Close-up Queen: the Marchesa Casati

Archive image: Ryersson and Yaccarino at The Casati Archives www.marchesacasati.com
Archive image: Ryersson and Yaccarino at The Casati Archives http://www.marchesacasati.com

Show business. Beneath the glitter, beyond the glare of klieg lights, it all comes down to an exchange. Namely, one lays out cash in hope of receiving some form of bedazzlement. And thus, Hollywood gave birth to the movie trailer—an irresistible two and a half-minute seduction cleverly comprised of only the tastiest morsels. Alas, the bitter sting of disappointment coupled with a sense of being duped all too often results from viewing the actual film. And thus, the box office refund was born.

During an extensive heyday, the Marchesa Luisa Casati turned this equation neatly and consistently upon its stunned head. Quite uniquely, she lavishly funded her own spectacles, both public and private, for their own sake and the admiration of an ever-growing fan base. And while this eccentric Italian noblewoman reigned supreme in the salons and spas of early 20th-century Europe, one might imagine her equally at home on the set of the most decadent Cecil B. DeMille epic.

Indeed, Casati’s 1926 tour of California became a newsworthy visitation as documented by the San Francisco Chronicle:

 La Casati, as she is known, is famous not only for her extraordinary good looks but for her taste for the exotic, the bizarre, the spectacular….She is always surrounded by the glamor of mystery and romance and she is continually doing something to amaze and amuse the world….Those who have seen La Casati’s portrait would scarcely expect to see her appear that way in the flesh, but it is a fact that she does.

After such a provocative introduction, readers hungered to hear the Marchesa speak for herself. The same newspaper did not disappoint them with Casati’s reputed comments worthy of the divine Greta Garbo: “To be different is to be alone. I do not like what is average. So I am alone.” For her interview, the reporter noted, Luisa wore a wide-brimmed black sombrero atop waved blonde hair cut quite short, while a fur cloak just covered a dress of glistening green fabric. Outrageous explanations as to the Marchesa’s penchant for wearing veils were provided as well. One report divulged this habit necessary so that she might conceal scars incurred at the claws of her exotic pets, which most famously included cheetahs; while another related a gruesome story akin to a Joan Crawford melodrama involving an Italian count whom, after being jilted by Luisa, branded his initials into her forehead before shooting himself dead.

During her time in California, the Marchesa stayed at the lavish Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles and at San Francisco’s landmark Hotel St. Francis, was a guest of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, and even met matinee idol John Barrymore in Hollywood.

Prior to leaving the sunny state, Casati attended a baseball game in Los Angeles at the invitation of a friend. In response to her query as to proper attire for the event, she was told to “come as you are.” Luisa arrived in a floor-length fur over a simple silk nightgown. Her enthusiastic cheers and leaps at each homerun drew the crowd’s attention more than the game itself.

Although La Casati left this earthly stage almost six decades ago, the curtain has still yet to be rung down on her theatrical spirit. Today, she rests in London’s Brompton Cemetery beneath a memorial inscribed with the Shakespearean epitaph: “Age cannot whither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.” This fitting tribute to a woman continuing to astonish and inspire us in a new millennium is equaled only by her own personal war cry: “I want to be a living work of art!” In the end, the Marchesa Casati reigned victorious in a battle against mediocrity everywhere. On with the show!


Special Note: Only until March 8th, the Palazzo Fortuny (Venice) will present The Divine Marchesa: Art and Life of Luisa Casati from the Belle Époque to the Crazy Years, the first-ever, full-scale exhibition celebrating this legendary figure. Visit the official Casati site at: marchesacasati.com to learn more about the exhibition and the extraordinary woman who inspired it.

About the Authors

Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino are the official, family-authorized biographers of the Marchesa Luisa Casati and the authors of Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati and The Marchesa Casati: Portraits of a Muse, as well as The Princess of Wax: A Cruel Tale, inspired by her. They are the Directors of The Casati Archives.

By Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino

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