My Life in Fragrance

A decades-long tale of love, lust, and infidelity.
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I've managed to remain faithful in marriage, but in matters of fragrance I am a total tramp. I've always wanted a signature scent, one that smelled so good on me people would remember me by it. But I wound up with a bedroom full of bottles, every single one of which I promised to love forever and eventually jilted. Love was divine while it lasted. I'd indulge in public displays of affection, sniffing my own wrist when I thought that nobody was looking. But sooner or later, I'd run off with something new.

As with men, there's a type I usually fall for, and that type has its roots in my youth. My mother loved the classic Guerlain scents, which were at once fresh, sweet, powdery, and sensual -- a sparkle of bergamot at the top, then (it was said) rose, jasmine, iris, vanilla, and tonka bean. Guerlain fragrances differed greatly from one another but they all shared that combination of notes, like one fascinating actress appearing in many plays. And, like plays, good fragrances had plots: They would start out with a shot of something fresh and surprising and then, depending on your skin chemistry, develop into something else entirely. I think it was this drama that hooked me. You could assume a new identity with just one spritz.

A piano teacher I was especially close to in my teens wore Vent Vert, a Balmain fragrance so green and clear it rang out like sweet reason in a time of idiocy. It was everything a signature scent should be: absolutely the wearer's, and unlike anything else. Its intensity came from the plant resin galbanum, the grand daddy of all green notes. This was in the '70s, when sweet, spicy orientals were in vogue; my college dorm smelled of Shalimar and pot. But I wanted to be the kind of woman who wore something less sweet and more sophisticated. When Halston (a green/floral/woodsy chypre) came out in 1975, I fell -- and fell hard.

Must we speak of the '80s? The big hair, the huge shoulder pads (dented unbecomingly by purse straps) and, yes, the "power" fragrances -- big, fruity florals and floral orientals -- that could knock you over at 30 paces. Giorgio Perfume, by the Beverly Hills designer of the same name, was among the most popular. (I remember a sign in a New York City restaurant that read "No Pipe Smoking and No Giorgio.") This was the decade when I ran for cover, literally, from those department store vultures who would swoop right in and spritz you. I wore Pheromone by Marilyn Miglin, which was pretty strong but wonderfully green, clean and resin-y.

The early '90s were tough for me because of the popularity of the ozone fragrances, which smelled like sea and sun to everyone else but like insect repellent to me. There were also a lot of fruity, melon-y scents that smelled like candy or shampoo; I began to feel like an old crank. But the '90s also saw the rise of small, adventurous fragrance houses like Annick Goutal and L'Artisan Parfumeur, and suddenly I was back in that childhood world where every fragrance was its own little drama.

Today there are so many perfumers with interesting things to say that I can go to the fragrance counter, ask for the notes I love and choose from dozens of new scents -- the best kind of speed dating. Prada, a designer whose clothes I can neither fit into nor afford, makes perfumes I can live in. I can go to Jo Malone for freshness, Serge Lutens for adventurousness, and yes, Guerlain, for new takes on the woodsy orientals I've come to love. The thing is, I haven't found one scent I can commit to. I'm still ready to wake up with someone new.

Continued on page 2:  Good Fragrances Tell Stories


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