Bespoken Word

A scent for Ellen Olenska.

Inspired by Annick Goutal's Sables and a lively literary debate with my friend Montmorency, I wrote up the following brief for a bespoke perfume to be designed for one of my favorite literary characters.


Countess Ellen Olenska has come home to New York in search of a quiet, private life. Life in the decadent royal courts of Europe has changed this sweet American orphan into a sophisticated woman who hides her scars well. Beautiful, noble, and elegant to a fault, she would be welcomed back into Knickerbocker society except for... well... we cannot speak of it aloud.

Tender beneath her brittle surface, sensuous behind her guarded demeanor, Ellen Olenska kindles a fire in the soul of each person she encounters. She may feel safe in New York... but is New York safe from her?

A rich, spicy Oriental floral with a touch of the infernal about it, Brûlée (French: burned) is a scent for the woman who has been through the fire and emerged from it like a phoenix-- proud, whole, and undiminished.

Top Notes
Sweet Orange Peel: Acid, light, mouthwatering, optimistic
Chamomile: Sharp, sparkling, prickly, invigorating
Linden Flower: Effervescent, honeyed, haunting

Heart Notes
Turkish Rose Otto: Spicy, peppery, expansive, rich
Helichrysum: Warm, penetrating, dusty, earthy, caramelized
Magnolia: Dark, syrupy, narcotic

Base Notes
Medjool Dates: Dense, honeyed, rich
Hina Attar: Spicy, warm, intoxicating
Beeswax: Heady, golden, animalic
Myrrh: Mellow, balsamic, calming

My dream goddess scent.

Here's a brief for a fantasy perfume I'd create if I had the ability. It combines scents I love, a history that has always fascinated me, and (maybe) one of my past lives. I don't know the first thing about the science of blending perfumes, or whether the fragrance notes listed would even agree with each other. Maybe someday I'll take this formula to an expert and find out. In the meantime, it's fun to pretend that my perfume is steps away from being greenlit. Launch party at my place, everyone!


Birch forests at dawn...
Woodsmoke rising through cold spring air....
Fresh bitter herbs growing from thawed black earth....
Costly spices and precious amber from faraway lands...

From the late 8th century to the early 11th century CE, Viking trade routes stretched eastward to the Volga (Russia), southward to Byzantium (Turkey) and North Africa, and westward to Vinland (Newfoundland). Longships brought many treasures -- including herbs, spices, and resins -- home to Scandinavia.

A smoky leather with anisic top notes and a hint of spice in the drydown, Dísir (Old Norse: "goddesses"; also a play on the word "desire") is a perfume reconstructed from exotic ingredients found along the Viking trade routes, as well as herbs and flowers revered in the lands of the North. It evokes a steadfast, adventurous, and bold woman who honors nature and embraces the future without fear.

Top Notes
Angelica: Fresh, bitter, sharp, green, purifying
Anise: Lively, cool, herbal, violet-blue, bracing
Fennel: Herbal, anisic, cool, dry, sweet

Heart Notes
Caraway: Earthy, vigorous, savory
Cardamom: Sweet, powdery, warm
Cumin: Rich, animalic, complex, brown
Nigella: Warm, spicy, penetrating, enlivening
Nutmeg: Cool, masculine, serious, virile

Base Notes
Amber: warm, golden, lingering, calming, exotic
Birch Tar: Smoky, woody, leather, wild, primitive
Oakmoss: Woody, nocturnal, deep, green, vegetal
Saffron: Warm, creamy, smooth, buttery

Icons of a certain age.

After contemplating the squealfest surrounding the debut of Justin Bieber's Someday, I realize just how old and cranky I've grown. True, the fact that my senior year in high school can be purchased as a Hallowe'en costume is proof enough that I've passed a certain mile marker... but damn. I confess my aging brain may no longer be limber enough to wrap itself around the concept of pop-idol merchandise.

Or maybe I'm just jealous. None of my heroes ever endorsed a fragrance for me to buy. Hell, at times some of them seemed a little sketchy on the concept of plain old soap and water. But even when hygienic conditions prevailed, most of them were too artistically pure for product endorsements-- least of all for something as frivolous as fragrance. (Well, Henry Rollins did that ONE GAP AD back in 1991, but it was for black T-shirts -- the height of workaday practicality -- and he used the money to self-publish about two dozen kickass poetry books, so shut up.)

Now that all of my heroes are either pushing fifty or have gone straight through it to the other side, the likelihood that they will suddenly up and make with a celebrity fragrance is next to nil. Still, it's fun to idly imagine a batch of make-believe prestige scents fronted by my favorite iconoclasts-- so fueled by Carrie Meredith's "Expose Your Briefs" post (and just in time, as it happens, for Angela's hilarious take over on NowSmellThis) I offer these transcribed scribblings from my notebook....

Who: Viggo Mortensen (b. 1958)
Who's he?: Actor, painter, photographer, poet, publisher, activist
Name of fragrance: Tirador (named after the traditional leather-and-silver belt of the Argentine gaucho)
Notes: Tobacco, maté, hay absolute, sweetgrass, sage, leather

Notorious for practicing "method actor"-style hygiene when saddled up for such roles as Aragorn (The Lord of the Rings), Frank Hopkins (Hidalgo), and Everett Hitch (Appaloosa), Mortensen -- who grew up riding horses on an Argentine estancia-- needs a rugged, manly scent that won't interfere with his pursuit of pong, ponies, or pampas. Yerba maté provides a nod to his obsessive love for the South American brew-drinking ritual (he is said to bring his own cup and bombillo to movie shoots), while leather and cigar tobacco notes befit the 19th century cowboy spirit residing in this 21st century Dane.

Who: Adam Clayton (b. 1960)
Who's he?: Musician
Name of fragrance: Aurum (Latin for "golden")
Notes: Bergamot, mandarin, ginger, immortelle, Kenyan sage, frankincense, opopanax, hyraceum

Being that U2's Adam Clayton gave up smoking, drinking, and hard-partying last decade, one might despair of finding a suitable rock-star hook on which to hang a fragrance brief. But when one learns that the Anglo-Irish rhythm king spent his formative early years under the blazing sun of Nairobi, something of Clayton's leonine ease and equanimity comes into focus. Asked by journalist BP Fallon whether he preferred the sun or the moon, Clayton replied, "The sun. Because it brings life and a new day." His fragrance would be entirely composed of gold notes capturing the blazing heat and light of midday- the hour that all mad dogs and Englishmen adore.

Who: Henry Rollins (b. 1961)
Who's he?: Musician, actor, writer, spoken-word performer, publisher, activist
Name of fragrance: Work.* Look at Rollins' job description above. Enough said.
Notes: Musks, castoreum, costus, lavender, birch tar

Straight-shooting no-nonsense motherfucker that he is, Rollins would most likely hate the silly conventions of fragrance brief-building; only an antifragrance would work for this antihero. It would smell like fresh male sweat on clean skin, steam-ironed cotton, and mink-oiled shoe leather, and you would literally have to work to get it. Man a petition table... launch your own community service project... or join Rollins on his next USO tour. He'll let you know when you're ready to smell awesome.

*I momentarily toyed with the idea of calling this fragrance "sXe", which old-skool hardcore types would know means "Straightedge", but it would be mispronounced "Sexy" often enough to cause a large vein to start throbbing in Rollins' forehead. And you do not want that, no sir.

Who: Keanu Reeves (b. 1964)
Who's he?: Film and stage actor, musician
Name of fragrance: Via Una ("One Way")
Notes: Leather, iris, anise, heliotropin, incense

That handsome pro-am recluse known the world over as Keanu Reeves genuinely seems most comfortable drifting through life like an unclaimed suitcase. Over two decades of constant travel and hotel living, he's achieved a sort of well-tailored Zen detachment as much at ease on gritty city street benches as in five-star luxury settings. Combining the essence of the finest luggage leather with the cool reserve of iris and heliotrope, Reeves' fragrance would come clandestinely packaged in a high-tech platinum Tibaldi "fountain pen" flacon made to ride past airport security in a breast pocket. Bonus: it signs autographs in real ink!

Who: Thom Yorke (b. 1968)
Who's he?: Singer/songwriter, activist, misanthrope*
Name of fragrance: Synthete
Notes: Aluminum, aldehydes, rubber, talcum powder, plastic, narcissus

Imagine a single flower raising its head in the midst of a factory and calling the pipes and wires "Mama". Incorporating a series of disturbing industrial notes pitched at almost unbearable levels, this conceptual fragrance would echo the sense of dystopian future-shock prevalent in much of Yorke's lyrics. A pure green accord derived from narcissus absolute -- the only natural substance in the composition -- would provide a point of respite from the techno-malaise, while some very pretty aldehydes twinkle on every surface like fake snow...cold, unearthly, alien, and beautiful.

* One hears that Thom Yorke is a right bastard, personality-wise-- yet he works tirelessly on behalf of a number of crucial social and environmental causes. Perhaps he is like Aria da Capo's Pierrot, who declares, "I love Humanity;/ but I hate people".

Icons of a certain age... the distaff side.

While perusing the original Icons post, it occurred to me that a 'femme' version was long overdue. But then I was forced to cop to two inavoidable facts. First of all, most of my heroes are hommes-- not an unusual situation for a lifelong tomboy. But here's the real dilemma: all of my female muses are either fictional... or dead.

What?! How can this be? Are there no women alive and kickin' at this moment who inspire me, or to whom I'd offer an olfactory tribute? This cannot stand!

Alas, it must. The women who fascinate me the most enjoyed (mis)adventures which could not possibly have been encapsulated into 140-character tweets. In their day, no social media outlets existed to obsessively broadcast every moment of one's waking life. These intrepid dames had to scribble in journals, create masterpieces of art and literature, and hold up their end of numerous correspondences (in ink, on paper, with stamped envelopes, no less!) to make their innermost selves known. As with their male counterparts, I choose them for being less rather than more likely to front any kind of fragrance brand. A paradox, I know. But here goes...

Who: Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
Who's she?: La magnífica pintora de México and long-suffering spouse of Diego Rivera
Name of fragrance: Ofrenda (Offering)
Notes: Piloncillo (dark brown sugar), star anise, capsicum, cinnamon, tamarind, zapote negro (Diospyros digyna or chocolate persimmon), blood orange, cajeta (Mexican milk caramel), cacao, black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) honey absolute, cempasúchil (marigold), beeswax, labdanum, copal, benzoin, civet, musk

Tough-talking, hard-living, funny, and frank, the coquette from Coyoacán known as Frida Kahlo de Rivera funneled her life's sorrows into art so exuberant and provocative that André Breton described it as a "ribbon around a bomb". The moneyed socialites of "Gringolandia" found themselves enchanted-- but for Frida, reverence for la raza served as her greatest anchor in times of tumultuous change. Globe-trotting celebrity though she was, she carried mestizo culture with her on her very back-- woven into every thread of her beloved tehuana costumes and served up with every earthy Mexico City epithet that slipped through her carmine lips.

Imagine a colorful Día de Muertos altar constructed in Frida's honor, upon which the following gifts have been placed. Fiery spices, exotic fruits... a dish of cajeta, the sticky-sweet caramel treat that was Frida's favorite gustatory link to home... a brazier full of glowing coals upon which sacred copal and benzoin incense has been scattered... Even a tiny bottle of Frida's favorite perfume (that animalic honey known as Shocking de Schiaparelli) is here, nestled amidst spicy golden blossoms of cempasúchil.

Bold and capricious, yet curiously sweet -- and available only in extrait form, as Frida's essence can never be diluted! -- Ofrenda calls to our presence the turbulent spirit of Surrealism's original soldadera. Be warned... this is not a perfume for the faint of heart!

Who: Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)
Who's she?: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, playright, and polyamorous hellraiser
Name of fragrance: Aria da Capo
Notes: Narcissus poeticus (poet's narcissus), Narcissus papyraceus (paperwhite), spiraea (steepletop flower), Ribes odoratum (flowering clove), bayberry, honey absolute, oakmoss, vetiver, patchouli

An aria da capo is a song which concludes with its first verse repeated "once more from the top". Edna St. Vincent Millay's debut play does exactly that-- ends as it began. It seems only fitting that her fragrance should follow suit. But while a perfume rarely returns to its top notes once they have sung their fleeting song, its story can evoke the poet's true "first verse"-- her childhood. In a letter written to a friend, Millay recalls the pastoral Maine of her youth:
All my childhood is in those bayberry-bushes, & queen-of-the-meadow, or maybe you called it hardhack... the pheasant's eye narcissus (which) was as much like a voice as a flower... There is a little spicy-smelling yellow flower growing in clusters on a bush, in old-fashioned gardens-- I think they call it 'clove' or 'flowering currant'. The smell of it never fails to take me back...
Inspired directly by this passage, Aria da Capo presents a spicy wildflower bouquet dominated by paperwhites and pheasant's eye narcissus (also aptly called "poet's narcissus"). Fragrant meadow spiraea (AKA hardhack or steepletop), lush green ivy (reminiscent of Vincent's stint at Vassar) and spicy flowering clove draw us towards a classic chypre enhanced with sensual honey notes and a nostalgic touch of waxy-green bayberry. A vibrant living scent worthy to be experienced again and again and again... from the top.

Who: Alice Roosevelt Longworth (b.1884-1980)
Who's she?: Incorrigible daughter of Theodore Roosevelt and Washington hostess supreme
Name of fragrance: Provocateuse (Troublemaker)
Notes: Tobacco, rum, immortelle, coconut, pomegranate, hibiscus, yuzu, ginger, tonka, Bourbon vanilla
"First of all, my dear, she smokes in public. Imagine, a woman -- one can hardly call such a creature a 'lady'! -- actually puffing away right out in the open, for all to see! And then there's that car-- the 'Red Devil', she calls it, and not only that, she DRIVES it too!"

"She plays poker for money, you know. She-- the President's own daughter! No wonder he keeps packing her off on handshaking tours-- as far from Washington as possible, if you please!"

"I've heard that she keeps a flask full of whiskey tucked in the top of her left opera glove..."

"Well, I've got that one beat. At the last diplomatic dinner, she opened her reticule, took out a live garter snake--"


"--and turned it loose upon the tablecloth! Can you comprehend the NERVE of that girl?"
Provocateuse bears no resemblance to the demure floral fragrances of Alice Roosevelt's youth-- but then, the First Daughter could not have been less like the bashful debutantes of her social class. If we could travel back in time, we'd present Miss Roosevelt with a flask filled with something much more intoxicating -- and legal! -- than whiskey. Encased in "Alice blue"-tinted Lalique crystal, olfactory souvenirs of her world travels -- Puerto Rican añejo rum, Hawai'ian coconut, Japanese yuzu, and of course, the finest Vuelta Abajo cohíba -- mingle together to produce a bewitching fragrance that deftly walks a tightrope line between suave and acerbic. "Agile Ali" would almost certainly approve, even if... no, ESPECIALLY IF no one else did!

Who: Edith Wharton (b.1862-1937)
Who's she?: Celebrated author of The Age of Innocence, American social critic and heroine of WWI France
Name of fragrance: Enfermé (Shut Tight)
Notes: Iris pallida, Iris florentina, galbanum, aldehydes, violet flower and leaf, frankincense, sandalwood

First editions are one thing... first impressions are another. Excruciatingly shy from childhood, Edith Wharton projected a distinct froideur that left many new acquaintances believing that the literary lioness had rebuffed them. But those to whom Wharton took a shine discovered a surprising depth of warmth and loyalty behind her icy demeanor. The key to unlocking her reserve? Flowers-- particularly those found in the gardens of her beloved Italy. Mirroring a first meeting with its muse, Enfermé is all frost at first-- sparkling aldehydes leading the way towards brisk early-spring notes of violet and green galbanum. Just as the wearer begins to anticipate "the cut direct", Enfermé turns and enfolds her in plush iris, rich sandalwood, and a heady swirl of Moroccan incense. Thus embraced, the heart is forever captive-- and the thaw goes both ways.


Who: Shaun Cassidy circa 1975
Who's he?: Pop star and poster king
Name of fragrance: Harmless
Notes: Mimosa, violet, vanilla, "honey dust" accord

He's the first-- this sun-kissed, pudding-faced California blank slate whose wide, empty doe eyes stare down from your wall. He could be a girl, or you a boy, for all you know or care.  But you like to look at him-- this two-dimensional dreamboat, devoid of content, factory-fresh.

As bland as an infant's fontanel, as sticky-sweet as three coats of Bonne Bell Bubblegum Lip Smacker, Harmless goes on pretty, wears thin fast, and doesn't age well at all. You'll be intensely embarrassed to admit that you own seven bottles of it-- one for each day of the week, like your underpants. Bonus: each comes with a signed poster! Squeeeee!

Who: Duran Duran circa 1981
Who are they?: Serious musicians dolled up in BritPop drag
Name of fragrance: [pretty]BOY
Notes: Tuberose, tiare, gardenia, heliotrope, ambrette, white musk, aldehydes

Look at them. Can you smell the pancake makeup, the hair mousse, the limousine upholstery? Yes. But you can also smell the sweat of honest hard work. These guys are serious musicians, thank you very much. It's not their fault they've been reduced to a shiny commodity-- it's yours. They do all the work while you just loll around mooning over pictures in magazines.

Is that why [pretty]BOY smells like the proverbial guilty pleasure? The scent of so many tropical flowers in one place reads like a vacation unearned, a luxury getaway you did nothing to deserve. Your chagrin may fade over time, but [pretty]BOY won't. Enriched with sensual ambrette and musk, its creamy white petals are built to last 'n' last. Try and shake the memory off. Years later, you'll still find yourself sighing in secret.

Who: Alex Van Halen, always and forever
Who's he?: Co-founder and drummer of (but of course) Van Halen
Name of fragrance: Bête ("Beast", but also a pun on "beat")
Notes: Cumin, cinnamon, saffron, jasmine sambac absolute, oud, sandalwood, castoreum

When you're a fourteen-year-old girl, you know things. Boys are not harmless. They do what they want and no one stops them. They do things to you-- some of which you like, not that you'd ever show it. Newborn sophistication demands that you act bored and untouchable. No mere boy can possibly breach your wall. That's a man's job.

Shut up alone in your room, you study him like a textbook. Inscrutable, deadpan, a live volcano in Lou Reed shades, he's something your hormones didn't budget for. Some think him ugly -- face too long, nose too flat, mouth too large -- but his beau-laid beauty cuts you like a razor blade. There's power in his refusal to smile for the camera. When he does, it's the smile of a tiger, all ferocious gleaming white teeth. He might bite. Maybe you want him to.

A thing of feral power, Bête drifts out of the jungle and takes you down before you even know what's hit you. Don't worry. What scares you gives you courage; what kills you makes you stronger. Bête is exactly what you need, when you need it. Whenever you slip into this farouche floral leather, you'll be the dangerous one.

what the Wild Things wear.


Rock folklore has it that the Van Halen brothers achieve their famous 'brown sound' via shared fraternal synaesthesia. They know they have produced the right tone when they see the color brown, hear the grainy texture of wood, or experience distinctly umami qualities described variously by Eddie as sweet, fat, buttery, warm or meaty. Now I ask you: doesn't that sound like a perfume brief waiting to happen?


You'll know it when you see it.
You'll see it when you hear it.
You'll feel it when you smell it.

Scent Elements: Mandarin, magnolia absolute, chestnut flower, immortelle, armoise, cannabis leaf, beeswax, Saigon cinnamon, cacao, coffee, beurre noisette accord, malt accord, blackstrap molasses accord, tobacco, patchouli, oakmoss, cade, cedar, guaiacwood, oud, sandalwood, myrrh, labdanum, castoreum, vintage nitro musks, Bourbon vanilla. You heard. All base. No bottom.

Amanita is the name.

A thumbnail sketch, a jeweler's stone; a mean idea to call your own...

This one didn't quite fit into my recent "Pin-Ups" post, though its subjects adorned my wall, turntable, and tape deck for many a year. (They still do.) I suppose I could have wedged them into my "Icons of a Certain Age" post; they certainly qualify in terms of grey-grizzled years. But ever since they disbanded, R.E.M. shines as a cherished golden gem of my youth, suspended in memory as if in pure clear amber. Inspired by "Gardening at Night" and "The Flowers of Guatemala", I came up with the following bespoke perfume brief for Athens' finest.

Amanita (Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe)

Attention all pale wildwood flowers. From Athens to the place where you live comes the scent of a moon garden during sultry summer, blended naturally by the wind with the perfume of the Georgia pinelands. Unisex, vegan, all-natural, magical. Enclosed within a flacon silk-screened with artwork by Reverend Howard Finster, Jr., the perfume is extrait strength... and the lyrics are yours to decipher.

Top Notes: Lemon verbena, lemon balm, bee balm, mint.

Heart Notes: White buddleia, gardenia, honeysuckle, magnolia, yellow jessamine, evening stock, night-blooming pelargonium, kudzu flower, four o'clock, nicotiana, evening primrose, angel's trumpet, blue chamomile, daphne, lady-of-the-night, cleome, phlox.

Base Notes: Loblolly pine needles, sweet locust tree pulp, sourwood honey, cedar, oakmoss, and an earthy, dark absolute made of wild-harvested
Amanita jacksonii (American Caesar), a colorful and edible fungus found in the deep forest shade of northern Georgia.