AMOUAGE WEEK June 20th-26th
Rumors had persisted for months in the publishing world in Paris, a persistent whisper that Madame’s memoirs would be published, that this or that publisher already had a copy of the manuscript and was preparing it in secrecy in time for her centennial birthday, and what those memoirs contained was anyone’s guess. It became a favorite dinner party game of the literati in Paris to conjure up stories of her fabled past, to wonder what she would say of this or that lover who would after go on to his fame and fortune in the arts. Would she be specific, give details, tell the stories no one knew and everyone wanted to hear?
He wasn’t old enough to care. All he could do on that chilly October day of rain and wind was to hurry toward the Rue des Grands Augustins and curse the fate that made his editor choose him to interview her, the only interview she had ever granted.
He knew of her. How could he not? Nothing in all of the arts of twentieth century Paris had occurred without her name in the mix somewhere, usually in an undertone that implied something slightly salacious and scandalous. A courtesan some said dismissively, a muse, a woman who had inspired painters and writers, playwrights and musicians and composers, a mistress of this or that household name. Always as the inspiration, never as a creator in her own right. So she had done everyone. Who cared? Men were so grateful, that couldn’t have been too hard.
Ah, there it was, the building with the Mariage Frères teashop on the corner, just as her housekeeper had said.
His first surprise was her housekeeper, a tiny Somali woman who eyed him and his leather jacket with a suspicious eye and an indifferent shrug. “You have come to speak with Madame,” she said. “She is expecting you. You are late.” Another look that took him in from top to toe, his wind-blown hair, the raindrops on his jacket that dripped on the carpet in the foyer.
He knew Madame had lived for nearly a hundred years, so he expected an overcluttered, over-furnished space full of porcelain figurines and lace doilies, all the detritus of a very long life very well-collected. There were none.
Instead, the foyer was painted in a luscious sienna tone, the furniture dark, polished woods that gleamed in the gray light of a Paris afternoon reflected in a Moroccan mirror on the wall, a bouquet of Casablanca lilies perfuming the room. There must have been over a hundred photos in all sizes, hung in symmetrical patterns on the walls, a large glamorous portrait of Madame as she must have looked in her heydey, a face to rival Garbo’s, yet there was no tragedy in these eyes, only a steely glint of intelligence. And something else. He peered closer. This young face had, so his mother would have said, the Devil in her eyes, a thousand laughs hiding in one dimple in her cheek.
Over there on his left, another photo, this one a long-gone day at the beach, laughing at the camera with a little boy wrapped in a towel, above it and all around it, impromptu snapshots of sun-drenched lunches, there was Picasso and Dora Maar, Hemingway smoking a cigar, Jean Cocteau with a bottle of wine and an impish grin on his face, goodness, was that Henry Miller, with that ecstatic grin that implied this was another free lunch?
The housekeeper snapped him out of his reverie. “Madame is waiting in the library.” She poked him in the back and pointed down the hall. “You are late.”
The library, the housekeeper had said, but this was like no library he had ever seen. As he crossed the threshold, he was assaulted – there could be no other word – by a perfume at once midnight-black and blinding white, and the room, goodness, the room. Overflowing bookcases from floor to ceiling and books stacked up on side tables, paintings, ornate Balinese shadow puppets and Dahomey masks, a lacquered Chinese screen and Japanese woodcut prints, a terrifying, lifelike wooden statue of Kali, jade sculptures and paintings by Braque, Picasso and Dali, a small white marble sculpture on the simple wooden desk that could only have been Brancusi in its exquisite purity of line, a leather sofa stuffed with silk brocade and velvet pillows and throws in every hue from scarlet to persimmon, Persian carpets piled three deep over each other and by the window, an armchair turned to the light beside a small table set with tea things and a cake plate on plain, white china.
“My library surprises you?” said a voice at once ancient and young. “Sit in this chair.” He saw a finger point. “You are late.”
“I am sorry, Madame,” he stammered as he moved across the room and those plush, thick rugs, “The rain…” A chair. Sit. Yes. He turned slightly in his seat to look, and there was Madame.
That disturbing perfume surrounded her like a veil and sent his senses reeling. He wasn’t used to women this old with this degree of notoriety, so he had not known what to expect, but this woman, wrapped in a paisley-embroidered shawl, was not what he expected. She looked simultaneously as ancient as some of her own books in their dilapidated leather covers and as young as he himself. She could have been a Sibyl in a Cumae temple, and she could have been an acolyte of nineteen. These were the eyes of a woman for whom life no longer held any secrets, yet life still made her laugh. That spark of mischief he had seen in that old portrait shot was still very much alive.
“So. You want to know. About my memoirs.”
“Well, Madame,” he stammered, “all of Paris is talking…” All his carefully thought-out questions slid out of his mind and scattered on the rug beneath his feet.
“All of Paris…all that Paris always does is talk and gossip. That will never change! What stories will I tell, what yarns will I spin of when Paris was another city and life was so very different? Who did I love, who did I disgrace, whose fortunes did I steal and whose lives have I ruined? You want to know?” She leaned forward, and again, he was caught helpless in that heady, haunting, spicy cloud of incense and leather, blinding black and dazzling white.
Instead of answering his question, she poured tea and pushed the cup across the table toward him. “Drink. You need to warm up. It is a cold day today.”
He was far too discombobulated to disobey. The tea was Lapsang Souchong, not his favorite kind.
“You want to know?” She sat back and gave him an appraising look. “All of them. I ruined …all of them. Do you want to know why?”
“Of course!” The answer was out of his mouth before he could think.
“Because they wanted me to. You…you are so naïve, you think as every generation does that the rules will not apply to you, that you will invent the world anew, and you always fail. History repeats itself. The patterns may change, but the colors never do. You are the ones with the right to know and demand passion, to reinvent love as you see fit. Once, I thought the same. Before I learned that secret all men who love women never want them to know, never trust them enough to tell them.”
“What secret, Madame?”
“All men…all the men I’ve loved and ruined in my day, all the ones I’ve known all my life…they all want to suffer, for having the luck and temerity to be male, for daring to rule the world. The truth is, they – even you – are helpless without us. Women give you life, women keep you in life, and if she plays her cards right, as surely I have, a woman can rule the world and anyone she desires, just from knowing that little secret.”
“Then why is it you have never married any of your lovers?” He added a lump of sugar and stirred his tea.
“Simple. Life is too short and too interesting to live from a cage. And I like my solitude, the order I created, the routines I have lived by. I have had…an interesting life. I have seen the wonders of the world, I have breathed the air of faraway places, and I have certainly not been bored. In a cage, I would have been bored to tears.” She shrugged, a very Parisian shrug of her shoulders that belied her age.
“Your name has been associated with so many artists, writers and creators, Madame. Have you always been the muse?”
“Is that what they are saying about me in Paris these days?” She laughed, a bawdy, carefree laugh that sounded all of eighteen and full of possibilities and hopes. It was such a contrast to that ancient and young, profound and profane face. “Young man…” She lifted an imperious eyebrow. “To inspire, I’ll have you know, means to breathe in. To transmute into thought and concept one gossamer idea. Trust me, I had many ideas. They simply found a fertile field where they could grow.”
“And many lovers.” He buried his burning face in his tea cup. It was her perfume, that haunting, heady scent of spice and power, fire and earth, light and dark that made him so bold. It had to be. It was like nothing he knew, like no one else. So rich and heady, so unapologetic and bold, so powerful, it was all he could do to even think.
“Yes. I enjoyed them all, you know. Not because of their fame, not because of their talent or what they could do for me. But because of who they were – as men. Unique. Some of them, I did love…for a time. Some…” Again, that bawdy laugh. “Not so much. I liked their money better.”
As she spoke, her face became softer, younger, it seemed to lose the years writ over her skin and he could see, or thought he could, the allure she once had held, the allure she had never lost, even now. For a moment, she seemed lost in a memory of a different time and space. Then she looked him right in the eyes, and again, he was struck by that blend of ancient wisdom and youthful laughter. They were separated by nearly three quarters of a century, yet behind those all-seeing eyes laughed a girl his own age.
“You are so young and so impatient.” Again that shrug, that potent perfumed waft of power, incense and earth, endless dark and blinding light. “You want to know my secret? I can give it away, since they are all long dead and gone. The perfect woman, the perfect dream of any man who ever loves, is to find that one who is all in one, all women in one woman, all of her darkness and all of that light…” he voice trailed off to a whisper and he had to lean forward to hear her. “ ‘She who dazzles like the dawn, she who comforts in the night…To hear the music of her breathing, and the perfume of her speech.’ No fool, Baudelaire. He knew.”
For a long and breathless moment, as the rain slid down the windowpanes, he could not even hear her breathe. All he could breathe in the quiet room, the low hum of Paris just outside her windows, was that perfume he knew now he would never, ever forget. Darkness and light, shadow and spice, flower and earth, it was both a remembrance and a visitation, a haunting and a redemption, power and passion, a passion that knew no time but its own.
She waved her hand toward the door. “You have your interview, I think. You can go. Tell the world. I doubt the world will care, as if it ever did. But once in another time and place, I cared as you do, and once as I burned, so do you. And as I am now…so every woman becomes.”
“But Madame, your memoirs…is it true that they will be published?”
As he waited by the door for her answer, he saw nothing but that twinkle in her eye. “Ah…you shall find out, soon enough.” She pointed and called out. “Anab! Show my guest out.”
“You never answered my questions!” he remembered to say.
“You never thought to ask!” she snapped. “ I answered all the questions you never dared to ask, the ones you really wanted answered. Now go. Anab!” She called again.
As he turned down the hall toward the foyer, he caught a last glimpse of her, a frail figure wrapped against the October chill in her paisley shawl, looking out the window at a past that only she could see, or was that a future only she could know?
He was writing his impressions down when the editor stopped by his desk with a parcel in his hands. “Have you heard it?”
He was confused to be snapped out of his train of thought, still breathing in that dizzying palimpsest of a perfume. “Heard what?”
“I just received a call. Madame died. It must have been right after you left. And strangely enough…He unwrapped the parcel. “I just received this…” he tore open the paper.
It was a book, a thick hardcover book, with Madame’s name on the cover, that same arresting photo he had seen in her foyer. Beneath that photo was one simple word, but it was enough.
It read: Memoir.
Notes of Amouage Memoir Woman, according to Basenotes:
Top: Mandarin, Cardamom, Absinth, Pink Pepper
Middle: Pepper, Clove, Opulent White blossoms, Rose, Jasmine, Precious Dark Woods, Frankincense
Base: Styrax, Oakmoss, Castoreum, Leather, Labdanum, Fenugreek, Musk
Disclosure: Sample provided for review by Amouage.
Photo of Gabrielle Sidonie Colette (used for illustrative purposes) by Irving Penn.
Translation of Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Tout entière’ by George Dillon, NY, 1936