One of the backstage tools for this blog lets us see where the readership is coming from. Third highest numbers are from Roumania. An interesting and wonderful country, particularly to the historian in me, but not a place I would have associated with perfume. This bore investigation.
Not much on perfume per se, but I did come across the story of Pelisor castle, Queen Marie of Roumania, and the lingering scent of violets of India.
I’ll get to that story in a minute. First, a small bit of background on the subject of scents and ghosts.
New Orleans, a city teeming with ghosts, is home of Le Pavillon hotel where sometime around the turn of the last century a teenage guest named Ada (or perhaps Ava) was trying to reach the shipping station in order to get tickets back to her native France. She was struck down by a horse-drawn carriage on the street just outside the hotel, and ever since has occasionally been encountered at the moment just prior to her misfortune, seeking directions for the station. What lingers after she is gone is the scent of a violet perfume.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the White Tower of London is the haunt (sorry) of the so called White Lady, at times seen waving through a high window at the odd tourist group below. Her other distinguishing mark is an odor said to be so pungent that the Beefeaters, strong men who have seen combat, gag at its arrival. Who this woman might have been or why she should carry along such anti-social fragrance is, alas, not known, but clearly she wishes to make a statement.
Back to Marie.
Americans, if they know of Marie at all, will half-remember Dorothy Parker’s typically snarky quatrain above. A little primer is in order.
She was a woman of some spirit, fell much in love with her new country and its people, and somewhat in the manner of Lady Diana, soon became something of a peoples’ princess. She learned the language, frequently wore the traditional Romanian clothing, and developed a powerful appreciation for her subjects (not least of all the gypsies of Romania and their peculiar culture).
When the First World War erupted, she was to be found in Red Cross gear tending to the country’s wounded soldiers. After the war, she attended the Peace Conference at Versailles and in the great border redistribution was able secure a good deal of Romania’s territory that might otherwise have been lost.
She advocated for her country with an admirable energy a strong pen, and a good sense of public relations. In 1916, at the height of the war, Marie wrote My Country, reminding the English speaking world that there was more to the Great War than Flanders Fields and the Russian Front.
She followed that volume up in the twenties and thirties with articles and memoirs (serialized in the Saturday Evening Post) and books pertaining to all things Romanian, including a book of fairy tales. The writings and the numerous pictures of her (to say nothing of appearance on advertisements for chocolate and Houbigant perfume) were enough to make Marie something of a household name in the west at that time. Small wonder Ms Parker’s audience got the reference.
King Ferdinand died in 1927, their son was crowned King Carol II. He, like Ferdinand, was over-shadowed by Marie in all things, not least in her affection for Romania and Romanians.
Marie of Roumania herself died of a sudden illness in 1938, young as these things go. The nation mourned, but it was perhaps just as fortunate that she was spared the second war and its aftermath. Her grandson King Michael was forced to abdicate in 1947 when the communists took over. Royal residences, including the queen’s much loved Pelisor castle outside of Bucharest, became state property. Marie’s old caretakers were retained, and it is from them we get the story.
The first party official to inspect the building strode into three rooms particularly associated with the old queen. Seemingly out of nowhere, the rooms suddenly burst with the smell of violets, recognized by the old caretakers as a particular favorite of the queen who had been given it by a visiting dignitary from India. It unnerved the party official, but wisely he kept his mouth shut.
Two years later the party boss from Bucharest was visiting. Again, the rush of perfume, and again only in three rooms noted for the Queen’s connections. The fellow was infuriated and had soldiers rush through the place in a vain attempt to find out who was playing this practical joke. They came up with nothing.
The last two appearances of the wandering perfume, smaller ones, were in 1958 and in 1965. Was their any significance to these? Well, the first occurred prior to the death of the first communist leader Petru Groza and the latter, to the death of his successor Gheorghiu-Dej. Pelisor Castle became and remains a national, indeed, an international treasure. (Unlike, say, The People’s Palace.)
Is the tale of the violet perfume at all true? I certainly hope so. The story goes that Ceausescu, last of the Romanian communists, hated the place and rarely visited.
One likes to think that part of his discomfort was good Queen Marie breathing down his worthless neck.
(I stumbled over the story at Tom’s Place, a nicely idiosyncratic blog, which hosts this more detailed link. I would have let it speak entirely for itself if not for the fact that internet links can die without warning and the story is far too interesting to risk being lost. For those who can read Roumanian, the original article can be found in the in March 13, 2000 (Nr. 404) issue of Formula AS Magazine)