfume? Not a whole lot in terms of history; Guerlain didn’t know her. We don’t know if she wore it, although it’s not a stretch to imagine that she did – after all, Saint Exupery’s book Vol de Nuit was published in 1931, just as Markham was learning to fly, and Guerlain's Vol de Nuit was released in 1933. It’s likely that she later went after Saint Exupery with the same fury that characterized all her pursuits. Did she wear it?

How fine it would be to think so.

Notes for "Vol de Nuit" include orange, mandarin, lemon, bergamot, orange blossom, jonquil/narcissus, aldehydes, galbanum, vanilla, spices, oakmoss, sandalwood, orris and musk.

“West with the Night,” by Beryl Markham, is still available. The ISBN is 0-86547-1185.

“Straight On Till Morning,” by Mary S. Lovall, is the definitive biography of Beryl Markham. ISBN 0-312-01096-6
Leave a comment for automatic entry into the drawing for a sample of vintage Helena Rubinstein “Heaven Sent.” There will be two winners; drawing ends midnight U.S. Eastern time, November 5th.


maitreyi1978 said...

I already entered the drawing earlier, but I have to comment again. I like to hear about fascinating women who aren't as well known as they deserve to be.

Suzanne said...

Loved reading about this larger-than-life, "pantherine" woman. Wonderful post, P!

pavlova said...

Oh thank you for this great post on Beryl Markham -- I have just added "West with the Night" to my must read list.

ScentScelf said...

Hey, I don't need a direct link from Beryl Markham to Vol de Nuit...I enjoy an associative stew... :)

(For which, thanks! A most enjoyable post.)

Abigail said...

A very enjoyable read - loved it!

The book - West with the Night - is now on my list.

Many thanks :-)

UMA said...

What a wonderful achievement. I shall try to get my hands on Markham's biography. And, also on Vol de Nuit. Being somewhat new to this perfume addiction, I have yet to smell my way thru' all these great creatons.