“You’ve got the baby, now let me die....!” Screamed my grandmother as she lay in a hospital bed being splashed with whiskey by the midwife.
These were the first words my mother, heard as she entered the world on the 16th day of July 1934. Her mother, Despina “Dessie”, eldest of the three Wyndham sisters of Llandaff, an elfin blonde, blue-eyed dancer who’d taught tap routines to Charlie Chaplin on the back-steps of her Cardiff home, decided then and there my mother would have no younger siblings.
It was Sally’s aunt, Stella, who first came up with the nickname of “Hatchet”, inspired by the murderous look on my mother’s 5-year-old face in a portrait picture in which both she and her older sister, June, are posed in “Bohemian” costumes, and both are clutching Russian dolls. My mother’s face is an essay of black resentment as she believed June had been given the nicer of the dolls, whilst hers apparently “wee-ed” sawdust from a hole between its legs.
When she was not much older, she was taken to see the legendary Mae West in “Diamond Lil” at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London. As Mae went into her famously risqué routine, Sally sat, grave faced, in the stalls, opening her mouth just once to whisper: “I don’t think I should be here” to Dessie, who was splitting her sides with joy.
Afterwards, clutching her autograph book, she was taken around to the Stage Door to await the star’s exit. Mae swept out and into a waiting limousine, and then spotting my mother’s crestfallen face, leaned out and beckoned to the pigtailed little girl:
“Come on in, Honey” she purred, “don’t stand out there in the cold!”
Like a moth to the light, Sally moved through the drift of perfume towards the platinum curls, sweeping black lashes and gleaming smile, and, taking Mae’s tiny outstretched hand, clambered into the velvet upholstered darkness to sit beside the great lady.
The signature she finally procured, proof in years to come when at Howell’s School that she had neither been dreaming nor lying, took up an entire page of the little book. As she chatted, Mae’s perfume rose and enveloped the little girl in an intoxicating haze that sealed off escape and ensured surrender.
My mother told me that even then, she was aware she was “on a magic carpet, and like Alice in Wonderland disappearing down the rabbit hole, I came up in Wonderland. I was never the same again” she said, “because I had discovered the power of perfume. I have been mainlining it ever since.”
It infuriated her that she could never remember what Mae’s perfume actually was, and she spent the rest of her life searching for it. Her information was that it had been blended by a Mme Gabilla of Paris, especially for the star. By the time Sally actually met Mae however, it was, in all likelihood, Elsa Schiaparelli’s “Shocking” that had been created especially for her by Jean Carles (who also created Tabu). The flacon, copied many years later by Jean Paul Gaultier for Madonna, was shaped like a voluptuous woman’s torso. The scent itself is an oriental floral. Launched in 1937, the top notes are aldehydes, bergamot and tarragon; middle notes are honey, rose and jasmine; base notes are cloves and civet.
Many years later, Sally actually acquired two original Shockings in their domed presentation boxes, but as they were completely intact collectables, and she didn’t want to break the seals, she never actually got to smell it.