Hi Dry Downers! Rachel here…tentatively tiptoeing back into the Dry Down post-retirement for a brief hello. A perfume about bubble baths came out. I had to smell it. And then I just…started writing a Dry Down about it. So! For those wondering, The Dry Down is not officially “back” yet. That is not to say it won’t come back in some form! I have found, throughout the last long, slogging winter months, that I have really missed writing about perfumes and sending out these strange notes about smells that are also not really about smells at all . So, here is a surprise edition of The Dry Down all about bubble baths and midcentury crooners and disassociation and if that is your thing, see below :) Meanwhile, I may be popping back here every so often (and Helena might be too!). Or it might take another form entirely! Who knows! For now, please take care of yourselves, and if the spirit moves you, please do tell me in the comments what perfumes you are wearing/loving lately xoxo Rach
This all has to do with perfume. I promise.
A week or so ago (what is time anymore?) the Hollywood trades broke the news that Michelle Williams will play the late crooner Peggy Lee in an upcoming biopic directed by Todd Haynes. The Internet’s reaction was swift and emphatic. Put it in my veins! The Internet cried. GIVE! ME! IT! And then they simply closed the tab, or perhaps scurried off to open a new tab in which to Google just who, exactly, Peggy Lee is. I get it -- even if you aren’t all too familiar with Lee (born Norma Dolores Egstrom in Stutsman County, North Dakota in 1920), the project simply sounds good in a headline. There’s Michelle Williams, our leading laureate of sensitive-yet-heightened biographical portrayals of midcentury women on the brink (the GIF of her wiping away a single tear as Gwen Verdon continues to squat inside my head rent-free and always will). And here, she reunites with Haynes (Williams played a character that was more or less a dippy Edie Sedgwick cipher in Haynes’ experimental Dylan biopic I’m Not There), who himself is considered to be the director when it comes to exploring the plight of the repressed post-war bottle blonde. How can it miss? Nobody out-Sirks Douglas Sirk like Haynes, whose fastidious attention to detail in Carol extended to Cate Blanchett’s California Coral nail polish (and perfectly matching lipstick) and the precise manner in which Blanchett ordered her creamed spinach over poached eggs. Not to the side of, not under, not coddled by, but over. Haynes can go more louche when he wants to -- see Velvet Goldmine, Mildred Pierce -- but his work tends to circle the same themes like an endless bespangled barn dance: desperate glamour, glamorous desperation, the slow mental breakdowns of beautiful rare birds hastened by societal and systemic restrictions, including but not limited to austerity, blandness, heteronormativity and prudes. Perhaps prudes most of all.
So the combination just feels right: Williams, with her diamond-hard ability to make her characters seem made of glass, and Haynes, with his jeweler’s ability to cut to the heart of what sparkles and expose its flaws. Of course they are making a Peggy Lee film together -- and of course I will watch it twelve billion times. This was not, however, the original plan for the Peggy Lee story on the big screen (Hollywood development gossip ahead!). The original plan was put on hold in 2012, when Nora Ephron, who was writing the Lee screenplay and wanted to direct it, died suddenly of leukemia. At that time, Reese Witherspoon was attached to play the part, which makes sense, because her Oscar came from playing June Carter Cash, and because she seems to love to sing on film, and because she was not yet a producing mogul and so she was still taking roles in other people’s projects. Still, her mogul skills were already ascendant; Witherspoon was apparently the person who finally convinced Lee’s granddaughter to give up the singers’ life rights for adaptation. The Ephron/Witherspoon Lee film would likely have been great, but it would have been a far different project than what the current iteration is shaping up to be. That version might have focused on Lee’s blonde ambition, on her rise from an unseen radio performer with an Andrews Sisters warble to a hoofer on the nightclub circuit, where she performed in rooms with names like The Doll House and the Coconut Grove and The Buttery. As a cabaret act, Lee developed what would become her infamous vocal schtick: she was not a belter, so she could not sing louder than the clinking glasses. She was not a soprano, so she could not sing higher than the low din of dinner gossip (as anyone who has sung “Fever” at karaoke knows, Lee said ALTO RIGHTS). So she sang underneath it all, practically purring into the microphone. Her sex kitten, quasi-ASMR vibrato proved to be irresistible to the bananas flambé set. People had to lean in to hear her over their utensils, and then they wanted to hear more. Plain old Norma Dolores from Jamestown became the sultry Peggy Lee of anywhere you could get a good steak and a strong martini, traveling around with big bands with her hair pinned into victory rolls.
Lee then married a guitarist in her band and got pregnant right away and considered dropping out of the whole nightclub scene to cosplay Doris Day. But alas, her husband kept writing her hit songs. She signed a mega deal with Capitol, and then churned out dozens of breezy, tinkling records during the 1950s, the sort of schmaltzy, sentimental LPs that people would put on to entertain with coupe glasses in conversation pits. She covered “Blue Moon” and “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Black Coffee.” She made Christmas records; she was never not recording Christmas records. (Outside of Bing Crosby, she really cornered the market on “jazzy holiday albums to put on while serving crab dip and ambrosia salad”). Her Capitol-era stuff is full of perky trilling verses that are perfect for playing behind scenes in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which is to say that they are the musical equivalent of a pink swing coat that hits the tongue like a bon bon but quickly grows gooey and tedious.
I’m not saying Ephron’s film would have only lingered on these early years -- I haven’t read the script! I would, however, simply give an organ to do so! -- but I do think it might have revelled in them, in the small-town-yokel-takes-Hollywood pluckiness of it all. Witherspoon and Ephron’s powers together would have been like a pluck engine that never runs out of gas. Frankly, I would like to see it! But this cannot be. So what we have to ponder is what is to come -- which, if I have my hunches, may be a far more melancholy film, one that luxuriates in the strange back nine of Lee’s career, when she divorced her guitarist (an alcoholic, like her father) and then two more husbands promptly after that. Freshly single and ready for a hit single, she recorded a cover of “Fever” in 1958 (the song was originally written by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell for the blues singer Little Willie John, whose 1956 version was also a smash; the fact that Lee’s version has eclipsed the original as the standard rendition is everything you need to know about racism in popular music in a nutshell). “Fever” was, for Lee, a monster hit, the sort of solid gold record that both buoys and kills a career as it is nearly impossible to replicate. For a decade she tried and failed to recapture the magic, recording lounge lizardy records with names like “Big $pender” and “Guitars a La Lee” that were suffused with intimate purring and velveteen vocals but not a lot of pathos.
And then in 1969, at almost fifty years old, she recorded another cover, and swerved again. Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller originally had another artist in mind for “Is That All There Is?, but, as the legend has it, Lee heard the demo and told them “I will kill you if you give this song to anyone but me.” You see, Lee felt she had lived this song, a song that dares to ask “what is even the point of anything?” Lee’s own mother died when she was four; her father drank heavily. Her family house burned down twice. Her first husband walked out leaving her with a newborn. She spent decades in push-up girdles cracking jokes at the microphone in low-lit rooms, pushing sex appeal and slinky vocal fry as a way to run cover for whatever else she was feeling. Some of the other women in her coterie did ads for cake mix and tablecloths. Lee became the poster girl for beer brands and cigarettes. As The Guardian reported, one press release from the 1950s boasted that “Peggy puts more sex into a song than most girls could into a striptease.” It’s not a bad place to be, but for the era, it was certainly a form of self-limitation. The sexy girl can go far, but never too far that they become a threat. All of that has to do something to a person.
What I love about “Is That All There Is?” is that it could only be sung by a woman who has really been through it, who has hung around long enough to act like she is over it all while assuring you that she has indeed lived deliciously anyways. To me, it is a song from fifty two years ago that sounds a lot like being online. LOL...is that all there is? *dancing emoji* *martini glass emoji* *upside down face*
If you are not familiar with the number, its genre is something that operagoers might know as sprechgesang: most of the time Lee is speaking rather than singing. She gives a series of droll monologues over a tinny, vamping piano that sounds like it might be part of a haunted carousel. The first block of text is about her childhood home burning down, and her not feeling anything much about it at all. The second is about how she was deeply unimpressed by the dancing bears at the circus, even though everyone told her she would be thrilled. The third is about falling in love “with the most wonderful boy in the world,” who then leaves her...and...surprise….she feels numb at best. And lastly, Lee directs her final speech right at the skeptic listener, saying that yes, she has considered suicide, but frankly, she thinks that death would probably be disappointing too. The cruel dryness of these verses magically melts away during the chorus, where Lee glides her voice into an actual, caramel melody. “Is that all there is, my friends?” she sings. “Then let’s keep dancing. Let’s break out the booze and have a ball — if that’s all there is.”
In the end, the song is a bizarrely effective party anthem. It’s about shimmying your way through life, even when it gets very bad, and, if you are lucky, finding people who want to find the rhythm with you. I used to hear this messaging and feel very glum; what if, at the end of the road, nothing matters and nothing is real and it’s all been one long dazzling nothingburger? But then, I just wasn’t old enough to understand what she was really saying, which is that it actually all matters very much, even when you pretend it does not, and this is just how I personally am getting through it. Let me get through it my way, and I’ll let you get through it your way. If our ways intersect at a punch bowl, the more the merrier.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I started to listen to “Is That All There Is?” in a kind of obsessive loop that I now see was mostly about missing my friends, but also about accepting the essential loneliness of this time by embracing Lee’s vision of essential loneliness. I would put it on just to feel something, but then also just to feel nothing in the exact same moment. Which is why, I think, I started listening to it primarily in the bathtub.
Anyone who has read The Dry Down for a while probably knows that I am strangely devoted to my bathtub, which is not at all fancy, and desperately needs to be resurfaced, and is probably older than I am, and sits inside a windowless, teensy bathroom that juts off of the hallway of our railroad apartment in Brooklyn. I have been taking baths in that tub for almost seven years now, and it is a ritual I have down to a science (except for the one, mortifying day last year when pandemic brain led me to forget I was filling the tub while multi-tasking and it overflowed a bit and we had to leap into emergency sopping-up mode before we caused any lasting water damage). This ritual involves lots of candles and a lot of fussy set-up: I use epsom salts, oils, bombs, and bubble bath, often all at once. I bring in a large, cold bowl of grapes or clementines if I have them, or sometimes green Castelvetrano olives or honey-roasted nuts or a raspberry popsicle. I’ll make a cocktail in a proper glass and balance it precariously on the tub’s rim (I have broken three coupe glasses this way; have I learned anything? Nope!). I try to stay hydrated, so I bring in a giant, dorky canteen of ice water and several other bevvies (lately I have been very into this rose kombucha that tastes a bit like if a flower smoked weed) and I just...vibe. Sometimes I read novels, sometimes I watch a movie on my laptop (also precariously balanced -- I use an ancient laptop with a broken spacebar for the task knowing that I am destined to ruin a computer this way someday). But a lot of the time I just...sit there. I try to disassociate. I try not to look at my phone. I often look at my phone.
I was a regular bather well before the pandemic, but when lockdowns began last March, I realized just how crucial having a bathtub would be to making it through. We have been in this apartment, only taking stupid little walks for breaks, for a year now, and the tub has become the closest analog I have to travelling anywhere. It is a hotel room, a second office, a phone booth, a portal to another timeline, a sacred place of reflection and even prayer. To have a place to just be, for an hour, with the door closed, in the dark? In these times? Vital. It breaks up the day. It passes time. It opens wormholes of time.
The bath is a very perfumed space, which makes it relevant to this letter (see? This was about perfume after all!). There are so many scents you can use to anoint your water, if you so choose. You could use lavender or eucalyptus oils from Germany. You could infuse your water with “bath tea” or these amazing bath bombs from Witch Baby, which are the size of baseballs and turn your water black or blood red or baby blue. When it comes to bubble bath, if you are feeling splurgy, you cannot go wrong with L’Occitane’s Lavande, which is a dreamy creamy soporific (and highly-concentrated) soak, but I also say don’t overthink it. Drugstore bubble baths are better than fine! I for one still love the classic, bubblegum fizz smell of Mr. Bubble -- and if you care to capture that exactly strawberry soda mood in a perfume you can wear, Demeter made one.
A lot of people ask me how to use actual perfume IN the tub, and my answer is a three-parter. 1) Put some on beforehand! Why not! You will eventually rinse it off, but for a while the steam will amplify the scent and you will be enrobed in a misty cloud. 2) Spray a few spritzes in the bathwater as it is filling up; I often do this with perfumes I never really got into and don’t really know how to wear. They tend to always work better diffused in bathwater, where they come back as the lightest whisper of their former selves. And 3) (and this is my go-to) Keep a bottle of a perfume you very much like next to the tub, and throughout your disassociation hour, spray it a few times in the air around you . I like to do this with a bottle of Femme by Rochas that I bought once for $20 on the street and might very well be a fake but it works for me as a feral burst of funky florals in candlelit environs.
What I had not considered is that someone (well, outside of Demeter’s legacy of stunt perfumery) might engineer a perfume to smell like a bath. Maybe it is because I assume everyone’s bath smells totally different, and also because to me the bath has always been a liminal place where you go to wash off old perfume and prepare yourself for the next one (there’s nothing like spraying perfume on freshly bathed skin, when it is still hot and puffy and piglet-like; it amplifies the scent back to you like a megaphone). I have no real romanticism about the in-between stage. But just this year, Margiela, who has been slowly and steadily releasing a series of “Replica” scents over the last five years (their simulacrum project has extended to the concept of jazz clubs, a walk on the beach, and a night next to a roaring fire) put out a new fragrance called “Bubble Bath” (I found a site selling samples here). So of course, I smelled it.
The overwhelming note in “Bubble Bath” is that of aldehydes -- chemical glosses of carbon and oxygen that mimic the smell of a soap cake -- on top of a powdery, downy base of milky musks and a wee bit of bergamot. It’s a Dove Beauty Bar dipped in white chocolate; a shampoo from a fancy hotel infused with talc. I have been wearing it for a week, and what I can say is that it is quite linear in its aims -- it is undeniably a pop-rocks, carbonated, lathering smell -- but it is not actually clean. The secret to aldehyde-heavy perfumes is not that they smell like a blank slate but like a blank check; they smell like crisp dollar bills and all of the trouble you could get into with enough of them. They are the tipping point where crispness becomes erotic. Marilyn Monroe did not say she slept in Chanel No. 5 and nothing else (the original Big Aldehyde, one that might be considered Bubble Bath’s grizzled elder) to insinuate that she was nunlike in her satin sheets. What she evoked was an age-old eroticism that conflates bathing and sensuality, suds and whatever they are washing away (see also: bikini car washes). What I find cloying, but also fairly irresistible, about Bubble Bath is its pinpoint accuracy; it really does smell like scrubbing yourself into oblivion. It’s a perfume about self-abnegation that is also so sweet and strong that it might make you feel lightheaded (and very much in need of…you guessed it…a bath).
When I first smelled “Bubble Bath,” my mind immediately went to Peggy Lee. Her open embrace of the truly ridiculous as just another inevitability of being alive is all over this bottle. Somehow, the perfume feels sarcastic and world-weary upon arrival, like a cabaret punchline delivered in sequins. It really does smell exactly like what it says on the tin, which is a very silly and naive promise, and yet…
In another year, I’d maybe say, who asked for this? Why do we want to smell like bathtime as adults moving through the world? This year, though, I completely get it. I even grasp the joy inside the gimmick. The bathtub is currently my most hallowed space, and I want to hold onto it as long as possible, even when I am just one room away from it. I cannot sit in the bath all day long. I know that. I have responsibilities, and things to do, even if we don’t go anywhere or see anyone anymore. But part of me wonders, as I let my fingers grow pruny, if baths aren’t an escape from life this year but a preservational part of it, a repeated practice that congeals into a form of meditation, or at least purposefully keeping your own company. I can’t go to parties right now. But I can submerge myself in bubbles. The bath has become my main social space: I make long phone calls to friends in there, I leave them silly voice texts that almost feel like gossiping in a corner of a bar. Almost. Is this all there is, my friends? Well then. Let’s break out the booze and have a bath.
PS: I made a Spotify playlist called “Bath Oblivion” that I have been soaking to lately. Feel free to join me. Until next time….x RS.