It was 40 years ago that my father brought us to Los Angeles a daunting move in his unusual career.
Ed Silkin was born to Russian immigrants in the New York of 1920, and used to regale my junior-high friends with tough-talking tall tales of growing up there. He wanted to fight in World War II, but was turned down (flat feet). So he worked in a shipyard and married my Mom in 1947.
I don't know exactly how he got his start in perfumes. But I know that somehow a Frenchman named Maurice Meunier taught him the basics.
Dad was a broad-shouldered, blue-collar guy, a six-footer with a Brooklyn accent. I still get a kick out of thinking of him learning the art and science of fragrances. Sometime in the early 1960s, he went to work for Faberge, where they wanted a scent they could mass market to typical American men of the time who were little inclined to splash on something that would make them smell perfumey. In those days, men's cologne was mostly sold to the polo pony set. The guys at Faberge were going to sell it to construction workers and auto mechanics.
And so they asked my Dad the big American lug in a profession mostly populated with stylish Frenchmen to come up with a winning formula. "Not too flowery," was all they told him. They put the concoction in a green bottle and hung a chain on it to hold the plaque that bore its name: Brut. Joe Namath pitched it on TV.
For the rest of his life, dad would always say: "I had very little to do with it. It was all the marketing." Whenever he said it, someone would reply: "But it was your fragrance; you created it; it was good; it worked." And he'd just smile.
Max Factor wanted to start a fragrance line out of his Hollywood makeup headquarters. He hired my dad to be chief perfumer. It was 1965. There were race riots in L.A., and my parents had never been out West, but the job came with a significant pay raise.
It didn't work out. So after six years, some of his colleagues who left got him consulting work. He opened a little office in Reseda and I went to work there after high school a couple of times a week.
He was amazing. He would dictate several formulas to me, complex mixes of more than a dozen essential oils on an alcohol base. I would write the formulas in a notebook, then go back to the lab and drip the components into a beaker on an ultra-precise scale, pour the perfume sample into vials and label each one to send off to his clients. He could identify them each by odor, without looking at the label. He was what they call "a nose."
I went off to work in London and then traveled across Europe. I tried but failed to visit Maurice Meunier when I passed through his hometown of Tours. But a couple of days later, I did take a detour through the roads around Grasse, where the fields bloom with lavender and other flowers that make up the raw material of perfumes. Dad had always heard about that beautiful countryside, had always wanted to see it, so I saw it for him and told him what it was like.
Eventually, the consulting contracts ran out. He tried to launch his own line of perfumes called "G" for my mom, Gertrude without success. He was offered work at various companies including back at Factor, which by then had moved to Chicago. But he didn't want to leave his L.A. home. He got a low-level job in 1982, but the next year he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's and went on sick leave. Once he was treated and ready to work, he was told his job had been filled. His morale collapsed and he got ill again and died in 1984.
These days I drive to work by going south on Topanga Canyon to PCH. When I pass that last eucalyptus- and bamboo-lined curve leading to the beach and see the sunlight shining on the ocean, I remember I'm here thanks to my dad and that "not too flowery" fragrance.
Happy Father's Day, dad.
*Steve Silkin is newsdesk editor of the Business Journal.
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