Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Me, My Mom, and a Car Full of Caramel Cake and Perfume

 Better people than I can take a 15 hour road trip with their mothers and live not to complain about it. Tomorrow I leave for Denver with mine, to visit my sister, who's just had her second hip replaced. She's only 45. Apparently there were problems with the sockets - or something. I'm sure I'll get a more informed report once we arrive. Until then, I can only hope my mom brings earphones. I'm not sure we'd avoid arguments if she weren't the only one listening to conservative talk radio. I'm trying to think about this as an adventure.

The last time I visited my mom I convinced her to give me her almost full bottle of Oscar de la Renta. I remember it from my childhood, and it's well preserved. 100 ml. She doesn't seem to have used it much. She kept it because she keeps everything (except, strangely, the bottle of Youth Dew I remember always sitting on her bureau; that, she can't find) and because, she said, she likes the design of the bottle.

I've given my mom several perfumes over the last several years (vintage Chanel No.19, Fath de Fath, Joy EDT, Tableau de Parfums Miriam). She keeps them all in a little decorative trunk I once gave her for Mother's Day. As far as I can tell, they're all unused, though she did spray on some Miriam that last trip. She got into the car smelling of it, and off we drove to Wal-Mart. So I felt okay taking the Oscar, especially as it reminds me of her in ways I want to be reminded. Otherwise it would continue to sit in the dark, well preserved and well wasted.

Taking a ten day trip - especially on the road - is a nerve wracking prospect for me, and not just because I'm taking it with my mother. Getting things out of the way is process enough. Making sure I won't be stuck in Denver without something I need and can't get there stymies my faculties to such an extent that I've ended up more than once the past few days sitting on the couch staring at the coffee table and all the remotes lined up there. Even harder: figuring out how many perfumes I can get away with bringing.

My mom said bring whatever I like. My sister wants a caramel cake so we're packing that - on ice. She wanted two (one for each hip?) but I'm not the best brother in the world and will be disappointing her on her sickbed. I'll be bringing a scanner which is the size of an early model cell phone (two stacked phone books in size) and every important document I own, so that I can work while I'm there and in case, I guess, something I can't imagine comes up, like a fire in Peoria, and the fire department calls me and asks when I was last there and did I have anything to do with it, and can I prove it. I'd love to tell you that I have every document I could possibly need for any given issue scanned already, but more likely these documents are spread across three different email accounts and ten different files or folders. This, among other things, is why I don't generally like to leave town.

A friend and I were talking about OCD and ADHD recently. I can't remember why. She knows me well, this friend, and I think I know myself pretty well too, so I was surprised when she said she thought I have a little of one or the other going on myself. I thought of this again recently when another friend interviewed me for a blog she's starting (she's interviewing people she knows and wants to learn more about, she says, so I talked her ear off for two hours, telling her, I'm sure, more than she wanted to know) and later asked me to list my top ten favorite perfumes to accompany the post.

I came up with ten, which then metastasized into twenty. That became fifty. And even at fifty I was deliberating, second guessing myself. If this was a desert island, and I only had these ten (or fifty), well...what kind of desert island exactly are we talking about? What's the weather like there? Pirates? Salt water? Windy, cold, hot and humid? I started to think there might be some truth in my friend's armchair diagnosis.

Every day I pack a bag of perfume for whatever the day might bring. But I know I'm going home at some point, or points unknown, so the pressure is minimal. Ten days in Denver is some version of a desert island, and I can't make up my mind. At some point I started to think that my friend might be right but, more than that, my love of perfume (something I only occasionally, and jokingly refer to as an addiction) is a clear manifestation of a disordered mind.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Another Great Goes Silent; Adios for Now, Olfacta

Yesterday, one of my favorite bloggers, Olfacta of Olfactarama, announced a sort of early retirement.

Coming after the recent retirement news from March at Perfume Posse and Dane over at Peredepierre - who, like Olfacta, announced that they had, if not nothing more to say, then at least nothing new - it's feeling a little like the advent of the talkies. Big changes. End of an era. Ain't like it used to be. Etc. The picture's getting smaller. More and more people have discovered their voices and are talking - and I like a lot of them, but I don't know if I love the sound of them enough to subsist on their output alone.

Olfacta was a unique presence. In many ways it comes down to taste, and my taste leans toward literate, salt of the earth, no bullshit types. The kind of person you'd have coffee with - and not regret it later. If Olfacta had a book deal - I wasn't beaten over the head with it, though of course I'd be the first in line to read her writing, on the blog or on the page. If she'd just had lunch - or more - with a well known perfumer, I wouldn't have known about it from her blog. I learned a lot through her posts - about history, about fragrant components, construction, diffusion, you name it - and never once felt I was being edumacated or sold a piece of land. Her blog was more than a catalogue of her ego exploits.

Instead I felt her excitement about learning these things herself - about putting something together - about getting simultaneously closer to and farther away from unlocking the mysteries surrounding perfume. You can feel the wonder in her writing alongside its intelligence. That's a hard balancing act, judging by some of our peers, whose blogs sometimes (okay, often) give me the impression that they singlehandedly created the art and science of perfumery, then built an industry around it, then published a book, then dined with royalty, then solved cancer, then were complimented for being the best of all things by the one illustrious person from whom you would most want to receive such an endorsement,  then lived to tell about it, and haven't shut up about these glorious exploits since. If you're looking for something recognizably humble, or human in those valley-less peaks, turn back now. I make these comparisons not to say that Olfacta was better. She was simply different in ways I truly valued, and her absence will leave a stark blank space.

Olfacta was smart, and her posts took in a wide range of subjects - sometimes looping back to perfume, sometimes not - there were valleys in there, a true sense of depth and character. Even when she wasn't talking about perfume, strictly speaking, you were learning about her, and about many other things, and getting a strong sense of who she was and what she brought to her gaze. And somehow, too, she made perfume seem truly thrilling, part of a larger passion - maybe a passion for information and connection, either connection between facts or even, God forbid, people. She wasn't interested, as far as I could tell, in being your personal pipeline to the red hot center of perfumery. She just wanted to enumerate her discoveries.

She was diplomatic but honest, and while she didn't avoid addressing the bankruptcy of the modern mainstream (and sometimes niche) fragrance industry, there was a certain kind of philosophical "what you gonna do" quality to her sensibility that I appreciated and found refreshing. It helped balance my doom and gloom tendencies. Olfacta was never cynical; she was artfully wry.

I developed a friendship with her off line. She visited Memphis and we talked for hours. Dirt, perfume, movies, books, ourselves. She's a good friend. That honesty and integrity in her writing - I know, a tall order for the throwaway format of blogging - is there in person as well. She's a real gem.

I could go on and on about the way I think blogging - specifically about fragrance - is changing. I have my observations. Things shift; so what. Suffice it to say I understand moving on, and Olfacta will be just as fascinating writing about who knows what next as she has been about fragrance. For now, I'm going to miss her writing, and know I'll be returning to her blog's archives the way I pull favorite books off the shelf or spray my favorite perfumes again and again, to reactivate the pleasure.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Every Nose in Paris Knows: Trouble in Paradise and Smelly Chandler

I was surprised, watching an old Ernst Lubitsch movie called Trouble in Paradise the other day, to learn that one of the lead characters, played by Kay Francis, is a sort of Estee Lauder figure, name of Colet, who runs a perfume company. I'd never heard the film mentioned before on a perfume blog - but then, fragrance doesn't play any great part in the story, even if it figures more than in most movies.

Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall play master thieves who conspire to rob Francis of of her fortune. There are some good scenes involving the Colet board of directors, and early on a radio announcer delivers an on-air advertisement for the brand, singing:

Colet, Colet, Colet and Company
are makers - of the best perfumes!
If you and your
beloved can't agree - 
permit us to suggest a few.
Cleopatra was a lovely tantalizer!
But she did it with her little atomizer!
We'll make you smell like a rose.
Every nose in Paris knows
Colet and Company!

The corporation's slogan? "Remember, it doesn't matter what you say. It doesn't matter how you look. It's how you smell!"

Miriam Hopkins doesn't get much love these days, but she's fantastic in Trouble in Paradise. And she acts like someone drunk on perfume. Kay Francis is even less well known now, but she makes an equally fantastic perfume mogul. The film was made in 1932, several decades before the release of Youth Dew, so it seems unlikely Lauder was a model for the character. Though the company is French, Francis is thoroughly American, the way Hollywood liked its Europeans. I first thought of Lauder but Lauder makes no sense. More likely the source of the Colet character was Coco Chanel, whose No.5 came out in the '20s. And Francis certainly resembles Coco, with her short hair and dark features. The film pokes fun at her lifestyle: she's first seen buying, on a whim, a jeweled bag which costs 125,000 francs. The bag is stolen - by Hopkins and Marshall, so that they can return it and steal even more.

Perfume has turned up in a lot of books lately too. I've been reading old detective novels - mostly Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler. Chandler mentions perfume all the time. In one of his lesser known novels, The Little Sister, there must be half a dozen mentions. Philip Marlowe often comments on the perfume a woman is wearing. It's often part of her spell. Every once in a while, he comments on a man's fragrance as well, but on men fragrance takes on foul associations. Women wear just enough, it seems. If you can smell a man's, he must be wearing too much.

You can watch Trouble in Paradise on youtube. Another good Hopkins/Lubitsch film, Design for Living, is also there.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Miss de Rauch: Mimosa Aldehyde

Last weekend, I was in rural Arkansas, visiting family, and came across this little wonder.

The pickings in these rural antique shops are slim, but if you're after Avon collectibles in bottles shaped like horns, vintage cars, mushrooms, kitty cats, and kerosene camping lamps, you won't be disappointed (disclaimer: in one such whopping 5 ounce bottle, shape of a grandfather clock, I found the now discontinued Charisma, a pretty, peachy green floral, more than worth the four bucks I paid for it).

Littered about these Avon curiosities, which seemed to be very popular in the area at one time, you'll find bottles you'll wish were full. While the Avon bottles remained unused and are typically virtually untouched in these shops, more upscale perfumes have mere drops left in them. I admire this weird reversal - save the precious Avon for some future special occasion, to occur, apparently, long after death; use up the Samsara post haste, can't splash the stuff fast enough. Naturally, there's almost always a bottle of Youth Dew, somewhere between half full and empty. The illustrious history of Youth Dew reformulation is illustrated on the dusty shelves of flea market stalls all across America.

I'd never heard of Rauch, so I assumed it must be something cheaper than Avon, some forgotten drugstore fragrance. I almost passed on it. The 4 ounce bottle was half empty. This meant 2 ounces at ten bucks, which seemed pricey under the circumstances. But I kept coming back to the smell, which radiated out from the bottle, having seeped out and saturated the twine and price tag fastened around the  neck.

There was something familiar about Miss de Rauch - reminding me of perfumes from my childhood - but something very odd too. I had it all over my hands yet there was something I couldn't put a finger on. So I bought it and brought it home.

And looked it up online - but there wasn't much. Apparently, Madeleine de Rauch, a contemporary of Chanel (read, competitor), was a well known couturier in Paris. She'd started designing sportswear in 1928, encouraged by friends. This first design house was called, fittingly, Maison de l'Amitie (House of Friends). Entering business with her two sisters, she moved on to haute couture by 1932, showing alongside Lelong and Fath and many other well known design houses. The doors of de Rauch were open from '32 to '73 in the Hotel Ganay at 37 Rue Jean-Goujon, 8th arrondissement, Paris. According to the Vintage Fashion Guild, she was known for "fluid, feminine clothes and sporty day looks." Weren't they all?

Beyond this limited bio, the information gets sparse. You can read a google translation to English of a French Wikipedia page on the designer, which at times will make you think your chances are better with the original text. Of de Rauch, the page says: "She practices the riding, the skating, the tennis, the swimming and all that, so generally accepted, combines elegance with oxygen."

Further reading: "It" (by which, I assume, they mean "she") helped emerging talent, namely a young Yves Saint Laurent.

Eventually, de Rauch had a small line of fragrances which were not by any means inexpensive, starting with Pitch (1947, sportily referencing the game of golf) and ending with Fresh Water Rauch (1974). The English translation of the French Wikipedia page lists seven de Rauch fragrances, all "disappeared", a term I think I prefer to "discontinued" when it comes to fragrances like these which seem to have slipped through the rare cracks of perfume discourse, as if they never existed. Wikipedia doesn't list Vacarme (pictured above), which I have seen online as well, so who knows how many de Rauch scents there were. Certainly not Wikipedia.

I'm guessing de Rauch wasn't quite the showman Coco was, or didn't have her kind of backing, which might account, in part, for the vanishing act. Having smelled Miss de Rauch, I wouldn't say it isn't as well known because it doesn't smell as good. In fact, I prefer it to No. 5. Chanel No. 5 made it out to the farthest reaches of the hinterlands thanks to a now standard, then innovative deal between Chanel and a distributor with a much wider reach. Had it not been for this licensing arrangement, I suspect it wouldn't be as well known as it is today, no matter how daring for its time we consider it now. Don't feel to sorry for Miss de Rauch. It was carried at I. Magnin. It did have distribution, with the company which represented D'Orsay and Piguet.

Neverthless, none of Coco's ubiquity for Madeleine, and yet my bottle of Miss de Rauch ended up, somehow, in the farthest reaches of Arkansas. The scent dates from 1947, 1960, or 1968, by varied accounts. Wikipedia says that the scent was originally released in 1960, then reformulated in 1968, possibly explaining at least one of the timeline discrepancies.

The familiar smell, it turns out, is mimosa, a sweeter, more somehow succulent rendition than I'm used to. I'm not sure I've ever come across such a strong mimosa note in an aldehyde - but then, Miss de Rauch bears out the fact I haven't seen everything. Fittingly, the juice is the pink of the mimosa blossoms I remember as a kid and still see all over Memphis. I saw them a lot in Arkansas too, visiting my grandmother over the years. She often talked about mimosa trees - how hard they were to maintain. They grow fast but aren't particularly healthy trees; more like weeds, from what I remember her saying. There was one outside an apartment building she lived in briefly as a teenager and she still thought about it sixty years later, recalling the aroma vividly. If I remember, the mimosa was one of her favorite trees and its flowers, I suspect, one of her favorite scents. I think what the bottle - with its pink coloring and mimosa smell - reminded me of was my grandmother.

There's a little bit of confusion online about just what kind of scent Miss de Rauch is. I've read floral aldehyde (on Perfume Intelligence), and there are definitely aldehydes in the opening. I've also read woody floral, and really, that opening notwithstanding, the scent reminds me very little of most of the aldehydes I've smelled. Miss de Rauch doesn't remind me remotely of anything like No. 5. It reminds me more, in some weird way - possibly the pink - of Miss Balmain, which came out in 1967. Maybe Miss Balmain shows what happens to a girl like Miss de Rauch after a pack of cigarettes and a few too many cocktails. Then again, it has some similarities to woody aldehyde Arpege, only pink to that sophisticate's amber.

I've read lotus, mimosa, melon, pathcouli... I smell all of those except the lotus. I wouldn't know lotus if it bit me on the nose.

Miss de Rauch is difficult to find but I've seen bottles on ebay. None seem to share the pink coloring with my bottle. And the bottle design itself is different in some cases.  Apparently, after Madeleine died the perfume line passed through various corporate entities, and there was, until as late as 2010, a Miss Rauch on the market (originating 1998) which bore little or no relation to the original, and by original you can hazard an untranslated guess whether this refers to the 1960 or 1968 version. I have no idea whether my bottle is pre or post 1968, though I'd venture it dates between the two.

According to Wikipedia, other de Rauch fragrances were: Mr. Rauch (1950), Belle de Rauch (1966), Din Rauch (1966), and Royal Rauch (1973).

If any of you have smelled a Rauch fragrance, or seen one, I'd be interested to hear about it.