What made Greta Garbo the ultimate Hollywood film star was her aura of unreachable mystery – a quality that, many would argue, has been lost in the present era of reality TV and teenage Instagram starlets. Garbo fascinated her many fans and admirers because she refused to embrace the system that crowned her queen, or perhaps because she played the role of the private, tragic, unattainable beauty so well in life as in art.
The Swedish-born actress would forever be associated with a famous line she uttered in the film Grand Hotel: “I want to be alone; I just want to be alone”. Six years later, in the spring of 1938, she would use the line again – this time to the reporters and paparazzi who had descended on historic Villa Cimbrone in Ravello, which Garbo had rented for a month with her new flame, the recently divorced conductor Leopold Stokowski. Hounded by the media and beset by persistent rumours that their marriage was imminent, the couple reluctantly agreed to hold a press conference in return for some peace and quiet.
The diva received the press in the villa’s library, simply dressed in a “subtle combination of Swedish colours”, as one reporter noted. “I only want to be left alone,” she told the gathered media representatives. “There are some who want to get married and others who don't. I have never had an impulse to go to the altar.” But the most poignant part came when Garbo described, in words that sound utterly sincere, the price of fame and its effect on her much anticipated Italian idyll: “I wanted to see some of the beautiful things of life with my friend, Mr Stokowski, who has been very much to me. He has seen so much and knows about the beauty of life and I optimistically accepted. I was naïve enough to think we could travel without being discovered and without being hunted”.
Years later, after Villa Cimbrone had become a hotel, a plaque was affixed to its exterior wall commemorating the couple’s sojourn. Its Italian text translates thus: “Here, in the spring of 1938, the divine Greta Garbo, fleeing the clamour of Hollywood, experienced, with Leopold Stokowski, hours of secret happiness”.
It was this last phrase – ore di segreta felicità – that struck Marina Sersale when she spotted the plaque on a visit to Villa Cimbrone in the spring of 2016 with her husband Sebastian Alvarez Murena.
Based in Rome, Marina and Sebastian are the creators of Le Sirenuse’s perfume line Eau d’Italie, which was launched in 2004. They have released a new scent every year since then, as well as developing a range of skincare and beauty products. In May 2017, Eau d’Italie opened into its first Roman boutique in Via della Penna, a shopping street near Piazza del Popolo that is becoming something of a magnet for high-quality luxury artisans.
Marina takes up the story: “I couldn’t get the words ‘hours of secret happiness’ out of my head, and we decided that they, and the figure of Garbo, should be the inspiration for Eau d’Italie’s 2017 scent”. Called Rosa Greta, the new fragrance was developed, like the twelve which preceded it, with leading perfume and flavour company Firmenich.
The lengthy process involves Marina and Sebastian writing separate briefs for the scent and whittling them down to a single master document which is sent to Firmenich in Geneva, who then commission a roster of leading ‘noses’, or master perfumers, to prepare scents that reflect the brief.
When these samples are sent to Marina and Sebastian around three months later, another long selection phase begins. Friends are roped in as testers; “we invite them round for coffee and spray them all over”, Marina laughs. Gradually, two or three samples will emerge from the pack, at which point a series of micro-tweaks will be made to adjust the notes of the scent and the order in which they come through – a process that keeps the Rome-Geneva couriers busy – until the winning candidate is chosen. The one, in this instance, that best embodied the “elegant, delicate, seductive” scent the couple were aiming for, “with a freshness that makes you think of Ravello in the spring”.
It’s only at this stage that Marina and Sebastian ask Firmenich to reveal the identity of the ‘nose’ behind their new fragrance. In the case of Rosa Greta, it turned out to be Fabrice Pellegrin, a French perfumer who loves to work with inspirations and impressions that not everyone could easily express in a scent – places, people, childhood memories.
Or even colours. Marina explains that every Eau d’Italie scent has, in her mind, a certain hue associated with it. In this case it was “that beautiful azure you see when you look out from the famous terrace at the end of Villa Cimbrone’s garden... it’s the blue of the line where the sky meets the sea”.
Rosa Greta can be purchased at Emporio Sirenuse, just across the road from the hotel in Positano, or online at eauditalie.com
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