It’s the greatest love story in the history of perfume, which by definition means its end was both tragic and utterly enshrouded in mystery.
Perfume is such an evanescent thing; how could we expect a romance born of that molecular milieu – its makers and users all caught up in a frenzy of invention and indulgence -- to last -- to morph into something more static instead of self-consuming?
Fragrance courtships are comets and firecrackers.
The question is why -- what was the proximate cause of the parting? Even if predetermined, a celebrity split can’t help but engender a great deal of curiosity in an entertainment-hungry proletariat (y’all be watching Depp-Heard Round 2 in part for that reason).
Was this a lesson about the peril inherent in colleague copulation? Because the circumstances surrounding the split might suggest this was a great deal more. They didn’t just break up – they left their fiery relationship to marry other people who don’t quite strike me as their soulmates. And they continued working together, though remotely, in a most painful way, it seems.
We’re talking, of course, of Caron founder Ernest Daltroff and Felicie Wanpouille, a dressmaker who’d begun taking on clients at the age of 15 and left her impoverished childhood home to move to Lille with a traveling salesman just five years later, only to ditch him for the bright lights of Paris (if Caron’s official 1984 account can be trusted). Clearly, she had an inclination -- likely half native, half meagerness-induced -- to escape.
They crossed paths after Felicie moved to Paris, their both having offices on the Rue de la Paix. That he soon made her creative director of Caron, empowered her to commission all bottle designs (the most memorable result of which was the black Baccarat beauty with the gold-flapper-headband ring for perfume Nuit de Noel) – and marketing, then gave her a 50 percent ownership stake is fragrance lore. That they fucked while collaborating in business is no less known – and given their Gallic sensibilities, a turn hardly unexpected.
Daltroff, born in 1867 to an upper-middle class family and already well traveled by the time he founded Caron officially in 1904, having toured South America and the Middle East, labored on formulas in a villa in Asnieres, supposedly while wearing blue gardening overalls on top of his suit.
“He left to her the choice of colours, the shape of bottles, the pattern of the ribbons,” reads the 1984 Caron book, “The Secret Charm of a Perfumed House,” by Gregoire Colard. “Felicie signed the order forms for the factory with the name ‘Madame Daltroff.’ They were not married, but one day Daltroff had presented her to his staff as his wife and no comment had been [made].”
They lived together in a flat on the Boulevard Pereire.
He was 5’6” with chestnut hair and eyes the same color. She was seven years younger – just 32 to his 39 when they met in 1906 – with thin eyebrows and thin lips, thick glasses and slicked back hair. She appeared a stern society lady unbothered by her appearance both astigmatic and avian.
He was besotted -- and her confidence, that air of authority she possessed, perhaps a result of her near-unassisted rise from poverty, no doubt played a part (famed fragrance bottle designer Pierre Dinand, in his emails with me over the past month, described her as “a small, discreet and introverted woman,” which I think accurately defines not who she was so much as who she seemed to be to outsiders unfamiliar with her strong sense of aesthetics, but who the hell am I to gloss a line of Dinand's?).
The book Caron released in October 2000 by Jean-Marie Martin-Hattemberg actually reprints a letter Ernest wrote Felicie from Grasse in 1913 while on a business trip:
I’ve just returned to the hotel and have this sudden urge to write you. The reason is without doubt the autumn light, iridescent with the flamboyant colours of the plane trees in the Mirabeau Square and that have not yet been stripped bare by the perfumed mistral.
Does that make you smile, Felicie? Perfumed mistral!! That could be the name for a new Caron creation. Is it too audacious? Nevertheless, does not this great wind, after its cavalcade down the Rhone Valley, carry all the scents of the Midi that are carefully gathered in the distilleries in Grasse?
And yet, though absence may make the heart grow fonder, it is nevertheless cited by that same book as the reason the couple grew apart.
“During his absence, Félicie has changed,” writes Martin-Hattemberg of a 1924 trip taken by Daltroff, who spoke five languages. “The couple is experiencing deep relationship difficulties. Ernest, inattentive, thinks only of his business and seems to be neglecting his life as a couple. Félicie is bored alongside a man without fantasy, too absorbed in work and who no longer sees her as a companion but as an associate. Very quickly, discord sets in. Arguments and resentment [tear] the couple apart.”
Colard traces the disharmony further back, to 1922, when Felicie officially received half-ownership of the company, although in his telling, this was no simple split of shares but part of a tontine insurance arrangement, that is, an annuity that would pay out more to the person who lived longer. While these are not uncommon in France to this day, it does make one wonder whether Felicie had a kind of premonition of what was to come. Or maybe I misunderstand the nature of French insurance (which sounds awfully morbid).
Colard on Felicie: “She [had] realised that in case of misfortune she would be entitled to nothing…It rankled [her] that Daltroff had never married her, even if only a few people were aware of the fact.
“She never complained of the situation, for she was not the type to confide in others, but she had become more calculating. She felt that in the circumstances, their relationship must henceforth be on a purely business footing.”
This change in attitude caused Daltroff great anguish, in this telling so much so that Daltroff confided in Caron’s newly-hired second nose, Michel Morsetti, that he never should have let business interfere with his romance.
Which would have been a rather sensible reaction. He was then 55, in 1922. Even if she wasn’t the great love of his life (and she seemed to be), he wasn’t likely to find in his remaining time an alternative who was.
Yet this account, like all of them, is self-contradictory, incomplete, baffling. Felicie wanted a share in the business – wanted to be an equal, Colard explains. And yet, he goes on to say, of Felicie’s evolving mindset in the mid-1920s, “She could no longer stand living with this austere man, devoted heart and soul to his work, with never a touch of fantasy about him. She needed freedom to breathe, to indulge in luxuries.”
So which was it? Did she desire civil society’s official enshrinement of their bond or mere insurance? A greater appreciation of her work or her sense of adventure? An expanded remit or greater extravagance?
And if she desired it all, to which aspects did Ernest ever object?
Answers to all of those may never be found, but that travel was involved proximately in the breakup seems something of a consensus. In Colard’s version, Felicie doesn’t bristle at a trip taken by Daltroff but instead utilizes his embarkation on one to flee the coop, moving out of their joint apartment on Boulevard Pereire permanently and settling in a suite at the Ritz.
“When Daltroff returned to find the flat empty,” Colard writes, “he had a terrible shock, which resulted in a bout of pneumonia, followed by a nervous breakdown. Once back again, he shut himself up in his laboratory, from which he scarcely emerged, even on Sundays.”
Pierre Dinand, the aforementioned perfume flacon designer, thinks there’s an element of promiscuity absent from these retellings. He is currently researching Caron’s history for its latest owner, Ariane de Rothschild, who will hold an exhibition of classic Caron bottles this November at the Places d'Or at the Hotel Meurice.
Dinand pins the breakup on a flirtatiousness I’ve never in other parts heard imputed to Daltroff.
“Ernest was a seducer, a womanizer,” Dinand told me, adding that he and Francois Coty used to gather to watch Isadora Duncan dance nearly naked at her dance school at the Hotel Byron, rue de Varenne. Dinand, based on conversation with two prominent perfumers in the 1960s, says Ernest had an affair with the dancer sometime between 1908 and 1910.
“About their sentimental separation,” he said of Ernest and Felicie, “I have the impression that it is following a trip to Italy on Lake Como, to Bellagio.”
If the whole breakup seems rather unexceptional, especially for business partners, one of whom was perhaps – perhaps – a tad lecherous, I suppose that’s because, taken by itself, it really was– that the passions and yearnings of these two souls lost to each other attained a dolorous significance only in the years after the undoing.
Daltroff never strayed far from his organ of ingredients at the Asnières factory. He seemed to coworkers lonely, irritable, consumed. Felicie remained in the boutique on the rue de la Paix. They communicated only as much as was necessary.
And then, four years after Felicie first demanded her half of the company in writing, something rather unexpected occurred -- unexpected not so much for her age – though 52 was hardly young in 1926, and a two-decade disparity in birthday seems sizeable even for France – but the romantic past her corporate post must have always recalled -- at least, for everyone around her if not her herself (or maybe I’m just prude about French office romance):
While still co-running Caron, Felicie married a 35-year-old electrical engineer from Douai named Jean Gabriel Isidore Joseph Bergaud.
What did Felicie find in this man she didn’t in Daltroff? Her mother died that year – was that an unwelcome reminder of her mortality – an event that coaxed her into an arrangement about which she was otherwise unsure?
And what of this: That salesman who’d taken a young Felicie to Lille to live with him when she was just 20 – one reason he gave for his distemper was a doctor’s pronouncement that Felicie was barren, would never bear the man an heir.
How did that added element play into this marriage, which was supposedly kept secret from Caron staffers for a period? Had Jean Bergaud no desire for children (power to him, if so) – was he seeking in a much, much older female companion a partner less romantic than pragmatic given prevailing social mores?
This is part speculation, sure, but some of these elements spilled over into the workplace most remarkably. Felicie supposedly couldn’t tolerate the sight of a pregnant staffer – she sent home any Caron employee with a noticeable baby bump.
The year after Felicie got hitched, the dancer Isadora Duncan died in a disturbing auto accident when the scarf tied about her neck, becoming entangled in the car’s wheels, choked her and hurled her from the auto and onto the ground.
Meanwhile, Ernest kept toiling away at his craft, in the factory, away from the city’s glamor, distant, if only geographically, from the now-married woman who somehow got away.
“No explanation can justify, today, the separation of Ernest and Félicie. Wounded and bitter, Ernest Daltroff finds himself alone,” writes Martin-Hattemberg. “He finds it hard to bear his loneliness and his home on boulevard Pereire remains too imbued with the memories of a lost happiness.”
So Ernest sought solace as the jilted have from time immemorial, and he, too, wedded someone else – also someone 20 years younger – one Madeleine Briet, in 1932, three nights before New Year’s Eve, almost as if he was trying to squeeze in the nuptials so as to start 1933 fresh, as if such an external rite could ever work magic upon a hurt inside.
1933 – a year in which he sought renewal. 1933 – the year in which Hitler rose to power. We can trace the sad course of the ensuing decade, Daltroff’s last, from the records of various ports’ entries and exits, as the perfumer, ostensibly fleeing fascism as a Jew but on the run from his feelings in equal measure, settled in Geneva, Montreal, New York. Always on the move. Working for Caron from a distance whose measure was far greater than the obvious gaps in time and space.
Madeleine’s 1941 Declaration of Intention Form, filled out so she might obtain US citizenship, outlines the very end, seemingly. She and Daltroff took the Delaware & Hudson Railway train from Montreal to Rouses Point, NY, on June 29 or 30, 1940, settling ultimately in Manhattan at the Hotel Beacon at Broadway and 75th.
The form wasn’t signed by Madeleine until May 7, 1941 – exactly seven months before Pearl Harbor and three months after her husband, Ernest Daltroff, had already died, of cancer.
Of course, this wasn’t quite the ending – life goes on. Felicie lived on in Paris until 1967, when she passed at the age of 93.
And Daltroff’s wife, having seen him perish of cancer and then lived as a widow on Park Avenue, married a wealthy, divorced doctor, with whom she moved to Quogue, Long Island, at the Eastern tip of the Hamptons, in 1947 (upon which occasion she exhumed Daltroff from his resting place in the Bronx and interred him in Quogue, in a cemetery now home to former Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn).
No, this wasn’t quite the ending for Daltroff – not just because those who survived him kept on – but because that declaration his wife made to attain citizenship for herself following his passing – it elides a key detail, one found on the scanned manifest of a ship called the SS Manhattan.
Now, Madeleine had said she’d come to New York with Daltroff by train from Canada and maybe she had that June 1940. But earlier that same month, Daltroff and his wife are listed as passengers on the SS Manhattan from Genoa, Italy, to the US (alongside wayfarers from Zagreb, Tel Aviv, Sydney and Bogotá).
That Madeleine may have fibbed on her citizenship form doesn’t interest me so much as her presence with Daltroff on that ship. Here you have an essentially retired perfumer, in poor health and supposedly in tremendous fear of European fascism, with a safe haven in Canada and the ability to construct one in the States, and he’s traveling to Italy?
What could the man find there at this point in time, given his failing body and the continent’s commensurate fragmentation? The world was fucking crumbling.
And then you recall that Felicie chose “Bellodgia” as the name of a 1927 Caron offering in homage to the village of Bellagio, Italy, whose romantic sweep into Lake Como had always enchanted her. It was the exotic spot to which Ernest and Felicie escaped once and the site, perhaps, of their final tiff.
Ernest Daltroff, though married to another woman, having lost Felicie nearly two decades earlier, imperiled by threats from within and without, a man sensing his end – he returned to Italy.
No, it wasn’t just another breakup.