Thursday 24 August 2017

The lives and loves of an extraordinary trio of chatelaines

Biography: The ­Unfinished Palazzo, Judith Mackrell, Thames & Hudson, hdbk, 408 pages, €29.73

Luisa Casati in 1922
Luisa Casati in 1922
The Unfinished Palazzo
Peggy Guggenheim outside in 1964

Eilis O'Hanlon

A new book on three women who in turn made their unfinished Venetian palace a hub for the city's artistic set sparkles with wit and glamour.

Visitors know it now as the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, but the building in which the famous 20th-century art collection is housed was known for centuries by Venetians as 'il palazzo non finito', the unfinished palace.

One of the city's oldest and most venerable dynasties started construction in the 1700s, with the aim of raising the highest property on the Dorsuduro bank of the Grand Canal. For some reason, the plans came to nothing, and the house passed through various hands until the 20th century, when it became home to an extraordinary trio of chatelaines.

This book tells their story.

First to come was Luisa Casati, a wealthy socialite who mingled in bohemian artistic circles. She moved in a few years before World War I, when the house was a "semi-ruin", renting it for the next 14 years, during which time her fabulous parties became notorious. She had a pet cheetah and exotic black man-servants; she took opium and dabbled in the occult, and loved to glide round the canals in her personal gondola.

When the house was sold from under her, Luisa was heartbroken, but she was to lose all her money in the crash of 1929 anyway, living on an increasingly long line of credit and the charity of indifferent family members and erstwhile friends. She died in penury, discovering that she didn't really have soulmates, only people who enjoyed her company when she could keep up with - or better still, fund - their lavish lifestyles.

By then, the palazzo was occupied by Doris Delevingne, a former waitress whose "rapid progress through the bedrooms of London" culminated in a marriage to the 6th Earl of Kenmare, best known as a society gossip columnist for the Sunday Express.

A great friend of playwright Noel Coward, Doris - whose grand-niece is the model Cara Delevingne - was mentioned in songs by Cole Porter, photographed by Man Ray, sculpted by Epstein; her many lovers included Winston Churchill, who was apparently very sweet, but not good, in bed.

In her hands, the palazzo once more became a magnet for the wealthy, who regarded her as "a social novelty, a kind of pet", and bohemians who were "happy to lodge for free… and enjoy the sumptuous meals".

When Doris died, the palazzo had to be sold to repay her debts. This was now after World War II, and the house had been used as a soldier's billet by the Italian, German and Allied armies in turn. "Its polished interior had become scuffed and vandalised, its grounds overgrown, and the furniture had all been stolen or burned for firewood."

It was in this state that it caught the attention of New Yorker Peggy Guggenheim, another frustrated socialite with a string of artistic lovers (including a passionate affair with Samuel Beckett) who'd come "to realise that in using her money to assist the work of writers and painters, she might find a way of living among them and sharing in their lives".

Her first act of patronage was to donate money to a magazine which was serialising Ulysses. Soon she was handing over $10,000 a year to various political and artistic causes, though like so many other wealthy patrons, she found her generosity either made the recipients awkward or led to endless demands for more. Her love life was scarcely less dramatic. Her first husband was violent; the second became a crashing bore when he discovered communism.

Equipped with a legacy from her recently dead mother, Guggenheim turned out to have a discerning eye for modern art and a quick brain for business. The palazzo seemed like the perfect stage for her next adventure.

She pitched up just in time for the 1948 Venice biennale, the first after wartime. In what was still a conservative city, she made quite a splash, sunbathing on the roof in the nude, and placing in her garden a life-size model of a horse bearing a rider with a "large and lively" erection. The appendage was detachable, so that it could be removed when her more "stuffy" guests arrived.

In no time, Peggy was "as much a visitor attraction as the gallery itself"; she, too, had her own personal gondola, and was known in the city as "l'ultima dogaressa", the last female doge; but as she got older, Peggy became increasingly "at odds with the young and their culture", though she never stopped disdaining nostalgia. "Life for her had always been about moving on to the next thing, even if she wasn't entirely clear what that might be."

If it's Peggy who dominates this book, that's probably because more is known about her; but as Venice itself was a backwater, so these three women are all alike in being the muses and bedfellows of artists rather than artists themselves. Flappers, the previous book by Guardian dance critic Judith Mackrell, dazzled with its portrait of six glamorous women in the 1920s, including Zelda Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker, whose lives threw light on the social changes of the period, when women were able to enjoy true freedom for the first time, with all its attendant pleasures and perils.

There's less of a focus here. Only Peggy spent a substantial period of her life in the house that gives the book its title, and little trace of the palazzo as it existed in Luisa and Doris' day, let alone earlier, remains, as the author admits with some regret near the end on a visit to Venice.

The book is extremely readable, full of vignettes of famous figures, and no one who reads it is likely to set it down disappointed. The female figures it depicts are superficially alluring, but there's something queasily decadent about them, too. War and hardship may put an occasional halt to their indefatigable partying, but it rarely makes them more reflective.

It's not that they didn't have their tragedies. Peggy's seven abortions are mentioned as a passing detail, but never explored in depth as a testament to the traumatic degradations that afflicted even the most privileged of women in the period.

The style in which the book is written raises questions, too, not least how reliable it is as a biographical source. References to the sources of stories are largely absent from the text itself, and there aren't many footnotes, so some speculations come seemingly out of nowhere, such as Mackrell's assertion that it's "unlikely" Luisa "was able to experience much pleasure with her (first) husband, since he was much more instinctively attuned to horses than to women". The reader will have to take the author's word for that, as a specific source is not cited.

Does it matter? Possibly not. There's always another party on which to eavesdrop, another witty anecdote to relate. In their thrall, the pages of this perfect summer read turn with ease, tinged with an almost addictive, nostalgic melancholy.

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