Michelle Legro

A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes

In 1902, Sadakichi Hartmann Attempted To Transport A Theater Full Of People Across A Vast Ocean Using Only Perfume And An Electric Fan

Discussed: Two Expatriate Poets, Soil Open to Foreigners, The Adam and Eve of Japonisme, A Common Language, Meditative Loafing, Fairyland, The Proust Effect, Poor Chrysanthemum, A Devil Out on a Furlough
Sadakichi Hartmann as the Mongol Prince’s court magician in The Thief of Bagdad, 1924. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Ezra Pound—the expatriate poet, unhinged fascist, and obstinate dreamer—was in the productive phase of a mental breakdown at the time of his 1945 arrest for treason and his subsequent detention at an American internment camp just north of Pisa, Italy. While confined in a cage for much of the day—six feet square, the grass hot and matted from his fretful pacing—it was after a transfer to an officer’s tent (following a psychiatric evaluation) that Pound began to write the Pisan chapter of his Cantos, an epic poem of bohemian life and loss, of political misadventures and Odyssean searching. The canto included a vast catalog of the people he’d known and admired in his youth in New York City, artists like himself who had lost the better part of their minds to war, but who had somehow survived to see their art die before them. He called these men “the lost legion,” and its patron saint was a writer he’d lost touch with years before. He wrote in Canto 80:

as for the vagaries of our friend Mr. Hartmann,
Sadakichi a few more of him,
were that conceivable, would have enriched
the life of Manhattan
or any other town or metropolis
the texts of his early stuff are probably lost
with the loss of the fly-by night periodicals…

Pound was obsessive about his great work, discarding draft after draft. In the same canto that contained the remembrance of Sadakichi, Pound would make the admission that haunts all artists: “Beauty is difficult.”

Around the same time as Pound’s imprisonment, housed in his own unofficial interment on the Morongo Indian reservation in Banning, California, critic and poet Sadakichi Hartmann waited out the last years of the Second World War deeply impoverished and depressed. His small shingled house was located at the dusty halfway point between Los Angeles and Palm Springs, where movie stars would motor past on the freeway for a quick weekend under an umbrella, returning to the set smelling of chlorine. Sadakichi was sixty, and it was hard to imagine the handsome young man he had once been, the critical darling of Greenwich Village, the fellow Ezra Pound delighted in when they’d begun their correspondence in the early part of the century. Now in his twilight years, alcoholic and sickly, Sadakichi was living in self-imposed exile, first from his friends in New York, then Los Angeles. He had run hard aground with nearly everyone he had ever met. His drinking partner, the actor John Barrymore, had called him “a living freak… sired by Mephistopheles out of Madame Butterfly.”

At the far edge of his adopted country, Sadakichi had been within an ocean’s reach of the completed circle of his life, the twinkling lights of Japan, his birthplace, seemingly visible just beyond the Pacific Coast Highway. He had tried to make the leap back home just once, more than forty years before, in one of the most fateful and humiliating performances of his life. For years, he had in his mind a scent—no, less than that, an idea of a scent—a gentle puff, released into the cool night air. It would melt continents, allowing him to cross vast oceans like a fast skull across a glassy lake. He called this scent his “perfume concert,” the most purely aesthetic experience of his self-proclaimed aesthetic life. And it would deliver him home.

If beauty was difficult, then by god Sadakichi Hartmann would make his entire life beautiful—he would wallow in its difficulty.

Carl Sadakichi Hartmann, son of Oscar Hartmann of Hamburg and Osada Hartmann of Nagasaki, was born around 1869* on the small island of Dejima, the only slice of soil in Nagasaki where foreigners were welcome. Before the Meiji Restoration, Japan was still, for the most part, closed to the West and to Westerners. Women of the merchant class were allowed to work on the island, some taking positions with foreign officials, first as servants and often later as mistresses. One of these women was Osada, Sadakichi’s mother, who married Oscar Hartmann, a German official, and quickly had two sons.

His young mother died when Sadakichi was less than a year old, and the boy became obsessed with the vision of this unknown woman. He would tell fantastical tales about her, claiming she had been refused burial in Nagasaki because of her foreign marriage, and that her body was carried over six hundred miles to Kobe to be cremated. This was probably not true. In 1868, cremation was not common in Japan, and the transportation of a body over such a distance would have been almost impossible. Osada was probably buried where she died.

With his wife gone, there was little to keep Oscar Hartmann in Nagasaki, and he decided that he would raise his two sons in Germany. At the age of four, Sadakichi would leave Japan, never to return.

The year “Madame Butterfly” was published as a short story in Century Magazine, Sadakichi was thirty years old, having lived in America longer than he had lived in any other country. The story itself was derived from a French novel, Madame Chrysanthème, by Pierre Loti, which was itself based on events that may or may not have happened among the naval officers of Nagasaki. The Puccini opera wouldn’t have its New York premiere until 1906, and by then the story’s main characters were almost mythical, the Adam and Eve of Japonisme.

In the story, Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, his name a hard edge cleaved to a gentle color, has decided that for his tour in Japan, he will go native and take a Japanese wife before settling down with an American woman. “Is the bride very pretty?” a friend asks Pinkerton in the English translation of Puccini’s libretto. “Fair as a garland / of fragrant flowers,” he replies. “Brighter than a star in the heavens. / And for nothing: one hundred / yen.” Pinkerton’s Japanese wife is but the shadow of substance: she is a perfume, she is the gust of a butterfly wing. His marriage to her will be temporary. His real wife will be flesh and blood, she will be American, and it is with her that his life will begin. About this clever plan he declares: “Fate cannot crush him. / He tries again undaunted. / No one and nothing breaks his plucky spirit.”

Sadakichi would often refer to himself as the son of Madame Butterfly, an innocent haunted by a tragedy he could not set right. (It was a comparison John Barrymore had clearly tired of when the actor called Sadakichi a “living freak.”) But if there was anyone in this story Sadakichi resembled in his turbulent life, it was the devilish, practical Pinkerton, smelling of whiskey, intoxicated by his Japanese ghost. He enters upon our stage with the declaration that the love of the world is for the taking; he raises a glass to his American future.

Sadakichi Hartmann arrived in America in 1882, at the age of twelve, disowned by his father in Hamburg and shipped off to live with a great-uncle in Philadelphia. The young man had only lived for one year or less in his native country. He spoke with a strong accent, later described by a newspaper as “half German, the other half not altogether definable.” He was thoroughly German in all that he did, sarcastic and serious, forever hunched under a small rain cloud. And yet he was hailed by friends and strangers as coming directly from the Orient. Self-taught and curious, he made his first contact with what would become an influential circle of acquaintances by knocking unannounced on the door of the poet who lived across the river in Camden, New Jersey: “I would like to see Walt Whitman.”

The poet—with his long gray beard and open, flowing shirt, which revealed his naked chest—greeted him by sight. “That’s my name. And you are a Japanese boy, are you not?”

If literature was the passport into this new kind of modern society, Walt Whitman was the common language, and the home of Whitman is where, around the age of sixteen, this lanky, German Japanese boy with a dark suit and a pince-nez began his American pilgrimage into the dark heart of bohemia.

Whitman fried an egg for the young man, and over breakfast they spoke of acting, of the theater, of Shakespeare—Sadakichi declared himself “too tall” to play any of his fools—of what it means to be American, of Japan and “the beautiful bay of Nagasaki, though I did not know much about it from personal recollection.” Whitman agreed it must be beautiful. He sent the boy home with a proof of one of his poems and told him to come back soon. Hurrying to the Camden ferry, the words Sadakichi held in his hand were these:

After all, not to create only, or found only,
But to bring, perhaps from afar, what is already founded,
To give it our own identity, average, limitless, free;
To fill the gross, the torpid bulk with vital religious fire;
Not to repel or destroy, so much as accept, fuse, rehabilitate;
To obey, as well as command—to follow, more than to lead;
These also are the lessons of our New World;
—While how little the New, after all—how much the Old, Old World!

A new kind of intellectual immigration had begun to fill the low-rent apartments, all-night cafés, and empty storefronts of turn-of-the-century New York, one that shared as much with the newly arrived Russian Jews, Germans, and Irish of the tenements as it did with bored housewives from Portland, Maine, and college graduates from Davenport, Iowa. Unlike the sharp fold in the corner of a calling card on Fifth Avenue, there was a special form of introduction into New York’s bohemian life: a book tucked under the arm, a poem copied for a friend. Shared enthusiasm for Tolstoy might make a new Russian acquaintance at a meeting for the Industrial Workers of the World, or a few lines of Shelley could soften the heart of a hardheaded anarchist.

But it was a common love of the man who contained multitudes, the proto-bohemian Walt Whitman, that seemed to be the hothouse that contained all of these blooming personalities. By seeking out Whitman first, above all others, Sadakichi shrewdly positioned himself as both a reader and someone to be read about. He felt he belonged in the pantheon of Whitman’s faces from Leaves of Grass (“The pure, extravagant, yearning, questioning artist’s face”). It was a privileged realm of characters that Sadakichi cast on and off like a parade of masks throughout his life, even to the very end (“The ugly face of some beautiful Soul, the handsome detested or despised face”).

At their first meeting, Whitman addressed Sadakichi Hartmann as “the Japanese boy,” but once the poet began to get to know him, he recognized that the young man was simply unclassifiable. “You say Sadakichi represents the Orient,” he reportedly said. “He represents a good deal more than that.”

Work, or rather, employment, was not something that much interested Sadakichi Hartmann. After traveling to Paris and meeting symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (and getting fired from a magazine job), Sadakichi, at twenty-three, published Christ: A Dramatic Poem in Three Acts, described by Publishers’ Weekly as a “sensual and almost blasphemous drama.” The play was immediately banned, copies were publicly burned by the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice, and Sadakichi was arrested, spending his Christmas in jail. By his mid-twenties he’d lost a job with architect Stanford White after suggesting his buildings might be “improved upon only by pigeons.” He made a meager living writing two columns a week for the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung, a German-language newspaper that was the third largest daily in the city. He wrote about actors, tramps, and painters—those on the artistic and social fringes of New York life. (Writers somehow always ended up on the top of the social heap.) He signed his columns with pseudonyms: Caliban, Hogarth, Chrysanthemum; the trickster, the satirist, the emblem of Japan. His writing sometimes angered his friends, including his mentor, Whitman, but he also championed new artists such as Thomas Eakins and Alfred Stieglitz. Sadakichi had had a prodigious career in New York as the poet-king of a small group of intellectuals in Greenwich Village. A 1916 article proclaimed him the “weirdest figure of American letters…He is Baudelaire, Gérard de Nerval, Verlaine… he is a poet, artist, author, critic, lecturer and professional esthete.” He was a flaneur long after the age of flaneurs had ended, and most people didn’t quite know what to make of him. If the writing of the time was meant to agitate, then Sadakichi was a soft-hearted bull, more interested in sniffing flowers than charging red capes.

In New York, he pursued his friends obsessively to the point of ruin. He would burst into their lives and then flame out—a turbulent, unforgettable character. He lost friends as passionately as he made them, but he was only following the natural rhythms of a New York’s bohemian’s way of life. The editor and critic Max Eastman, writing a review of a novel that featured a cast of Russian Jews, wrote: “They burn with hot fire… Their being is self-justified. They live and are sources of life.”

Everyone involved in this newly modern life was searching for a way to live, a model to live by, a maxim to live for. Individual energies were envied among these “creatures of self-amplification,” as historian Christine Stansell described the bohemian in her book American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century. It wasn’t enough to make art; artists had to live a life of constant inspiration, to themselves and to their friends, bound together by an endless circle of reading, writing, and publishing. The bread and butter of Greenwich Village life was the word: it was a vocation, an evocation. Writing was the transformative medium, the call to arms for feminists, communists, and anarchists—all other art forms were superfluous.

Sadakichi had more in common with the decadent hero of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s 1884 novel, Against Nature, about a dilettante who turned meditative loafing into an art. His hero dreamed of different ceiling treatments for his rooms and of embellishing a pet tortoise with jewels, all within the suffocating confines of his country home. Unmoored from family, nation, creed, and custom, Sadakichi wanted to live beyond the world of dreary causes, in a dreamy—if a little fussy—corner of his very own. In his criticism, Sadakichi wrote of beauty, of poetry, interested in teacups and vases, in actors and their greasepaint, in sweet smells mixed with sweat.

The essential quality of bohemian life was dissatisfaction, a paranoia that everyone else was truly living. Ezra Pound wrote, “If one hadn’t been oneself, it would have been worthwhile to have been Sadakichi.” Like those who “burned with hot fire,” the savage desire for life, and the jealousy among those who were truly living, led to a slow self-immolation of one of the era’s brightest minds.

Some of his friends accused Sadakichi of riding their coattails, others saw him as intensely curious, outwardly arrogant, and secretly modest. When friends and acquaintances spoke of Sadakichi, they tended to eulogize him. “Sadakichi is indeed a dead author,” one friend wrote, “only his art is ‘entombed’ while he personally is still very much alive—at times.” For much of his life, Sadakichi had honed the curious talent of being lost to history before he was even dead: “one of the most neglected figures in American arts and letters.” He was accomplished in everything he did, except in the one thing that mattered—an art that lasted beyond life. Despite all the young men who had tried to engage him as their mentor, Whitman saw something unique in the nineteen-year-old Sadakichi: “I have more hopes of him, more faith in him than any of the boys. They all seem to regard him as a humbug—or if not that, a sensationalist anyhow, or an adventurer. I can’t see it that way. I expect good things of him—extra good things…” Whitman had shaped Hartmann’s view of the way a true artist should move through the world: accepting the hazard of living with an open heart. Thus the terrible fate for members of Pound’s lost legion: “They just died / They died because they just couldn’t stand it.”

In the fall of 1902, when he was around thirty-five years old, the papers announced that Mr. Sadakichi Hartmann, the eccentric art critic, would present in a few months’ time a short performance entitled “A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes.” The piece was described as a “melody in odors.”

The turn of the twentieth century saw a flurry of sense experimentation. The color organ was patented in 1895, an instrument with colored panels that lit up and changed in time to music. A few years later, one of the first electric organs, the Telharmonium, would have its debut in a specially built concert hall in New York. Music had been mechanized, canned, and zipped along wires—there was no reason to believe it couldn’t be aerated as well.

But no one had ever heard of a perfume concert. It was an invention so faddish the newspapers had inked themselves in excitement and still managed indifference by the second column. “All lovers of good smells are expected to patronize the concert,” one hopeful feature began. However, “It may be that after a time the olfactory nerve of the New York gatherings will become jaded, and will require smells of more and more pungency.” It was suggested Mr. Hartmann take a trip to Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal.

Sadakichi was not a chemist. He knew very little about the making of smell, only the impression that it left on his dreams. “Smell is the most emotional of all the senses of man,” he wrote, “and is able to arouse sentimental as well as intellectual associations more swiftly that any other…”

Over the months of planning, Sadakichi had been uncharacteristically quiet about the performance. He had booked the theater and told a few friends, who helped him gauge the forcefulness of the perfumes he intended to use. This left the public imagination to wonder: would there be violins stuffed with roses? Rhythms drummed out with two brittle sticks of cinnamon? What would the music smell like, or, rather, how would the smells sound?

The last evening of November 1902 was miserable and cold—a blizzard would cover the city the next day. The perfume concert was the featured event on a bill of a casual Sunday pop, held at the enormous entertainment complex known as the New York Theatre, on Broadway between Forty-fourth and Forty-fifth streets. It was a remarkable pleasure palace that contained a music hall, roof garden, bowling alley, Turkish bath, and two theaters. The fare that evening was mostly unremarkable: a ragtime band followed by a minstrel duo. It was only the final act of the evening that promised something startlingly new: “A Trip to Japan in Sixteen Minutes,” to be performed by a Mr. Hartmann with the help of two “geishas.”

When Sadakichi Hartmann shuffled onto the bare stage of the New York Theatre with two heavily powdered women trailing behind, he still had the long and narrow face of his youth with an expressive, wide mouth. But there was something finalized about his features now, like a retired Kabuki actor still wedded to his makeup. Visibly Japanese, and clad in an immaculate shirtfront—on which was pinned his emblem, a huge yellow chrysanthemum—he appeared shy and flustered. His two geisha assistants appeared uneasy as well.

Once the audience quieted down, Sadakichi cleared his throat and began in his German-accented, halting English. He proclaimed that he was about to take the audience on a journey of several thousand miles. “And,” he declared, “the vehicle will be perfume to lead us into fairyland. Cook never took out a larger party with less baggage.”

The audience had expected an instrument that was at once orchestra and ocean liner. Something big and electrical and gleaming gold, with bells and whistles, tiny little switches and a mahogany seat, in which this man would sit and fiddle with ivory knobs until each person smelled his concert of perfumes and was transported over land and sea to the lavender fields of France, the shores of the Aegean, and beyond. But there was no orchestra on the stage, not even a single instrument, just two girls in heavy makeup and kimonos, standing next to a pair of electric fans and two boxes of perfume-soaked linen.

“The first odor is that of roses given us as the steamer leaves the wharf.” Sadakichi motioned toward the geishas, who slid the linen in front of the fan as if it were a magic-lantern show. A soft horn tooted from the orchestra to clarify the steamer’s presence. In the space of a minute, the auditorium filled with the undeniable smell of roses, which snuffed out the “smoking-car smell” that had long been a feature of that theater, and killed the scent from the musty garments of the women sitting in the upper boxes.

The logic behind Sadakichi’s performance was that smell would excite certain memories in the mind, much in the same way he felt that music did. “Everyone has experienced that a smell suddenly appreciated—perhaps of some flower that grew in the old homestead where we spent our childhood days—sends back one’s train of thought to scenes of the past more rapidly and more vividly than any other art medium.” The nose, he explained, was the least developed of our sense organs. The eyes have learned to appreciate a marble sculpture, the ears to discern a clever symphony. The nose is a primal beast, sniffing out food or danger or an attractive mate. “It seems strange that a sense so easily excited has been left in a primitive and dormant state, as our olfactory nerves undoubtedly could be cultivated to such an extent that an artist’s manipulation of perfumes would yield aesthetic pleasures similar to music or pictorial art.”

Neuroscientists have since given a name to this condition: the Proust effect. The Frenchman’s three-volume-long bite into a tea-soaked madeleine set off a number of inquiries into the link between smell and memory. In the brain, the olfactory bulb nudges close to memory-related structures, and scientists have determined that the olfactory components of an experience are often the longest-lasting impression of an event—sights, sounds, and tactile sensations all die a quick death. The smells most remembered are those that are particularly vivid, emotional, or old. It was only natural that an artist like Sadakichi, who grew up in the culture of the Gesamtkuntswerk—the “complete work of art”—would want to create and experience where the elements of art and life might fuse. A concert of smells, carefully orchestrated, might be able to link those forgotten memories so that one might, in essence, relive a lost time.

At the time it was considered little more than a parlor trick that smells could conjure up a feeling or memory. Newspapers suggested that the perfume concert might open an entire industry of memory aids. MANUFACTURE OF ANTI-HOMESICK SCENTS TO FOLLOW DEVELOPMENT OF NEW YORK FAD, read one headline in the Chicago Daily; the article explained that city dwellers traveling abroad might bring along odor capsules, so that when faced with boredom in Paris or Rome they need only open a package marked “Stockyards Extra-Strength” to be instantly transported home. In 1906, a movie theater in Pennsylvania hoped to increase interest in its newsreel of the Rose Parade by fanning the room with rose oil, to the complaints of everyone in attendance. A 1960 movie called Scent of Mystery was the only film ever to use a failed invention called “Smell-O-Vision,” a patented system of odors cued to the actions on-screen. At Disneyland’s California Adventure theme park, opened nearly a hundred years after Sadakichi’s performance, a gentle smell of citrus is spritzed on visitors during a ride where they seemingly soar over a grove of orange trees.

The invention of the perfume concert was a singular achievement; the execution of it was something else entirely. Sadakichi insisted that his concert would represent an advance in technology, that the event had previously never been fully realized “due largely to the lack of an apparatus capable of driving odors forcibly into an audience and of producing precise impressions even at great distances…Such an apparatus has been invented lately.”

The “apparatus,” an electric fan, was now blowing over the audience a sickly strong perfume of roses, which spread quickly across the orchestra, rising into the balcony seats. One man shouted that he “did not like the smell of the scuppers and there were too many aboard who were seasick.” Sadakichi responded that they were now arriving in England and were smelling the native wild rose. Another voice shouted that the creeping odor reminded him of the time the gas meter leaked. The audience had begun to turn.

“Now we reach Germany,” Sadakichi continued. The girls slid in a second square of linen, and after another long minute the distinct odor of violets was blown from the stage into the balconies. “Who does not remember plucking violets on a fair morning along the banks of the Rhine?” Sadakichi asked. “The violet is Germany’s flower.” But no one in the theater remembered plucking violets. Violets were soaps and cheap toilet water, saltwater taffy and last night’s whore. Roses were women in fox fur and fake hair, or husbands begging for forgiveness. The perfumes that Sadakichi assumed would carve out the landscapes of provincial Europe had little or no effect on his audience. The nostalgia was his and his alone.

The performance should have lasted sixteen minutes, but Sadakichi was cut off at four. “The audience stamped, cheered derisively and began to pour out of the theater,” one reporter wrote. “Poor ‘Chrysanthemum,’ for so the inventor styles himself, looked paler than this shirtfront. He stammered something for another instant, and fled.” Another newspaper reported that “he bowed, and with his face filled with very real pain, said in a broken voice that he would have to be excused; he could not give the concert under such conditions.” With its large and heavy features, Sadakichi’s face was as open and precise as a clock’s. Filled with pain, it surely resembled, almost comically so, the gaping mask of tragedy. Unable to stand it anymore, he stammered his final words to the audience: “I think I have no more to say.”

He had not meant only to create, or only to find, but to bring, perhaps from afar, what he had already found, to give it his own identity.

When the doors to the theater opened, the perfumes rushed out into the night air. The snow began to fall that night, covering the city in a thick musk of white. And everything was forgotten except for the snow; all the shapes of the city became snow, the taste of the air became snow, nothing was known that was not soft and quiet and still.

Sadakichi Hartmann returned to the subject of his perfume concert only once, in a 1913 essay titled “In Perfume Land.” In it, a gloomier Sadakichi concluded that the concert could never have been what he had imagined: an orchestra of scents that went beyond mere association to sculpt landscapes and fairylands. “The disconnectedness of the various waves of pleasurable feeling make it impossible to carry out this act to the same pitch of perfection as music and painting.” The perfume was simply a means to an end. What he had truly desired that night was a concert of pure emotion, waves of pleasurable feeling breaking over the audience like a great symphonic chord. He had unknowingly been telling his audience what to feel and, feeling it so deeply himself, thought some small particle of emotion might burst free and catch hold. As Proust scribbled away in Paris, Sadakichi grew less and less sure of his olfactory theory. “The absence of memory is undoubtedly the cause of the fugitiveness of all olfactory impressions; it deprives us of the ‘after flavor,’ the mental repetition of the enjoyment we derive from them…”

By 1916, Sadakichi had spun out the frayed yarn of his youth in the East. He had married briefly but prolifically, siring five children with his wife, and one out of wedlock in an affair. His next companion remained his common-law wife, with whom he had seven more children. Like Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly, he seemed to join himself with women in the “Japanese fashion… Tied for nine-hundred and ninety-nine years. / Free, though, to annul the marriage monthly,” never heeding the warning of Sharpless, Pinkerton’s friend: “That’s an easy-going gospel / which makes life very pleasant / but is fatal in the end.” And like Pinkerton, he abandoned nearly all of them.

Sadakichi headed west, first to found a theater company in San Francisco, later to Los Angeles, where he befriended the well-connected John Barrymore in much the same way he had sought out Walt Whitman years before. In Hollywood he became known to actors, producers, and directors as the sad clown of Barrymore’s circle. It was hard to imagine that the middle-aged Sadakichi Hartmann had ever been young and matinee-idol handsome, like the men and women he entertained in Hollywood. He grew his hair long and wore oversize clothes, embracing himself as a grotesque. His calling card featured an image of a long-limbed man in a black coat and fedora, thin arachnid arms stretching out from a hunchbacked torso. Sadakichi had done the drawing himself, and a friend described the self-portrait as looking like “a devil out on a furlough.” Another friend who knew him in this period described him as inhabiting the “warm shelters of mediocre people… He equated love fulfillment with oblivion and death… he made a joke out of life, drank a toast to death. Impressed by his wit, film people would invite him into their homes—the fading poet and critic lent an intellectual air to Brentwood cocktail parties. He was their mystical Asian, and played the role dutifully. Douglas Fairbanks had cast him in an uncredited role as the Mongol Prince’s court magician in his 1924 swashbuckler The Thief of Bagdad. For the part, Sadakichi requested only a $250 salary and a case of whiskey each week.

As the war approached, the son of Mephistopheles and Madame Butterfly was hounded by the U.S. government for having two kinds of poison in his blood, and he retreated to the small shack he had built himself in Banning. He died in the fall of 1944, when the war in Europe was in its final push. It’s hard to know what happened to the resting place of his mother after she died; her husband and two sons left Japan forever. But what is known is that the summer after Sadakichi died, the “Fat Man” bomb was dropped over Nagasaki, atomizing the entire city, and with it any record of his mother’s brief life.

And this is where Pinkerton ends and Sadakichi begins. His solid American wives were less real to him than this Japanese ghost. The truest love was for the memories he’d never had: the beautiful bay of Nagasaki, the wild chrysanthemum, the body of his mother traveling across an ancient landscape, unburied. There are no perfumes to recall a life unlived.

A photograph of Sadakichi at the age of seventy-seven shows him leaning on a rusted gate outside his one-room shack, wearing a long jacket tied at the waist, a starched collar, and a tie. His wrinkled face is shaded from the desert sun by a gray fedora with a black band. When Sadakichi saw the photograph, he titled it with utmost melancholy “Looking Down the Road for Visitors That Never Come.” What use was perfume now, he wondered, except as a frivolous decoration, a mask? He concluded that it might as well be used “as a disinfectant in hospitals, institutions, and private dwellings.”

But on the last few pages of “In Perfume Land,” Sadakichi describes a dream he once had that took place on a terrace, the Fujiyama mountains in the distance. It was the perfume concert of Sadakichi Hartmann:

The curtain lifts to reveal a teahouse on the cliff of a lake, the cloth brushes against the trees and blossoms fall to the ground, the first perfume of the evening. The guests waft in and out from the teahouse, many are served with tea, the second perfume of the evening. Night falls, the lanterns are lit and the dancing girls begin their song. As they dance, their robes are cast away, each a flower whose scent drifts through darkness.

Filling the air is the one bouquet missing from his long-ago concert, the perfume of the seventeenth minute onward. To drink its tea, a white-fingered lady pours hot water over the entire blossom, which stretches and yawns until it fits snugly at the bottom of a porcelain teacup. In the steam, the scent of crushed chrysanthemums fills the air.

  • In the foreign settlement of Dejima, the Japanese division of the calendar was not the same as the European calendar. Sadakichi may have been born any time between August and November in 1867 or 1869. At the beginning of one of his many short autobiographical sketches, he wrote “Chapter I—My birth—My father lost his diary and the year of my birth will remain forever unknown to modern history.”

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly.

Sadakichi Hartmann as the Mongol Prince’s court magician in The Thief of Bagdad, 1924
Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

What did you think?
Write a letter to the editor

STAY CONNECTED
News on Facebook Photos on Instagram Stuff on Pinterest Announcements by RSS Sounds on Soundcloud Exclusives on Tumblr Updates on Twitter

Subscribe to our mailing list for periodic announcements about online exclusives and the occasional deal.