She sent him a blade of grass, but no word.
The witchy doll, soaked in Dior.
The gravestone. Inside it
A sample of her own ashes. Inside it
Her only daughter's
Otherwise non-existent smile.
Inside it, the keys
Of a sycamore.
Inside those, falling
Of a sycamore. Inside those,
Falling and turning in the air the
Of a Sycamore.
From Capriccio (Gehenna Press, 1990) reprinted in Collected Poems, edited by Paul Keegan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) p. 799.
In 1962, the poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath had moved to their country home, Court Green in Devon, in order to pursue a quieter life away from the literati and the demands of London. Plath and Hughes were far from the picture of domestic tranquility: with two very young children, Sylvia seemed exhausted and had begun to write the difficulties of her marriage into poems such as "Elm." Friends who visited the couple at this time sensed tension. Not only was the marriage strained, Ted and Sylvia confided separately to friends that they were, in some ways, prisoners of each other and of their own unfulfilled needs.
They did, however, invite a few friends to Devon and on May 18, the poet David Wevill and his wife Assia, who were renting the Hughes' apartment in London, traveled to the country to spend the weekend with their hosts. Elaine Feinstein, in her biography of Ted Hughes, reports that Assia was "perfumed and manicured." And in the recently published biography of Assia, Lover of Unreason, authors Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev report that Assia had announced to a colleague at work: "I'm going to seduce Ted." (p. 86) Hughes later mythologized (and demonized) Assia in poems such as the Capriccio collection and "Dreamers" (published in Birthday Letters) in which he described her variously as "the seven treasures of Asia," a "mystical jewel," and a "many-blooded beauty"with "tiger-painted nails." From "Dreamers":
She sat there, in her soot-wet mascara,
In flame-orange silks, in gold bracelets,
Slightly filthy with erotic mystery --
Russian Israeli with the gaze of a demon
Between curtains of black Mongolian hair.
I refused to interpret. I saw
The dreamer in her
Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it.
That moment the dreamer in me
Fell in love with her, and I knew it.
In "Fairy Tale," the next poem after "Dreamers," Hughes continues his address to Plath:
... --you kept the key.
We would open that, some day, together.
I found that door. My heart hurting my ribs
I unlocked the forty-ninth door
With a blade of grass. You never knew
What a skeleton key I had found
In a single blade of grass. And I entered.
(Collected Poems, pp. 1145-1148)
Assia Wevill (nee Gutmann) was, by all accounts, stunningly gorgeous. The daughter of a Russian Jew and a German Protestant, she had inherited thick dark hair, huge gray/green eyes, and intense features that made a lasting impression on everyone who met her. She was in some ways defined by her own paradoxes: linguistically gifted and cruelly blunt, reckless and generous, vulnerable and fierce, selfish and self-deprecating, maddening and magnetic, naive and calculating, she seemed to have focused all her best and worst characteristics toward a singular goal: to attract the attention and desire of the men around her.
Elaine Feinstein, in her Times Literary Supplement review of Lover of Unreason, notes that "what [Assia] valued most in herself was her allure for men." When she met Ted, she was married to her third husband, and she had lived her romantic life with a degree of open hedonism that was exceptional for a woman of her time and social position. Elizabeth Sigmund, a close friend of Plath and Hughes, said of Assia, "I've never come across anyone like her. She had no moral sense at all. She was like a very beautiful wild animal." (The Age, January 31, 2004)
Whatever happened at Court Green in Devon that May of 1962, one thing is clear: Ted, who Koren and Negev report, was a "sexual stalker by nature," (p. 94) was suddenly very interested in Assia. Five weeks later, Ted made a surprise visit to the advertising agency in London where Assia was a copywriter. Finding that she was out, he left a note with the receptionist: "I have come to see you, despite all marriages."
Her response was strikingly poetic. She took a single blade of grass from the lawn below her office window, dipped it in her favorite Dior perfume, and sent it without explanation to Ted's address. In three days, Assia received a letter from Devon. In it, her Dior-soaked blade of grass lay beside one of Ted's own cutting from Court Green. It was as if she had signaled to him that she had amputated herself from her present life and marriage, and would offer herself to him, both body (grass) and spirit (perfume). Ted's poetry has frequently been described as "celebrating the violence inherent in the natural world," and Assia could hardly have found a more appropriate metaphor for reckless desire.
Neither one could have imagined how the situation would unfold over the next seven years, but Ted later magnified the significance and potential of that perfumed blade of grass when he wrote "Chlorophyl."
But there is still a mystery to be solved: which Dior suffused that blade of grass? What was the singular fragrance that greeted Ted when he opened that envelope in Devon? What was the scent of the woman whose entry into Ted's life heralded the final series of crises in the Hughes/Plath marriage, the final chapter in Sylvia's life, the birth of a daughter by Ted and Assia, and the tragic death of both the daughter and Assia, seven years later?
By 1962, Christian Dior had launched four very different fragrances for women: Miss Dior in 1947, Diorama in 1949, Eau Fraiche in 1955, and Diorissimo in 1956. All of these fragrances have since been reformulated but each can be found in their original formulation through collectors. Hoping to find Assia's own perfume, I contacted The Perfumed Court, and one day later had in my possession and on my skin samples of vintage Miss Dior, Diorama, and Diorissimo parfums. (I had already eliminated Eau Fraiche as a possibility because it was formulated as a light, potentially unisex scent which seemed to me the exact opposite of a fragrance that would appeal to a woman of Assia's sensibilities.)
The most recent release at the time, Diorissimo was the creation of Edmond Roudnitska and is considered by many to be the best lily of the valley perfume ever made. Diorissimo is a marvel of green and white in a bottle. Originally composed to evoke the tiny bell-shaped white flowers as well as the forests in which they grow, Its original formulation combines the high soprano of lily of the valley and crisp galbanum with the deep, rich growl of jasmine and civet. It is strongly indolic and surprisingly complex, considering the modern expectations of lily of the valley perfumes as light and fresh and cheerful. In 1962, I suspect Diorissimo would have felt very beautiful, very professional and refined with just a touch of mystery. I frequently read articles written by people who find Diorissimo nostalgic because it was their mother's favorite perfume.
Assia was, at heart, an optimist and I expect the exuberance and elegance of Diorissimo might have appealed to her. In the fifties and sixties, she is often pictured wearing multiple strands of pearls, exactly the kind of picture I most associate with the modern professional woman at that time. Younger pictures show Assia laughing with a radiant, disarming smile. This Assia could easily have worn Diorissimo, but would she have soaked a blade of grass in it, and sent that blade of grass to her new interest?
Diorama was launched six years earlier in 1949. In his 1000 Fragrances article on Diorama, fragrance historian and writer Octavian Sever calls Diorama one of the best examples of a fruity chypre ever made, harmonious and well-rounded with subtle peach notes highlighting a light floral heart of jasmine, rose, and gardenia. The drydown is extremely beautiful, as the spicier notes give way to a sensuously smooth earthy/animalic base of oakmoss, vetiver, civet and castoreum. It is both more floral and fruity than either Coty Chypre or the great Guerlain Mitsouko, but it is reminiscent of both. In particular, the peach notes shine in Diorama, giving it a soft skin-like luminescence.
Both luxurious and elegant, Diorama is frequently cited as a "ball gown" or "opera gloves" fragrance. Though it has dark facets, it is graceful and thoroughly luminescent. In a picture of Assia taken on the day of her second wedding, she is wearing a beautiful one-shouldered white dress, her hair is glossy black and her eyes are averted in a gesture that is neither coy nor indirect. She is simply stunning, and when I look at this picture, I can imagine her dabbing on Diorama from its crystal flacon. It is not a loud fragrance and would very quickly have melded with her own chemistry, matching perfectly the radiant facets of her own personality.
Miss Dior, a classic floral-animalic chypre, was "le premier parfum" of the house of Christian Dior. Launched in 1947, it was created by Paul Vacher (and perhaps others including Roudnitska) based on a formula by Jean Carles. As the initial fragrance for Dior, it was intended to evoke a new kind of woman: graceful, fashionable, and daring. An homage to the classic Coty Chypre of 1917, Miss Dior was round, warm, voluptuous and fearless, throwing off wartime sensibilities of restraint and ushering in a revolution which would, in fashion, become known as the "New Look."
As Victoria Frolova of Bois de Jasmin writes in her article on Miss Dior, it was a fragrance which was, in its original formulation, "strong,...assertive, and so distinctive." Her description of Miss Dior's personality is much more accurate than any attempt I could make:
"Born in 1947, the fragrance carries connotations of the hunger for glamour, the austerity of war and the hopes for future.... Miss Dior does not reveal her charms upon the first encounter, requiring a longer and patient acquaintance, especially for those who are used to the eager-to-please modern fragrances. The green pepper sharpness of galbanum is underpinned by a classical gardenia note, which is bright, dry and intriguingly metallic. These effervescent notes slowly melt into the floral heart of Miss Dior, and yet the animalic darkness is never far behind. Soon the chypre base that supports the refinement of floral notes takes center stage. The composition becomes veiled in duskiness, ... punctuated by ... gilded warmth..."
With a prim name and a feral heart, Miss Dior was a great success for la maison Dior. As vivid as it is unique, the vintage fragrance in the parfum concentration literally makes the air quiver. Assia shared these characteristics. As Koren and Negev note in their September 2006 Telegraph excerpt of Lover of Unreason, "Everyone who knew Assia Wevill remembers her vivid
physical presence." With her impeccable upper-class British Accent, perfect Prussian German, and flawless Hebrew, she was as exotic as she was refined. It seems perfectly natural that the "very beautiful wild animal" in Assia would have found the dark animal streak running through Miss Dior a perfect fit.
When we consider the advertising for the three fragrances, which certainly would have been part of Assia's world, we are really no closer to a definitive answer since many of the early Diors were grouped together in ads featuring the graphic art of the great Rene Gruau. As Helg of the Perfume Shrine noted in her 2007 article about Dior ads, the Gruau painting in which all three fragrances are represented by hooded, masked women, wearing rose, white, or black, is not easy to decipher:
"Here [the colors] represent different olfactory profiles. It would be interesting to guess which is which! Of course the easiest one would be to attribute white to Diorissimo, it being a more virginal lily of the valley scent (although, not quite!). But which is Miss Dior and which Diorama? Therein lies the charm."
Indeed, each of these three fragrances have, in their complexities, flashes of pure white, darkest black, and warm rose. Even the bottles tell us very little; all three fragrances, at one time or another, were distributed in the same bottles, the tall amphora shape for the extrait and the shorter houndstooth etched rectangular bottles have been used for all three fragrances in various strengths. (Researchers whose curiosity has been piqued will find the Dior ad archive at Okadi.com invaluable.)
As a woman of her times and in many ways both ahead of and behind her times, Assia could have found any of these three fragrances a comfortable fit, but if I were a detective and had to file my report with a best guess, my guess would be Miss Dior. It was launched in 1947, the year of Assia's first marriage, and like Assia, Miss Dior is a complex portrait of opposites: both elegant and animalic, proper and mischievous, mysterious and direct, refined and dirty, fragile and confident; it is, above all, unapologetic.
Assia was not always convinced of her beauty but she has been described by Hughes biographer Feinstein (quoting poet A. Alvarez) as "quite simply 'predatory'...she made a pass at every man she met." Miss Dior, too, is capable of making a pass at every man it meets. Though its predatory tendencies have largely been downplayed in reformulations, the original version of Miss Dior parfum is quite striking. Helg's article on Miss Dior in Perfume Shrine is unequivocal:
"Although there is the clean overlay of aldehydic waxiness and soft flowers you catch a whiff of more feral, impolite essences. Under the clean exterior there is the carnal cat-call and you feel as if it is perhaps too scrubbed clean to be without ulterior motive. ... Miss Dior is the scent of sexual awakening."
"It is rather dark and it is rather blatantly dirty, ...and I adore it."
Now, if that doesn't sound like the scent of seduction in the hands of a hedonist, I am not sure what would qualify. It's not clear that Assia was an overly sexual being, but she made that impression on many men. Ben Sonnenberg, a literary journal publisher and friend of Hughes, knew Assia and remarked on her "feral beauty, feral eyes, feral touch and feral movements. There was a feral purr in her voice and something feral in the arrangement of her hair. What a seductive animal." (Koren & Negev, p. 136)
Only one question remained: could I confirm my guess? In my quest for a definitive solution I contacted Lover of Unreason authors Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev. They responded with interest, informing me that they too had been unable to uncover exactly which fragrance Assia wore. In researching the biography, they had asked her former husband, David Wevill, who could not recall. Their source for "Dior" itself was Ted Hughes' poem "Chlorophyl." Neither Assia nor Ted ever specified the perfume by name, other than by its maker in the personal papers they left behind. The mystery remains.
And perhaps it is just as well, for we know that it was not a perfume that set the events of Sylvia's death in motion, and it was not a perfume that caused Ted Hughes to fall helplessly in love with another man's wife. The perfume was both a tool and a symbol, it was a skeleton key to a lock that could have been gotten open in any number of other ways. The blade of grass that launched this poetic mythology was, ultimately, a figment of Assia's and Ted's imagination. It was something inside themselves they were after.
In "Chlorophyl," Ted describes the life inside that blade of grass as a "witchy doll," a quasi voodoo/quasi-Russian doll (remember--Assia was part Russian) containing many other things, including the keys to all the disasters that would follow. Sycamore keys are the winged seeds of the sycamore tree, frequently found in pairs, which whirl and turn as they fall through the air. In "Chlorophyl," they function as a symbol both of the key to life as the seed of the tree as well as the key to death in the spiraling fall of a mother and daughter locked together. The sycamore is the Egyptian tree of life, and as Ann Skea has noted in her outstanding Cabbalistic exploration of these poems, "Capriccio: The Path of the Sword," the "witchy doll" itself is a representation of all the seductive powers of the Goddess of nature. "Inside a simple blade of grass lie all the powers of Nature. And in the blade of grass which Assia sent to Ted, lay the seeds of everything that happened to them." Both the grass and the grave, the daughter's birth and death, and the constantly repeating enactment of mythological patterns.
Ted Hughes began his affair with Assia Wevill that summer of 1962 and when Sylvia learned of the affair, she was furious. Ted moved out or was thrown out of Court Green and moved in with friends. Over the next few months, Ted and Sylvia tried by turns to minimize damage and to meet their own needs. In a letter to his sister Olwyn Hughes that summer, Ted commented that "Iâm aghast when I see how incredibly Iâve confined & stunted my existence, when I compare my feeling of what I could be with what I am." (The Telegraph, June 10, 2007)
Under the strain of her disintegrating marriage and the recurrence of severe emotional problems, Sylvia wrote the best poems of her life in late 1962 and early 1963 but would not live to see them published. She committed suicide by gas in February 1963. In a letter to Sylvia's mother Aurelia a month later, Ted wrote: "We finally reduced each other to a state where our actions and normal states of mind were like madness." (The Telegraph, June 10, 2007) Ted reordered, edited, and released many of Sylvia's final poems as Ariel in 1965. In 1982, she became the first poet to win the Pulitzer Prize posthumously for her Collected Poems, also edited by Hughes, who was named poet laureate of England from 1984 until his death.
Assia lived in Sylvia's former flat with Ted for some time and later moved to Court Green. She gave birth to a daughter by Ted, Shura, in 1965. A talented artist and translator, Assia spoke five languages and under her maiden name (Gutmann) translated a number of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai's works, Poems, Songs from Jerusalem and Myself (also published as Poems of Jerusalem and The Early Poems of Yehuda Amichai. Her translations have been praised for their liveliness, clarity and precision. Reading Assia's translation of Amichai's "Quick and Bitter," I cannot help but wonder if her contribution to the poem was informed by the growing realization that her relationship with Ted would never have a satisfying outcome:
Slow and sweet were the nights.
Now is bitter and grinding as sandâ
"Let's be sensible" and similiar curses.
And as we stray further from love
we multiply the words,
words and sentences so long and orderly.
Had we remained together
we could have become a silence.
Hughes did not marry Assia, nor did he support her financially or treat their daughter Shura with the same attention and love as he showered on his two children by Sylvia. By the winter of 1968 he had begun introducing his lover Carol Orchard to his family, which had never accepted thrice-married Assia's presence in their son's and grandchildren's lives.
In March 1969, Assia committed suicide by gas in same manner as Sylvia Plath had done six years earlier with one exception: Assia took four-year-old Shura with her to the grave. According the suicide note that Assia left for her father, the future appeared to contain:
"more misery than I could possibly endure.... No husband. No father for Shura. I have lived on the dream of living with Ted... I have lived a full and comparatively long life. It is necessary to know when there's no more life to live....I couldn't leave little Shura by herself. She's too old to be adopted." (Koren & Negev, pp. 204-205.)
The letter was dated two months before the deaths.
Ted married Carol in 1970 and though they remained married until his death from a heart attack in 1998, he continued to have several documented affairs. He dedicated his book Crow (1970) to the memory of Assia and Shura. The collection of Hughes poems published as Capriccio in 1990, many of which were reprinted in the Collected Poems , were also written for and about Assia. His 1998 volume Birthday Letters (also reprinted in Collected Poems) explored his complex relationship with Sylvia and his interpretation of the circumstances surrounding her suicide.
Koren and Negev's diligently researched Lover of Unreason is the first full-length biography of Assia, as her place in the lives of the Hughes and Plath family had until recently been minimized, ignored, and erased by those who helped protect Ted Hughes and shield his family from criticism and exposure. Lover is compulsively readable and provides a compelling picture of a woman who, though she is often difficult to find empathy for, emerges as a fully drawn character in her own story, rather than the "other woman" in the stories of others. She was a woman who followed her own desires and with both her life and her death, fed the mythology of the poets whose lives she touched. And when I wear the striking Miss Dior, the luminous Diorama, or the elegant Diorissimo, I will be reminded of the paradoxes that drive us all to our unreasonable loves and our grand poetic gestures, for better or for worse.
- "Chlorophyl" by Ted Hughes, originally published in Capriccio (1990, limited edition by Gehenna Press); reprinted in Collected Poems, edited by Paul Keegan (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2003, p. 799).
- "Dreamers" by Ted Hughes, originally published in Birthday Letters (1998); reprinted in Collected Poems, edited by Paul Keegan (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2003, pp. 1145-1146).
- "Fairy Tale" by Ted Hughes, originally published in Birthday Letters (1998); reprinted in Collected Poems, edited by Paul Keegan (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2003, pp. 1146-1147).
- "Quick and Bitter" by Yehuda Amichai, translated from the Hebrew by Assia Gutmann, originally published in Poems (Harper & Row, 1969). Electronic text via Plagiarist Poetry.
- "Les 3 Parfums de Christian Dior"(1962?, detail) by Rene Gruau, via Belles de Pub.
- Photo of Ted and Sylvia from The Telegraph, June 10, 2007.
- Photo of Assia Gutmann Wevill, 1968, credited to Patricia Mendelson in Lover of Unreason.
- Photo of vintage Diorissimo crystal flacon with gold floral decoration from Musee Christian Dior a Granville.
- Photo of vintage Diorama crystal flacon with white decoration from Art Cover.
- Photo of vintage Miss Dior crystal flacon with blue decoration from Linternaute.
- Photo of sycamore seed from New Scientist.
- Authors Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev responded to my questions about Assia's perfume with kindness and enthusiasm. I am grateful for their time and assistance.
- I continue to be impressed by the services of The Perfumed Court; special thanks to Diane and Shirley, who made it possible for me to acquire samples of vintage classic Dior fragrances within a day of my inquiry.
- Warmest thanks to everyone who contributed to the recent discussion on classic Dior fragrances and packaging at Perfume of Life.
- Thanks to Book People in Austin for having copies of Lover of Unreason, Collected Poems by Ted Hughes, and Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath in stock and for gathering them for me as I worked. And thanks to Jim for the gift certificate I used to buy them.
- Koren, Yehuda, and Eilat Negev. Lover of Unreason: Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath's Rival and Ted Hughes' Doomed Love Da Capo Press, 2008.
- Koren, Yehuda, and Eilat Negev. "Written Out of History" The Guardian, October 19, 2006.
- Porter, Peter. "The Invisible Woman" [Review of Lover of Unreason] The Guardian, October 28, 2006.
- "I paid for the gas that killed Sylvia Plath." The Age, January 31, 2004.
- Additional articles about Assia Wevill and reviews of Lover of Unreason have been collected at http://www.arlindo-correia.com/151006.html, including:
- Carey, John. "Their Fatal Attraction." The Sunday Times, October 8, 2006.
- Feinstein, Elaine. "Fatal Blade." Times Literary Supplement, January 19, 2007.
- Gomez, Lourdes. "La tragica tirania del poeta laureado." El Pais, September 17, 2006.
- Kirby, Terry. "The other tragic woman in the life of Ted Hughes." The Independent, March 6, 2006.
- Koren, Yehuda and Eilat Negev. "Written Out of History." The Guardian, October 19, 2006.
- Mathieson, Amy. "Sorry Affair." The Scotsman, October 28, 2006.
- Millar, Anna. "Ted Hughes treated mistress like a tyrant, claims new biography." Scotland on Sunday, September 10, 2006.
- Murphy, Richard. "Lullaby." The Hip Flask: Short Poems from Ireland, 2000.
- Porter, Peter. "The Invisible Woman." The Guardian, October 28, 2006.
- Smith, David. "Ted Hughes, The Domestic Tyrant." The Observer, September 10, 2006.
- "No longer just a tragic footnote." The Telegraph, Calcutta, India, September 24, 2006.
- Reynolds, Nigel. "Ted Hughes revealed as domestic tyrant who laid down law to mistress." The Daily Telegraph, September 9, 2006.