Tuesday, 22 February 2011

A remarkable Madame

“I’m an enemy of the average” was a favourite saying of one of the most fascinating social-climbers of the 20th century Madame Ganna Walska. Average she certainly wasn’t!

Born Hanna Puacz on June 26, 1887 in Brest-Litovsk, Poland, she began her long journey towards fortune and fame (well, fortune, certainly!) as a teenager when she eloped with the Russian Count Arcadie d’ Einghorn, and by the age of nineteen she had been chosen by the Czar himself to have her portrait painted as “the most beautiful woman at a royal ball.”

Tiring of the Count's excesses, she fled to Western Europe and with a combination of being "exotic" (to be Russian was to be the epitome of style in belle epoque Paris) and alluring to rich men, she continued to make a comfortable lifestyle for herself. Over the years her passion for jewellery and costumes were to exceed even her wildest dreams - Erté even designed gowns for her. But war was looming, and to the ever-ambitious Ganna the freedom and even greater wealth of America soon beckoned.

"More is better" was another favourite phrase.

True to form, despite marrying the wealthy New York endocrinologist Dr Joseph Fraenkel, Ganna soon "befriended" the billionaire industrialist Harold McCormick (married at the time to a Rockerfeller heiress) who supported her ambitions to become a leading opera singer (henceforth she would be known as "Madame").

After the death of Dr Fraenkel however, while on a luxury liner back to Paris Madame the Widow landed an even more tempting prize in Alexander Cochran, then known as “the richest bachelor in the world.” They married (eventually), and divorced (with a substantial settlement in Ganna's favour, naturally) after two years.

And so to the smitten Mr McCormick she returned, who, now divorced, soon made a happy (and wealthy) fourth husband for Madame. So devoted was he that he even purchased the Theatre de Champs-Elysees in Paris just so she could keep on singing her beloved opera, deluding herself she was a true star. So devoted was she that she refused to move to Chicago to live with him. He divorced her after nine years. She settled handsomely.

Of her singing, one writer says:

"While she was never in the same league of vocal terrorism as the notoriously pitch-averse Florence Foster Jenkins, the name Ganna Walska in a programme was never the hallmark of a good night out. Reviewing a Paris production of Rigoletto in 1923, Time commented that Walska had a voice “good enough for small parlour singing,” but no more. It further reported that the audience laughed openly at the squawks which formed her upper register. The curt headline said it all: Beautiful, Wealthy, She Has No Voice."
Most unusual of Madame's marriages was to Harry Grindell-Matthews, inventor of the Death Ray – an “experimental device that could disable car engines by remote control”. A bizarre choice indeed, given the imbalance of wealth between he and she - during her marriage to Harold McCormick, the luggage she was transporting from Europe to the US on one trip alone was estimated at a value of $2.5 million dollars by Customs! It was inevitably doomed to failure - she left for America as WW2 began, and he died of a folorn heart attack in 1941.

One would almost think that the (by now) independently wealthy Ganna would have given up on husbands! After all, her huge collection of jewels included a 95 carat yellow diamond, and among her properties she owned a French chateau. But she had another passion (apart from money and opera) yet to satisfy - he love of spirituality. And so it came to pass that she fell for and married her yoga instructor Theos Bernard, twenty years her junior. Lucky boy!

But it is Mr Bernard's influence (albeit brief; they divorced after four years) we have to thank for the longest-lasting legacy of the great Madame Walska - for he encouraged her to purchase a rambling estate in California in the 1940s, and to create a beautiful garden in its grounds. That garden - "Lotusland" - which Ganna tended for the rest of her life until she died (aged ninety-seven) in 1984, is renowned today as one of America's masterpieces.

And so we salute the camp fabulosity that surrounds the complex and fascinating life of Madame Ganna Walska! RIP a unique socialite...

"More is better", she said, and where traditionally one or two plants would do, Madame, in signature profusion, would place a hundred of the same species. She loved minerals. She adorned herself with jewels and her garden with amethyst crystals, lava rocks and seashells. Her sense of romance (it's hard to imagine being married six times without having some sense of the romantic) comes alive in her unique Blue Garden, which shimmers under a full moon.
Sean K. MacPherson

Ganna Walska's Garden of Dreams

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