Vanities: Billie’s Best, on Her Birthday

Billie Dressing Table.jpg
Portrait of Billie Holiday and her dog Mister, New York, N.Y., ca. June 1946, William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress)

April 7th is Billie Holiday’s birthday! “Lady Day” was born on this day in 1915 (and died in 1959, far too young).

I’ve been listening to her music since my early twenties but I never thought to wonder, until today: what was her favorite perfume?

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Afro-American (Baltimore), October 23, 1937, p. 8

Sometimes it’s impossible to learn what a celebrity’s true scent-preferences were, or to document the claims that have been made about that celebrity by various perfume houses after the fact. In this case, I was delighted to find an answer in a primary source, from Holiday’s early career.

I came across this 1937 article in an excellent post (from 2014) by My Pretty Baby Cried She Was a Bird.

The article was written by reporter Lillian Johnson and ran in the Baltimore Afro-American on October 23, 1937. It featured a discussion of Holiday’s favorite jewelry, dressing-room garb, cosmetics (Max Factor), and — yes — perfumes.

Holiday in Afro American.png
Afro-American (Baltimore), October 23, 1937, p. 8

Lillian Johnson wrote that Billie Holiday was fond of Coty Emeraude and Bourjois Evening in Paris. (I’m so excited by this piece of news, I can’t even tell you…ha!)

Emeraude was released by Coty in 1921 and was widely available in the late 1930s. It was a citrus-amber “oriental” perfume, created by François Coty, with notes of bergamot, lemon, lemongrass, and orange; rosewood, rose, jasmin, and ylang ylang; vanilla, ambergris, opoponax, benzoin, sandalwood, and patchouli. (It’s often been compared to Guerlain Shalimar, another classic.)

Baltimore Sun Nov 24 1937.png
Baltimore Sun, November 24, 1937

The ad above ran in another Baltimore newspaper in 1937. Emeraude was also available in a range of scented body products, including dusting powder and bath salts. I wonder whether Lady Day ever immersed herself in a full Emeraude regimen.

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Chicago Tribune, March 14, 1937

Bourjois Evening in Paris was launched in the late 1920s and was created to appeal to the American market. It was developed by the master perfumer Ernest Beaux (most famous as the “nose” behind Chanel no. 5!) as a sweet floral fragrance with notes of violets, bergamot, tarragon, and cyclamen; linden blossom, clover, lily of the valley, lilac, rose, iris, carnation, and jasmine; vetiver, styrax, amber, incense, heliotrope, musk and benzoin.

Evening in Paris Daily News Dec 23 1937 Liggetts.png
Daily News (New York), December 23, 1937

As we can see in the Rexall’s ad above, Evening in Paris fragrance could be complemented by matching dusting powder and Evening in Paris cosmetics! (Billie already had her faves from Max Factor, but it’s still fun to know that these existed.)

Billie's Perfumes.jpg
Chez moi. My own photo.

Part of the reason I’m so happy to learn this: I already own vintage (1960s?) bottles of Emeraude and Evening in Paris. I’m going to wear one of them tonight while listening to Ms. Holiday.

(My source for the fragrance notes is The H&R Book: Fragrance Guide, Feminine Notes, Fragrances on the International Market, 1984.)

With much gratitude to My Pretty Baby Cried She Was a Bird for finding this article and citing her source!!

 

 

3 comments

  1. Lady Day has been my favorite since my teens back in the 90s. I literally look at her image every day: our mantelpiece holds artwork in which a large Apollo Theatre concert flier has been transposed to a piece of wood. I got this when we were visiting back home (Louisiana). The gallery owner was about to move her gallery from the French Quarter to Metairie (my literal birthplace). I had to have the artwork. Two weeks later, Katrina happened and Metairie was affected (unlike the part of the Quarter in which we visited the gallery). That’s so lovely about the perfumes. There’s something so special about discovering you have something with traces of her, isn’t there?

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    • Thank you for sharing this! I love that story and the fact that every day you live with this image and all its layers of memories. There’s no one else quite like Lady Day. And yes! I was so tickled to find that she wore these beautiful, and very accessible, fragrances. They’re still easy to find online and we can smell what she smelled when she dabbed them on…before a performance or a night out, perhaps!

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  2. There is a photograph of Billie putting on Femme de Rochas! On another photo she is in front of her dressing table where rests a bottle of Lanvin; the Art Deco black ball with the golden raspberry stopper. Impossible to know what Lanvin scent she favored. Scandal, perhaps?… 🙂

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