As close to a living Edward Gorey character as you are likely to find, and had that good man written plays or novels, she would have been one of the characters. No matter. She was first and foremost a visual creature and therefore perfect for his metier. Tall (nearly six feet), thin, green eyed, decorated with living snakes and accompanied by a pet leopard (this years before Harrods sold such things to the chic young things of 1960’s London). She was a muse, and subject for a seeming all of the top visual artists of the first half of the twentieth century.
The pictures are beguiling, the stories are irresistible. Her employment of servants who were clad in gold leaf and little else. Her use of live snakes as a fashion accessory. The pet cheetahs on a leash decades before that became fashionable. The dinner parties where empty seats were filled with wax dummies (though it is hard to believe that she could not fill a dinner party as large as she liked if she wanted to). Couture clothing, jewelry, artwork, books, constant travel and a collection of high end real estate in the most exotic cities of Europe.
It takes serious money to live like this, and she got it from her father Alberto Amman, an Austrian by birth who had relocated to Italy as a child and in adulthood built up an extensive empire in cotton. He was distinctive enough in this that King Umberto I gave him a title. (There are all kinds of counts in Europe, and as chivalry declines it is not unusual that a count should became a count on account of business success.)
She was thirteen at the time. Her mother had died two years earlier.
She and her sister were now the richest woman in Italy. Heady stuff for a socially awkward, somewhat plain thirteen year old whose life had thus far been dominated by fairy tales and art works.
Keeping in the fairy princess fashion, she married a Marchese when she turned nineteen.
The couple were as two. Her husband was more of huntin’ and shootin’ kind of man, she never got over the other-wordly fantasy fiction that she escaped to as a child. He went to the country, she to the city, Rome initially, and had a house built that included, among other detail, an indoor fountain and a gilt cage with mechanical goldfinches. Entry was barred by a mastiff that answered only to her.
Early on in the marriage she became acquainted with Gabriel D’Annunzio and soon became his lover (well, who didn’t?) Even to his jaded loins, there was something about the Marchesa – “The only woman who ever astonished me”.
He wasn’t the only one. Those wide piercing eyes, fascination with mystical and fantastic and progressive, and her utter indifference to what other people thought. With him and the other creative types who flocked to her salon (and her bank account), she found her role in in life – being the center of attention of the rich, the artistic, and the aristocratic.
What did she have to offer (besides the money, of course)? She was not classically beautiful. But she was fearless, and had a rich imagination (again with that childhood reading) and a passion for the avant garde. If it was weird, she was in. She supported, usually lavishly, any artists she thought interesting, having them paint or sculpt or dress her in ways as provocative as possible.
There seems not to have been an artist of the time who did not recreate her in some form or another, most famously Boldoni (right) and Augustus Johns (below). There were also the marionettes, to say nothing of the life size sculptures which she placed in seats around the dinner table (including one not of her, but of Baroness Mary Vetsera, she of the Mayerling murder/suicide pact with Crown Prince Rudolf, complete with bloodied bullet in the temple.)
Rome is lovely, but one must travel. Paris for Boldoni and others, Capri for a summer to stay at the villa of a rather alarmed Axel Munthe. And of course, Venice. Even in that laid back city she was a sensation. Alphonse Clary wrote: “Louisa brought me on a trip in her gondola [painted white, proving her above the law that mandated gondalas be black] . She was fantastically dressed, with a parrot on her arm while, on the bow, a slave was minding her two monkeys. When the gondola passed beneath bridges, spectators applauded.”
The world in general applauded, or at least stood up and took notice. Her parties, her clothing, her latest portrait, her travels (her passport photo was a repro of a portrait, which irregularity she was apparently able to pull off. Happier days than ours). Her high end European real estate, her animals, all were the stuff of fascination both before and after the first world war. Not an easy leap, covering both Belle Epoque and the Jazz Age (cf also Emelie Grigsby).
Imagine her reception in 1925 America, a trip preceded by rumors of her pet python’s escaping her cabin, some said eating a small child, and lurking somewhere in the bowels of the ship even after she departed. It may be there still.
Hollywood took interest. After all, what was Theda Bara with her kohl-rimmed eyes, courtesy Helena Rubenstein, if not simply a pale imitation of the real thing? The marchesa gamely, if somewhat incongruously, did the polite thing, made the rounds, even attended a baseball game – in a silk chemise and floor length fur. She cheered the home runs.
Still, America was not her sort of place. New York City was a disappointment (shops and boutiques not up to snuff) and despite a certain affection for the most spiritual aspects of the American Indian as she understood them, it was not a place she had any desire to return to.
The end was coming soon anyway. It’s neither easy nor cheap to live like that, and although she had the energy, she didn’t have the money sense. Indeed, she scarcely understood the concept of money at all. Her habit in private transactions was not in cash or cheques, but in barter, with her putting up, say, a Russian Icon or a renaissance jewel in exchange for yet another portrait of herself. By 1930, she found herself in hock to the tune of 12 million dollars when that kind of money meant something. The creditors came howling and a French court put everything she owned on the block – a golden opportunity for the likes of more prudent (or fortunate) people such as Coco Chanel.
In a sense, it was probably just as well. The thirties were just not her sort of decade.
Another twenty seven years of life remained to her – what to do? She retired to London (it was cheaper back then) and lived by pawning some of the odds and ends that escaped the auction block. That, and on the kindness of friends and acolytes, who were many. Not that there weren’t strains. Augustus Johns, her former lover, author of her most famous portrait, and by now extremely successful, found she would drop in uninvited while he was painting portraits of the great and the good. His reaction: “Louisa Casati should be shot, stuffed, and displayed in a glass case.”
Having said that, he also set up a bank account for her into which admirers might contribute money, money she spent on non-essentials. In her sixties and seventies, she was down to single costume of leopard skin and black frippery. She aped her extravagant sense of fashion with recycled tattery and boot polish, eyelashes from wisps of horsehair and monkey fur. No self pity for her, she was still too much occupied with her continual reinvention as a living work of art. Certainly she never lost the power to beguile, and became the object of fascination to the London smart set of the late forties and fifties. Cecil Beaton in particular found her good company.
And give her credit, there is not a single word of regret or complaint at a life ill-spent, or useless nostalgia a la Norma Desmond. She lived in the moment and made the best of things come what may.
She died in London in 1957 and wound up in an un-surprisingly modest grave. (Only imagine what she might have done had the money held out!) Those detailed with final arrangements carefully placed a stuffed pekingese at her feet.
It’s all a bit much, of course, and can make for wearisome reading especially in these hard times. Spread-the-wealth types will find her story appalling on principle. But that seems a bit ungenerous. She was perhaps a trifle unhinged and not known as the best of mothers to her daughter, and no doubt infuriating – but there seems no active malice in anything she did and by her very act of being brought entertainment and diversion that lasts even to today.
Indeed, it was her power to bring life to some pretty absurd costumery that still inspires the avante garde of the fashion world. Then too, she is arguably responsible for the International Woman of Mystery look that permeates today’s women’s fashion modelry. No John Galliano without her, no Alexander McQueen, no Lacroix. No Madonna, no Lady Gaga, for that matter. (Anyway, they do for money what she did for art.)
Compare her to the over-moneyed idle classes currently gorging the maw of television and tabloids. She is as cut crystal is to Dixie cups. Not a one of the attention hounds doesn’t seem contrived and fake. (Well, Iris Apfel or Betsey Johnson, to be fair – but both, while as original as Casati, have a sense of humor that the marchesa appears to have lacked. Or, let us hope, she had one but hid it from the world.)
Shame, really. The rich we will have with us always for better or worse, but honestly, with kind of money and license that rolls around this plastic age, you would think we could come up with something better than the tiresome old Housewives-of-Fill-in-the-Blank. It’s like seeing Versailles or the cottages at Newport and then seeing the Bill Gates’ mansion. All that money and the best he could do was a suburban split level on steroids with a lot of electronic junk?
We do live in a degraded age.
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