When asked by a reporter — “What’s your favorite perfume?” — the Italian stage actress Eleonora Duse replied that such questions were “ridiculous and puerile.” 1 Duse avoided the press whenever possible and felt an actress “must not attract attention when she’s not on stage…an actress must pass through life unobserved.” 2 If Duse were alive and working today, I’m betting there would be no “Eleonora Duse” celebrity fragrance on the market. But it’s good, in the 21st century, to see or hear the name Eleonora Duse because she was such a cultural force in her lifetime.
Duse started acting at the age of four in her family’s theatrical troupe. As a child, she was often forced to beg on the streets, but Duse went on to become one of the most famous actors in the world. Using the theory of “six degrees of separation,” I feel a small connection to Duse. Right out of high school, I went to New York to study acting with Stella Adler, who was a student of Konstantin Stanislavsky, who said that he “got his inspiration for founding the Moscow Art Theatre from witnessing a performance of Duse’s.”3
At a time when actors assumed histrionic, unnatural poses, declaimed their dialogue, and displayed their own personalities on stage, Duse was different. She researched her roles, refused to wear outlandish “costumes,” wore no stage makeup, sometimes stood with her back to the audience. Her performances varied from night to night, and she allowed moments of silence and stillness on the stage. Duse’s approach to acting was revolutionary; she pored over and analyzed her scripts, and she used her inner resources (memory, emotional connections to people, landscapes, literature and art) to create believable characters. Reading reviews of Duse’s and her biggest rival’s (Sarah Bernhardt) performances, the consensus seemed to be that Bernhardt was an acting machine, a vivid personality — but always the same, and Duse was a 'real person' with the extraordinary ability to breathe life into the women she portrayed. Duse was (to put it humorously) a “doozy”…a word she inspired.4
Duse wore her long hair simply styled, and she never colored it, even as it turned white. She disliked jewelry and was fond of understated clothing (wearing loose/flowing black or white dresses most often) so it’s apt that she loved violets — an “understated” flower; tiny, and growing close to the ground, one has to approach violets on bended knee to sniff or really see them. Duse wore violet-scented cologne, often sent bouquets of violets to friends, and sprinkled violets on her bed (and lovers). From Stockholm on her 1896 Scandinavian tour, Duse wrote her paramour, writer Gabriele D’Annunzio:“You will smile now. I found some violets under the snow, living, LIVING, and tranquil, as if they were in a greenhouse.” Violets became Duse’s flower, “a symbol of awakening.”5
Laura Tonatto says Eleonora Duse (Eau de Parfum) is “an olfactory interpretation of the artistic personality and humanity of the great actress.” The fragrance contains bergamot, viola odorata (flowers and leaves), iris (whose powder used to be called ‘poudre de violette’), ylang-ylang, lily of the valley, mimosa, vanilla and cedar. Eleonora Duse starts with sweet citrus and violet flower, very harmonious, and a bit “formal.” Slowly, one detects violet leaf…not the brash violet leaf you’ll find in a zillion men’s department store scents, but a soft/“furry” violet leaf aroma that mingles with a dirty/earthy note. Eleonora Duse becomes powdery during the dry-down, and I detect a lovely iris powder note (not too sweet, not too smooth) that mixes with the lightest vanilla-wood accord imaginable. Eleonora Duse is an old-fashioned violet perfume that avoids stodginess; I think it would smell best worn in cool weather, but it’s so “quiet” it won’t overwhelm the wearer even on warm days.
I love violets and enjoy the Eleonora Duse fragrance (its sillage is minimal, its lasting power good). Though the Eleonora Duse fragrance notes sound feminine, I have no qualms about wearing the perfume (and I do have qualms about distinctly feminine perfumes on my person). If you’d prefer a more sparkling, summery violet fragrance, I recommend (and hope to review soon) the lively Geo. F. Trumper Ajaccio Violets.
Laura Tonatto’s Eleonora Duse fragrance rekindled my interest in a fascinating (and still inspirational) person. Duse wrote: “an actor vanishes without a trace.”6 She made only one short film— Cenere (Ashes) — watch it if you ever have the chance. I realized quickly the acting life was not for me, but the best parts of my years of training (losing my shyness, learning how to really read literature and look at art, nature, people) have stayed with me, made my life more interesting and enjoyable.
Laura Tonatto Eleonora Duse Eau de Parfum is available in 100 ml for 72€; the fragrance is also sold as a “clothing fragrance”/home fragrance spray (called “Nottegiorno”), 250 ml for 27€. The Eleonora Duse bottle label shows Duse in a 1901 publicity still by Gio-Batta Sciutto from the Biblioteca e Museo Teatrale del Burcardo in Rome. For buying information see the listing for Laura Tonatto under Perfume Houses.
To refresh my Duse knowledge, I read the wonderful book Eleonora Duse: A Biography by Helen Sheehy, Alfred A Knopf, 2003; notes: 1, p. 228; 2, p. 112; 3, p. 248; 4, p. 10; 5, p. 149; 6, p. 313.
Note: top image of Eleonora Duse, circa 1893, by John Singer Sargent [cropped]; and top/center-left images of viola odorata [cropped] by Johann Georg Sturm from Deutschlands Flora in Abbildungen, 1796, via Wikimedia Commons.