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Perfume: Personal Indulgences No. 10

No elegance is possible without perfume. — Gabrielle (“Coco”) Chanel

When I arrive at my friend Renée’s house in Paris, she is knitting a small fleecy white garment. She embraces me, holds it up, and says, “It’s for your grandchild-to-be.” I’d written her that my first grand was on its way.

“You will be a wonderful grandmother,” she declares.

Frankly, I see no reason why I shouldn’t be. I adore children, always have. Playing and adventuring with them is one of my top three delights, and they respond to me in kind.

“And your grandchildren will remember you forever,” Renée continues.

Well, now that’s something else entirely. I see no particular reason why anyone should “remember me forever,” least of all the young, who are typically absorbed in their own affairs. So I ask, “Why is that?”

Parce-que vous êtes parfumée,” she replies with wisdom-of-the-world assurance. (Because you wear perfume.)

Despite her use of the formal “you” in her native French, an old-fashioned indication of respect that she employs even with her beloved daughter-in-law, Renée, once my professor during her New York years, has become one of my most cherished friends–profoundly cultivated, innately elegant, and, far more important, a mistress of empathy.

As for the wearing of perfume, I come by it rightly. My mother always wore a fragrance, most often Ann Haviland’s spicy “Carnation,” while her elder sister, for whom my daughter is named (so you can imagine how I adored her), favored “Wood Violet,” which echoed her sweet, self-effacing personality.

When I was about fourteen, growing up in deep, dark Brooklyn, my mother started taking me with her to the discount-perfume shop she patronized and allowing me to chose a scent for myself. I was finicky to the point of absurdity. At one session, the saleswoman, having proffered countless samples, all in vain, said, “Tell me, my dear, exactly what would you like your fragrance to smell like?”

“Soap,” I answered on the instant, then immediately corrected myself. “I want it to smell as if I actually–naturally–smelled like that.” (Our soap at home was Ivory. It did have a nice, fresh scent and, what’s more, it floated.) I can’t recall what we finally settled on that day. Fairly soon, though, rebounding from my “natural” phase, I moved into the realm of “Calèche,” “Cabochard,” “Antilope”–all three the antithesis of girlish, a mode I had come to despise.

In my later teen years, when I wore my clothes black, my long hair loose–Veronica Lake-style, my mother called it–and took a full ten minutes to layer my lashes with black French cake mascara, I wore Lanvin’s “Arpège,” it being so much more sophisticated, I still think, than “Chanel No. 5,” synonymous with Gallic chic in the mind of the general public.

I can’t believe I remember all this–I who have such indifferent recall–except for the things that constituted the pillars of my imagination: for instance, the names of all the dancers in the New York City Ballet when I first saw the company.

At college, inspired by Renée, with whom I studied medieval French literature, I wore Lancôme’s “Joyeux Été,” until the firm discontinued it. For me, that move was little short of tragic–I was far less disconcerted by the loss of a boyfriend that coincided with it. Eventually, I compromised for a while with the same house’s “Magie Noire,” but it wasn’t it, and when a thing isn’t it, it might as well not exist. For me, there’s no such thing as a Mr. Almost Right in the realm of scent.

Just before and after my marriage, I wore Worth’s “Je Reviens” (which used to be colored blue and stained your clothes, if you weren’t careful). The name means “I will return.” “Is that a promise or a threat?” my eventual husband used to joke.

And then, once I had begun writing about dancing, I discovered the old Guerlain fragrances. My favorite was “Mitsouko,” not least because it had been Diaghilev’s scent. Now favored by both men and women, it was introduced to me by my fellow dance writer Sally Banes and worn for decades by Balanchine’s right-hand-woman, Barbara Horgan. I abandoned it finally when the formula seemed to become more synthetic or something that made it not quite true to itself.

After the eclipse of Guerlain, I practiced a kind of serial monogamy, returning to old favorites for months, even years, at a time. More successfully–since the old scents or I had changed and thus lost our affinity with each other–I discovered new creations. Some later-breaking favorites: The original Vera Wang fragrance that had no name except the designer’s. “Armani for Women,” a brash (and, in my case, deceptive) statement of cosmopolitan self-assurance. Issey Miyaki’s “L’eau d’Issey” (back to the pure and subtle realm of floating soap). Calvin Klein’s “Eternity” as well as the same firm’s “Truth.”

I haven’t yet succumbed to the new fad for scents that evoke herbs, fruits, even sweets ( and exotic combinations thereof), concocted to gratify our time’s raging lust for novelty. Are they merely perverse or perhaps the next step–after the “Poison” phase–in the feminists’ repudiation of the innocent florals? After all, a Woman Warrior can hardly go around town (or to bed) smelling like a rose. Or so I assumed until, I was tempted recently by, of all things, Bulgari’s tender, shy Rose Essentielle.

I don’t know why people complain about the long waits at the airport nowadays. This limbo of ostensibly lost hours provides the perfect occasion to wile away time guiltlessly by trying out new fragrances–that is to say, new states of being.

Whenyou’re surrounded by a just-discovered evocative aura, anything could happen.


© 2008 Tobi Tobias


  1. Barbara Palfy says

    Altogether entranced by this article. For years I favored Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps as well as occasionally a dab of patchouli (heavy stuff, but light scents tend to fade on me). After trips to Greece and swooning over the scent of jasmine, it was all Dior’s Diorissima, which sadly disappeared all too soon. I’m still looking.
    Thanks for the memories. [Sent September 23, 2008. –Ed.]

  2. Micalyn Harris says

    So many memories evoked. I, too, wore Arpège, I think in high school. I still have the purse-sized canister, but the scent is long gone. My mother usually wore Shalimar, and sometimes I “borrowed” hers. In law school I wore Femme (Rochas) and then got my own bottle of Shalimar, which I rotated sometimes with other perfumes, usually given to me as gifts. I this point, I have a collection that includes Chanel No. 5, Joy, Madame Rochas, a bunch of “new” perfumes and enough Shalimar for 30 years but rarely wear perfume. Sometimes my husband can’t bear the smell and sometimes I can’t. A dab seems either plenty or overwhelming. Too bad. It’s fun (unless you’re a spy) and kind of sexy. So as long as you can, enjoy your perfume. I’m sure grandchildren will remember you for more important things, but aromas are powerful for bringing back memories. [Sent
    September 14, 2008. –Ed.]

  3. Lynne Schwartz says

    This is really an absolutely delicious piece (wrong sense, I know),
    although I have little interest in perfume per se. But I just love the
    catalogue, the progressions, the aura, so to speak–so delightful, an
    essay after my heart. [Sent September 19, 2008. –Ed.]

  4. Sandra Noll Hammond says

    Another winner, Tobi! As for me, it’s been Oscar for decades. I feel undressed without it. Sometimes I wonder if my children and grandchildren would know if I’m really here without the scent. [Sent September 17, 2008. –Ed.]

  5. Christopher Caines says

    My maternal grandmother wore, or used, something scented with lavender. Maybe skin cream of some kind, I never knew. Not many little boys inquire about their grandparents’ moisturizers. I identified the scent so entirely as her own smell that I never consciously thought of it as applied, rather than naturally emanating from her. And indeed, after decades of using whatever this mysterious product was, it had so deeply soaked into her skin that the aroma did linger without her having to use it anymore. I know this because I kept a vigil with one aunt, my mother’s younger sister, over my grandmother on her deathbed in the hospital, all night long the night that drained into the morning when her children, after conferring with the doctors, decided to remove her from life support. Even in a coma, even after weeks of uninterrupted hospitalization, without access to her own secret store of powders and potions, my grandmother, as my aunt said, bending over the ruined hands to kiss them, still smelled like herself—that very exact, particular hue of lavender that I can still call to mind, but never again find in the world. [Sent September 14. 2008. –Ed.]

  6. Judith Young Mallin says


  7. Jessica Delia says

    Thank you, Tobi! [Sent September 14, 2008. –Ed.]

  8. Rose Anne Thom says

    Your French friend was absolutely correct. My two daughters notice my mother’s perfume on some favored pieces of clothing we still have.
    More telling is the following: When the children were young, Lily had a fit of separation anxiety one evening when my husband, and I were out. The baby sitter was beside herself as Lily was weeping inconsolably. Lily’s elder sister, Maggie, all of seven, proceeded to my closet and pulled out my dressing gown, knowing that it had some residue of my perfume, “Calandre,” by Paco Rabanne. She then wrapped Lily in the robe and managed to comfort her.
    As for “Calandre,” it was my mother who picked it out for me because our rabbi’s wife wore it and she had the same dark coloring as me. Unfortunately, I have never lived up to her glamorous presence. But my husband has managed to find “testers” of the perfume on-line for discount prices.
    Ah, memories.

  9. Ann Ilan Alter says

    There are some perfumes there that I have worn, such as Mitsouko, and ones that I still wear, such as Arpege, which just smells delicious on my skin.
    But strangely enough, my mother wore Je Reviens forever. I don’t remember any other fragrance that she wore and indeed it left an indelible scent. For a woman as unpleasant and nasty as my mother was, I think I just discovered something about her I never thought about. Could she have consciously used her perfume like Proust’s madeleine — as a way of jolting my memory to think nice thoughts of her?

  10. I’ve always associate experiences with scent, therefore I never leave my house without perfume. I can go without makeup, but without perfume I feel naked. When my grandson was born, I always wore Chanel #5. I wanted him to associate a scent with me. Although he is now 7 years old, he never mentioned my scent, but I know he is conscious of of it, subliminally.
    I love your story about your mother’s talk about fragrance, my mother loved My Sin. I think to this day that she associated it with the famous ad–the one with the piano teacher kissing the student, with the piano in the background.

  11. Paul Parish says

    Tip-top, Tobi.

    My mother liked violets and lavender. She only wore toilet water; she couldn’t stand it if the scent clung to her. She could have been a nun.

    Me, I can rarely stand the scent of a perfume/cologne once it’s on me. Within a couple of minutes almost everything I’ve ever tried has gone nasty, unbearable, something I had to get off myself in a hurry. So maybe i’m like Mama in that.

    For a time, I could wear, and I loved it, Guerlain’s ‘Vetiver.’ But it changed, or I did. Then came ‘Armani’ — but the second bottle was not wearable, a trivial citron that went rancid within minutes.

    Then came Givenchy’s ‘Gentleman,’ which calms me down, makes me feel like I’m walking in a cloud of bliss. I LOVE it. I’m down to the very last drops in the bottle, and I know it’s irreplaceable. On me it’s noticeably patchouli but though the boof is musk there’s nothing nasty about it. They’ve changed the formula, the bottom is something else now — so I’m waiting out the last uses of the flask I have and then heading off into the sunset on my own.

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