Suzanne's Perfume Journal

My Meandering Examination of Zelda:
The Person, the Icon and the Perfume (EnVoyage Perfumes Zelda)

EnVoyage Zelda eau de parfum can be purchased from the perfumer’s website, where a 0.6 oz bottle is currently priced at $75. My review is based on a sample sent to me from the perfumer.

Image of model Kate Moss is from the December 1995 issue of Vogue Italia, snapped by Sante D'Orazio.
Bottle image is from the EnVoyage website.

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As I sit down to write this post about the perfume I’ve been wearing—the exquisite Zelda by EnVoyage Perfumes—I’m not sure what direction it’s going to take. I’ve certainly spent a good amount of time sampling the perfume and thinking about the source of its inspiration: the wild and wildly-talented Zelda Fitzgerald. A defiant Southern beauty before she became the wife of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda was described by her husband as “the first American Flapper,” and marriage did not tame her—or him, for that matter. Theirs was a marriage fueled by the alcohol of the Jazz Age and by their own heat-seeking temperaments: they were a couple who courted recklessness even as they watched each other flail within its ruins. Had they been like any other socially prominent but otherwise “ordinary” couple, we wouldn’t have known their names; they’d simply have combusted and that would have been the end of it. Their immeasurable talents, however, gave them a legacy—and their initial, incredible attraction to one another is what drove that talent and intertwined them in such a way that, even though they had separated before the end of their brief lives, the trajectory of their lives resembled the single, and singular, blaze of a comet.

Reputation was everything to them. Zelda began carving one in high school, flouting the expectations of polite Southern society by refusing to be demure. She drew attention to herself through her beauty and gift as a ballet dancer, and she kept people looking when she made more liberated statements of every kind. She smoked, drank and danced the Charleston, and established herself as a sexual character through her choices of daring attire (she often swam in a tight, flesh-colored bathing suit that made it appear as if she was nude) and her dating of lots of boys. By the time she met F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance, shortly after she’d finished high school, her charisma was waxing full. He viewed her as the “golden girl” of the society set of Montgomery, Alabama (where he’d been stationed, at Camp Sheridan, after he’d dropped out of college and joined the U.S. Army), and it’s possible that he might not have gone on to write the great American novel if he hadn’t met her, because she was the impetus for him getting his first novel (This Side of Paradise) published. It was a novel he’d written in college under another title which, when he’d submitted it to a publisher, had met with rejection. Once he started courting Zelda, he ended up reworking it and rewriting one of the characters in her image, but the writing wasn’t enough. Zelda wouldn’t marry him until he made something of himself, and though he’d previously tried to do that by working at an ad agency in New York, when she broke off their engagement, he went home to Minnesota and worked on his book until it was accepted.

I won’t recount the whole history of the Fitzgeralds. For those unfamiliar with it, the important thing to know is that Zelda became Scott’s muse, obsession and wife—and that she had her own artistic brilliance, as both a dancer and a writer (she published short stories, articles and a novel too), and later as a painter. But the way the Fitzgeralds lived their lives—decadently, boisterously, carelessly—had ruinous consequences for both of them, and Zelda went from being a dazzling socialite to being an erratic and emotionally frayed woman, who spent much of her life (her 30s and 40s, until she died in a hospital fire at the age of 48) in and out of sanatoriums. Because I am writing about her in connection to a beautiful perfume that bears her name, I wanted to write about her in romantic terms. And probably you’d like that, too—which is why I will refer you now to this gorgeous piece at my friend Tarleisio’s blog, which led me to desire this perfume and to leave a gushing note in her comments section stating that, in some respects, I’d love to be the kind of woman Zelda was originally: the charismatic beauty who is the muse for a man’s creative genius, capable of stirring his talents while capturing his heart. But the closer I got to writing my own piece, the more I realized I couldn’t write about Zelda (the woman) in romantic terms because of one particular thing that bugs me. It has little to do with Zelda herself (and nothing to do with my friend’s review, which I love because it is both romantic and truthful). It has to do with a statement I read while researching this post, which said that Zelda Fitzgerald is viewed as an icon of the feminist movement. When I hear something like that, I can’t let it go—it works my every nerve—because really? An icon of feminism, in what way?

Here’s the way (according to quotes from Wikipedia): “as an artist in her own right, whose talents were belittled by a controlling husband. “ As a woman “whose unappreciated potential had been suppressed by patriarchal society.” When I read stuff like this it leads me to think that feminism is largely about painting women as victims. And this makes me question whether I would ever want to call myself a feminist, because I don’t believe in any of that. I don’t believe that a once headstrong woman like Zelda, who was used to getting her way, would have allowed herself to be a victim to anyone other than herself. (If it’s true that she was a schizophrenic, as she was diagnosed at age 30, then that puts her in a different category, but even that diagnosis has been open to debate.) And neither do I believe that feminism is doing anyone any favors when it operates from the belief that women have been the victims of men. At one point in her marriage, Zelda was practicing ballet up to eight hours a day, but when invited to join the ballet school of the San Carlo Opera Ballet Company in Naples (where she was offered a solo in Aida for her debut), she turned it down. Here is where I have to ask: If she was such a free-spirited woman, would a husband’s dismissive regard really be the thing that stopped her from accepting such an invitation? It was made evident (by the biography of Zelda written by Nancy Milford) that had she accepted the offer, Zelda would have been able to live in Naples inexpensively. The director of the school made her aware of this financial benefit in her letter of invitation.

Luckily, I don’t have to love Zelda as an icon to have sympathy for her—and if I get away from my own sticking point and look at her as a person, I can see how she would have inspired a perfume. She had an irresistible way with words—a way of describing things in unusual and incredibly sensual terms—and a lively sense of humor. She had these things all through her life, especially in her youth, when she was considered a great beauty with a devil-may-care attitude—and these attributes are reflected in the perfume created by Shelley Waddington (perfumer and owner of EnVoyage Perfumes) which bears her name.

Zelda has notes of bergamot, galbanum, bourbon, magnolia blossom, amber, musk, vanilla, balsam, sandalwood and vetiver.  At its start, it smells quite green, but in an odd way: the scent of a lawn in which the smell of ashes seems to hover. For me, the top-notes stage of Zelda is actually the darkest part of the fragrance—not that it’s terribly dark, but it has a strange humor about it. When I smell it, I picture a young Zelda sitting on a lawn, smoking cigarettes and having a mint julep, because as the notes wander about, its grassy greenness takes on some spearmint characteristics, while there is still the accompaniment of something that smells dark, medicinal and ashen. Not smoky, but like the slightly bitter, ashy smell of a cigarette. After some fifteen minutes, the fragrance lightens considerably—it’s almost as if Zelda has finished smoking and having her drink, and now we are beginning to see her, the girl with the high-spirited sense of the tipsy about her. The magnolia blossom note smells creamy and fruity—with facets of coconut and, a little later, pineapple—but without being at all sweet or cloying. Still touched by greenery (now without the smoke), this stage of the fragrance lasts a long time and is as refreshing and ebullient as a summer cocktail. It smells joyful and fun-loving.

While the base is intended (if my understanding is correct) to represent Zelda’s descent into darkness, it actually doesn’t smell dark to me at all. In its far drydown, this perfume is a silken embrace between sandalwood, musk and vanilla. It’s soft and reminiscent of skin—and reminds me of being in someone’s arms—because while it has a gentle sweetness, the musk has just enough animalic hum to impart a human smell. It’s a very whispery nuance in that regard, nothing that I would call dirty. And it’s a very nice place for any perfume—particularly a perfume meant to uphold the beauty of a woman who lived and loved deeply—to land.

September 2, 2013: