What Might Have Been

In the spring of my senior year of high school, when I was a nice, boring, clueless 17-year-old, with good grades but a little vague in terms of focus on the future, my mother stunned me by informing me that, unless I agreed to become a lawyer (her idea of the ultimate career achievement), she wouldn´t pay for my fancy college education. I wouldn´t, and she kept her word. I think we each thought the other was bluffing.

In hindsight this turned out to be not a bad thing. It certainly tightened up my focus. I got my act together, got a student loan, enrolled for freshman year in a cheap, local college, and transferred the next year (with a partial scholarship and more loans) to a better college further away. I realized I could survive without my parents´ financial support – and, with the exception of the occasional $20 my dad slipped into a letter to me, I did. I worked a variety of jobs, carried a full course load and studied hard, determined to graduate as quickly as possible. Even the money part wasn´t so bad, in that most of my friends were broke.

Somewhere in my senior year, when I was fully into my cropped-hair, pierced-nose, thrift store existence, I wandered into a boutique on the town´s main street. I never went in there because it was clear to everyone, including me, that I didn´t have dime to spend on luxuries. But on the counter sat a bottle of Niki de Saint Phalle. I´ve spent some time recently, in my perfume reminiscences, trying to sort out what was so alluring about it. First off, the smell was unlike anything I´d smelled at the student-friendly blend-your-own-essential-oils joint down the street. Second …. I wanted to be that perfume. It looked dangerous and seductive and alluring, with those bright, entwined snakes, but it also looked sophisticated and foreign and classy. In other words, it was a perfect summation of everything I wasn´t – and several things that, on some level, I wanted to be.

Because the truth was, I still felt cheated. I´d sucked it up and done my thing, but a part of me wanted to know why I wasn´t wearing plaid skirts at William and Mary, going to keggers, driving my own car and throwing away money on college-girl crap like cute spring shoes and eyeshadow. What happened to that girl, anyway? Could I ever have filled those Pappagallo flats? I looked at that bottle, and I felt a little sad, because a fug of loserdom had settled on me like a dark cloud. Being poor sucks, even when you´re 20 and can pretend it´s just adding to your street credibility.

I bought that bottle. I probably spent the money I´d budgeted for an entire month of laundry and food, and I wasn´t the sort of person who did impulsive things like that. I wore it a little, but really, it wasn´t me. I have no idea what happened to the bottle. I bet I haven´t smelled it in 20 years.

Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 – 2002) was an artist, born in France and raised in the U.S., who was on the cover of Life Magazine as a model at 16 and eloped at 18. As an artist she was known first for her “shooting paintings,” which were made by shooting bullets into the canvas, followed by a period when she became interested in archetypal female figures (“nanas”), which were often made of papier-mache. Ultimately she became known for her oversized, rather whimsical sculptures; the snakes adorning her perfume flacon give you an idea of the bright, primitive style of her work. Her piece de resistance was apparently the fabulously wack Tarot Garden, a sculpture garden in Tuscany, which I am now dying to see. (Has anyone been there?) The perfume was released in 1982 and the proceeds were to help finance the garden, which was almost 20 years in construction, beginning in 1979 and opening (finally) in 1998. According to one source, the artist lived in one of the sculptures, The Empress, for part of that time.

I tracked some of this fragrance down recently. Notes: Peach, Mugwort, Bergamot, Mint, Jasmine, Rose, Clove, Iris, Ylang-Ylang, Cedar, Patchouli, Oakmoss, Vetiver, Sandalwood, Amber, Musk. Those notes (to which I paid zero attention when ordering) may give you a hint of my initial impression: could I possibly have worn this? The fragrance opens on a note I can only describe as Difficult; it is pungent and a little bitter, and following close behind are the most masculine elements of the fragrance – between the moss, vetiver and sandalwood, you might almost be wearing a men´s fragrance. There is just enough of a hint of florals to give you the general idea it´s a woman´s fragrance, but not so much that you´d call it floral. Oh, well. Being me, I just soaked a ton more on my arm, figuring I might as well get The Full Effect, then shrugged and got busy with something else.

After half an hour or so, that rare thing happened: I began to be dimly aware, while paying bills, that something smelled wonderful, and it was me. The florals start to unfold, and the entire experience becomes a lot more seductive. This second phase is quite long lasting, and it is lovely – a warm, inviting blend of jasmine, ylang, clove and sweetish musk that smell tender and enveloping after the assertive opening. The difference between the opening and the drydown in this fragrance is one of the widest I have ever smelled, and part of what makes it so interesting.

But is it “me?” I´m not so sure. Objectively, it smells beautiful. Subjectively, for the first half of the trip it´s got a certain I-Please-Myself aloofness that doesn´t quite fit me. It´s a bit like Dior – I adore several of their fragrances, but oddly, the ones I like most seem the least … plausible on me. Like I borrowed someone else´s dress, and it fits perfectly, but still I feel faintly ridiculous. That´s one of the interesting quirks of perfume love, I suppose.

I am now going to institute one of our silly perfume reindeer games, which I´m calling This Smells Like You. I have sent a decant of this to Colombina of Perfume-Smellin´ Things, because I think she´ll really like it – actually, this game was born because I thought of her right away, and each subsequent time I smelled it. I hate invoking the sacred name of Dior where she´s involved, and it doesn´t smell like Dior, but to me it has the same type of grown-up, exotic, somewhat imperious feeling. Plus I think the opening, which I find kind of fierce, might work better with her skin chemistry. I´ve checked her archives and can´t find a reference to it. I have invited her to blog about it (until today she didn´t know what it was), give her impressions, and then tell me how right or wrong I was about her liking it. Then Colombina will pick a fragrance to send to another perfume blogger (not me) that she thinks that person would like. Etc. Let´s see what happens.

Final Note: the concentration I blogged about is the EDT. There is no EDP, to the best of my knowledge. I´d love to try the parfum (pictured above, which is not the bottle I owned), because I wonder if it would be a smoother ride, but the flacons are expensive ($175 – $250 and up on eBay and elsewhere, and coveted by bottle collectors). Has anyone tried the parfum? If so, please comment.

images: Niki de Saint Phalle, ladifference.fr; bottle image swiped from hapless eBayer, with apologies, because I could not find a single decent image elsewhere; sculpture garden, oneroom.org

  • Victoriasown says:

    I have been wearing this one for many, many years. Anne Pliska, Chamade and Niki were my 3 in rotation. Ahhh life was more simple back then!

    Anyway, PerfumeBay carries the Parfum at reasonable prices in different sizes. But I have to say the parfum is very close to the EDT.

  • micki says:

    March, I loved the way this post described your 18 year old fugdom … no wonder you turned into such an interesting woman … re Niki de Sainte Phalle, uh I dunno. I like the shape of the bottle more than I ever liked the scent xoxo m

  • minette says:

    will have to revisit this… but i believe this is the perfume a woman at work ruined for me back in the early ’90s. she completely overdid it – you’d smell her long after she’d left a room or hallway – and i can’t say it smelled good on her – but it certainly did smell unusual. i’ve always liked the bottle, and remember being annoyed that i didn’t like what i knew of the juice – her wearing it.

    • March says:

      Minette — I can totally see this fragrance as an office no-no. Definitely able to be over-applied. You’ll have to delete those painful memories with your own bottle…;)

  • Robin says:

    Have never been to the Tarot garden, but always wanted to see it. At UCSD her Sun God statue is sort of like a school icon, and it always cheered me up. I wasn’t wearing plaid skirts at William & Mary either, LOL…

    • March says:

      Robin, okay, I guess one of these years I have to get out to the Left Coast, which I hear is really pretty, and I can add the sculptures to the list.

  • sybil says:

    Oh, March…I remember when that came out, and it was all because of the bottle. It was at the good department store at a nearby mall, and I remember admiring the bottle, and thinking about how cool and happy and funky and fun it looked…quite unlike me and my life. The smell was weird, though, kind of a thorny rough scent. I’m sure I didn’t have the patience for (or knowlege of)any such thing as a drydown.

    • March says:

      I think a thorny, rough scent is an excellent description. Can you imagine encountering this thing today, set down among the Ferragamo Encanto series, Juicy Couture and the Escada summer LEs?

      Nah.

      I am really, really wanting to try the parfum now.

  • Tigs says:

    March, what a wonderful post!! Such a matter-of-fact, thoughtful reflection on a time and experience that could easily have been a bitter, dramatic condemnation of your mother’s behaviour. Also, I love the idea of “This Smells Like You”. When testing and reviewing perfume, I frequently think of other perfume bloggers: this is “a Patty”, “an Angela” or “an Ina”, for example. Our taste is similar enough that I often think of you when I find something I like…

    • March says:

      Tigs — well, be sure to email me when you smell a March!!

      :d

      BTW — have you stuck a new post up yet?:-? I want to Read All About It.

  • evilpeony says:

    March, Patty… ditto on overpriced crap. And it’s good to train your kids early, so they know the feel and meaning of quality (ie paying exactly what the item is truly worth.) It’s a skill sorely lacking in my generation.

    Mach- for some reason I took NSP’s picture to be a picture of you. And the NSP bottle looks so bold, decadent and loud- very 80’s.

    • March says:

      Back from errand-running … can I tell you how wildly, disproportionately flattered I am that you thought that pic was me? I wish. I’m in touch with my inner drama queen, but I look like a cross between Audrey Hepburn and Betty Rubble.

  • Lauren says:

    Wow! That Tarot Garden looks like it’s really something. I’m addding it to the list of places I need to go someday.

    • March says:

      Dontcha just want to go there and wander around, maybe at dusk with a glass of really good wine? Or a bottle?;)

      • Lauren says:

        I dunno – it looks like it might be kinda scary at dusk. Maybe the bottle of wind would be helpful.

  • Melanie says:

    I remember ordering this perfume when I was a teen, from one of those discount cosmetic catalogs (I think Amerimark would be the closest thing these days, but the merchandise isn’t as good-back then, those kinds of catalogs had Guerlain cosmetics, for example). I don’t remember how it smelled, but I do remember that it was just too sophisticated for me at the time, and I didn’t appreciate it. But the bottle was wonderful(I’m sure that’s why I bought it in the first place).

    • March says:

      Melanie — yes, I can see “too sophisticated.” FWIW my girls, who put up with a lot, didn’t like it one bit — I think the assertiveness throws them totally off. Drooling over your discount cosmetic catalog description …. sigh. All I ever saw as a kid was the stuff at the five and dime.

      • Melanie says:

        LOL-even as a teen I set my sights high–or as my aunt would say—“champagne tatse and beer pocket book”. But I didn’t do as much ordering as looking even from the discount catalog 🙂 I just took a look at the Amerimark site-they have some decent deals, but nothing like those catalogs used to be–Kiss Kiss lipsticks for $4.99, things like that. I wonder when they got wise to themselves, LOL?

  • AngelaS says:

    This is one of my favorites! Thanks so much for the review. I mentioned it at the end of a post on NST as my vote for one of the most underappreciated scents. It definitely starts strange–almost tannic, like it sticks to your teeth–but I love it enough to have the bath oil, too.

    • March says:

      Angela — that’s an excellent description, there is something almost tannic about it. I’m assuming it’s some combination of the mugwort and the vetiver. I’m wearing it again yet today; maybe it is “me” after all, but it is a strange creature. I missed your mention on NST — will have to go look for your other underappreciated frags, since you’ve steered me right on several occasions.

      Wow, bath oil? How is that? Trying to imagine…:-?

      • March says:

        PS — Okay, I went and looked — hey, there’s the bottle! And down there at the bottom …. there’s my comment!!!:”>

        I swear, I have no recollection … maybe YOU’RE the one who put this bug in my ear. It did remind me of some other scents on there, though, that I’d planned to look up.

        • AngelaS says:

          Hey, my ears are FULL of bugs you’ve planted! The bath oil is great for afternoon bathing, for that that Eve in the Garden feel.

  • tmp00 says:

    Great post, March!

    I’d smelled this when it came out and I think I was going through a rare “conventional” phase: the bitter opening put me off and then I was distracted by something shiny.

    There are quite a few of her works in SoCal, mostly in the San Diego area. I’ve seen the ones in the sculpture garden at the art museum in La Jolla, but I don’t know if that’s permanent. The Sun God at UCSD is, though.

    • March says:

      Tom, if you get the chance, please smell it and report back. I’d be interested. It’s almost masculine to me. It’s certainly something a man could wear and not raise any eyebrows.

      I’ll have to check her out if I get out to CA, thanks!

  • Patty says:

    Haven’t gotten around to this one. Shame. Would I like it? I love Marigold’s weirdness, so maybe?

    You know, I don’t even know how old I was when I first realized that most kids didn’t pay for their own college. I just thought that was one of those “adult” things you do once you graduated from high school, took out student loans. I really never even knew we were poor dirt farmers for the longest time. 🙂 Never felt poor.

    The biggest blessing in my life has been that my kids take after me on status things. They only care if something is worth it to them. They never cared about sneakers or clothes, just wanted them to fit and be comfortable. to this day, though, both of them can walk through a store, never look at a price tag and shop by feel (which is what I do) and wind up with one of the most expensive things because they know the material feels better, but they wind up skipping over a lot of overpriced crap.

    • March says:

      Would you like it? Well, you’ll find out soon enough, so don’t go buying yourself a bottle.;)

      We were pretty middle-class, but the expectation for most of us was our parents were paying for college. I didn’t have any money saved up, of course, and the whole thing was a bit of a shock to me. In the end, though, I think what I got out of the experience was worth more than what they’d have paid, and I mean that sincerely. On the other hand, college 20 years ago was a lot less than it is now — you could legitimately work and have some loans at the end, but nothing that would break you. I’m not sure that’s true today.

  • sara says:

    I loved your post today. Your college-years experience was quite similar to mine; and I love Niki de Saint Phalle’s work. I have not been to the Tarot Garden but I always make sure to stop by and see her pool of sculptures next to the Pompidou Centre when I visit Paris. I found a bottle of NdSP parfum on Perfume Bay–I have always loved the EdT but alas-the bottle was dusty when I opened the package and the fragrance had turned. Sigh.

    Thank you for evoking all sorts of memories and feelings this morning.

    cheers, Sara

    • March says:

      I forgot about the Pompidou Center! Of course she’s a perfect fit there … there’s also a slide with a bunch of different tongues somewhere, that goes down (I think) into a pool, which looks like a lot of fun.

      Yeah, that’s the risk of old bottles. Some of them are shadows of their former glory, and some of them are totally off. If I were more interested in the bottles it would bother me less, but I really care about what’s inside.

  • Silvia says:

    I had no idea Niki de Saint Phalle made a perfume ! I got a book on her Tarot Garden from my husband’s godmother who is a weird and wonderful individual and it is amazing, a sort of Botero meets Gaudi: huge colourful structures covered in mosaic mirror and tiles, set in the woods of Tuscany. I definitely plan to visit the site and would love to smell the perfume too. Thanks for the discovery.

    • March says:

      You’re welcome!!! The world is full of exciting perfume discoveries, even for people who are looking all the time.:”> I have no idea if/when I’d have ever stumbled across this. But thanks to my fellow bloggers, I have found all sorts of interesting things.

  • March says:

    E — a lot of my clothes are vintage finds — I’m a huge thrift shop nut. If you looked at all the clothing in my closet you’d think I lived a life much more interesting — I am clearly shopping for a much more interesting life, anyway!:d Vintage clothing is so beautifully made, and I’m shaped right for it (or it’s shaped right for me.) I also collect vintage Red Cross orthopedic shoes (the black, heavy laceup ones) which I actually wear. They’re funny because, of course, they’re very hard to find in a size over 6.5 or so — those grannies had such tiny feet! Fortunately The Cheese has a high tolerance for fashion weirdness, but it used to really chafe his mother.

    We were talking about this at a dinner party the other night — an (ex) lawyer said, there’s this huge dichotomy. There you are in law school, studying the rhetoric of the Supreme Court or whatever, and then you’re in some scut, grind law job where they’re trying to crush any idealism out of you; it becomes all about money. I admire (and hire) lawyers, but I would have been a terrible one.

  • Marina says:

    Did I hear the sacred name of Dior being invoked? :d
    March, I haven’t tried this one! I am so excited. I especially loved the fact that it has an imperious feeling 🙂 Ooh, postman, walk faster!
    Loved the review!

    • March says:

      Oh, goody!!! I do think it deserves more attention — it’s not boring, anyway. It’s quixotic, as I said up there somewhere, so this weird weather is perfect for trying it. I sent it Thurs (?) so you should have it soon.

      Just do me a favor and forget I said anything about Dior, okay?:-“

  • pitbull friend says:

    Very evocative post, March — especially like the idea of wearing someone else’s dress… I had a thrift shop NdSP T-shirt, with one of her eccentric, brightly colored images on it. I’m sure it was adorable on someone, but it was “someone else’s” T-shirt, so it went back to the thrift shop.

    Most of my clothes still come from the thrift shop, including some pretty posh stuff. But it makes all the difference to be doing it voluntarily, to pick & choose the areas of one’s life where one wants to spend money.

    I fervently try to talk people out of law school, unless they are rich & want to go as an interesting learning experience. There are very few jobs in law and lawyers have a very high rate of depression & alcoholism. So, March, ya done good!
    –Ellen

  • Elle says:

    I loved the bottle and liked the scent enough to justify getting the edt, so I did, but I ended up never really wearing it. I do love Diors and maybe this would have been better on my skin in the parfum, but it wasn’t “me” enough. As you said, it really is objectively a beautiful, interesting scent and I do much prefer the dry down, but if I think about it, it seems to have the boldness and strength of her sculptures and paintings and while I truly love them, I don’t want to smell of primary colors myself. But I SOO want to see that tarot garden!!
    You were smart not to succumb to the law school pressure. DH didn’t stick to his guns like that. His parents insisted that if he wanted to go to grad school, it had to be for law. He caved. But *hated* practicing law and eventually gave it up to go back to grad school to get a doctorate so he could be a professor in his field of choice (which he also ended up hating, but at least it was his choice).

    • March says:

      Elle — of course I was wondering how it worked on you!! Sounds like you had the same reaction. I think I’ll keep an eye out for the parfum, maybe I can score a reasonable bottle. I will say the scent lingering on my clothing is kind of addictive. I must have gotten some on my bathrobe, and every morning it makes my feelers vibrate in a good way.

      Law school. Feh. I know more people with law degrees who are doing something else than any other profession.

  • Lee says:

    Lovely post, March. Poverty, eh? It’s funny how we wear something as a badge of honour, knowing at the same time its truly crappy nature…

    As for the ‘fume, I’ve never smelled it. I’ve often wondered about that garden, though I’ve never been there.

    • March says:

      Lee — there are other installations of hers elsewhere, I swear there’s one in the UK somewhere but then I couldn’t find the reference again. I’d love to see them in person, I still don’t have a clear idea of their scale.

      Poverty. Well, I’m not wearing that particular badge of honor any more, and I’m not sorry… I think my mom would be pleased with the way I turned out, anyway, even if I’m not a legal eagle.

  • dinazad says:

    I love this fragrance – in my opinion one of the most unjustly disregarded perfumes ever. It’s entirely original, and whenever I wear it (rarely – I only own a mini), I feel… ummm… more like an individual. More unlike anybody else, my own woman, free to turn my back or to embrace and cuddle, whichever I feel suits the occasion. And more importantly: whichever suits me! Like some flowers which see fit to ignore the warm earth in the garden just beside them and grow in a crack in the pavement, blooming with abandon, because that’s what THEY want…

    • March says:

      J — it is truly an original. I feel like I’m revisiting it the perfect time of year, too. It’s quixotic — like the weather we’re having. You are right, it’s underappreciated — I don’t think I’ve seen this mentioned on any blog, and unless I’m remembering wrong, I found nothing on Basenotes. It’s been an enjoyable revisit, that’s for sure.

    • Maria B. says:

      I loved what you said about “flowers which see fit to ignore the warm earth in the garden just beside them and grow in a crack in the pavement. I admire those flowers.

  • Flora says:

    That was one of my very first “Designer” perfume experiences. The olfactory weirdness comes from Marigold (Tagetes) and what smells like celery to me. It’s really like nothing else, and I did love the bottle! If only today’s designer & celerity fragrances were this original.

    • March says:

      Flora — thanks for the tip! Many of the fragrance websites carry this laughably vague description like “a seductive scent containing green notes” or so on… you’re right, I can’t imagine someone releasing something like this as their scent now. There’s just something about it … for a fragrance I borderline dislike at the opening, I keep putting it back on.

  • Maria B. says:

    March, thank you for this post! One of my dearest friends wore the Niki de Saint Phalle fragrance a lot, but then she had trouble finding it. She thought that perhaps after the artist’s death, the family had discontinued it. It must be back in production?

    I’m intrigued by the tarot garden. I had no idea it existed. Thank you for telling us about it! I’m very interested in tarot not as a fortune telling device but as a psyche stimulating one. The archetypal images can arouse so many connections.

    • March says:

      Maria — I’m not sure if it went out of production or not … certainly the EDT is fairly easy to find online, and for not much money. I got mine at, I believe, imaginationperfumery. It’s relatively inexpensive. I’m having fun playing with it. I need to try it on some different people, too.