04 November 2012

Marlene Dietrich's Perfumes

 On my last trip to Berlin I visited numerous places that are in some way connected with Marlene Dietrich; my biggest hope was to see enormous collection of Marlene's property that the Filmmuseum (Deutsche Kinemathek) owns, but to my great disappointment, there were "only" few rooms of Dietrich's things on display. ;)

I was disappointed because one of the things I wanted to see were the flacons of Marlene's perfumes. I'm passionate about fragrances myself, so that interested me in particular-but, oh well, all the vintage bottles are lying in some Filmmuseum archive, temporarily hidden from the fan's curious eye. ;)

Even thought I didn't inspect what I wanted to, I'll try to answer the question: how did the Goddess smell?

In her 20s, she probably would wear No. 37 Veilchen (Pure Violet) perfume by Frau Tonis. The brand was just resurrected by the owner's granddaughter in 2009; they write on their website:
"Now to our final question: You also offer scents that once enthralled the legendary Marlene Dietrich?
Yes, that is correct. Dietrich’s favourite perfume was a scent as intense and eccentric as her she herself: pure violet. A scent that is dominated by the sweet, intense almost stubborn top note. This perfume may not capture the spirit of the time today, however, one can easily imagine how Berlin’s grande-dame of the roaring 20s once used this scent to cause quite the stir."
So I had to visit them.

I've bought the smallest version of this scent--it really is violet in all its glory--if you've ever drunk Creme de Violette from Monin, then the smell is exactly the same. I myself can imagine Marlene wearing this perfume in the 1920s Berlin; it's a bit sweet, intoxicating and very extravagant, but not as sophisticated as Dietrich's later olfactory choices.

So how did she smell like in the 1930s?

Various sources (like this, or this, or that one) mention Creed's Angelique Encens and Guerlain's Vol de Nuit, both from 1933.

These are the only two of Diva's scent that I haven't laid my hands on (at least not yet. ;) ) Creed dips in tuberose, which Marlene used to love, in jasmine,  and it's based on amber and incense--sounds very Dietrich, doesn't it? Unfortunately, the perfume is now discontinued and really hard to get.
Guerlain's Vol de Nuit is another interesting creation, my dream to get; absolute classic with its citrus head, floral-aldehyde body and warm, sandalwood and musk base. Perfect!

Tabac Blond from Caron (1919) is a fragrance that could be associated with Marlene even by its name. Leathery, full of tobacco, but softened by vanilla, it sounds possible that Dietrich would like it.

There's also a notice of Lelong's Indiscret from 1936, floral-woody perfume with galbanium- the same you can find in Vol de Nuit.

In the 1940s and 1950s, there was Piguet's Bandit from 1944-fragrance associated with Edith Piaf but, oh my, it screams Marlene. It's so feminine on one hand, but harsh and full of masculine tobacco on the other. I've found the info that Dietrich loved it repeated on various websites, especially those with Bandit's reviews.

Another Piguet's creation, Fracas from 1948, is also mentioned in one of the sources I've posted. The scent is very feminine, very sweet, it doesn't have the nerve as the above mentioned ones have. However, it's full of tuberose, so maybe that's why it appealed to Marlene?

Here you can find photo of Guerlain's Shalimar perfume that Marlene reputedly owned (it's a woody, oriental classic from 1925) and here a notice about the Young Dew scent (by Estee Lauder, 1953), another tuberose scent, this time spicy one, with cinnamon and earthy patchouli.

While smelling various scents that Dietrich was supposed to wear, remember one thing--most of them are now reformulated and don't always resemble their vintage versions. With this in mind, you can now go and check Marlene's taste in fragrances. ;-)


  1. Great post! You conducted some excellent field research, which I certainly could not have done without getting a judgmental side eye from shopkeepers. Apparently, this is one of Dietrich's flasks (of the perfume variety!), which was auctioned off at Ebay back in 2008. I know it's not the same as seeing it in-person, but I hope it will somewhat help fulfill your wish to see Marlene's fragrances. On that fragrant note, did you ever get to try on (or buy) the Parfum Gres line of fragrances that came out in 2007 (or was it 2008?)?

    Now for fun and games: can you eagle-eyed readers identify any of the perfumes on Marlene's vanity set in the 1935 photos taken in the home she rented from the Countess di Frasso?

  2. Very interesting, indeed! For everyone who wants to see more or specific Dietrich related items in Berlin I suggest to contact the MDCB people via the official website. They are very professional and friendly people in Berlin and if they can, they will surely help you and show all the perfume bottles they have in there. You just have to make an appointment.
    It's a very good point that you mentioned: most of the perfumes are reformulated. After reading the Eric Hanut book (which awakes somewhat mixed feelings in me) I was interested to know how should a man smell in MD's opinion. So I bought Habit Rouge by Guerlain. Afterwards I learned that the formula had been changed and it wasn't the same anymore. So I will never know!

    1. I should finally get around to writing about Hanut's book. I recently bought a second copy (yes, I have a bad habit of collecting duplicates, triplicates, etc.) that I spotted at a used bookshop and now I see Sauli mentioning it--all signs!

      Sauli, it is possible to buy original formulas of perfumes and colognes. Search the name of the fragrance you are seeking with a term such as "original," "vintage," or "original formula" in Google. In fact, I found vintage Habit Rouge on Ebay this way. Of course, I cannot vouch for these products, which fill my mind with many questions. Are they used? Are they fake? Are they watered down? Has the fragrance changed with age?

  3. Thanks Joseph, did you like Habit Rouge? Is it very differet from the one they produce now?
    Eryk Hanut. I haven't opened his book for years. I remember, I tried to find his name in MD's diaries and notes but in no vain. Just once the name ERIC was shortly mentioned but now I can't recall which year it was (late 80's or very early 90's, I guess). But in Hanut's book there is a photo signed Pour Eryk. The main problem for me in this book is the beginning where Hanut describes how he attended a MD's concert at the age of 18. MD didn't perform in France after Pierre Cardin Éspace concerts of 1973. She was supposed to sing in Versailles on 31.12. 1974 (very soon after Japan gigs) but the show was cancelled. Can't remember the reason, should read again my own book :)

  4. Sauli, next time I'll surely contact MDCB people-thank you for the info!
    Joseph, it really is a risky thing to buy vintage perfumes from Ebay-but you can find some real gems there! Most of the high-end fragrances don't change too much with age; I'd compare them to Sauternes wines. They evolve, they get deeper; but they age with class. ;) So it's worth giving it a try!
    I have to get my hands on Hanut's book, because, unfortunatelly, I haven't read it yet. ;>

  5. Sauli, my apologies! I was writing vaguely! I have never tried buying that Habit Rouge. I am not fond of colognes on myself and usually not on other men either. About Hanut's book, I'm rereading it, and the dates don't make sense. Hanut wrote that he was 8 years old when he saw Marlene perform in Paris, and there's a reference to him being born in 1967. 1967 + 8 = 1975, so the time frame he provides really doesn't sound possible.

    Provocateur, you should read about the book before you decide to buy it. In fact, I do intend to write about it soon because it's thin and easy to skim. I can at least tell you that Hanut talks a lot about himself and his own life (which is intriguing in its own right, even though he was still quite young when his book was published) and that most of the texts involving Marlene are conversations that he states they had.

    Hanut captures the voice of Marlene quite well, based on everything that I've read and heard, but I do get the sense that Hanut too has studied Marlene. Many of MD's quoted comments are about topics that she has discussed in her books and interviews. Either Marlene tended to talk about the same subjects repeatedly, Hanut asked her about topics that he had read about and heard, or Hanut fabricated conversations based on what he had read about and heard.

  6. Great! I've also been curious about this topic, but in the end never made a real effort to research it. Good to read this!

    I once posted something in the comments about this subject. In case you want to read this part, it's in the last comments of this post (starting at the last part of the last 4 comments)

    Personally I love to wear Robert Piguet - Bandit. This scent is definetely one of my favorites if not my favorite, being bold, elegant, sophisticated and sensual at the same time. Such a daring composition, Germaine Cellier is a true trailblazer! I agree that this scent screams Marlene, perhaps that makes me love it even more!

  7. A friend of mine in Amsterdam bought an original Marlene Dietrich beauty case/vanity case she used and owned in the thirties. The empty perfume bottles (all with the MD logo) still have the sent of the original perfume in it. So should you ever be in Amsterdam he is more then happy to receive you and show you his Marlene collection and those perfume bottles and other stuff from that case!

  8. I was wondering whether Marlene Dietrich knew in person Germaine Cellier, a French master perfumer (and quite an extravagant lady who created an iconic perfume Bandit which was Marlene's signature fragrance). If anybody knows anything about it, please share your story.

    1. Please contact the staff from the Deutsche Kinemathek film & T.V. museum here. They would know better than anyone.

    2. Thanks for your suggestion, Joseph!