Being young and green, I said in love's despite:In no text or reminiscence of Vincent Millay have I yet discovered what perfume she preferred. Thanks to biographer Nancy Milford, we at least know what Vincent hated: Djer-Kiss, a cheap-yet-popular Oriental fragrance available in small-town pharmacies. Writing from Vassar in 1915 just prior to a visit home, she lobbied for the Millay cottage to smell cozily of brewing coffee or a freshly-smoked cigarette. "And if you have anything Djer-Kiss about the house," she warned, "drown it!!!"
Never in the world will I to living wight
Give over, air my mind
Hang out its ancient secrets in the strong wind
To be shredded and faded...
Oh, me, invaded
And sacked by the wind and the sun!
--Edna St. Vincent Millay, from The Buck In the Snow, And Other Poems (Harper, 1928)
It seems fitting that Vincent -- so imperious, so severe -- would reject the soft motherly embrace of vanilla and amber. I've always imagined her wearing a moss-rich chypre to go with the 'Guinevere' gowns she favored for recitations: flowing robes embroidered with threads of gold that "whispered and chimed faintly against the floor" as the poet paced the stage.
If the great 20th century leathers encapsulated the confident derring-do of the modern woman, chypres clearly expressed her ambivalence-- about herself, the world, the Victorian ideal she would never (and could never) emulate. Sexy yet austere, by turns inviting and forbidding, chypres imply a certain savagery ('nature red in tooth and claw') hidden deep within the wearer. Those around her do wisely to step with care.
I can't prove that Vincent ever wore chypres, but I like to believe that she understood their fey and feral appeal, so like her own. Furthermore, since Dorothy Parker has already laid claim to Coty's Chypre, I fantasize that Crêpe de Chine -- the stern high priestess to Chypre's footloose avatar -- might have called to Vincent. Fairly glowering with thundercloud intensity, this mystic jus befits a goddess of any age-- even Jazz.
Some call chypres 'difficult', as if that were reason enough not to attempt the wearing of one.* True to form, the vial of Crêpe de Chine extrait which recently came into my possession obstinately refused to give up its contents without a mighty struggle. Its Egyptianate lotus-bud stopper being truly jimmy-jammed, I did everything I could to loosen it. I froze it in the freezer, warmed it with hot compresses, anointed it with both alcohol and mineral oil, poked at it with fine-gauge steel pins, and finessed it with needle-nose pliers wrapped in felt. But the bottle had its own ideas. If it was to be "invaded/And sacked by the wind and the sun", it would make sure to have the last laugh. So it was that while transferring the vial from the freezer on the last refrigeration attempt, I heard a high-pitched ping! The brittle glass had cracked-- in the parabolic shape of a mocking grin.
I managed to save every drop of jus from the ruined bottle, but even then, Crêpe de Chine fought me. After having been sealed up for decades, it sent up its final protest in the form of an utterly sickening odor, a miasma like the breath of a corpse. I very nearly abandoned the entire operation. But patience prevailed, and ten minutes later I came back to gingerly dab a drop on my skin. All of Crêpe de Chine's fury and resentment seemed to have extinguished, leaving only a rich, almost sombre moss accord garlanded with flowers-- just like the Cologne Glacée, only worlds more profound. If you've ever read Vincent's "Renascence", in which the narrator experiences a terrifying vision of mortality only to find herself restored to warmth and life, you have some idea of what this extrait put me through.
I've read that the venerable critic Edmund Wilson carried torches for both Vincent and Dorothy Parker-- two diminutive vipers accustomed to slaying mere mortals with flicks of their forked tongues.** Mrs. Parker saturated herself in Chypre de Coty so thoroughly that its scent clung to Wilson's palm for hours after he shook her hand. (Biographer Marion Meade has astutely observed that he could have easily washed it off... but didn't, for reasons of his own.) If Vincent trailed such a scent as Crêpe de Chine behind her, what chance did the poor man have?
Talk about a candle burning at both ends!
*For a terrific analysis of the genre, read this blog post by Blacknall Allen; for other perspectives on Crêpe de Chine, read Barbara's and Gaia's takes.
**I half expected Katherine Mansfield to be a member of this Literary Ladies' Chypre Sorority (the Chypre-Skates?), but it seems she had a hundred-year lease on a parfum called Genêt Fleuri (Flowering Broom). According to my copy of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils by Julia Lawless, the dried flowers of the Spanish broom shrub (Genista juncae) produce an absolute known as gênet in the same way that rose absolute is called otto. Gênet is described as having "an intensely sweet, floral, hay-like scent with a herbaceous undertone". Fair enough: if you're going to be a bitch, you might as well smell like honey and hay while you're at it.
Scent Elements: Bergamot, lemon, neroli, orange, jasmine, rose, lilac, ylang-ylang, carnation, oakmoss, vetiver, patchouli labdanum, benzoin, musk, leather