AN EROTIC VAGRANT IN ROME ~ Jean Desprez Bal à Versailles

Rome January 1962, in the dark corners of the huge soundstage of Cinecittà Studios all eyes are on an extraordinary personage. The man is Welsh, and touted to be the new Olivier. With a good ten years of films behind him he has never really hit it big in the movies. Not like he has on the stage where he is considered a god. That is about to change.

There is a small commotion in the shadows. He and everyone else on the set turn, and his eyes fall upon the luscious curves of the woman who has just unceremoniously sauntered into the pool of lights in the center of the stage. Sheathed in flowing canary yellow chiffon, her eyes of violet blue spangled with glitter and lined with black Egyptian kohl she is every inch a morsel for a monarch.

Her eyes with veiled curiosity explore his handsome acne scarred face. She is not impressed and yet slightly apprehensive of his stage training. He takes in her dark glamour in and recalls being turned to ice by her dismissive glance ten years earlier across a hot star encrusted swimming pool in smoggy Los Angeles. That was the first time Richard Burton laid eyes upon his destiny in the form of Elizabeth Taylor. This time in Rome was the second.

The director, Joe Mankiewicz spoke briefly to both of them then went off to commiserate with the cinematographer and the assistant director leaving them awkwardly alone to make their own introductions. Burton turned and crookedly smiled at Elizabeth. He picked up a cup of coffee and spilled a little as his hand was seized by a hangover tremor. Instinctively she reached out and steadied the cup. Gently her hand cupped his and guided the coffee to his lips. His eyes fell into hers and locked there for eternity.

“Has anyone ever told you that you are a very pretty girl?” He said.

Her heart, imagination and life were changed forever by that simple cliché that fell in perfect calculated grace from the lips of perhaps the greatest Shakespearian actor of his generation.


Taylor and Burton the moment they met on the set of “Cleopatra”.

Antony:  Are you quite sure of what it is you want?

Cleopatra: I have always been sure.

And so it began the scandal of 1962 which shattered two marriages, nearly toppled a studio and ushered in the cannibalistic tabloid world of today.  It was  the romance of the century and inspired a generation of sexual revolutionaries. Not to be left out of the action the Pope got in on the act and branded Elizabeth Taylor an “Erotic Vagrant”. Now THAT is a Movie Star!

What did this shattering moment smell like? Bal à Versailles is the answer. Many famous women from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to Queen Elizabeth have worn it, but none more famously than Elizabeth Taylor on the set of “Cleopatra” when she launched a thousand paparazzo’s in the arms of her Mark Antony.

Created in 1962 by Jean Desprez Bal à Versailles is traditionally presented as a female fragrance. Well that was back in the old days of the 1900’s, welcome to the 21st century where such gender identities for fragrance are down right passé. This magnificent perfume fully rounded out by 350 essences is a monster of audacious panache and a masterpiece of design fit for anyone with the balls to wear it. It is bold, and huge in its opening of rosemary, orange blossom, mandarin orange, cassia, jasmine, rose, Neroli, bergamot, Bulgarian rose and lemon. Heavy hitters are the roses and the orange notes. We move in for our close-up with notes of sandalwood, patchouli, lilac, orris root, vetiver, ylang-ylang, lily-of-the-valley and leather. The Leather dominates the heart of the fragrance. If you are a leather lover this is Oscar time at the Kodak Theater and Nicole Kidman has just called your name. When the dry down approaches it is a dramatic movie star fade out. Beautiful notes of tolu balsam, amber, musk, benzoin, civet, vanilla, cedar and resins hold court for the final long shot as Bal à Versailles rides off into the sunset captivating all it has touched with its smoky fingers of desire and fire.

Bal à Versailles is a projection bomb. Once you have it on there is no going back. You commit to this one all the way or not at all. The silage is like incense burners pumping purple heaven full blast on Cleopatra’s barge. It lasts for days without the need for “retakes”. It is animalic, dirty, sexy and just a wonder of a scent that has me in its spell as surely as Elizabeth Taylor had Richard Burton just where she wanted him all those years ago in Rome, right in the palm of her hand.



  1. Smokin’! And she did it all while battling a film production gone wild and a near fatal illness… Oh, and I’m definitely checking out Bal à Versailles.

    • Miss Lester!
      What “movie star” today could do all of that? She was epic. Let me know how it goes with Bal à Versailles.

  2. Hi Lanier,
    I really like your historical perspective of people that I actually know who they are. I’m afraid if I’d been a little older, I would have been all aflutter over Burton. A degree of flutter even now. That whole doomed-god thing.
    And I love BaV. Didn’t pay it much attention growing up, as, visually, it struck me as quite frilly and I was a real tomboy. In the depths of full perfumistahood, I was intrigued by it’s legendary skankiness, so I acquired a small vintage coin-bottle of edp. Wow. Upon first sniff, I couldn’t imagine who would want to smell like this. I had the indellible image of wet adult diapers. Still, I couldn’t stop sniffing. My guilty pleasure, it became my bedtime comfort scent.
    Since then, I’ve added the edt (sweet leather and incense w/o as much skank) and a new bottle of edp (richer than edt, but no diapers anymore). I guess I’ve become one of those “dirty old ladies” with the balls (right jeans pocket) to wear BaV. Lovely review. Yours is quickly becoming one of my favorite ‘fume blogs.

    • Julie!
      You just made my day! Thank you for your very kind words.
      Funny how some things we didn’t like as kids we grow into as we get older. For me it was Frank Sinatra.

  3. I love your descriptions. Though I am not familiar with BaV, I can only imagine how large this fragrance is and how large it would have to be for the Liz of Liz and Dick era fame. I remember my mother thinking that they were both amoral trash…affairs, drinking and smoking, oh my!

    • Yes I understand, my stepmom was the same way about Liz n’ Dick….and she was NO angel herself. But I think Elizabeth was just living as honest a life as she knew how in an extraordinary fish bowl.

  4. Liz was a force to be reckoned with. They don’t make them like her anymore. Or like Richard Burton, for that matter. I’m adding BaV to my list of fragrances I need to try. If it lures over someone who looks like Richard Burton, I’m buying it by the case.

    • Yes she was a force to deal with. And I love that in the last quarter of her life she channeled that force toward a great deal of good work for others. Do let me know how the Bal plays out for you. I hope there is a Burton kind of love out there for you…. if that is what you want. I know …I found mine but only after I stopped looking for it.

      • You’re a very kind person, Lanier. I’m paired up too but who wouldn’t want someone who looked like Richard Burton?? 😉

  5. I’ve never tried BaV – just because I haven’t come across it “naturally” and it never sounded like something I would like so I didn’t want to spend money on a sample. And then came all that fiasco with people who bought rights to the brand and tried to “develop” the next great perfume under it while “testing” it on willing to pay perfumistas and selling old BaV at the same time. I still do not think I’ll like it but given a chance I will test it.

    I really liked your post though. It’s not my type of reading, I was never fascinated enough with any movie/theater stars to read anything about them (they are just highly paid nobodies and why would anybody want to know more about their lives is beyond my understanding) but you painted an interesting picture, it came nicely together with the perfume review – and I enjoyed reading it. Thank you.

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