Cora On The Jersey Shore

A review of Worth ‘Courtesan’

If you were a woman with an urge to make an impact, the decks were stacked against you not so long ago. You could choose respectability…and marriage. Respectability…and spinsterhood, the fate that lay in store for Jane Eyre if not for Mr. Rochester. Or…

Just reject respectability altogether and make what you would and you could off the hypocrisies of the Victorian Age…drive men to wreck and ruin, leave heaps of havoc in your wake, squander fortunes and hold salons, be accepted in all the best (French) society and leave an immortal name behind…as a courtesan of the Second Empire.

Today, we have all sorts of wrong associations with that word. We tend to think of courtesans – who still exist even today – as simply a more refined grade of prostitute, but some of these women changed history, broke hearts, spent fortunes on frivolities, misbehaved on an epic scale, lived with a zest and a fervor not even today’s rock stars on a rampage could hope to emulate with quite so much success. And above all those famous beauties of dubious repute and scandalous rumors shone an Englishwoman who taught even the French a lesson or two on the arts of decadence.

Because as any woman worth her lipstick in any age knew or knows today, the aeons-old battle of the sexes can by necessity be boiled down to nine words:

We’ve got it. They want it. Make them pay.

A very pretty English rose named Emma Elizabeth Crouch came to Paris in her early twenties as the paid companion to a titled gentleman. So entranced was she with what she saw, she promptly dumped him, somehow managed to persuade Charles Worth to part with a few of his creations on the premise that clothes are at least half the battle, and then set about setting Parisian society on its ear and other body parts. Only now, she called herself Cora Pearl.

It wasn’t too long before the beauteous Cora had a theatrical career, a slew of well-heeled “admirers”, a full wardrobe from Worth that was the envy of Empress Eugénie and the very last word on decadence. She is said to have been served as dessert covered in cream in a fashionable restaurant, to have danced naked on a carpet of orchids, and also that she once literally bathed in a silver bathtub full of champagne at dinner parties.

But even Cora could go too far. One of her lovers refused to leave and began to stalk her. When she denied him entry to her house and went to bed, he shot himself on her doorstep. She didn’t call for help. He survived, but poor Cora’s reputation didn’t. From 1876 until her death ten years later, she supported herself mostly by selling off her jewels and possessions piecemeal. In her memoirs, she famously said:

I have never deceived anybody because I have never belonged to anybody. My independence was all my fortune, and I have known no other happiness; and it is still what attaches me to life.”

As they would say in hardboiled film noirs in the 1940s…she was…some dame!

This is the alleged backstory of Worth’s 2006 perfume ‘Courtesan’, a homage to one of the original Worth devotees. So am I taken back to the grand age of the Second Empire with its crinolines and its proprieties? Does this make me want to dance naked on a carpet of orchids? Am I borne away on a cloud of perfumed blarney, feeling like the ultimate four-letter word in depraved desserts?

“Death by chocolate, baby. Five fabulous feet of it!”

You may shoot me. Yes, I am a philistine. No, I shall never be the Countess Castiglione (one of Cora’s competitors, albeit titled and blonde), averting the Prussian invasion of Paris at Bismarck’s behest, nor does ‘Courtesan’ seem to me like anything that could make me lose my mind and shimmy seductively over a mass of orchids, even with seven veils to wear. Then again, that might depend on who else was in the room, and if copious amounts of champagne were involved, not in a bathtub.

Instead, what I smell is a hot, modern, more-iental and the kitchen sink mess of a perfume that reminds me more of ‘Jersey Shore’ than anything in Second Empire Paris.

If you rolled every Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Mariah Carey celebufume into one with a slightly higher price point and a pink bottle, too, and called it ‘Courtesan’ – because Joisey Goils think that sounds classy in, like, a sorta French kinda way, ya know…then, yes, it’s perfect! Perfect for pink vinyl microdresses, artificial nails in baby-pastel pink French manicures for a little added oomph, really serious hair and OhmyGawd, let’s not forget the six-inch leopard-print platformed spikes, too. I already feel for the poor Jersey Boys Guidos who will be clobbered with this on Friday nights in Hoboken, really, I do. I suddenly have an itch to board the next plane on a cloud of vintage Bandit extrait, a black suede dress and my worst Viking accent just to show Snooki and her ten best BFFs how these things are done in Europe. I shall, however, restrain myself. Just.

Where was I? Ah! Yes. ‘Courtesan’.

It begins with a pineapple spice bomb handgrenade explosion, and that’s exactly what I mean. This should come with Marvel superhero speech bubbles. POW! OUCH! BANG! O…K…I, like, totally get it now…it’s one of those…what did that SA in Sephora call it…ori…something. No, not an Oreo. Not yet, anyway. So, as I was saying, it’s like, really spicy and totally cool with, like, this pineapple vibe thing going, and then…well, whaddaya expect, like some kind of, like, flower or something?

No….it’s the cold, gray, steely pulse of a total gold digger, doncha know, she’s just too cool and too deadly to put out for anything less than like, dinner at Momofuku and drinks at the Plaza and a suite at the W, but only if she wants to and she’ll insist on flossing afterward. The second it hits you, you’ve been, like totally fleeced, she will have departed on a fluffy cloud of sweet, cloying vanilla musk with maybe a whiff of chocolate (it was that cheesecake!), and the worst you can say was that the two grand was so…like, kinda worth it, ya know? Wait’ll the guys at Denny’s get a load of that!

Courtesan was given as a gift – assuredly with a lot of love behind it – from my dear friend and fellow blogger Ines of AllIAmARedhead, and I tried to love it, really, I did! I’m no stranger to the maximalist approach – here’s looking at you, Uncle Serge, or that devious dude at Amouage whose ideas get me in trouble – but geez…I’m, like, just totally not feeling it, ya know? It goes from fruity to chilly to musky, cloying cocoa-powdered vanilla on me before it dies at the end of the night with a bubblegum sigh and half a can of Elnett engine exhaust.

Alas, poor Cora, I knew her well…Cora Pearl spent a fortune on many things from lingerie to perfume, certainly. But I have to say, I doubt Courtesan would have been it. I could see Cora in another all-out shameless Oriental, something like Bal à Versailles (beloved of bad gals since the 1960s), maybe Fracas, or an elegant Guerlain.

What I can’t see is poor Cora abandoned on the Joisey shore, leading on the Guidos with a perfume like this.

Notes for Worth Courtesan: Cinnamon, cardamom, clove, pineapple, red berries, bergamot, orange blossom, magnolia, jasmine, rose, raspberry, caramel, chocolate, cocoa, amber, vanilla, musk.

PS: Dear Ines: I still love you, you know. There’s just no way in Hackensack, Hoboken, or Hell we’ll ever agree on this one! 😉

Image of Cora Pearl in Worth, ca. 1863, from lovingyou.

The White Jade Empress

– a review of Robert Piguet’s ‘Fracas’

When I was a teenager, my mother had a best friend who intrigued me no end. At that age, I was perpetually looking for clues to this whole thing called ‘Woman’, traits and ticks I should aspire to or imitate, and there was something about this woman that told me she might have a few answers.

She was the physical opposite of my mother in many ways, tall and Junoesque where my mother was petite, darkly exotic with Spanish gypsy looks to match, danced flamenco in her spare time, and always trailed clouds of some very heady perfumes. I can remember she wore Estée Lauder’s Cinnabar when my mother wore Shalimar and Mitsouko, and another one I recall that entered the room a good ten minutes before she even got out of her car, something exotic and nearly overpowering in its intensity, something nearly frightening to a teenaged girl.

For years and years I swore it was Fracas, one of those immortal perfumes that so many seem to have an opinion about. Only fairly recently did I realize it wasn’t Fracas at all, but the original Chloé in parfum form, but even as a teenager, I recognized one very important element both perfumes had in common.

The tuberose.

Victorian mothers in the India of the Raj, so the story goes, forbade their virginal daughters to even smell tuberose, lest they get the kind of ideas that did not encompass lying back on their wedding night thinking of England.

Likewise, at the perfumed court of Louis XIV, hedges of tuberose were planted along the colonnade of the Grand Trianon of Versailles at Madame de Montespan’s behest, until courtiers began to swoon and even that notorious royal mistress had to concede defeat. “Not tonight, your Majesty. I have such a terrible headache…”

The tuberose has a heady, haunting scent unlike any other flower. It shares a few similiarities with jasmine, but unlike jasmine, it has a distinct opening blast that some people call gasoline/burnt rubber and others call mentholated mothball or bitter wintergreen, and right before you curl your lip with disdain and wrinkle your nose in disgust, it blooms into such ghostly, toe-curling, spine-chilling beauty there’s nothing you can do but surrender.

Once upon a time, I hated anything overtly floral. Once upon a time, I hated tuberose precisely because of that rubber/gasoline/mothball facet. Once upon a time, there was a time I had never tried one of the greatest tuberoses of them all – Tubereuse Criminelle by Serge Lutens. One day I took the plunge. And hated it! Still, I kept trying. There was something I wasn’t getting, some secret I couldn’t find just yet…

Until that one day it bloomed past the rubber and the wintergreen, and kapow!, I was done in by that sucker punch of beauty…I’ve loved tuberose ever since, in perfumes such as Carnal Flower (although that has a coconut angle that sometimes turns on me), Estée Lauder Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia, or recently, the stunning Cepes and Tuberose by Aftelier.

Time to grow up, time to evolve, damn it, so when I had a chance, I requested a sample of Piguet’s Fracas.

Fracas is universally considered the gold standard of tuberose. Germaine Cellier, she of the elegant, green/leather chypre whip known as Bandit as well as the ultimate galbanum known as Vent Vert for Balmain, created Fracas in 1948, and just like her other two creations, it was an instant, influential hit. It has since been reformulated, like everything worth loving these days, but just as with Bandit, this version has been re-orchestrated with great care and the utmost respect for Cellier’s original classic.

I was lucky enough to receive Fracas in both eau de parfum and parfum versions so I could compare the two, and braced myself for the onslaught. It had taken me this long to sum up the courage to try it. Come on…how bad could it be?

Bad? What bad? What was I afraid of? What on Planet Earth was all this fuss about? Why is Fracas considered such a love/hate prospect?

The fact is, if you hate big, blousy florals, Fracas won’t change your mind. If the idea of a breathtaking bouquet of Loud, Proud, Grand, Glorious Blooms strikes terror in your heart, Fracas might induce nightmares of femme-eating flowers straight out of a blood-curdling Roger Corman movie.

Say it doesn’t, that you like your big, blousy florals, say you even like tuberose.

Say you’re a cynic, as I usually do, and few things surprise you. Fracas…did.

Because it is…beauty in a bottle. From the green opening to the opulent, white-floral heart all the way to a mossy, sweet drydown, Fracas is nothing less than breathtaking, nothing less than a flawless, stunning perfume that puts the tuberose front and center beneath a Klieg light on a red-carpet moment, while her ladies-in-waiting – and such ladies they are, too – sink to their feet around her in an admiring swoon that never detracts from the main attraction – Her Empress of Tuberose in all her heady, outrageous splendor. Since they are all present and accounted for, the supporting players that read like a Who’s Who of heart notes ensure that Fracas never becomes too one-dimensional and keep it complex and intriguing, never too sweet or too much. Having said that, wear wisely. This stuff is built to last, proof they don’t make them quite like this any more.

Suddenly, I understand the motivation about the Victorian tabu against tuberose. It gives you such…ideas…This is drop-dead, faint-making sexy, borderline over-the-top but never quite, incredibly classy and always, always the epitome of everything beautiful in tuberose. There is a slightly bitter tinge behind the blooms, a wintergreen touch I’ve recognized from other tuberose perfumes that is highlighted in the parfum, but either version sings in perfect pitch and timbre one stellar aria of that White Jade Empress of all man-devouring flowers…

Make no mistake. Fracas, I came to discover, is a man-eater. Apart from one man I know who doesn’t much care for florals at all, this stuff is devastating on practically everyone else. It will put the va-va in your voom, it will bring grown men to their knees, it will make indelible impressions. As it does, you will walk a lot taller, a lot sexier, you might even convince yourself to wear heels and stockings, silk slip and a garter belt to match.

It’s that kind of perfume. What the hey….live a little. Be sexy. Wear Fracas. Slay ‘em! They will be helpless to resist! It will stay with you and never stray, and it will never be less than a peerless perfection of a perfume to highlight that flower of all flowers…

That White Jade Empress called…tuberose.

Notes according to Basenotes:
Top: Bergamot, mandarin, hyacinth, green notes
Heart: Tuberose, jasmine, orange blossom, lily of the valley, white iris, violet, jonquil, carnation, coriander, peach, osmanthus, pink geranium
Base: Musk, cedar, moss, sandalwood, orris, vetiver, tolu balsam

Robert Piguet Fracas is available in many locations, and can often be found at online discounters without breaking the bank, unless you buy it in parfum. A big hug and thank you to Suzanne of Perfume Journal, who gave me the chance to try it in both versions.


Starting today, Scent Less Sensibilities is taking a badly needed break for a few days, as yours truly indulges her Inner Rock Chick and predilection for a Primeval Force from New Jersey. I shall return over the weekend, and that’s a promise! Stay tuned for grab-bag mini reviews, another spotlight on another amazing Indie perfumer, and yet more fragrant wonders to come!