Thursday, 5 June 2014

Roja Dove

Srba Micovic was the Manager of the Guerlain counter at Selfridges. An elegant Yugoslav in an impeccable suit, he befriended my mother who often went in there to chat about scent. Eventually, she brought him home for tea. If I had any concerns about her picking up young men in shops, Srba allayed them with grace and charm - and his obvious, and good-natured lack of interest in women “that way”. He was far more interested in glamour - true glamour, in the very real sense of the word: that being divine clothes, fabulous scent, and luxury - not as a euphemism for the sort of overdone, in-your-face cheapness one finds on Page 3 of The Sun ‘newspaper’, and with which the word seems so tragically and inextricably associated nowadays. It was Srba who introduced my mother to the man who was to become her greatest perfume pal, her confidante in all things glamorous and divine – Roja Dove.

Roja, who was on the Guerlain Perfume course at the time, accompanied Srba to Hanover Gate to meet my mother and have dinner. It was his 30th birthday.

The three stayed chatting until the early hours. The next day, my mother was absolutely brimming with delight.

“That Roja,” she said, “so knowledgable already and so young. He has the light of a true enthusiast in his eyes, like the sort of light you see in the eyes of people of great faith!”
Roja Dove with some of his own magnificent creations (more of that later)...

I couldn’t wait to meet this person. I had missed the dinner as I was staying over with my first serious boyfriend in Wimbledon. I was spending more and more time in Wimbledon or in Devon, where my chap had spent much of his time as a boy. It was my Sloaney rah-rah time of pie-crust collars, pearls, velvet hair-bands, dinner parties, Barbours and wellies. I had a job at Charbonnel et Walker in Bond Street, and bought my flattie work shoes at Russell & Bromley and my blouses at Lewin’s in Jermyn Street. My boss at Charbonnel was a wonderful, easy-going Wykehamist of just 24 called Andrew. As long as I turned up on time, Andrew aka “Droopy”, didn’t mind if I was found on the doorstep still in my ball gown from the night before. I remember I served chocolates all day in a particularly stunning raw purple silk number after staying up all night dancing with my beau at the Caledonian Ball at Grosvenor House.

At Charbonnel, I sold chocolates to Julie Christie, Warren Beatty, Edward Fox, Joan Greenwood, the Duke of Devonshire, and the Royal Family. The young princes, William and Harry, were particularly fond of our chocolate covered – or rather ‘enrobed’ jelly babies. We would fill our special pretty boxes with them, and Andrew, who was a total artist with ribbon, would tie on the bows.

Eventually, in pursuit of scent, and in fear for my waistline, I left for a job at Penhaligon’s, in Wellington Street, Covent Garden. At the time, their scents were outstripping Floris for sheer genius. Night Scented Stock, Orange Blossom, Gardenia – they were simply to die for, and all in danger of being discontinued even then as they didn’t sell as well as others.
Penhaligon's "Bluebell" - the best and purest hyacinth available.

I brought samples home for my mother most days, but I couldn’t get on with the company’s CEO, Sheila Pickles. She was one of those people whose mood had to be gauged to see which way the wind was blowing at any given time. We all quaked and polished and dusted ourselves stupid when we knew a visit from her was imminent. Sheila had been a showbiz agent before the film director Franco Zefirelli had helped her acquire Penhaligon’s to run, and she liked to get her famous friends to meet her at the shop before swanning off to lunch with them.

One day, Granada Television’s very own Sherlock Holmes, the impossibly handsome and charming Jeremy Brett walked in. Jeremy was a close friend of my aunt June’s (it was she, in fact, who had first suggested him for the role). Seeing me, he did a double take, then swooped down and gave me a bear hug.

“Emma, DARLING! What are YOU doing here?” He shouted joyously.

“You know each other?” Sheila asked with some distaste.

“Yes, we worked together on a Sherlock!” Jeremy explained generously. I had been a walk-on 3 in “The Sign of Four” – a souped up extra with a bit of business. Hardly working together really, but he had taken immense care of me, and we had rather played a trick on him: I had been dressed up as a flower girl, and had to accost him to “buy a flahr orf a poor gel” without him being warned in advance. Jeremy of course, had played opposite the original Eliza Doolittle, Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady”...

He had loved the joke, called me a minx, and carried on with the scene without turning a hair.

“I see.” Said Sheila coldly.  
The late Jeremy Brett - still the definitive Sherlock Holmes

No doubt fearing I would expect special treatment, I was treated with little more than contempt thereafter, so I resigned to go and work for Smythson’s the stationers. Penhaligon’s told me they were sorry I had decided to leave, as they had had their eye on me for management. I was astonished. I had given them a hand-written page of ideas for merchandise based on customer comments that they had poo-pooed, and told me were impractical, but that some time after I had left, I saw flying off the shelves in their shops. I could prove nothing however, and simply had to let it go.

Meanwhile, Roja and my mother had become the best of friends. I looked forward to his visits immensely, as he had moved into the Guerlain Press Office at Perivale, and every time he came over for dinner, he arrived like Santa, laden with Guerlain goodies. Les Meteorites for powder and lipstick, Mitsouko Body Creme, and bottle after bottle of scent.  I bagged a bottle of Liu I eked out for as long as I could, and I am still using the Mitsouko body creme. The quality has not faded in over 25 years. Roja was also an expert in make-up, and was the first to explain to me that brown eyes most certainly could wear blue eye-shadow... as long as it was the deepest navy blue.
Guerlain's Les Meteorites - a revolution in face powder perles

Roja felt that my mother’s knowledge, expertise, and by now, collossal collection of scent bottles, flacons, contemporary advertisements, and display material should gain wider recognition. He arranged a meeting between Sally, and Kate Shapland, the then Beauty Editor of Marie Claire magazine.

Kate came to the house with a photographer, and produced a two page spread in the next edition.

Suddenly, my mother was no longer just a housewife amateur, she was a leading authority. The telephone began to ring: queries from auction houses to help with authentication of items for Decorative Arts sales, queries from perfume houses whose customers had asked questions on their history that even they could not answer, television companies on matters of set dressing for the dressing tables of great ladies in great dramas.

Names began to appear in her address book: John Gielgud, Quentin Crisp, Jean Paul Guerlain....perfume experts from the USA and France.

Notes for a book on perfume began to appear on the kitchen table in the mornings when I wandered in for breakfast. Notes written on the backs of envelopes, and on pad after pad of old menu paper she’d found thrown away after Bell Street market.

Other names began to take root as I saw them appear time and again in her handwriting... Revson, Lauder, Patou...

And then came the Russians...

Emma Blake
June 2014

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