The Lady of the Gardenias

Some friends and I got to discoursing last night, and sparring gently about floral aromas that we love: night scented stock, sweet peas, wisteria, peony, freesia, lilac, orange blossom. Our discussion having a transatlantic dimension, I asked my friend – a resident of the ‘Sunshine State’ of Florida – about the gardenia flower: Did it grow there? And how did this tropical beauty smell?

Oh my dear, he responded. I have several gardenia, and the fragrance is heady and dark, like Billie Holiday. Hypnotic and whorish. Slick black women with shiny legs and wet, black cherry lips ...

Oh, wow, oh, wow, I said. We must commit this scent anecdote to history.

He told me more about southern trees, and their strange fruit:

… It happens to be one of my favourite scent memories. I had a transsexual friend back in the ’70s who wore Jungle Gardenia. She would sit on the back upstairs porch and sing Billie in a floral satin nightgown ... her small, hormonal breasts exposed, dewy from the bath, her candy tucked safely away. Wind chimes in the Florida dusk sang with the cicadas and the air was heavy with the smell of black booty and sweet, sweet gardenia ...

We listened to Billie, my friend and I, my mind befuddled with the imagined scent of this flower. Before I slept, my Floridian confidant soothed: Close your eyes and remember with me …

I sought to learn more about the pungently exotic Jungle Gardenia, launched by Tuvaché in 1932, and – as legend has it – beloved of Barbara Stanwyck, Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Wood, Joan Crawford, Fay Wray and … Frank Sinatra. It was the favoured scent, we are informed, of ‘Auntie Mame’ Dennis, played by Rosalind Russell in the 1958 movie of that name.

But, by the end of this same decade, Jungle Gardenia seems a somewhat tawdry and spent force. Despite its hazy marketing premise that ‘summer events cast velvety shadows’, it became best known as a bottom-end drugstore fragrance, and for being offered as a consolation prize to losers on the US daytime quiz show ‘Truth or Consequences’.

Now long out of production in its original formula, one-time wearers of Jungle Gardenia, along with their (sometimes long-suffering) associates, continue to hail and revile this scent with equal gusto, while a host of copies and (sad) reformulations crowd the sites of opportunistic e-vendors. With vintage bottles now selling for upwards of $200, this cheapened glamourpuss is once again valued – and desired.


Close your eyes and remember with Lady Day and The Scentimentalist …

Strange Fruit


  1. supermarkynose@att.net29 July 2009 at 02:26

    wow DD, yours is a most auspicious perfume blog debut! you really ought to introduce yourself not only on basenotes in facebook, but on your public awaits!

  2. Mr Supermarkynose, what a kind and gracious comment! I look forward to reading more of you here, and will be sure to spread the word about 'The Scentimentalist'. Thank you so much for the encouragement!

  3. What exact notes constitute whorish and hypnotic? Am most intrigued.

  4. By contrast, I fine the reference to hidden confectionery faintly disturbing. Possibly because my friend Clare is still haunted by childhood memories of her disciplinarian mother keeping the tin of Fox's Family Favourites on a very high shelf.