Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Oh, Susana

For no reason in particular, I thought I would share with you this entertaining article written by veteran journalist Roderick Gilchrist in The Telegraph in 2010 on the occasion of the death of Lady Susana Walton - widow of the composer Sir William, creator of the magnificent gardens at their Italian villa, muse of Philip Treacy, and (by the sounds of it) a bit of a raconteuse:
There can be little doubt that Lady Walton enjoyed a mischievous gift for humour. She delighted in ambushing startled visitors to La Mortella, the spectacular sub-tropical garden she carved out of a rocky hillside at her home on the Italian island of Ischia, by leading them to a magnificent tree with broad, fan-like leaves that turned pure gold in autumn.

"This is the Ginkgo biloba," Lady Walton would announce. "It is the oldest existing flowering plant in the world, unchanged for 200 million years. The sole survivor of an extinct species from the carbon age, only rediscovered in the 18th century, growing in China.

"As a mark of respect for this venerable survivor, please remove all your hats and bow."

Many times I watched this impish cabaret. Lady Walton was by now stooped and frail, her back bent from 50 years of planting and propagating. Yet every time she issued her command, the visitors would laugh, then remove sun hats, tennis visors and baseball caps before self-consciously paying bareheaded homage to the revered Ginkgo biloba.

I always thought that in this eccentric act they were also bending the knee to Susana.

The Argentinian-born widow of the British composer Sir William Walton, whose music was performed in Westminster Abbey at the coronations of both the Queen and George VI, would have adored her obituaries.

They lavished praise on her devotion to her husband's legacy (he died in 1983), and to her demonic energy in creating her garden in the Bay of Naples, voted best in all of Italy, out of what was once little more than a quarry.

I was privileged on many occasions to be invited to lunch parties on her sunny balcony that often lasted until nightfall. Here, away from public gaze, she spoke with devilish candour about her life, the famous people she had known, Sir William's infidelities and her sadness at not having children (he ordered her to a backstreet abortionist when she did become pregnant), her indiscretions fuelled by lethal cocktails made from the myrtle that grows like weeds at La Mortella.

Sir William, who wrote the movie scores for all of Laurence Olivier's Shakespearean films, as well as some of the greatest serious music of the 20th century, was lionised by the famous. But not everyone met with his wife's approval.

In what was to be her last interview, Susana's recollections to me provided a compelling tour de force, which I confess at times left me open-mouthed in shock. This is what she had to say:

On Maria Callas: "William wanted Maria to sing in his opera, Troilus and Cressida. But she was too thick. She wasn't bright at all. She couldn't understand it when he explained it to her. She simply couldn't move on stage. Visconti had to teach her how to walk."

Laurence Olivier: "When he came to stay he said 'at last I will know what it is to be taken care of'. This was because he felt ignored and neglected at home. His wife was bored with him. He said they used to put him to bed at 7pm and then, of course, he would wake at 4am and be full of life. But that made him a nuisance and my heart broke for him. I think he married Joan because he wanted a nurse. He was much older than her, and I don't think he was loved in the way he wanted to be."

Kenneth Clark: "He told William that he wanted to have an affair but was worried about his wife Jane. So he asked William to have an affair with her and offered to pay him. William ran in terror back to his then mistress Lady Wimbourne, who immediately got him out of the country. They went to Villa Cimbrone in Ravello, where he wrote his violin concerto."

Eva Peron: "William went to see Evita about performing rights, when she was Minister of Culture in Argentina. He was kept waiting a long time. Then an aide came to him and said it would help his case if he indulged her, that she needed a token of regard. He suggested the souvenir gold medals they sold in the ministry shop. She did this to everybody, and of course everybody gave her a gold medal. Then, every week, she would send the gold medals by plane to Switzerland, where they were banked in her private account.

"When she died, General Perón tried to get his hands on her money. He interrogated her brother, who didn't know where it was, so he had him shot in the head. He interviewed her mother and she didn't know, and she was locked up in a lunatic asylum. Another relative was pushed out of an aeroplane over the sea. But they never found Evita's money. It must still be in Switzerland."

Vivien Leigh: "We didn't know about illnesses like hers in those days. She would get tremendously depressed. Her sexual activity was legendary and part of her illness. Once on a tour of Europe with his Shakespearean company, Olivier had to tell all the male actors that Vivien could come to any of them to be entertained, as he put it. And that when she did so, they were not to embarrass her."

Tony Palmer (who made the documentary Walton - At The Haunted End Of The Day): "I will kill Tony Palmer if he ever comes here again. After he made the film, he phoned me and said he had a new Italian wife and he was in Italy and could he come and see me. I invited him to stay in my home. He noticed I had made a short promotional film about William that we show in the concert hall from old spools Tony didn't want.

"After he returned to London, I received a lawyer's letter forbidding me to show the film. The only explanation he gave was that it was his copyright. Before this he asked if he could edit my book about my life with William. I gave him my diaries and one day the manuscript came back. There was nothing about me in it.

"I called him and said: 'You have edited me out of my own life. Why?' He said: 'Cretin, nobody is interested in a book with you in it.' Yes, he called me a cretin.

"I was so angry I said 'Now you listen. You are not editing this book any more. It's going to be edited by a cretin. Me.' And it was a best-seller."

Susana was a great beauty in her youth and, even wracked with arthritis and osteoporosis, intensely feminine to the end. Sir William, 24 years her senior, famously proposed the moment he saw her across a crowded room in Buenos Aires. "He hadn't even heard my voice," she boasted to me.

She adored the company of men and appeared for lunch in fabulous purple robes, with flashing blue earrings the size of rocks, hair perfectly coiffured, face flawlessly made up, eager to hold centre stage for the opposite sex.

On my last visit to La Mortella, 18 months ago, Susana showed me the spot where her ashes would be placed. This was to be in the Nymphaeum, close to a rock under which William's ashes are buried, on the garden slopes of the active volcano, Mount Epomeo.

She said to me: "I thought if I didn't pick my own resting place, they'll just put me underneath the rock where we buried William's ashes. After a lifetime of getting under his feet, I didn't want that in eternity as well."
Simply marvellous.

Lady Susana Walton (30th August 1926 - 21st March 2010)

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