The Cologne: Serge Gainsbourg

John-Paul Pryor ponders whether an excellent cologne was the secret to the great libertine’s allure

In affairs of the heart there could be few men further from the idealised metaphysical perfection espoused by the likes of Keats, than the louche crooner and Gitanes-enthusiast Serge Gainsbourg, a man whose many love affairs are almost as infamous as his often controversial art.

His beginnings were certainly as impoverished and humble as Keats’s, and, as the child of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he suffered considerable hardship during the Nazi occupation of Paris – a situation he would later capture in challenging satirical songs such as ‘Rock Around The Bunker’ and ‘Yellow Star’.

Despite his immigrant status as a Parisian, Gainsbourg was famously referred to by President Mitterrand upon his departure from this mortal coil as “our Apollinaire… He elevated the song to the level of art”, and certainly songs such as ‘The Ticket-Puncher at the Porte de Lilas Métro Station’ share much in common with the disenchanted urbane tone of Baudelaire’s poetry.

Serge Gainsbourg Jane Birkin
Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. Photo Andrew Birkin

“Ugliness is in a way superior to beauty because it lasts”

Although Gainsbourg clearly idolised the ultimate fleur du mal – penning a song named after the poet – he was distinctly unlike his predecessor in that he had romantic liaisons with some of the most beautiful and powerful women of his era, most notably Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin (pictured, whom he starred with in a number of films and immortalised on the album Le Histoire de Melody Nelson, which famously describes his seduction of a young girl whom he has accidentally knocked off a bicycle while speeding through the home counties).

If John Keats genuinely thought he was not steadfast enough for his love, it is impossible to know what the young poet would have made of Gainsbourg’s many infidelities, which eventually resulted in his divorce from Birkin with whom he sired Charlotte Gainsbourg – the now celebrated actress who first came to notoriety as a 12-year-old child in the highly controversial video for his 1984 track ‘Lemon Incest’ (in which he and his daughter duet provocatively on a large double bed).

Considering his penchant for creating shocking material, his somewhat unconventional looks – to be kind – and the fact that when he turned the eye of the 22-year-old British actress and model Birkin he was some 20 years her senior, it is hard to pinpoint what exactly made this complex chain-smoking courtesan so attractive to the many women he wrote songs for and caroused with.

We’re taking an educated plump that beyond his poetic soul and cheating heart, his lifelong commitment to Van Cleef and Arpels cologne had no small part to play in his charm. Perhaps it was the heady mixture of musty cologne and stale cigarette smoke that cast such a unique and intoxicating spell.