Perfume stories

The time: 1930
The place: Paris 

My mother was born in Poland in 1912. When she was 18, a distant cousin of hers, who was a surgeon, visited her family and brought her back with her to Paris to work as an auxiliary nurse in the private clinic she ran in the 13th arrondissement. In so doing she saved her life, since my mother’s parents were murdered by Nazi collaborators a few years later and, had she stayed at home, she probably would have been too.

My mother had been learning French at school, but she was hardly fluent so she had to learn the language very quickly, which she did by reading everything she could lay her hands on. She learned to cook the best French dishes by watching the chefs her cousin employed to pamper her wealthy patients. She was taken to the theatre and the cinema, and she quickly became familiar with French culture. She arrived in Paris as a naïve young girl from what was then the back of beyond, but she soon became a woman of refined tastes who could hold her own with the medics and rich patients she was surrounded by every day. 

Before returning home, one of those rich patients, grateful for the care she had given him, presented my mother one day with a small bottle of Liu extract. Guerlain had launched that perfume in 1929 and it was a desirable ‘nouveauté’. She never knew what happened exactly, but my mother dropped the bottle very soon after receiving it and it shattered on the tiled floor of the ward. A heavenly smell enveloped, she said, the entire establishment and for a very long time one could still detect a faint scent floating around the place.

I was born in that clinic some years later. Perhaps in that very same ward...

In the mid-’60s, I bought my mother a bottle of Liu for her birthday. I saw from her reaction when she opened it that it wasn’t quite what it once had been. I expect it had already undergone reformulation in the 30-odd years since its creation. 

It isn’t always wise to revisit old loves.


The time: Autumn 1969 
The place: Tewkesbury Grammar School for Girls – in Gloucestershire

Although I was studying English at university in Nice, I had never been to England before. It didn’t appeal; I was in love with America and all things American, but I was told in no uncertain terms that I would never get my degree if I didn’t spend a year as a French Assistante in an English school. I had no idea where I wanted to be posted since the whole of England sounded so dreary. I asked advice from one of my old teachers from high school. She said to stay away from the big cities and asked to be sent to the Heart of England (Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire or Warwickshire); she said the countryside was beautiful and I would be able to make friends more easily in a small town. So I applied to go to one of those counties, and got Tewkesbury, only a few miles from Stratford-upon-Avon. I stayed (like all the previous French Assistantes) with an elderly lady who had taught maths for many years at the girls’ school. From the window of my sitting room I could see the famous abbey (the largest in the country) and my bedroom had a view on the field where the last battle of the War of the Roses had been fought. I spent an idyllic year in Tewkesbury and never wanted to go back home.

Anyway... I was going to ‘assist’ a female and a male teacher (I was also working at the Grammar School for Boys, which stood in the middle of some fields, about a mile from the town centre) and I needed to bring them a little something from my country. I decided a bottle of French perfume would probably be a fitting present for Miss Arscott (I can’t remember what I gave Mr Guy). Before boarding the plane at Nice airport, I bought a bottle of Jicky for me (I’d been wearing it for two or three years) and a bottle of Cabochard for the woman I never got to call Janet in all the time I worked with her (people weren’t so easily on first-name terms in those days). Why Cabochard? The mother of one my friends wore it and I liked it very much.

A couple of days before ‘la rentrée’, I met Miss Arscott for the first time: she was a tall, soft-spoken, shy, mousy-haired woman. She smelled of Yardley’s Lavender and I couldn’t have chosen a less suitable perfume for her than the animalic, fairly aggressive Cabochard. She thanked me profusely, but never wore it, of course.

The time: Christmas 1966
The place: Paris

I was spending the Christmas break with my best friend and her parents at their flat, just off the Avenue de l’Opéra. A-M and I had met five years earlier, in 1962, in Nice. We both came from Paris and were the only new girls at our ‘lycée’ who weren’t ‘Pieds noirs’, i.e. who didn’t come from Algeria (that was the year the French nationals who lived there had to leave the country). We became friends on the first day. Her father was a hero of WWII; he came from a small town near Nice: he loved it there. However, her mother didn’t feel at home in the South, and they moved back to Paris two years later, whereas my parents and I thrived in Nice.

So, here I was, on holiday in Paris, in a wonderful posh flat. A-M had a beautiful bedroom with a small en-suite ‘cabinet de toilette’, which smelled of her beloved Chant d’Arômes. It was lovely. On Christmas morning, we exchanged presents (I can’t remember what she gave me or what I gave her) and she opened several packages with great delight. The last one contained a huge bottle of Calèche Eau de Parfum, a gift from one of her parents’ friends. Instead of exclaiming with joy, she erupted, ‘But she knows I don’t wear that! She knows I only wear Chant d’Arômes! She knows it very well!’ We were all stunned. I didn’t say a word and watched the scene unfold. Her parents tried to reason with her, saying it was the intention that counted, that you didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, that she was being ungrateful, etc., and, since she didn’t want it, would she give the bottle to me (I wore Jicky, but wasn't yet wedded to it)? She refused. She said she wanted to ask the person who’d given it to her where she’d bought it, and she would try to exchange it for a bottle of Chant d’Arômes. And that was the end of the matter.

I love Calèche, but could never wear it after that. Perfume does not always bring out the best in people.


I will post today’s name a little later, but before I do I’d like to tell you about Mary Greenwell’s first fragrance. It’s called Plum and it’s currently exclusive to House of Fraser in the UK (and I’m not affiliated to it – unfortunately). Someone asked about it on MUA earlier, but I can’t post there, so...

As I’m sure you know, Mary Greenwell is a famous makeup artist. She has dealt with all the supermodels at one time or another. I first saw her work in a magazine about 30 years ago: there was an article about her, illustrated with two photos of a very pretty young girl – Before and After she’d been made up by MG. Those photos were striking: MG had enhanced the girl’s natural beauty without making her look made up at all. I still have that article. That face looks totally modern, which is unusual: magazine pictures (and films) from the past always look dated and, regardless of the hairstyles and the clothes, it’s mostly the fault of the makeup. 

So I’ve always loved MG’s work and I was thrilled when, about 15 years ago, I discovered she was going to demonstrate her technique (with the help of Elizabeth Arden products) on members of the public in Selfridges. By the time I read about it in the papers it was too late to make an appointment, but I decided to go and watch her in action. I turned up in the Cosmetics Hall just moments after she’d finished making up someone; she was waiting for the next ‘model’ to turn up. I felt a little shy, but decided to approach her. I said she should write a feature about making up older women because I’d never seen an article about people with my colouring (pale skin, gray hair, black eyebrows) and she was so influential it would make others take notice of us. She exclaimed, ‘I love your colouring! Come over here!’ And, before I could demur, she had me sitting in the hot seat and was removing my makeup. She applied all the products with her large, soft hands. About my eye makeup, she said ‘make it smokey, darling, make it smokey’. We chatted about Paris mostly, which she said she loved, but she never got a chance to apply anything more than foundation and eye makeup because the next person who’d booked a session with her turned up at that point. So I don’t know what lipstick or blusher she would have used on me – although, since she’d used a pencil that had been my favourite for several years in the past, it’s quite likely her choices of shades would have been similar to those that were already in my makeup bag. Reluctantly, I took my leave of her, floating on a little cloud.

Yes, yes, I hear you say, but what about her perfume? I tested it yesterday in Westfield: on my skin and on a ‘mouillette’ (kindly provided by a nearby Sisley counter since the guy who was promoting Plum didn’t have any at his disposal, LOL!). It’s a delicate, elegant chypre created by François Robert (who reworked Arpège). I have the ‘mouillette’ in front of me on my desk: yesterday, Plum reminded me of Balenciaga Paris; this morning it was conjuring up something else and for a while I couldn’t put my finger on it, and then... it’s Serge Lutens Nombre Noir.

Btw, the French word for ‘plum’ is ‘prune’, and the one for ‘prune’ is ‘pruneau’. Confusing or what? Look for those two words in the Alphabetical List.