Monday, October 31, 2011

Book Review: “The Little Book of Perfumes - The Hundred Classics” by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez

I’ve been blessed (cursed, sometimes) with a good memory. When “Perfumes:  The Guide” came out, I had just begun blogging and was — hey, I’ll just say it — obsessed. I pre-ordered it online. But I got a message saying something about slower than anticipated delivery, so I went to Borders and bought it the day it came out.

I was with a friend that day. Standing in the store, she asked me to look up a perfume for her, something her husband had bought her once that she treasured. The review turned out to be one of those delightfully snarky pans, something about making sure all the windows in the house were open before applying. Her face fell. I closed the book. “It’s subjective,” I said. “Just somebody’s opinion.” But I could tell that she would never think of that perfume in the same way again.

I bring this up because this new tome is much more upbeat. Minimum snark. Classics (old and new) only.

I cut my fragrance-writing teeth on “Perfume: The Guide” and I bet a lot of you did, too. I knew next to nothing about this art in those days. It was like a survey course, Fragrance 1A, taught by one of those profs students love — the irreverent ones — who also tend to be wildly opinionated. And “The Guide” saved me money. Otherwise I might have wasted it on refos, a.k.a reformulations. It also cost me money (vintage Mitsouko perfume, I’m looking at you!) I figure I’ve come out about even, if you don’t count the many bottles of vintage classics I’ve bought on Our Favorite Online Auction Site. I have no regrets about that, though.

One of my friends is a potential perfumista. We talk about perfume a lot when we’re together. I’ve given her some of my old samples. We’ve done a couple of bottle splits. She has bookmarked the major online discounters, and even bought a bottle from one. Hence, she now has a favorite fragrance that almost no one but me (and you) has ever heard of (hint: it’s “Oro” by Roberto Cavalli). This book will make the perfect Christmas gift for her.

And, of course, that’s the intent. It’s small enough to fit into anything but a tiny handbag. Hardcover; will last. Not too expensive, suggested retail 18-something U.S. I’ve thumbed through it, read some favorite reviews with nostalgic affection, noted the new material, noted new reviews of the refos, the editorial about them, the fine writing (that hasn’t changed). The grouchiness, charm and command of the subject that both the writers have. It’s still a great read.

This book isn’t necessarily for real fumefreaks, who are likely to have both of the older books as well as access to a small army of perfume writers and reviewers in the blogosphere. It’s for our friends, the ones who like perfume but may not be quite as, er,  focused as we are. Those not necessarily willing to plow through the online ads, “reviews” written by somebody in the sales department, shady discounters that change their names a lot, fora full of educated and not-so-educated opinion, and on and on. They just want to know if something’s good. 

So, if you have one or more of these pals that haven’t quite crossed over, get them this for Christmas. That’s what it’s for.

Full disclosure time: this book was sent to me by Viking, the publisher, for review.

Available wherever books are sold; the ISBN is: 978-0-670-02310-3.

Monday, October 24, 2011


I don’t read “Wired” much.  But, as far as I know, they have published the first mainstream article on the brave new perfume world, and it’s worth a look, even if you know all about the controversies. Here’s the thing: it strives to be fair.

Read it and weep.

Author Courtney Humphries is a graduate of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. It shows in her approach. She touches all the bases of the modern perfume story: 2 billion dollar industry, IFRA hopes to stave off the take-no-prisoners EU by self-regulating, 174 restricted ingredients including rose oil and jasmine absolute, the fear of image problems cutting into profits, and so on. None of this is news here, except maybe the number of ingredients (174? Really?). But then she describes what, for me anyway, is a scenario right out of some hellish science fiction movie.

Givaudan now uses a system in which its perfumers work within a database of regulatory information:  3,000 materials, overseen by 75 safety experts and three robots who actually do the mixing. The software that runs them has built into it all the regulations, of course, but what struck me as completely draconian is this: they won’t mix anything that is not IFRA compliant. 

I guess if I was a professional big-time perfumer, I’d see this as something of a convenience, and a shield. I wouldn’t spend months or years working on a fragrance doomed by a speck too much of this or that. I’d be protected from litigation, presumably, if somebody got a rash. 

So why does it seem so chilling?

Wellll….the digital divide, maybe. Humphries mentions that all of this doesn’t seem to bother the younger perfumers as much as it bothers, say, Luca Turin, and of course us perfume writers and bloggers who mourn a lost art. 

I’ve realized that privacy is an outmoded concept too. Having recently acquired an iPhone, I've also been informed by Apple that all my stuff — contacts, website, music and photo library, you name it — is going to The Cloud soon. Mind? Why would I mind? It’ll all be so perfectly synced, so convenient!

I give up. Fine, whatever, Cloud me, mine my data, I can’t fight you any more. (We used to call The Cloud “the mainframe,” but I digress.) There’s a word for those who refuse this new world: "Luddite."  And a worse one: “Old."

 So this, these robots, they’re progress too. The idea of an artisan perfumer, trying this and then that from little bottles with hand-written labels is so outmoded in the world of the wired as to be laughable. In the world of “Wired,” it's, well, just kind of silly.

“Wired” has an extremely desirable demographic. A quick look at their media kit reveals a circulation of just under 800,000, not huge, but what a circulation!  2011 MMR doublebase  data reveals a median household income of $90,448 — down from last year but what isn’t — and a median age of around 35, with all the expected bells and whistles — education and achievement at work, etc. Not good enough for owner Conde Nast, though. “Wired” has recently been redesigned to attract a younger demo (between 20 and 30 years old, income over $30,000.)  

Certainly, it behooves a publication with this stated goal not to look back, ever.

To Humphries’ credit, she gives space to the Luddites who bemoan their ancient art, but the article’s conclusion is that these changes are as inevitable as, well, The Cloud; this fits the magazine's editorial approach perfectly. Given enough time, we won’t mind (and, unsaid: we’ll all die off soon anyway.) And oakmoss, like privacy, is just so old fashioned; in the end no one will miss it or even know it once existed.

Yeah, well, given enough time, I guess we’re not supposed to mind much of anything.

Photo composite copyright Pat Borow, all rights reserved.

BTW: Remember Lanvin's "Rumeur" from last week? The one that contains enough costus and oakmoss to make the entire EU faint? I sprayed lots of it on my skin, some delicate skin at that, and didn't get a rash. Not even an itch.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Vintage Lanvin Rumeur

A few days ago, I came across a few mills of vintage Lanvin Rumeur.  I didn’t have time to sample it properly over the weekend, so I thought, for some reason, that it was an aldehydic floral like Arpege. Anyway, I grabbed a couple of those for comparison and brought it down to the studio to sniff and write about today.

Maaaannnn! This is no floral. 

Rumeur was released in the early Thirties. Not a particularly good decade for most. Times were tough. (Perfumes, as markers of history, fascinate me. This is why I love the vintage stuff so much.) The Thirties were a decade of tough fragrances, too, like this: leather. Like an old aviator jacket once owned by a pipe smoker who, well, maybe didn’t get to wash his hair as often as he should have; a prominent note here is costus.

Costus is made from steam-distilling the roots of the Saussuria costus, a perennial, thistle-like herb that grows in Asia. I have a little bit of the essential oil. It smells like scalp, sort of dirty and fleshy and musky at once. It was used as a fixative in the ancient world, but that may not have been the same plant — there are many types. 

Reading up on the IFRA regulations, I see that costus oil and absolute are — you guessed it! — prohibited, as a severe sensitizer. So now I treasure my tiny little vial of EO all the more. Black market costus! (And no, I’m not going to rub the pure stuff on my skin, nannykins, okay?  I have been using it as an ingredient in mixtures I call scents of place, as an element that adds that necessary bit of urban funk.) Rumeur is full of it.

So can I expect a rash? I’ll let you know.

But back to the scent. I get aldehydes at first, a tiny bit of floral (carved in stone, though, like those carved flowers over doorways in some old cathedrals) and some stone fruit. And civet, a little. The aforementioned costus. Leather leather leather, and it smells like the birch tar kind, not the synthetic “leather” note IBQ. A little smoke. I guess you could call it a leather chypre, as there’s oakmoss in it, too. 

I brought along some 1990 Chanel No. 5 EDT and some vintage Arpege extrait for comparison, when I was still thinking that this would be an aldehydic floral. The Chanel in particular gave me that “Why haven’t I been wearing this more often!” thrill. The Rumeur is an intellectually challenging fragrance, one that I found to be a little, er, disconcerting, similar in that way to Coty's Chypre.

I would love to get my hands on some Remeur extrait. It must be amazing.

Certainly, this is one that would scare the horses.

Remember this is vintage Rumeur. Reviews on the new one, released in 2006, range from “absolutely awful” to “not as bad as all that.”

I know the photo of Ava Gardner is out of time. It's a publicity still for "The Killers," from the late Forties. But it's such a great photo, I just had to use it. I have not been able to find the name of the photographer.

Perfumer was Andre Fraysse, who also created Arpege for Lanvin. "Rumeur" was released in 1934.

A quick search of our favorite auction site revealed…nothing. Not one bottle. But there’s always tomorrow, and some decant sellers might have it.

Full disclosure: I got my sample in a swap.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Book Review -- "Damage Control" by Denise Hamilton

“We’re the number that movie stars have on speed dial when they get caught buying heroin or transvestite hookers on the wrong end of Sunset….We tell clients whom to talk to, when to go to rehab, what emotions to show (remorse, sorrow, sincerity, guilt, humility).” — Maggie Silver, heroine of “Damage Control”

This is a terrific read. I’m not a mystery fan, particularly, as I think that so often the characters exist simply to move the plot along. These characters, though, are like real people, except that “real” hardly applies to them. They exist in a Los Angeles most of us will never experience or even see. These are the dwellers of hilltop homes with ocean views, entrance gates, and secrets.

Maggie Silver is an up-and-comer in the army of  highly paid servants, members of a large group — the lawyers, accountants, managers, trainers, personal assistants and many others — who protect the rich and famous, often from themselves. 

In an interview with Carolyn Kellogg of the L.A. Times, author Denise Hamilton says that she “wanted someone who’d be in that world and yet not of it.” That’s what Maggie Silver is. Once, at sixteen, she reinvented herself  (Encino, not North Hollywood; deceased father a golden-age screenwriter, not barfly) to be accepted by the gilded Paxton family after she became pals with their daughter, Annabelle. But she and Annabelle have been apart for many years, and now Maggie is a rising star at The Blair Company, a firm that does damage control. Annabelle’s father, a distinguished U.S. Senator, is in trouble. One of his assistants, a beautiful young woman, has been murdered. The tabloid press is circling him. So Maggie and the Paxtons meet again.

Lots of us in perfume circles are familiar with Denise Hamilton. She writes the perfume column of the L.A. Times, and pops up regularly on perfume sites and fora. The novel is peppered with familiar names -- Vol de Nuit, Sycomore, Chergui -- and rationalizations ("If it makes you feel rich as a duchess, keep it.") A classic scent even provides the final clue, which only Maggie, with her keen nose, would “get,” and she does. It’s fun, reading the perfume references, although the author has apparently realized that the perfume blogosphere is a small world, and uses them skillfully.

The real appeal of this book, at least for me, is its dead-on look at modern Los Angeles. Hamilton knows the territory; the downbeat surf culture she has called “surf noir” where, on certain beaches, used syringes and condoms are as common as kelp. But she also roams the immigrant neighborhoods in search of, say, Peruvian food and back-street thrift shops. Her own life includes a crushing mortgage on a crackerbox house in an iffy neighborhood, and caring for a mother recovering from cancer.  In other word, she needs her job. Needs to remain sharp so badly that she has a growing smart-drug addiction. So badly that, as she begins to realize that The Blair Company does more — a lot more — than simple PR to protect its clients, she tries to reason it all away. She, as an employee of Blair, is spawn of the sizzling 24-hour celebrity-worshiping culture that defines us now.

The first few chapters of “Damage Control” are Chandleresque in their description of this dark Los Angeles. They’re as good as anything I’ve ever read about the city. The rest of the book is devoted to Maggie’s unraveling the plot, in mystery-novel tradition, full of dialogue and subterfuge. I kept thinking about what a good movie this book might make. What meaty characters these are, all of them, from street-smart but troubled Maggie to blanked-out fortunate daughter Annabelle to Maggie’s shoulda-been-in-the-CIA boss Faraday to Mr. Blair himself, a self-invented P.R. Zen Holy Man that could only exist here and who, incidentally, serves Maggie civet cat-shit coffee — of course we in the know know what that is; the uninitiated will probably think Hamilton made it up.

So yeah, get this book. I think you’ll all like it.

If you don’t mind receiving a used copy (with only one user: me) leave a comment by midnight US Eastern Daylight Time, Monday, October 17th. I’ll do a random drawing and announce the winner on Tuesday, October 18th.

Full Disclosure Time: This book was sent to me by a P.R. company working for the publisher, Scribner, after I answered an inquiry asking if I’d like to review it. “Damage Control” is out now and is available where books are sold, ISBN 978-0-7432-9674-8, and as an e-book (ISBN 978-1-4516-2789-3).

The image is a scan of the cover of “Damage Control,” jacket design by Chika Azuma and jacket photograph ©Allan Jenkins.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Perfume and the Memory of War, by Erin Solaro

First a little business: I didn't hear from two of the "Miriam" winners by the deadline of 9/30, midnight US EDT, so chose new ones using They are: Irina (sample and DVD) and Susan (Grand Prize -- Miriam Purse Flacon). Please get in touch with me by Tuesday, October 11, midnight US Daylight time, with postal information so I can send them to you.

A few years ago, I came across this essay on another blog, and saved a copy of it in my files. I found it recently. It's a powerful piece, from 2007, and although it is long, it's really good and very thought-provoking.

Thoughts? I'd love to hear yours.

The composite photo at left is mine.

Perfume and the Memory of War
Erin Solaro

Having arrived (inevitably yet somewhat unexpectedly) on the high side of 40, and never having been a glamour queen, I’ve concluded that most makeup is a waste of time and money. The only exceptions are a few flattering lipstick shades, which will of course vary from woman to woman, and perfume.
For many of us, scent is powerfully linked to erotic memories: first kiss, first penetration, a particular lover or lover’s gift or request. There are also other experiences, often less fondly remembered. Scent can trigger everything from afterglow to PTSD. For me, whenever I smell Prescriptives’ fruity, mossy Calyx, I think of heavy armor. I was a freshly minted Army second lieutenant, wearing Calyx the first time I ever saw an M-1 tank move, and what a revelation that was: the perfect balance of mobility, armor and firepower.
And therein lies a larger connection.
Scent is, or should be, part of more than individual memory. Like wine, scent is part of cultural memory. And of historical memory. People sometimes have the opportunity to drink very old wine. Imagine pouring a vintage made from grapes picked by men who went off to die in the Great War, better known to us as World War I, and by the women who had no choice but to watch them go. Almost instinctively, we feel a bond. Almost instinctively, we want to drink to them.
Yet we do not think of perfume this way. Cultural memory is intellectual and bound up with the wars and other great events that have shaped Western civilization. Wine is part of culture, part of history, however tangential. Perfume is merely part of fashion. Fashion–couture–may be an important industry, but it is mainly associated with women and the men who dress them: a significant endeavor, sometimes of interest to historians, but hardly on a par with war and the memory of war. Or so we think. We know we drink to the long-ago dead but we rarely perfume ourselves in their honor.
I recently purchased off Ebay some old (at least 50 years) Chanel No. 5, still sealed. It was an unusual purchase. Back in the 80s, when I was studying tanks and poetry and kindred matters, I never liked Chanel No.5. I found it far too commercial, and far too subtle, compared to my favorite young woman’s scents, such as Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium and Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men, or for that matter Guerlain’s Shalimar, which I still love. A few months ago, however, I tried Chanel No. 5 and liked it. Perhaps they’ve tweaked the composition; more likely, my tastes have evolved. Thus my purchase.
With scent like this, who needs makeup?
Please do not think of me as some educated nose who can intone, “Ahh, top notes of aldehydes and base notes of sandalwood, suffused throughout with jasmine” (which is in fact true of Chanel No. 5). I simply hold that Chanel No. 5 in parfum strength is a beautiful scent, drying down to some Platonic ideal of baby powder and the very softest kidskin, with, at least on my skin, just a hint of cool sweetness. I smell it and I connect to poetry. Not lovesong or commercial tripe, but lines from a Russian poet beloved since high school, a connection as unlikely, yet also as evocative, as smelling Calyx and thinking of tanks.
Rummaging in your black memory you find
gloves up to the elbow,
and the Petersburg night. And in the dark of the theater boxes
that stifling sweet smell.
Wind from the gulf. And there between the lines,
shunning the ‘ahs’ and the ‘ohs,’
Blok will smile at you contemptuously–
the tragic tenor of the age.
“Three Verses” by Anna Akhmatova, translated by Richard McKane, from Post-War Russian Poetry, edited by Daniel Weissbort.
Anna Akhmatova was the greatest poet of the brutal 20th Century, a guest in the beds of many members of Russia’s brilliant pre-1914 cultural avant-garde while so much the heir of an older, classical, tradition that she was widely acknowledged to be “Anna of All the Russias,” in the style of the Tsars. A survivor of wars civil and world, famines natural and manmade, Stalinist purges and Leninist horrors, she kept faith with the living by bearing witness for the dead. “Blok” is Aleksandr Blok, one of the most important poets of the last century and an early admirer of the Bolsheviks. The formal cause of his death in the year 1921 may have been starvation in hungry St. Petersburg, or it may have been tuberculosis. Millions died of both. Whatever the notation on his death certificate (assuming anybody issued one), Blok, watching the descent of Communism into unimagined and unimaginable cruelty, simply refused to live. Farther to the west, a Europe settled into pensive peace after its own pandemic of death, struggled to regain its own desire to live. And it was during these years, when Paris was a refuge for many Russians, that the Russian émigré and perfumer Ernest Beaux created Chanel’s greatest fragrances: amongst them, No. 5 and No. 22, Bois des Iles, Cuir de Russie, and Gardenia.
Can there be a connection?
If you love scent, two of the great houses are Guerlain and Caron. My introduction to Guerlain was Shalimar as a girl; my introduction to Caron as a woman was Nuit de Noel. Two very beautiful scents that I almost instinctively related to military history, as I have Guerlain’s Djedi, which I have never smelled.
You can’t understand these houses and their scents without placing them in the context of war, specifically the Franco-German wars. Two great land powers occupied the heart of Europe; centuries of hate and death passed between them. For convenience, we’ll elide the dreary dynastic squabbles and Napoleon’s assorted depredations to start with France’s shattering defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Otto von Bismarck, having forcibly united all the non-Hapsburg German lands into one Reich, and having helped himself to the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, now declared imperial Germany a “satisfied” Power and adopted a foreign policy of “Can’t we all just get along?” For its part, France lived the motto, “Think of it always. Speak of it never.” Over the next four decades, Europe chose sides. Germany crafted alliances to keep France isolated and weak. France crafted alliances to keep Germany surrounded and bereft of overseas colonies. The official goal of both alliances was deterrence. But by the early years of the 20th century, it was clear that the alliance system had become less a facilitator of peace than a guarantor of carnage. Everyone knew it. From the politicians to the poets, from the philosophers to the perfumers, from the general staffs to the general public, few doubted that another war was inevitable.
The history books proclaim that everyone expected a short war, dashing and gallant. The truth is that everyone hoped the war would be short, hoped in the manner of a losing gambler staking it all on a single spin of the wheel. It was no secret that war had changed because technology had changed. Muzzle-loading muskets, for centuries so erratic that the firing command sequence was “Ready, Level, Fire,” had been replaced by repeating rifles firing manufactured cartridges, accurate and lethal to several hundred yards. Machine guns were common; so was artillery firing high-explosive shells. Barbed wire, originally an American invention for fencing in cattle, became a defensive staple. Railroads made it possible to concentrate millions of men into preposterously small areas; trenches made it possible for them to fight for years without moving the front more than a few miles. Millions killed each other. Millions more died of disease or lived on, physically, mentally, or emotionally shattered. And sometime during the First World War, the very nature of courage changed. Once, valor had meant bold and independent action. Now it related primarily to the ability to endure and obey. The virtues not of aggression, but exhaustion.
The First World War was followed by a second. And everybody saw that one coming, too.
To smell the scents of the great perfume houses of Guerlain and Caron from say, 1910 all the way through the middle of the century, is to smell sorrow upon sorrow. Sometimes that sorrow is anticipated, in a perfume such as L’Heure Bleue, the blue hour of Parisian evenings. Sometimes it is as fresh as blood, as in N’Aimez Que Moi (“Love Only Me”). The poilus, French soldiers traveling such routes as the Voie Sacrée to Verdun, gave this scent to women they hoped would remain faithful to them. The women hoped that if they wore it and their lovers survived, they would return to them in a land more and more bereft of its young men. And sometimes that sorrow is remembered, as in Nuit de Noel, when the men who died should have been with their parents and sisters, the women they never married and the children they never raised. It is sorrow for the fair and the brave, ruined and broken and bereft before their time, the dead and their survivors.
Often the sorrow is for the young men slaughtered. Sometimes, as in Shalimar, it is for women. The scent is named after the Shalimar Gardens of Lahore, which Shah Jahan created for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their thirteenth child. Until well into the 20th century, childbirth was to women what war was to men. With one exception. For men, war was an episodic horror. For women, it was routine decimation. Do the phrases strike you as odd? Isn’t war supposed to be the routine decimation, childbirth the episodic horror? Think again. I did, after returning from Afghanistan in 2005 and discovering that, statistically, a modern Afghan woman has a greater chance of dying in childbirth than a World War II American infantryman did of dying in battle. How many of those men, I wonder, brought back French perfume for their women, or died with bottles in their packs, perhaps broken open by enemy fire.
Then there is Jacques Guerlain’s masterpiece, Djedi, from 1927.
Djedi was the legendary magician of ancient Egypt. Pharaoh Khufu, the god-king, had brought Djedi to court to entertain his courtiers. Pharaoh wanted to see if Djedi could rejoin a severed human head to its body. Djedi said he could, and Pharaoh commanded a prisoner be brought in and decapitated for his amusement. But Djedi refused, saying, “Do not do this to a human being, my sovereign lord: surely it is not permitted to do such a thing to one of the noble herd of God.” Pharaoh agreed and permitted Djedi to rejoin the head of a duck to its body instead.
The message for that most blood-soaked of our centuries: there are things that human beings should never do to each other.
For those who have been lucky enough to smell it, Djedi is the strangest perfume ever created, and often the most beautiful.
It opens with scents of stone and mineral. One might think of camel thorn bleaching in the desert sun, or smoke rising into the desert sky. Then it opens into rose and iris, vetiver and spice, beautiful and brief, before melding into leather and bitter herbs, and musk that is both animal and powdery and that to some people smells of roasting meat. One might, if one is so inclined, think of burning tanks and what happens to the crew inside, or of dead infantrymen. Indeed, some people note a scent of putrefaction, even of feces.
The overwhelming impressions of Djedi are of a regal beauty that is conquered by terrible grief, a beauty that does not stoop to weeping or pleading, but is broken to standing ruins like a shattered sword.
To name a perfume for women–wealthy, cultured, aristocratic women–after a mythical Egyptian magician who is remembered to us for upholding the human dignity of a condemned prisoner was the act of a great perfumer who understood that he was living in a civilization that had no serious defenders. Not the traditionalists and conservatives, whether of the monarchy or the Church. Nor the totalitarians of Left or Right. Nor the cultural modernists. Nor the bourgeoisie, nor the workers, nor the intellectuals. Djedi is an expression of sorrow for a civilization that did the First World War, and would do a second, and between them birthed political movements that delighted in cruelty and slaughter. He, the perfumer, knows that his country, having endured one Verdun, cannot endure another. In 1916, 70% of the French Army marched up the Voie Sacrée to Verdun, a battle whose architects on both sides crafted to bleed each other to death. A quarter million men died and half a million were wounded, German and French together. The perfumer–it must be said, the great artist–cannot condemn his country for being unable to do it again, even if the price of failure will be far greater next time around.
Djedi is the scent of an uneasy era when people hoped that if they pretended enough, they wouldn’t have to think about doing Verdun again. It is also a lament for all the beauty that the perfumer knew had survived the first act of Europe’s catastrophe, that he knew would perish in the second.
We live now as they did in 1912 (L’Heure Bleue) and 1922 (Nuit de Noel), or 1925 (Shalimar) and in 1927 (Djedi). We are living through the beginning of the ending of our world. Our civilization is slipping away, perhaps also towards some dreadful cataclysm. Everyone knows the catalogue of perils, from terrorism and climate change to lunatic wars and the lunatic debt that funds our wars. And how long can we pretend that reality will conform to our fantasies, so long as we keep up the pretense?
The classic scents of Ernest Daltroff and Jacques Guerlain are scents that were understood to be great then, were great because they encapsulated the terrible beauty of a doomed civilization, in a time when the educated and cultured knew they were living at the edge of damnation. Ernest Beaux’s beautiful scents for Chanel are the scents of a man who has found a fragile, tentative refuge amongst beauty from slaughter. The callow 1914 invitation of the English poet Rupert Brooke–Let’s die together; it’ll be great fun–was only one attempt by young Europeans to evade their understanding that the war that was coming down upon them was going to be uniquely terrible. And so would be its aftermath.
We talk now of failed states, but Europe of the first half of the 20th century was a failed continent, a failed civilization. And the great scents of those decades, the Guerlains and the Chanels and the Carons are suffused with mourning for that civilization, every bit as much as they were also suffused with, for example, the images of Jazz Age flappers daringly smoking in public, as Tabac Blond is.
When those of us who will survive the coming decades look back, what will be the scent we associate with these last ephemeral years?
Fantasy and Curious “by” Britney Spears, perhaps. And Heiress and Paris Hilton “by” Paris Hilton, perhaps also. Fruity, sweet, without staying power, “girly.”
Erin Solaro writes about women, war and other matters of great gravitas. This essay originally appeared in, September 26, 2007. It has a copyright date, 2010, and I hope I’m not causing undue trouble by featuring it here. Solaros also has a book, “Women in the Line of Fire” out on Seal press, 2006.
Composite photo by Pat Borow, all rights reserved.