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.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Debunking and a Drawing

"Wear your love like heaven” – Donovan

“We must be in heaven, man!” – wasted reveler at Woodstock (possibly Wavy Gravy) from the film “Woodstock”

“Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens” – Talking Heads

So many perfume forum participants cite "Heaven Sent" as their first. I’m one, although, to be perfectly honest, it wasn’t really my, uh, first, exactly.

Heaven Sent is still around, but don’t be fooled. The modern one has little to do with the Heaven Sent of so much fond recollection. The original was made by Helena Rubinstein, and came out in 1936. There was another version – from Mem Cosmetics (also home to English Leather, Love’s Baby Soft and Love’s Fresh Lemon) in the Sixties, and that is the one so lovingly remembered. Sometime later, the 70’s probably, the company was sold to whoever is making it now (and who cares who that is).

I managed to get a small bottle of the original Rubinstein version awhile back, on fleabay. It looks to be from the 60's, paper label, robin’s-egg-blue plastic lid. The scent itself – it’s an EDP – has lost some of its fizz over the years, but it’s still the heavy, flowery, powdery elixir I remember. I bought it because I wanted to have one of those olfactory Moments one expects to have in these situations.

In his new book “What the Nose Knows,” the sensory psychologist Avery Gilbert addresses the beliefs surrounding this nose-to-emotional-memory pathway. He contends that the Proustian legend, upon which many olfactory hypotheses have been based, is something of a myth. Modern research, he says, has produced mixed results. In some study results the strength of a smell-induced memory among test subjects is no more, and in fact sometimes is less, than a visually induced one. This is a major and daring debunking. But smell-memory, Gilbert continues, is subject to cognition like anything else. “It’s time to retire the soggy Twinkie,” he says.

So, back to Heaven Sent, my personal Soggy Twinkie. I got to thinking, really thinking, about why I remembered this one so much more strongly than all the others (then, as now, I was perfumely promiscuous, only the venues and outlays have changed.) What do I really remember most about it?

“Wear your love like heaven.”

The advertising! Oh God no! Say it ain’t so!

Got to go watch “Mad Men” one more time.

What is your Soggy Twinkie? The one that brings it back for you? Leave me a comment, and two of you (drawn at random) will win a sample of real, Honest-to-God Helena Rubinstein “Heaven Sent.”

For a detailed and much more erudite examination of “What the Nose Knows,” visit The Perfume Shrine – link to the left.

“What The Nose Knows – The Science of Scent in Everyday Life” by Avery Gilbert is published by Crown, c 2008, ISBN 978-1-4000-8234-6

Scent notes for Helena Rubenstein’s “Heaven Sent” include jasmine, magnet, rose, apple blossom, musk, patchouli, sandalwood and opoponax.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


Did anybody (besides me) see the movie “The Banger Sisters”?

It’s one of those flawed-may-have-moments movies with bankable talent (Susan Sarandon, Goldie Hawn, Geoffrey Rush) and a much better than average script, spoiled, unfortunately, by a treacly ending. It didn’t catch on. But here’s the story:

Goldie is Suzette, a blowsy, aging groupie who, when she loses her bartending job at an unnamed Sunset Blvd. Club (hint: it’s the Whisky) realizes that she doesn’t have a cent. She remembers, though, that she has one well-off friend; the other Banger Sister. (“Frank Zappa named us,” she explains.) Vinnie, (Sarandon), who has married a politically ambitious lawyer, now lives in Phoenix, calls herself “Lavinia,” and is horrified when her past, in the form of Suzette, shows up in her palatial yard asking for a loan. But she reconsiders. She finds Suzette in a posh hotel, where she’s imposed herself upon a suicidal writer (Rush).

Vinnie has two spoiled teenaged daughters, a doofus husband, and a stifling life. Pretty soon, her old friend begins to get to her. She begins to realize that she’s really nothing more than a maid, cook and chauffer to her snotty kids. Finally, she and Suzette spend a memorable night hanging out – but the scene that gave me this particular association was when Vinnie, dressing for their night on the town, throws open her closet and looks at all the tasteful clothing inside.

“Everything I have,” she shrieks, “is BEIGE!”

I can’t add much to the reviews of Chanel’s new one, Beige – they’re all over the perfume blogosphere. Sure, it’s a likeable fragrance, a go-to, elegant, would be appropriate anywhere, and is exceedingly well-named.

One of the prominent notes is freesia. Now, I don’t know where all of you live, but here in the South, freesia is a common funeral flower. (Remember Miranda Priestley in “The Devil Wears Prada”? “Is that…..freesia I smell?”) Also a wedding flower, sometimes; the point is that it is a flower with heavy fragrance and sillage and, as if that wasn’t enough, there’s the tropical frangipani in there too, the one Hawaiian leis are often made of. You’d think it would be a challenging scent. It’s not. It’s pleasant. They did it with such taste.

I know that the “Beige” name has to do with the French flag and an older Chanel fragrance. It could well be that the word “beige” does not have the same safe/tasteful connotations that it does in the U.S. Still, I’m also thinking that even I could identify this as a Chanel, without having to look at the label. It’s just that it’s supposed to be part of their niche line, and aren’t those supposed to push the envelope just a little bit?

Sure, it’s a lovely scent. Flowers, hawthorn, honey, what’s not to like?

“Beige” is currently available at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, in 200 ml. bottles (!) only, priced appropriately.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Special Edition: Tag Your'e It

Okay now my skills as a blogger are really going to be tested.

I've been "tagged" by Helg at PerfumeShrine to participate in a game. Here are the rules:

1. Link to the person who tagged you. (above)
2. Post the rules on your blog. (okay)
3. Write six random things about yourself. (below)
4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them. (below)
5. Let each person know they've been tagged and leave a comment on their blog. (will try)
6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up. (will do)

Six random things about me:

1. I'm impatient, especially with computer stuff.
2. I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up.
3. I once was a fire-breathing record executive.
4. Don't think I'll ever go camping again.
5. Elitism, in all its forms, really pisses me off.
6. I'm a blue person living in a red state.

and...(drum roll please) are my tags! (Source: you've posted comments to "Olfactarama" in the past)

ScentSelf: "Notes From The Ledge"
Lucy at perfume blog
Abigail and Brian at
Meredith at (books, art, life)
Waft...What a Fragrance Fanatic Thinks at
Simone, in Brazil, at

Now all of you fine people do the same, following the rules, and I guess we'll get a nice little community web-ring going!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Journey

What led you here?

For me, it was the daily trip to the drugstore with my mother. After a life of travel to and living in exotic places like Panama and Japan, she found herself moored in a smallish Southern town, home to my father’s aerospace corporation, a great place to raise bored, suburban kids. I realize now that she, too, was going a little nuts. We always had something we had to pick up at the drugstore, though, and so she dragged me there with her nearly every day. While she read labels and chatted with the pharmacist, I’d wander over to the perfume section. I’d drench myself with the drugstore scents of the day: Heaven Sent, Mugnet des Bois, Wind Song, Intimate. I’d compare them, wondering how they were made. It was a habit I never lost. Later, in college, I’d stop at the neighborhood pharmacy as I walked home, and do the same. Then it was free-standing perfume stores, so rare now. At one of them, I discovered Jean-Louis Scherrer and Joy. Then, as I began to travel around Europe, I found my first true-love perfume, Bal a Versailles, in a duty-free shop in Andorra. (I wrote my first entry to this blog about that experience.)

So much of what we are is based on the random. If I hadn’t gone to see a particular band on a particular night, I wouldn’t have met my husband. If Tom Petty hadn’t released “Southern Accents” at a time when I was exhausted with L.A., I might have never returned home to Georgia. If my next-door neighbor hadn’t worked the perfume counter at Saks in Beverly Hills, she might not have brought me all those samples, and I might never have known what the really good stuff smells like.

If I hadn’t been looking for a new bottle of Jean-Louis Scherrer, which I could no longer find at the mass-market perfume outlets, I might not have found the online discounters, and, if I hadn’t poked around on their sites for details, might not have found Basenotes, and Perfume Shrine, and Perfume Posse, and MUA, and, well, you know…so here I am.

And so on.

One of my first discoveries in this tiny back-alley of the blogosphere was the “Steps to Becoming a Perfumista” at Now Smell This (link below). Here is the list’s bare bones, and where I think I am on it:

1. Strong Interest: been here since, oh, about age 12 or so)

2. Beginning Perfume Mania: familiar to most of you I’m sure: the obsessive reading and cross-linking, discovery of sample and decant sellers, wearing out the numbers on the credit cards; also you run out of shelf space. I lived here for a few months.

3. Full-blown Perfume Mania: I used to read the newspaper in the morning, but now I’m on the perfume forums; also have discovered swapping, and can speak this arcane language of accords, not fluently, but well enough to be understood (although I still can’t speak French worth a damn and mangle the names beyond belief!) and, um, well, I started a blog; and, best of all, a bunch of blog-pals who speak this odd tongue too;

4. Connoisseurship: Not here yet. When you get here, does it mean that you’ve arrived? At what? A destination of a kind? Not sure I ever want to; this long, strange trip is so much fun!

How is your journey going?

Where are you on the list?

The David Hockney photo collage “PearBlossom Highway" is from the Getty Museum’s site.

The “Steps to Becoming a Perfumista” posted by Angela on October 19 of 2007, can be found at

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Fiddling While Rome Burns?

Do you feel guilty?

Maybe it’s my imagination, but it seems that the traffic on the perfume blogs and discussion forums has lessened in the last couple of weeks or so. It’s been a little difficult for me, to go on deconstructing scents while the wet sand is sliding out from under my feet, as the wave we’ve all been riding returns to the sea.

Something tells me I’m not the only one.

I work as a consumer counselor. I take calls from people who need advice on how to deal with crooked car dealerships or non-existent customer service – at least that’s what I used to do. A year or so ago, the foreclosure calls started. Now, it's people who’ve just retired, thought they’d be comfortable and are terrified. It’s tough and demanding work, but it feels good to help; still, there’s not much good advice I can give them right now.

So I come home and spritz up. Like some people would have a drink. (Well, yeah, okay, sometimes I do that too.) Try not to watch the endless bad-news drumbeat. (The 24-hour news channels are having a ball right now, as this is a ratings wet dream -- hey, media boys and girls, why don’t you take a little societal responsibility for a freaking change and stop scaring everybody to death – but who am I kidding?)Don’t touch that remote!)

I love perfume, and always have. This world, this gorgeous olfactory phantasmagoria, is where I live half the time. Of course, back in the day I didn’t know my cassie from my cinnamon, just that something smelled good or it didn’t. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to afford this passion, at least since I found out about decants and swaps, anyway. I haven’t added it all up yet – somebody over at Basenotes once wrote, “never, never, never add it all up, nev-ah!” and I think that’s pretty good advice. If I’m swanning around trailing clouds of Carnal Flower, it’s because I have an 8 ml decant. I’m like a bee that goes from flower to flower, joyfully promiscuous.

But now I’m having trouble writing about it. Somehow it’s the writing, not the wearing, that seems frivolous. Like more serious matters are afoot. There’s a bit of Marie Antoinette in the going on about the various tuberoses and/or has Serge lost it when things feel like they do right now.

I’m still a relative newbie at this, although I’ve learned a lot. After 9-1-1, we all got real serious (but wasn’t it amazing, how quickly we got over that?) “Go shopping,” our Fearless Leader said, and we did. I don’t believe there was much of a blogosphere yet then, certainly not a perfume blogging universe all those (7) years ago – please correct me if I’m wrong.

I’ll keep on doing this, because I love to do this, but sometimes my prose might seem a little forced, because it’s not coming real easy to me right now.

I know a few of you other bloggers out there read this. How is the current crisis affecting you? And what about perfume fans, how about you?

Is it just me?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

L'air du desert Marocain

As usual, I’m a year or two behind all of you other perfume bloggers out there. For example, Tauer Perfume’s remarkable Vetiver Dance is about to come out, and here I am writing about one of the older ones! But it is early fall here, and I’ve been wearing L’air du desert Marocain. It has made me think about, and want to write about, Cordoba.

For most tourists visiting Spain, Cordoba is a whistle-stop on the bullet train between Madrid and Seville. Almost no one stays there more than a few hours. It’s a dusty provincial town now and besides, Seville has better bars. (That’s true.) But, for a few centuries around the turn of the first Millennium, Cordoba was the center of the cultural and intellectual world and, most notably, it was a place where everyone – Muslims, Christians and Jews – shared their city in tolerance.

Much got done because of that. Commentaries to the Torah and Koran were written by the great sages Maimonides and Averroes, both from Cordoba. Libraries rivaling those of Alexandria were built. Alchemists and mathematicians worked out their formulae while poets sang in the temples and mosques. It must have seemed an enchanted place.

We think of the desert myths, Garden-of-Allah oases, camel caravans and date palms, as characteristic of northern Africa. But Cordoba is as close to Marrakech as it is to Barcelona. The influence of the Moors, which is what the various Saharan tribes were called, can be seen and tasted all over Al-Andalus (now called Andalusia) in the architecture of thick-walled whitewashed houses, in the fountains everywhere and especially in the food, rich with saffron, garlic, almonds and olive oil.

The Moors loved perfumes. Unlike the later Europeans, they bathed frequently. The many fountains existed because one’s hands and feet had to be cleaned before the five-times-daily prayer. They scented their bodies with oils, and their homes and temples with incense. Their cities were fragrant with orange trees, and the hot, dry winds blowing up from the Sahara produced aromatic resins in the mountain shrubs.

L’air du desert Marocain, so much more concept than accessory, is all about these fragrances, essences of a lost world.

The first time I visited Cordoba, Franco was still in power. Spain was dirty, brown and exhausted, and Cordoba’s great mosque was dark and full of stray cats. But the generalissimo was fading fast, and students were out in the streets late at night, shouting and singing.

A friend and I sat on the banks of the Guadalquivir, next to the Roman bridge, beside the ruins of a Moorish water wheel. We picked figs from an ancient tree, and ate them as the sun set. That was when I fell in love with Cordoba.

Spain now, of course, is vibrant and modern. That old water wheel has been restored. But the bats still pour out from underneath the arches of the ancient bridge at twilight, and dart around over the mosque’s roof as they always have. In the restaurants, they serve Andalusian gazpacho, made from ground almonds and grapes, and Jerez de Manzanilla, the pale sherry that has a slight sea-water tang (but must be drunk within a hundred miles of the Mediterranean).

L’air du desert Marocain gets me high. No other perfume I’ve ever tried does what it does. Its existence is a fine reason to return to Cordoba, because I’d love to ramble the streets of the old city again, enchanted by its scent. This perfume seems to lift me out of the mundane, into some other world, full of possibilities I haven’t yet imagined.

Notes for L’air du desert Marocain include coriander, cumin, petitgrain, rock rose, jasmine, cedar and ambers.