Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 47 / 23 November 2017

Meeting the Marchesa

Out There

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Books are the most extraordinary things. They let you into other people's lives, in a way that can be intriguing, intimate or absolutely revealing. This is true of fiction as well as of nonfiction, of course, but perhaps nowhere as much as in memoirs. How else would Out There get to know the slightest thing about the life of the Marchesa Luisa Casati , for one example, and a good one at that?

The book that brought us the Marchesa's acquaintance is "Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati, The Ultimate Edition" by Scot R. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino (University of Minnesota Press), and the lady in question was famous for strolling the streets of Europe in the early 20th century "naked beneath her furs, parading cheetahs on diamond-studded leashes." Fun fact!

The Marchesa Casati was the model for paintings, sculptures and photographs by artists of the caliber of Man Ray , and found posterity in print by such authors as Jean Cocteau, Ezra Pound and Jack Kerouac . After a lavish life in Italy and France – Rome! Paris! Capri! – she crashed to earth, more than $25 million in debt, in 1930, when she decamped to London, where she lived in somewhat more moderate fashion until her death in 1957. But her extravagant style influenced 20th-century fashion in the designs of Alexander McQueen , Karl Lagerfield , and others.

The book includes an afterword by Francesca Granata , and a foreword by eternal queen Quentin Crisp, no shrinking violet himself, who writes of his one and only meeting with the Marchesa, "She arrived wearing black velvet from head to foot, her mouth painted blood red, and carrying a very tall umbrella with a decorated handle. And, you must understand, this ensemble was being worn in the middle of the day." Crisp describes her intentions: "She wanted to fulfill an ideal, a vision of how she should look and exist – to become a being of her own invention, not only of any particular sex, or time, or size, or shape."

Such a volume lives or dies depending on the quality of its illustrating photographs, of course, and this one has 32 full pages of them, including portraits of the MC complete with cheetahs, in 18th-century fancy dress, in the gardens of her palazzo in Venice, and as portrayed in drawings by Leon Bakst and others, in sculptures by Jacob Epstein and others, and in paintings by Romaine Brooks and others. We see her in photos posing with her pet snakes, in surrealist portraiture by Man Ray, and in extravagant costumes such as the one Bakst created for her as the Queen of the Night.

A true party girl, the Marchesa stood for a certain ideal of feminine presentation. Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli is quoted as saying, "She represented a past age of splendor when a few beautiful and wealthy women adopted an almost brutally individualistic way of living and presenting themselves to the public." Cheetahs very much included.

Speaking of Crisp, aka "The Naked Civil Servant," this week sees the publication of the third and final installment of his autobiography, "The Last Word," formerly titled "Dusty Answers." The pub. date coincides with the 18-year anniversary of Crisp's death in November 1999.

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