“Each petal measures up to 3 inches in width, and we refuse to tell you the number of petals on each bloom, for you wouldn’t believe it. Color is purest white, heavily dotted with maroon spots; a heavy gold stripe shades down each petal. Height is 5 to 8 feet; it flowers in August.”
The flower is Lilium Auratum, the quote is from “The White Flower Farm Garden Book” by Amos Pettingill. This was the book I turned to when a lily that I thought was going to be an ordinary oriental lily and pink, turned out to be eight feet tall, and white and gold, and extravagantly and animalically scented. Somewhere along the line this bulb which was clearly some kind of L. auratum hybrid had gotten mixed in with the run-of-the-mill orientals. The result was so showy that I spotted one hiker whipping out his camera to take pictures.
It bloomed predictably for me after that, as long as I lived at that address, and as far as I know, for the people who next bought the house. It was huge, it was a showstopper of a lily. Basically, until you’ve seen one of these babies in bloom, you just won’t believe that they’re real.
That description of Mr. Pettingill’s by the way, is dead on; but then his descriptions always were, he was really William B. Harris, the founder, along with his wife Jane Grant, of White Flower Farm and one of the best prose writers in mid- century America. I certainly couldn’t give you a better mental picture of that lily. The smell is a different matter, I’ve never come across it since, that is, until now.
Ineke Ruhland’s Gilded Lily is a clarified, slightly cleaned up version of it, and since the smell is quite animalic, I think cleaning it up is probably necessary. Here it is more or less as I recall it, and the wonderful thing, or conversely the less than wonderful thing about this scent, is that it smells the way the gold rayed lily smells and not like other lilies. This is not about freshness or innocence or dainty Queen of Heaven smells. This is about carnality, and attraction, the fleshy petals that bees get lost in, on their way to the calyx of this flower, and equally of the way they always stagger out, looking hammered and covered in heavy saffron colored pollen. Basically, the big gold striped lily is a flower and no fooling.
Ms. Ruhland has therefore turned the volume down on this scent. She’s wise. Left to its own devices this scent would have been two parts Un Lys to one part Bandit, and at full open air levels, a rival for Fracas in the sillage department. This one starts with fruit notes that burn off, like rhubarb and pineapple but which serve to keep the naughty sweaty smell at the back of the accord, otherwise, the indolic side of this flower would dominate the scent.
But to return to Mr. Pettingill and his wife Grant (he called her Grant) there is something tough, dry and precise underlying the dry down of this perfume rather like Grant herself. Pettingill’s description of his wife, and her language, which was in his word “filthy” and which she picked up working at the Society Department at the Times, is like Gilded Lily: a nice, smart, sexy girl, who talks dirty, because she sits next door to the Sports desk. Grant picked up her vocabulary from the fighters who would visit the writers and describe their latest bout in the choicest obscenities. Small wonder then that years later, Grant when trying to arrange a bowl of wildflowers would call them a bunch of blank blanking ingrates.
“Such language, Grant!” said her husband.
That’s very much the same impression you get from this evocation of the big gold rayed lily. She’s a character, she’s been around, she uses language. But, in the dry down the language she uses becomes increasingly precise. The smell of something like cypress wood, although it’s not in the notes, turns up. The perfume has become a stickler, for usage, for precision, for grammatical correctness. It constitutes one of those marvelous paradoxes that are one of the things I anyway, look for in fragrances: a contradiction. What began as this gorgeous fruity, floral, blowsy perfume has whirled and whittled itself down to a pencil point. A sharpened pencil at that, just the kind, I fancy, that Jane Grant wielded all her life over copy.