Sniffing Out Executive-Branch Gifts

Posted December 15, 2017 8:04 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Actress Anna Chlumsky held up a bottle of Jo Malone’s Peony & Blush Suede cologne in one hand and a bottle of Wood Sage & Sea Salt cologne in the other. “Which one smells more like the first female president?” she said.

Chlumsky, 37, was spending a bright December afternoon shopping for Christmas presents in the West Village. She had already chosen Swedish moccasins “for the main people who will be in my house around the tree,” she said, and had put aside clothes, books and ornaments for her two young daughters, dodging some tricky Santa questions from the 4-year-old.

But other relatives and friends still needed gifts. And since Chlumsky was about to go into rehearsals for “Cardinal,” an off-Broadway play at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater, this was the day to buy them.

The presidential scent, by the way, was for a cousin in Colorado, and Chlumsky ultimately decided that peonies had more of an executive-branch vibe.

Well, she would know. She plays Amy Brookheimer, the female president’s hassled chief of staff, on the HBO comedy “Veep.” Chlumsky has racked up five supporting actress Emmy nominations during the show’s six seasons. (“Veep” is on hiatus while its star, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, undergoes treatment for breast cancer.)

Amy, a business-casual vortex of frayed nerves and tensed neck muscles, is not especially good at self-care. In one episode, she flees a spa after seven agonizing minutes. Her preferred chill out: screaming in a parking garage. Just about every role Chlumsky takes on, from Vada in the 1991 weepie “My Girl” to Lydia, the tightly wound urban visionary in “Cardinal,” is similarly intense.

Chlumsky has some of that same maelstrom energy even on her downtime. So it was at least a little disconcerting to hear her ooh and aah over emollient bath oils.

She began the afternoon at Diptyque on Bleecker Street. She had just come from a Metropolitan Opera Guild luncheon honoring the soprano Renée Fleming, her co-star in the Broadway comedy “Living on Love,” and was still wearing a red and blue Cynthia Rowley dress with crochet details. Underneath a chandelier made of upcycled votives, she poked at some scent diffusers, quizzed a saleswoman on how to remove wax from glass and read the label of a foaming body wash in a snooty French accent. Chlumsky does a very good snooty French accent. Mostly, she followed her nose. Scents are important to her. She used to change her perfume every time she had “an identity crisis,” she said, and now wears the One by Dolce & Gabbana. “What’s crazy is I even had an identity crisis having my second baby, and it still works,” she said.

At Diptyque, a pine and mint candle tempted her. So did a fiery citrus scent. “Oh my gosh, that’s stunning,” she said. At home she tends to burn earthier scents, like sandalwood or vetiver, to help her relax. Relaxation is a new thing for her, “something I’ve embraced in the last post-partum therapy I went through,” she said.

She selected a box of five small votives for a couple on her list, and for a childhood friend, a hunk of solid rose perfume. “Look how gorgeous,” she said. That smoky citrus candle made its way into her bag, too, alongside a complimentary tuberose votive.

No one seemed to recognize Chlumsky (her credit cards are under a different name), but she has a big, busy smile and a ready laugh, and everyone wanted to give her stuff.

She walked a block or two, trading the pocket Versailles of Diptyque for the mini Swinging London of Jo Malone, pausing on the way to collect a sample of face cream from a man standing in the door of Orogold Cosmetics and a smear of body butter from a table outside Radiance.

Inside Jo Malone, she examined the body scrubs and shower gels in scents like Basil & Neroli. “If you rented a villa in Tuscany, this is what it would smell like,” she said. She compared a Bluebell candle to the smell of a Strawberry Shortcake doll.

After boxing up her purchases, a saleswoman talked Chlumsky into a complimentary hand massage. At the back of the store, Chlumsky pushed up her bell sleeves, showing off a sky blue manicure. (The shade is OPI’s It’s a Boy!, and if this has anything to do with the pregnancy cliffhanger that ended the last season of “Veep,” Chlumsky isn’t saying.) She wriggled in pleasure as the masseuse rubbed an orange-blossom lotion into her wrists.

It smelled, Chlumsky said approvingly, “like the rind of a clementine.”

“It’s a little bitter,” she said. “But that’s nice. It’s like me. I’m bitter! Bitter and pithy!” After the masseuse sprayed her with Orris & Sandalwood, Chlumsky chuckled to herself. “Everybody tell me how good I smell,” she said.

Over a restorative cappuccino and a raspberry tart at a Maison Kayser across the street, Chlumsky mentioned that she had one more present to buy, a Home Depot item for her husband, Shaun So. They have been together for 17 years, ever since they met at a college dance party.

“We read the writing on the wall,” she recalled lovingly. “We’re still reading it.”

“He’ll have to get me a candle,” she said.