“I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.”
I just finished reading Joan Didion’s classic essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), which I’ve been meaning to read for ages and recently received in a Boxwalla subscription.
I noticed a few few smell-related references in one essay—“Goodbye to All That,” her 1968 reflection on loving and leaving New York City. Didion lived in New York from 1955, when she won a guest editorship at Mademoiselle, to 1963, at which point she moved back to her home state of California with her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne.
Here are those references, with added commentary of my own…
“I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out out of the West and reached the mirage. . .”
“. . .I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later—because I did not belong there, did not come from there—but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs.”
(I don’t know whether the lilac fragrance she mentioned was coming from a florist shop, a street planting, or a private yard behind some townhouse…but I’d like to own a perfume that smells like this moment, even with the garbage.)
“Now when New York comes back to me it comes in hallucinatory flashes, so clinically detailed that I sometimes wish that memory would effect the distortion with which it is commonly credited. For a lot of the time I was in New York I used a perfume called Fleurs de Rocaille. . .”
(Caron Fleurs de Rocaille was created by perfumer Ernest Daltroff and released in 1933. It’s a soft, aldehydic floral fragrance with notes of lily of the valley, clover, rose, violet, lilac, jasmine, iris, sandalwood, musk and civet.)
“. . .and then L’Air du Temps, and now the slightest trace of either can short-circuit my connections for the rest of the day.”
(Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps was released in 1948. It was created by perfumer Francis Fabron and was—is still!—packaged in a bottle designed by Lalique. It’s a floral scent with notes of carnation, gardenia, rose, jasmine, iris, sandalwood, bergamot, peach, rosewood, neroli, clove, rose de mai, ylang ylang, orchid, lily, gardenia, jasmine, sandalwood, ambergris, musk, vetiver, benzoin, moss and cedar.
Apparently Didion had a taste for soapy-clean, traditional white florals during her New York years.)
“Nor can I smell Henri Bendel jasmine soap without falling back into the past, or the particular mixture of spices used for boiling crabs. There were barrels of crab boil in a Czech place in the Eighties where I once shopped. Smells, of course, are notorious memory stimuli. . .”
(When Didion was a New Yorker in the late 50s and early 60s, Henri Bendel was still located on 57th Street just off 5th Avenue. Bendel’s soap bars were available in various fragrances, including 10 West, Checkmate, and Sans Gene as well as the soliflore Jasmine scent.)
Didion writes of returning to New York after she and her husband have moved to Southern California:
“We stayed ten days, and then we took an afternoon flight back to Los Angeles, and on the way home from the airport that night I could see the moon on the Pacific and smell jasmine all around and we both knew that there was no longer any point in keeping the apartment we still kept in New York.”
(There’s jasmine again, but this time it’s the actual flower growing outdoors in California, not a scented soap used in a Manhattan apartment.)
I’ve also just watched the documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold on Netflix, and I recommend it, even though it didn’t include any mentions of fragrance!